Journey of the White Cave Clan

by
BmblBee



Part One

Spike squatted low behind one of the huge tree trunks in his dense forest, confident that his prey would catch no glimpse of him. He held the long spear straight up and close to his body in the ready position while he remained still and silent. He had selected his place of concealment carefully to assure that he was downwind and his scent would not be carried to the nostrils of his prospective dinner.

Early this morning, he had been thrilled when he spotted the tracks of the deer in the fresh skiff of snow, and he knew that being creatures of habit, they would pass by the same trail in the afternoon. All he needed to do was wait. It was better than running all around, expending energy with the only probable payoff being a snowshoe rabbit or a half-starved fox that would provide no more than half a mouthful for each member of his clan.

No, he would stay here. As head of his clan, or what was left of it, it rested on his shoulders to feed and provide for the others. A deer would do that. It would ensure full bellies and a warm skin rug. It was worth the gamble. It was worth the wait.

Spike tugged the thick, sewn furs tighter around his thin body as he tried to ignore the ache in his empty stomach and the stabbing pain of the cold on his hands and feet. With a deep sigh that floated out on an icy fog, Spike adjusted his stance to minimize the cramping in his legs as he remained resolute and motionless.

His patience and perseverance gave him time to think and wonder on the changes that were taking place in his world. Changes and alterations that he could not understand but ones that he knew were becoming dire.

Leaning against the trunk of the huge redwood, Spike looked all around. He was in the forest of the mighty wood. It stretched on for nearly a half day's run and it bordered on the wide, green pastures. This was the land of the White Cave Clan. Spike's people.

He had been born into his clan on a cool summer morning and suckled on the breast of a healthy, well-fed mother ensuring his chances of surviving his first year were good. After that, he had grown strong as he ran and played at fighting with the other young boys. When he reached the age of first hair on his body, he took to his training
with earnestness as he understood his survival and that of the others in his clan would depend on it.

His father along with the other men of the clan had begun taking the young male members of the group into the forest with them, teaching them to hunt and kill to feed the women and children. Spike had learned to make a fire and he watched with great pride as his mother took the skins of his first kill and made coverings to sleep on, wear, and wrap around his feet.

Spike leaned back against the giant tree base as a different pain stabbed at him. It was the inner pain he had begun to associate with his memories. His eyes stung as the cold wind whipped the moist tears that formed in his eyes, and he tried to stop himself from recalling the wonderful happy days that he thought would never end.

Peering around, Spike examined the entire area as he searched for the elusive animal but the deer whose tracks he had trusted still had not returned. He glanced up at the position of the sun overhead and calculated the time of the day as he weighed his options. Should he go and try his luck at a smaller, sure thing or continue to wait? He was tired. He was cold and he was confused. Spike decided to wait.

With nothing to distract it, Spike's mind again strolled backwards as he tried to determine what had caused things to go so wrong in his world. He had been one of a dozen young boys of the White Clan. They were a strong clan. A clan of large numbers. As cave dwellers, they inhabited the numerous deep caves that were carved out of the
rock wall that separated the forest from the fields.

Other clans had named them the White Clan long before Spike had been born, and the name stuck. So called because of their pale skin and white-blond hair, Spike's ancestors migrated down over the land-bridge from the northern Scandinavian countries in search of more fertile ground for both hunting and digging of roots.

Over the years, Spike had heard stories of other clans that traveled as they followed the seasons, as the herds of food animals shifted their nesting grounds, but that was not a life that Spike could see himself living. And it had never been necessary. Even in the cold months when the ice covered the ponds and the snow dusted the fields, there was still food.

The women always found roots to dig, fish in the pond, and the thin layer of snow only served to reveal the tracks of the smaller animals, directing the hunting parties to their prey's burrows and dens. Winters were leaner than the bounty of summer but it was an adjustment the clan understood and accepted.

Besides, the winters of his youth carried their own special memories. It was then that the clan stopped sleeping out in the open and moved back into the caves. They lit evening fires for warmth and they shared food and companionship. Spike's mother, along with the other women, would rock and hum to the smaller children as they held and warmed them. The men sat closer to the mouth of the cave to protect their brood from bear and wolves who would snatch and eat the babies in a blink of the eye. Spike had lost a sister in that way when he was just a young boy himself.

While they sat vigilantly standing guard, the elders of the clan would entertain the young boys with stories of their great hunts. They spoke of incredible huge animals who had since disappeared. They told how they would drive the great beasts to the edge of a high cliff then force them to tumble into the far gorge below, breaking their necks and supplying meat to the entire clan for a week. Giles, one of the men who claimed to have seen such a creature, took a paste made from the ground-up berries of the prickle bush and he painted images of them on the walls of the cave.

Truth was, although Spike loved to look at the colorful pictures that told a story of a hunt and a kill, he found the whole idea of an animal larger than a cave a bit unbelievable and until shamed out of it, he preferred to sit at his mother's side. She loved him and, like the sun itself, how he loved her. She was always fussing over him. Petting him and wrapping him in warm furs she had sewn herself with her bone needle and strings of dried gut string.

At night, when the clan bedded down, Spike was surrounded by the sounds of men and women rutting and grunting. It was something he had heard all his life and although he really didn't understand why they did it other than to make babies, his mother had simply said it was what men did to their mates. She didn't seem hurt by it and she had told him that when the time came, he would want to find a female and rut with her too. Spike doubted that.

The intense memories of his beloved mother caused Spike's breath to hitch and his chest to hurt. The picture of her face and the smell of her skin were still fresh in his mind as though she were just with him. Talking to him and smiling at him.

Swallowing hard against his sorrow, Spike slid down onto his butt and his spear dropped at his feet as the animal he had been waiting on was all but forgotten.

It was the second year of his time to hunt that the changes began to make themselves known. Winter came early that year and the elders searched the skies and the entrails of their kills for signs to explain it. It was long and harsh and several of the newborn did not survive. When a late spring finally arrived, the clan gave thanks for it and put
the suffering behind them as they looked forward to the bounty of the new growth.

But it was not to be. The hard, long season had taken a toll on the litters of the animals they hunted for food and the depth of the frost-line in the ground damaged most of the roots the women dug and cooked. Spring rains were too intense and the following summer saw a drought that further limited their food supply. Before they knew it, fall tumbled to winter and there was no stockpile to see them through.

That was the year his mother got sick. She coughed and wasted away on her bed of furs. During the day, Spike would see to it that she got a fair share of meat, sometimes giving her his. At night, his father continued to rut with her even as she coughed and her breathing made strange whistling sounds. Often Spike would hold her hand
for reassurance until his father was done. Even as Spike understood that it was his father's right, he wished he would leave her alone.

On the night of the winter's solstice, the longest night of the year, his mother died. She slipped away silently as he slept and when he awoke she was gone. As was the clan's custom, she was wrapped in a thick fur and taken from the cave by the elders. From there, she would be moved to a secret, sacred site and her body burned to prevent
the animals from eating it. It had to be done to protect the clan. It had to be done to put the past behind them. Survival meant living in the present and not the memories of yesterday.

By the next spring, the clan realized that this was more than a natural quirk. Winter dragged long into the time when the sun should have begun to warm the earth and there seemed to be no hope of a return to their hunting and gathering. They had lost several of their numbers to disease, starvation and reckless hunting accidents.

Something was causing a shift in the seasons and if not corrected, it could be disastrous. After much discussion, the elders sojourned into the forest to seek signs and omens that would point to a solution to this catastrophic situation. They were gone nearly a week and when they returned, two of their number were not there. It was told to the clan that these males had given themselves as offerings to the earth in exchange for an abundant season. As their blood soaked the soil, the others sang to the moon and stars. Spike's father was one of these men whose body was given in honor. Spike felt nothing beyond gratitude for the sacrifice.

But it hadn't worked. With the exception of one or two years, each summer had gotten shorter and colder. Each winter grew longer and more brutal. Food was short and the once robust clan was now few in number and frail in constitution.

A major split in the clan had come last autumn at the time of the color of the trees. The final ten leaders of the White Clan had gathered around a campfire to decide what they would do with the food stores low and the winds blowing cold. On that night, Ri, one of the men of Spike's age, made a decision that would change all of their lives.

"I say we take our clan and move south. The wind that comes from there is warmer and whispers of long growing seasons and healthy herds of food animals. We can't stay here any longer. The sun has forgotten us and we are dying. The time of ice and snow is almost upon us again and we have no food past one cycle of the moon. We need to pack our furs and spears and go now."

Spike jumped to his feet. He was furious. The White Clan had always lived in these caves and as the men of the clan, it fell to them to preserve the traditions of this way of life.

"No! I say we stay! We don't know what is out there and the women and children will freeze if night comes and there are no shelters for fires. We have never been past the line of the heather fields. How do you know there is even a world beyond that? No! It is too dangerous. I say we stay here. Next year will be better. I'm sure it will."

The others debated back and forth long into the night. Oz pointed out that other tribes had passed through the land of the caves and told of a world beyond the heather fields. Some of the men agreed with Spike that the risk was too great, and several stood by Ri's decision to go. Eventually the conversation and arguments faded away as all the men knew that no matter what was decided, the time of the White Clan was coming to an end.

That night, after returning to the clan's cave, Spike arranged his nest of furs and he burrowed in. Within minutes, a young girl named Buffy climbed in with him. She was of breeding age and had made no secret of the fact that she wanted to mate with Spike. Despite her touches and gifts of woven mats and braided flowers, Spike had no inclination to rut with her.

He chalked up his man part's inability to rise for her as his mental concerns for the clan and his exhaustion from failed attempts at hunting. The night after Ri had told the clan that he was taking a group south, he had told Buffy she would mate with him and go when he did. Buffy decided to give Spike one last try. If he would rut with her, she would stay with him.

Buffy was naked. She slid into his furs and ran her cold hands over his warm skin. She pushed and positioned Spike onto his back and for once, he didn't resist. He knew if the clan was to survive, there needed to be new babies. A new generation to learn the ways of the clan. Surely by then the sun would remember them and their life would return to the way it was.

But his man part would not get firm. She grunted and rubbed herself on him trying to push his soft, flaccid poker into herself but it would not work. Suddenly, Spike felt the furs being snatched off of them and the cold air stung him. When he lifted his head, he saw Ri push his manhood into Buffy from behind. As she lay on top of him, Buffy grunted as Ri rutted with her.

The humiliation of that memory caused Spike to squeeze his eyes shut and shake his head to clear the past from his mind. When he did that, he heard the wet snort of the deer who stood just on the other side of the huge tree. Carefully, Spike picked up his sharp spear. He slowly stood up, ignoring the agonizing cramps in his cold legs, and in a flash he leapt from his spot of concealment.

The spear was flung with expert precision and the clan was assured of fresh meat for the first time in days.





Part Two

Xander crept slowly forward. His eyes were locked on his target and his peripheral vision assured him that the other men of his clan were strategically surrounding the field and moving with the same expertise as his. In the center of the small, open field were three fat wild hogs. They were rooting, snorting and pawing at the ground to knock the thin layer of snow away and reach the tender sprouts below that had not yet frozen and died.

Silently, Xander raised his spear twice in the air as a signal to the others to begin to tighten the circle around their prey. The hunters knew that wild boar may look clumsy and awkward but when spooked, those short, heavy legs could run like the wind. The men also had seen the wrath of a trapped boar and more than one of their clan had met with his end at the furious, sharp boar's tooth.

As leader of the Wind Clan, Xander understood that as much as they needed the meat that these hogs would provide, the loss of one of their strongest hunters would hurt the clan's survival more than an empty belly. If push came to shove, hunger was the lesser of the two evils.

To the humans' advantage, so far the boar were unaware of their precarious status as they continued to feed on the last of the sweet grasses and bitter roots. For them, an extra layer of body fat was their assurance of survival over the long coming winter. Body fat and an inborn instinct for adaptation. Unlike the human population that still tried to cling to the ways of their ancestors, the boar had already felt the shift in the seasons and had begun to readjust their eating habits to find food higher on the branches and scavenge for the fungus that grew in the caves.

The whys and the wherefores of the colder climate were a moot point to the wild boar.

When the hunting party was as near to the edge of the tree line as possible, Xander signaled to each of the men who stood on either side of him and they cautiously moved in until they were just ten feet from his left and right. Suddenly, in an explosion of sound and movement, the three warriors raised their spears high in the air and let out a wild, ear-shattering whoop that caused all three boar to immediately brace then react.

Their dinner was forgotten as their heads snapped in all directions in search of the danger. Immediately, the hunters at the far side of the glen shouted and stomped the ground, knowing the vibration would be felt in the boar's feet and turn them to run in the opposite direction.

Which was exactly what the clan wanted and the drive was on. Quickly, three sides of the perimeter exploded with men waving sharpened spears and shouting as they rushed toward the startled pigs, forcing them forward and directly into the three waiting men who now stood, braced and ready. As the frantic, furious hogs charged with their snouts snorting a hot wet mist into the cold air, Xander and his two best hunters stood their ground.

Closer and closer the boar ran from the loud insanity of the human predators. Before the animals could realize the error of their escape route, Xander, Liam and Trig lurched forward to meet them. Their handmade weapons were gripped tightly and held in a forward point as the men pounded their feet on the ground and closed the gap between life and death.

Jumping out front, Xander smartly went about the business of dispatching his animal. One expert thrust of his spear pierced the boar's throat, stunning and stopping it in its tracks with a squeal of pain and outrage. Still impaled, it squirmed in agony and fury as it flopped over onto its back, kicking its feet wildly, hoping to find purchase and escape. Knowing the animal was still a danger as long as breath remained in its body, Xander jerked the spear out on a gush of spraying blood and he quickly plunged it back into the hog's chest. All movement ceased.

He then spun around and spotted Liam. His fur coverings were matted red and wet as he poked his conquest with the blunt end of his spear's wooden stick to ensure it was really dead. Xander then hurried back to the far side of their starting point where the others of the hunting group stood in a tight circle. Pushing his way through, Xander saw what he dreaded most. The hog was dead but he had taken his attacker with him. The long, slick footprint indicated a slip and fall. It was an accident the dying boar took full advantage of.

Xander stood and looked down as the man he had called friend bled out into the snow. The boar had lunged and as Trig's spear sank through the hog's gut, he fell and the animal's huge fang had sliced cleanly through the hunter's throat. Trig was still and unmoving. His eyes were wide open and unseeing. His mouth was wide in a final shout of triumph. He had died a warrior's death.

The hot, red blood poured out in a growing puddle that steamed in the cold air as it melted the snow around him while the others stared in silent, morbid fascination. Xander stepped closer. He nudged the body with his foot to look for signs of life in the same way he had just done with his boar. There was none.

On this day, both predator and prey had given their life for the clan.

Xander squeezed his eyes tightly shut. He would not cry. He would not show weakness in front of his clan. He was their leader and their survival depended on his strength. When he felt he could speak without a waver in his tone, he began shouting orders and instructions.

"You two take him to the forest and cover the body with rocks. The rest of you get those pigs gutted and cut out. Liam, you go make three pulls from the branches and vines so we can tie them up and drag them back to the clan. Hurry up. The sun is already low."

Without looking back, Xander turned away from the lifeless body of the young man he had known since childhood. Tonight, when he was alone, he would allow himself to remember and grieve. Till then, it was all about the clan. They would need the sustenance for the long trip ahead and three fat boar would give them not only food for today, but enough to provide nourishment for the long road ahead.

Although it was still early in the turn of the final season, the weather was already bitter cold. It was an incorrect pattern that Xander had observed and wondered about for the last four cycles. It was something he had planned on addressing at the next meeting of the clan. This time when they moved south, they would find new hunting grounds for the cold season. For whatever reason the climate was shifting, this would be the last time he would bring his people this far north.

Xander's clan was the Wind Clan. So called because of their nomadic lifestyle. They moved with the shifting seasons and they followed the food, setting up and breaking down temporary camps and shelters as they traveled. Generally, unless the weather prohibited it, they were a people accustomed to bedding down outside using fires and sentries as protection from the dangers of the night.

Ever since his birth, nearly nineteen summers ago, Xander had never been in one place for more than three moons at a time. It was the way of their clan to follow the migrating birds south in the cold of the winter and work their way north when the hibernating animals emerged from their dens in the spring.

They were a clan of shifting numbers. In the bounty of the warmth and abundance of food of the living seasons, their numbers swelled with new births. During this time, when their days did not have to be consumed with basics of survival, the warriors would wander beyond the temporary campsites of their clan to claim women from the cave clans for breeding and pleasure. When they coupled up, some of the Wind clan brought their woman back
with them. Some stayed in the caves and some splintered off to travel alone with their new mates and offspring.

The Wind Clan was not a clan that demanded a lifetime commitment of its members. That was its strength and that was its weakness.

Through it all, Xander was the one constant. He was the unquestioned leader. Named so because his father had been clan leader before him and the title passed upon the old man's death at the ripe old age of thirty seasons. Xander had been a young man of fifteen seasons but well prepared to accept the responsibility.

He understood from the beginning of his days that he would be expected to lead the clan and assure its survival, and he had taken seriously his father's instruction as to the feeding and sheltering of his people during their travels. The women of the clan taught him the roots and plants that were safe to eat and trained him in the ways of healing and medicine.

Xander loved his mother, but clinging was not the way of a young man of the Wind Clan. As a child, his toys were pretend spears he learned to throw, and his interaction was almost entirely with the other males of the clan. As soon as he was old enough he joined the hunting parties, and at the age of his body's change, he had proven himself in the tradition of lone survival in the cycle of the moon.

The morning the hunting party had found his father's body at the bottom of a ravine was the day Xander's life changed. Part of him had wanted to scream and wail for the man who had held and loved him. A bigger part knew that would be a fatal error. He could see, in the eyes of the rest of the clan, the questioning. One sign of weakness....one misstep and any other man in the clan could move forward to challenge Xander's right to be clan leader. Liam's face reflected his own indecision as he considered declaring himself. Xander did not give his childhood friend the opportunity. Xander claimed his birthright and was quickly accepted for his skills and a near ruthless self-confidence that held him slightly apart from the rest of his clan by their fear and respect of him.

Now, at nineteen summers the clan was confused and concerned by the fact that he had not yet coupled and produced a future leader. It was a crack in the solid armor of the shell of the clan. It was an uncertain future in a group that had few solids to place their faith in. Xander knew this issue was becoming critical and he would soon have to pick a female to rut with. A concept that did not excite his man part or cause it to rise as he had seen others in his clan do with their women. His private shame was that he found more pleasure in his own hand than he did in considering the openings of a woman.

"Xander! Here! Come here and see!"

With one quick twist of the wrist, Xander ripped the boar's heart from its carved chest. He placed it in the snow to keep it cold and he scooped out the foul intestines. Once the bad parts were scraped and the inside of the carcass cleansed, the heart would be replaced. All parts of the animal that could be eaten would be returned to the clan for the women to prepare. Nothing would be wasted. Xander had plans for the razor sharp tusks that he sheared off with his flack stone. When he heard Liam call to him from the forest edge, Xander wiped the blood from his hands in the white snow and he ran to see what the concern was.

When he reached the tree line, he automatically scanned the area for danger while running to see what had caught Liam's attention. Xander did not allow himself to gaze upon the crumpled body of his friend that still awaited its stone covering, and instead he focused where Liam was pointing.

It was an area of great disturbance.

The scuffle in the snow indicated the animal was not large or overly heavy. Probably a deer or small elk. A splattering of blood told that its death was at the hands of another, and the footprints leading up to and away from it said that the hunter was a man. They were not alone in this hunting ground.

Xander nodded and looked all around as his eyes scanned for any movement on the horizon. It had been one man and one animal. That was not a serious threat. It was not a full hunting party. If it came down to it, it was kill or be killed and today was not a day that Xander would die. In a gesture that assured his men, Xander spit on the bloody ground then gripped his spear.

"Finish with the body. We need to get this food back to the camp. Pile all the entrails at the far side of the pasture and get the animals up on the carriers and off the ground. After the wolves eat the scraps, I don't want them following a blood trail back to our people."

Quickly, the others scurried around to follow their leader's orders and prepare the kill for the long journey back before the sun had dipped to the lowest point in the sky. As the men did their best to ignore the cold, Xander took one last look back and wondered about the hunter who had killed in the heather field.





Part Three

"Stop that!! Get off!! Liam! Liam, come and get your brother!"

"OW!"

The young boy flinched and recoiled from the sharp slap to the back of his head. He had been bored. He had no interest in the cleaning of the carcass or the rock covering of the dead warrior, and he had thought it would be funny to climb upon one of the dead animals and pretend to rut with it as the men of their tribe did with the women. He should have known that Xander would not laugh. Xander never laughed. Truth was, Web didn't want
to come along on this stupid hunt but his brother and father had forced him.

Quickly, Liam hurried over and snatched the silly young man off the clan's next meal. He was tempted to give the boy another whack but since Xander had already done that, Liam felt he should show some restraint. Instead, he grabbed the boy by the forearm and shook him roughly as he dragged him away. When they were out of earshot, he shoved the boy against a tree and growled, "You shame me, boy! It is a great honor to be part of the hunting party. You are nearly grown and should be learning to hunt and feed your clan. Instead, I find you playing with the food as if you would make little pigs with it."

Web did his best to look contrite but when Liam had accused him of trying to make little pigs, he simply could not hold back. The boy busted out laughing and not even the red flushed face of his furious brother could stem the tide of hilarity. He bent over at the waist and tears rolled down his cold cheeks as Liam threw up his hands in disgust and turned to walk away. Gasping for air and control, Web called after him, "Wait, Liam, I'm sorry. I promise I'll do better."

Xander leaned over and finished tying the last carcass onto the hastily constructed wooden drag. All three boar had been gutted, prepared, and were now ready for the long two-day trip back to where the rest of the clan was camped. Each of the three drags was assigned to one of their strongest men to pull. Without looking up from his task, Xander spoke quietly so that only Liam would hear. "You should not have insisted on bringing the boy. He has no interest in hunting and should be home with the old women learning to sew furs and cook."

The comment stung as sharply as if Xander had slapped him as he had the boy. The insinuation that a male of Liam's blood was less than a warrior was an insult to every man in Liam's family. It was an insult to Liam himself.

"He is still young. He is only of thirteen seasons. He just...."

Xander stood straight up and glared at Liam. When he spoke, the warm fog of each word exploded in the icy air and left no doubt that this was not a subject for debate. "At that age we had already killed and fed our clan. We had gone alone into the wilderness and survived our moon of solitude. Why has this boy not done that? A member of the clan either strengthens the clan or weakens it and that boy shows no strength. Don't you ever bring him on a hunt again. Do you understand?"

Liam's eyes darted over to where Web was now making odd handfuls of snow and throwing it at the other men in the party. "That isn't fair. How do you expect him to learn if he...."

"Then you take him. You take him and teach him to hunt and kill but not when I'm around."

Liam felt the flush of fury rush through his body. He gripped his spear tightly in his hand and his other fist balled up at his side. He was sick and tired of being bossed around by Xander. The time had come. For now he would remain silent but when they returned to the settlement, Liam was ready to challenge Xander for leadership of the Wind Clan.

Giving no verbal response, Liam turned and marched over to where the boy was just about to scoop another chunk of ice and snow and he soundly punched the boy on the arm, causing him to tumble face-first onto the frozen ground.

With the problem of the boy all but forgotten, Xander surveyed the area. The hunting party was ready to leave and with a two day trek ahead of them, they needed to get started. Xander gave one last glance toward the pile of rocks that covered what was left of his boyhood friend, and with a grunt he raised his long spear. It was a signal to go.

A fine, soft snow had begun to fall but the sky overhead was dark and grey. The heavy, ominous clouds threatened that the worst of the storm was yet to come. Wordlessly, the hunting party had trudged through the forests, glens, and across the valley of the frozen marsh. They moved with steady resolve and determination by simply putting one painful foot in front of the other.

At regular intervals, the men who pulled the wooden drags were alternated in order to not exhaust any one man and slow down the entire group. By watching the position of the sun, Xander knew when they had gone far enough for the first day.

They needed to find a place of safety to build a lean-to and start a fire for the night. Because they had come through this way before, Xander remembered a free-flowing spring that would give them fresh water and a small cutting off the boar would give them food. When he turned around and faced the rest, he gave a curt nod of his head and the other men immediately broke formation and hurried to complete the tasks that would see them
through the darkness.

Liam organized a party to go collect firewood and Xander personally took two others with all the men's gut-skin pouches to fill with fresh water. They could drink freely tonight and fill up again in the morning before they started out. Several of the youngest of the party started cutting large evergreen branches to provide an umbrella for over their heads and a base to lay upon.

Web went off to play.

Xander swiped the back of his hand under his cold, runny nose as he made his way through the snow toward the running spring. He took his spear with him because even with the fresh flow, there would no doubt be a layer of ice that he would have to break through first. If good fortune was with him there may still be a few fish swimming around. It would feed the hunting party and they would not need to cut on the boar.

For once, luck and survival were on the side of the humans and just after the final light of the day, Xander and the other men of the clan were circled around a warm, saving fire. The abundance of the salmon had been sliced and cooked and washed down with the cold, clean water of the fresh stream. It was good. The men were relaxed, well fed, and they did what all men through the ages have done together. They began to regale each other with tales of great conquests and successful hunts.

One by one they would stand and wave their arms in accompaniment to their descriptions of the huge numbers of marauding war clans that they single-handedly dispatched with only their spears and their flake stones. Then, not to be outdone, the next hunter would launch into a wild tale of the great, horned beasts they faced in the mystical forests. Beasts that cowered in the face of a hunter of the Wind Clan.

On and on the unbelievable stories went until finally one of them had the gall to challenge the validity of such outlandish claims. When that happened, it signaled a free-for-all that had each of the men nit-picking apart the previous tales of the other until Xander called a halt. It had been good fun, but the night was deep and the morning would bring a long cold day. They needed to sleep. The clan leader rose and by pounding the butt of his long spear on the ground, he signaled that the bullshit ended now.

It was just as well. Despite some residual, good-natured pushing and shoving amongst them, the warriors were yawning and exhausted. Earlier, each man had swept away an area of snow and laid down a thick layer of pine branches as a base for their furs and bedding. Liam had made his own nest as well as Web's and he then banked the fire to last as long as possible.

Xander stood and watched as the hunters all settled in. His mind and body were bone tired but as clan leader, it fell to him to take the first watch. He would remain vigilant and watchful against the wolves and predators of the night. Hopefully, Liam or one of the other men would relieve him before the sun rose and he could close his eyes. If not, he would not complain.

Within minutes, the group grew quiet. The fussing and rolling to find a comfortable position ceased and the deep rumble of a dozen men snoring assured Xander that all was sound and guarded. Sitting cross-legged by the fire, Xander stared into the hypnotic, dancing flames that warmed his face and lit his circle.

He listened to the distant howling of the packs of wolves as they called to each other and he heard the hollow sounds of the owls that hooted in the tops of the frozen trees. It was at times like this, when his body was still and his work was done, that Xander had time for reflection.

Something was wrong with him but he didn't know what. He was lonely and unhappy but had no idea how to fix it. He watched as all his boyhood friends coupled up with females and rutted till they made children, and it confused him. Not that they were able to impregnate their females but primarily because they seemed to want to. And that was what he sought most. The desire. The need.

He knew when the hunting party returned to the settlement, each of these men would be welcomed by their mates. Hands would fumble around under the furs and bodies would be touched and fondled. The pairs would roll together and prepare to rut. But first, the men would bump noses with their mates. For Xander, that was so much more intimate than the pushing of one body part into another. It was a look in their eyes. It was so real.

Xander desperately wanted someone to bump noses with.

It certainly wasn't for lack of opportunities. As clan leader, he was offered every young female upon her first time of the moon to bleed. He didn't have to bump noses with any of them, the mothers just wanted their daughters to give birth to a clan leader's son. Xander had offended more than one mother with his refusals. It was shameful. He could breed with his own hand but not with a female. It was baffling. It was on the verge of being catastrophic.

Making matters worse, Liam had already impregnated two of the females as well as taking another as a mate. At this rate, he wouldn't need to challenge Xander for leadership of the Wind Clan. He could pop out enough pups to start a clan of his own. Xander scowled at Liam who was sleeping peacefully nearby but the fact was, he was more upset at himself.

He was going to have to make a decision. For the clan. For his self respect. To maintain his place at the head of the clan. Watching the flickering flames and gazing at the red, glowing embers, Xander made up his mind. He would do whatever he had to do to produce an offspring. Even if it meant he would have to close his eyes and use his own hand to make his manhood hard and ready to breed. He could do it! He was a warrior! He had faced worse.

For the next six hours, Xander sat, resolved, cross-legged, and watchful of the hunting party's safety and to assure that no other predators came near their clan's food. He kept the fire burning and he waited on one of the others to awaken and give him rest. None did and he didn't ask. By the hour of the first rising of the sun, his body and mind ached with exhaustion.

After relieving their bladders, the hunters fed on the small amount of fish that was left from the night before and then they quickly prepared themselves for the long trek ahead. After giving orders, Xander went off to refill their water skins. Against his better judgement, he allowed Web to go along and carry several of the skins.

The path to the stream wound through the saplings at the mouth of the forest. It required a short hike up a rocky trail, around a steep drop off and came to a point where the water flowed down from an unknown source at the top of the hill. The snow they trudged through was ankle deep and the icicles that hung from the trees sparkled in the morning sun.

Xander tried to ignore the chatter of the annoying boy that yapped at his heels like a wolf pup, and he promised himself that if he ever impregnated a female of the clan, he would not allow his boy to be so...Webish.

Web was not thrilled either. He was only toting these stupid skins because his brother Liam had forced him. The truth was, Web hated Xander. Just because Xander was clan leader didn't give him the right to yell and slap him. If Liam were clan leader, life for Web would be perfect. He wouldn't have to go on these hunting trips. He could have all the females he wanted. He would be next in line to be leader himself.

And that was what was going through Web's mind. That was his justification. That was the force behind the rock that struck the back of Xander's head and sent the leader of the Wind Clan tumbling into the ravine and crashing onto the rocks below.





Part Four


"Wha?"

Spike awoke with a jolt, and immediately his head snapped in all directions as his eagle-sharp vision pierced through the dim morning light to read his cave. The fire that burned perpetually at the mouth of the cave was low from the long, cold night, but it hadn't gone out and there was still wood stacked at the side for Spike to rebuild.

Something had awakened him. A sound contradictory to the well-being of his clan. In his half-asleep state he had been unable to identify it, but now he was ready. He fixed his gaze into the belly of the cave and he waited for the sound to repeat itself. Which it soon did. It was the sound of distress, and Spike leapt to his feet.

The cave had held the warmth of the night's fire, and the others slept peacefully as Spike moved quietly amongst the fur-nested clan members. As he stepped stealthily around and through them, he noted sadly how diminished the clan's numbers had become. At one time, not too many years ago, this cave would have been so packed with men and women
and children that he would have had problems finding a foot-space between them. Now, death and desertion saw their count at a dismal five males, four females and two young boys.

As clan leader, Spike saw this as a personal failure and it caused him, not for the first time, to question his life and decisions. Was his resolute determination to keep the clan in the ways of the old ones sealing their fate? He felt confused. He had wandered the forest alone and searched the night sky and the entrails of the owl for a sign, but none had come.

So he held on. He did what he could to provide for his clan while he maintained the life that they had lived from the times of their ancestors, while he held fast to the hope that the sun would remember them and warm the land once more.

Before he could again become lost in his own thoughts and fears, the sound of sickness echoed from the far turn in the deep bowels of the cave. Even with the distortion of the sound, Spike recognized it as Willow. His Willow. His youngest sister. The most important female in his world.

Although his mother had rutted with the clan leader, the strongest male in the pack, and given birth to seven babies, he and Willow had been the only ones to survive to adulthood. Some never made it past the first moon, some lived long enough to find their footing, and the last one, a brother, had perished at the claws of the great black bear many seasons ago.

Quickly Spike followed the narrow of the tunnel. When he found her, she was on her knees, doubled over, and her mate, a lean young man called Penn, was rubbing her back as the stench of her vomit soured the air.

"Willow?"

Responding to her brother's voice, Willow lifted her head, and he could see the track of the tears that had streamed through the dirt on her face. When she opened her mouth to reassure him that she would be all right, another wave of nausea buckled her over. The first thing that came to Spike's brain was that he had fed his clan a sick deer, but before he could voice that thought, the look on Penn's face told him that it was something else. Something far worse. Something almost inevitable.

Willow was with child.

Spike wanted to be happy and rejoice at the addition of a new member to the White Cave Clan but there was no joy in his heart, only a fear for the life of his beloved sister and an anger at her mate for rutting with her and causing this. Spike squatted down and squeezed his eyes shut. He ran his fingers lovingly through her tangled, thick hair and then, without a
word, he stood and walked away. He had a fire to tend. He had a deerskin to scrape and stretch, and he needed to go to the spring for water.


~*~*~*~*~



"LIAM! LIAM!"

Web came dashing from the edge of the forest and toward the group of men who were completing the chores of journey preparation. Intimately familiar with Web's tendencies for foolishness, the other men turned away from the boy and ignored his hysterics. Liam would have liked to do the same, but Web's persistent tugging on his brother's arm and his demand to "Come on. Hurry, come on!" finally had Liam following the boy's lead.

Quickly, with their hot breath puffing out fogs into ice, the two members of the Wind Clan ran through the trees of the forest like the sure-footed gazelle. They effortlessly leapt over fallen branches and traversed the pitfalls and hidden dangers under the coating of snow as their fur-booted feet pounded out the steps. After a few shouts of 'What?' and 'Where?'
Liam stopped asking and simply allowed his younger brother to lead him. At some point the question of Xander's absence crept into Liam's mind and he became concerned.

By the time the two skidded to a halt at the edge of the cliff, Web was so winded all he could do was point down. Dreading what he would see, Liam finally forced himself to look. It was exactly the worst thing he had imagined. There, at the bottom of the rocky cliffside, near the edge of the water pond, lay his friend. Their clan leader. Xander. Broken and twisted.

"NO!"

Immediately Liam lunged forward with the intent of climbing down the sheer, precarious face of the cliff to reach the fallen warrior. When he did, Web grabbed his brother by the arm and he tugged back.

"No! No, Liam, he's dead. You are clan leader now. You can't risk your life or the clan won't have a leader. We can't reach him. It is too late for him. He is dead. We have to leave him."

Liam's shock and disbelief suddenly turned to rage as he clamped the fingers of his huge left hand around his bother's throat and he began to squeeze.

"What did you do? You evil little pissant. What did you do?"

Web clawed frantically at the tight fingers that threatened to permanently cut off his air and life. His feet kicked and he did the only thing he could. He shook his head and hoped his bugged eyes conveyed his innocence. Summoning all his restraint, Liam forced himself to let go and the boy dropped to the ground, gasping and rubbing his neck. As he did, he
sobbed at his brother's mistrust and accusations.

"I didn't do nothing. He fell. He just fell. We were going to start down the trail to the pond and he slipped. I tried to catch him but he was too big and heavy. I was just lucky enough that I didn't go with him."

Liam paced back and forth as he listened to Web whine out his excuses and explanations. Something deep inside him told him that Web's story was bullshit, but that was almost unimportant now as he rubbed his cold, rough hands over his face and tried to decide what to do.

"We need to go get the others. We need to get his body out of there and cover it with rocks. We need to...."

"No!" Web cut off his brother's babbling. "We can't. It's done. It is the way of the Wind Clan. One leader dies and another takes over. You deserve to be clan leader. You have sons. You have me. Xander had no bloodline to follow him. He failed the clan. He wouldn't rut. His time as leader is done. Now you have to think of the clan. The others are waiting for you to return. We have a long day's journey to take the boar back to the women and children. The sun will soon be high in the sky and we have to go."

Liam was in a quandary. He knew Web was right and he was astounded by the maturity and logic the boy seemed to suddenly possess. Liam stood at the edge of the cliff and he looked down one last time. He and Xander had been rivals, but long before that they had been friends. They had been brothers in arms. They had grown side by side from childhood
to manhood and both understood that nothing mattered beyond the benefit of the clan. If the situation was reversed, Xander would do what was needed for the clan. The cold and the tears he refused to shed stung his eyes as he nodded.
"You're right. Let's go."

With that, Liam held his head high and he turned his back to the broken body of the last leader of the clan. He collected the water skins that had fallen on the ground and he headed to where the rest of the hunting party waited impatiently.

The announcement of Xander's death brought shouts of fear, sadness and disbelief. The men stomped and milled around in a frenzy of chaos and confusion until Liam pounded the butt of his long spear on the frozen ground.

"Enough! Stop it! What's done is done and our clan awaits the food we are bringing. At the time of the full moon we will hold a fire dance for him, but now is not the time for wailing like old women. We are warriors. We are men of the Wind Clan and I am now the clan leader. Is there any man here who challenges my claim?"

The others fussed and grumbled but no man would look Liam directly in the eye or step up to make his intent known. Instead, they did what they knew to do. The prepared their boar for the long day's journey and they awaited the orders from the new leader to head out. Before the sun could lift any higher in the morning sky, the men of the Wind Clan had
vacated the meadow.


~*~*~*~*~



"Wait, Spike. Let me go with you."

Spike had gathered up several of the smooth gut sacks to fill with water and had already reached the mouth of the cave when Penn called to him. Spike had no doubt that the offer of accompaniment had more to do with Penn's need to talk than a sudden desire to do the women's work of toting and fetching. When Spike nodded, Penn fell in behind him.

The trip to the pond was one every member of the White Cave Clan had made a thousand times. The constant, reliable supply of fresh water despite the harsh seasons was one of the things that made their caves in the hill country so inhabitable over the course of countless generations. With their home at the edge of the fields, they could reach the stream
and pond without having to climb the rocky cliffside beyond the forest.

"Willow is with child."

Although he got no verbal response, Penn saw the back of Spike's head nod and he took that as permission to continue.

"If we stay here, Spike, the child and Willow will die. I want to take her and move south towards the winds that blow with warmth. We need to find a place where the roots have not frozen and the game still runs in herds. Her belly hasn't started to swell but the time is short. She won't go without your permission, Spike. Please. Tell her she can go."

Spike stopped walking so abruptly that Penn very nearly collided into the clan leader's back. In his heart, Spike had known this time would come and he was fraught with indecision. If he ordered her to stay, he had no doubt that she would. And then what? Give birth to a frail child that dies in her arms before it draws its first breath? In her weakened state Willow would probably not survive the blood loss of the birth.

But what would she find in the world beyond the mystical forest and the heather glens? The elders spoke of great horned beasts and evil half-men half-creatures that lived in the darkness and pounced upon the humans that invaded their secret lands. Did one danger override another? Spike swallowed hard. Finally, he called back over his shoulder, "I will consider your request and make my decision later."

"Spike!"

Spike spun around on his heels and glared at the man who did not accept the leader's decision without question.

"I told you I would think about it and...."

"No. Spike. Look. Over at the side of the pond. What is that?"

When Spike looked in the direction Penn was pointing, he was taken aback. He knew exactly what the fur-covered lump was. It was a man. An interloper in the land of the White Cave Clan. What bothered Spike the most was that a stranger, wandering in and dying in the land of the White Clan, was an omen of even more bad luck to come.





Part Five

Quickly and cautiously, Spike and Penn hurried over to where the stranger lay in a crumpled heap of arms and legs and furs. His face was slack, his eyes were closed and his head was cocked at an odd angle, which indicated to Spike that the man was probably dead and no threat. Still, just to be certain, Spike took the blunt end of his spear and he poked at the belly of the beast.

When the stranger moaned and twitched, both Spike and Penn leapt back, crouched into an attack stance and raised their spears with the expectation that the man would jump up and lunge at them. When he didn't, the two men of the White Cave Clan eased forward again.

"Who is he, Spike? Why is he here in our land?"

Spike gripped his spear close to his body as he turned in a full circle and visually searched the surrounding area for any movement or danger. A man without a clan did not make sense. If this was a trap, then more men could be hiding in the forest and waiting to launch an assault against the White Clan.

"I don't know who he is, but a man like this does not travel without a clan. We will leave him. His own people will come for him. It is not our problem. Go fill the water pouches and we should get back."

Penn was not so sure that that was the right thing to do. He looked up and could see the faint traces of blood on the cliffside where the man had struck as he tumbled down. "He is still alive, Spike. If we leave him here, he will either freeze or the wolves will eat at his still-breathing body. Willow would kick both our asses if she found out. He must have fallen from up there. If his clan was going to come for him, they would have. They have left him to die, Spike. We are a better people than that."

Spike squatted down and dipped his gut skins into the flowing stream to quickly fill them up. As he did, he kept his eyes trained on the fallen stranger and his ears piqued for any foreign sounds from the meadow or forest behind him. He also gave consideration to Penn's words. As much as he hated to concede, it was all true. Especially the part where Willow would shove a furry boot up their butt for their refusal to help this man.

With a shake of his head and a huff of defeat, Spike finished his task and he tucked his wet hands under his armpits to warm them. As he stood and glared at the handsome stranger his mind was already on the how-to of hauling the big man back to their cave. At first, he considered building a fire and warming the man here, but the lingering fear of discovery
by a clan of stronger numbers urged him to take the injured man and vacate the area as quickly as possible.

"Fine. I still think we should leave him but if we are taking him back, we need to do it quickly. You hurry to the forest line and bring strong branches and vine to make a drag. I will check him to see how badly he is broken and wrap his furs tightly around him. Penn nodded and hurried to comply.

Reaching into his belt pouch, Spike extracted his flake stone. It had been honed to an impressive razor-sharp edge and was still coated with the fresh blood of the deer he was cutting last night. Spike had no qualms about adding the blood of this stranger to it. If this was a trick or the stranger made any show of aggression, the flake stone would cleanly slice the man's throat in the blink of an eye.

Spike circled the limp body. Each time he would nudge it with his foot, the man would moan, although he never opened his eyes. When it appeared that there would be no attack, Spike marginally relaxed. He crouched down at the side of the man and he reached out to touch him.

The stranger was cold, indicating he had been lying there for at least one notch of the sun. The bruising on the area of his exposed midsection told Spike that he was probably broken inside. That was not good. A man usually died if something inside him was damaged. When Spike rolled the man over on his side in order to tuck his furs as close to his body as possible, he located the worst of the damage.

There was a bloody wound on the back of the man's head. It was deep and Spike could see through to the white bone inside, but the good news was that the bone was not cracked open and the grey stuff inside was not oozing out. Spike had seen that happen more than once and he knew that if the head injury was too harsh, the man could not live.

The blood that coated Spike's hands was cold and thick and stuck to the man's long, thick dark hair. It was strange. All the men of the White Clan had light hair. On all parts of their body. Suddenly, Spike's mind was obsessed with the question of whether the hair on this man's hidden area was as dark as on his head. He couldn't imagine why it was so important to him but it was. He had to know. He had to look.

Spike's head snapped up to assure himself that Penn was still on his errand of retrieval. Although he was still out of sight, Spike knew that time was of the essence. Penn understood the urgency of getting this man and leaving the area, and he would be back soon.

Spike again poked the man but the stranger's eyes still remained closed. Spike then shouted into his ear. "Hey! Hey! Wake up!"

When there was no response, Spike cautiously reached over and he lifted up the man's heavy furs. His legs were cut and bruised. They were also covered in the same dark hair and they were thick and strong. This man was from a well-fed clan. Spike wondered how that could be in such harsh conditions. If the White Clan was suffering, how could this clan be doing so well?

But that wasn't the question of the moment.

Spike checked one more time, and off in the distance he could see the odd, lumbering movement that he recognized as Penn's gait. He gave one more fast jerk of the furs and exposed the unconscious stranger's manhood to the cold morning air.

In answer to his puzzle, yes, the hidden hair was dark, almost black as it formed a wild, curly nest. But as facinated as he was, the hair no longer held his interest. Instead, all Spike could see was the stranger's manhood. It was so beautiful, he forgot to breathe. It was long and thick and hooded. Spike wondered if it was this big in the inevitable shrinkage of the icy air, how large would it be lying by the heat of the dancing flames of the cave fire?

Suddenly, the sound of a snapping twig brought him back to awareness and Spike pulled the furs down over the injured legs just as Penn dashed up with a crude, hastily made drag.

"Were you checking him to see how bad he is hurt?"

Spike jumped back away from the body. He did not look up so that the confusion and guilt would not be evident on his face as he waved his hand, indicating Penn should lay the drag next to the body. "Yes. His skin is cut and colored. I think he is broken inside his middle and his head is open and bleeding. We will take him, but he will probably die before we get him back to the cave."

Penn had to admit the truth of that inevitability. This was a fool's errand, but he just couldn't leave a man to die by the cold wind or the fangs of the wolf. It just wasn't the right thing to do. With no further discussion, they grabbed the man by the shoulders and the legs and they hoisted him onto the framed drag. They then loaded the water-filled gut pouches
on top of him and they each gripped a side-pole and heaved. The injured man was heavy and the trip would be hard, but if they gave it thought the task would be more cumbersome, so with a grunt of determination, Spike and Penn began the journey back to their cave.

By early afternoon, Willow was beginning to worry. The men had said they were only going for water and should have returned by now. Dawn, the youngest female, was out digging for roots and the other men had taken the boys to search for rabbits, which left Willow to tend the cave fire alone.

Alone. It was so odd. Until the splitting of the clan, before the time of the long winters, the White Cave Clan was a clan of large numbers. There were always numerous men, women and children coming and going. In and out. Laughing and living in the sun, then lying and rutting in the warm caves at night. The grunting, the moaning. It was a reassuring sound. It was the sound of a clan at peace and prosperity.

Now the night brought silence and the only growling sounds were the stomachs of the hungry, restless clan. During the day, desperation sent them all out to search for something to give them one more day of survival. And Willow was here alone.

But not.

She wasn't alone. Instinctively, her hand protectively covered her belly and she wondered about the small thing growing inside her. At first she wasn't sure. She had grown up hearing the other women of the clan talking about the signs. She had stopped her bleeding at the time of the high moon. She was tired beyond what the scant supply of food should have
caused. Finally when she began getting sick every morning, she knew there was no more denying it. She was with child.

If this was the old time, she would rejoice and the other women of the clan would welcome her into their ranks. She would dream of it being a male child who would grow to be a strong warrior and provider. Or possibly a female child. Not as desirable, but still she would grow tall and broad at the hips to attract a good male and in preparation of having her own children.

But these were the lean, hungry years and the truth of it was, this child had no real hope of growing in the sun and multiplying in the clan. The hard reality of it was, Willow probably would not even survive the trauma of giving birth. That was a concept that almost brought her relief. It would mean an end to this harsh existence.

"WILLOW! WILLOW, come and help!"

Willow forgot her self-pity at the sound of her man's voice, and she ran to the mouth of the cave to see what was causing Penn's urgency. What she saw confused her and stopped her dead in her tracks. At first she thought it was one of the men from the White Clan that had been injured, but when she caught a glimpse of the man's head and saw the shock of dark
hair, she knew it was no man that she knew.

Her brother and her mate had gone for water and returned with a dead man on a wooden drag. It was strange. If this was an interloper that had challenged the hunting grounds of the clan and her men had killed it, such was the way of the land. Why would they bring him back with them?

"What is that? Who is that?"

Willow stood to the side and watched as they dragged the wooden frame into the cave and let it drop. Both men sat at the side of the fire to warm themselves and they drank water as they waited for their strained muscles to stop screaming. Spike scowled at Penn as he answered Willow's questions.

"It is a man we found at the side of the water. Your mate insisted we bring him back with us. He was alive when we loaded him on the drag but he's probably dead by now. I wanted to just leave him to the wolves. It don't make no sense to haul him here. If he lives, he is another mouth we can't feed. If he dies, we may have his clan hunting for him."

Willow was already ignoring her brother's bitching and she had begun to peel back the furs to check the man for signs of life and damage. As a woman of the Cave Clan, she was raised in the ways of earth medicine and she would do whatever she could to preserve life. Spike watched with apprehension as Willow pressed her ear to the stranger's chest.

After a few moments, she sat up with a smile on her lips.

"He is alive."