Journey of the White Cave Clan

by
BmblBee





Part Six

Xander stood in the center of the vast green field and paused to just feel the golden glow of the sun on his face. He couldn't remember making the long trip out of the ice and cold but his inability to recall the journey seemed a moot point. He was here. He was safe and warm. He could hear the sounds of life all around him, from the chirping of the birds in the trees to the stomping feet of the deer and elk.

The fragrance that whiffed off the high wildflowers tickled his nose and threatened to make him sneeze. The grass beneath his bare feet was so soft that it tickled his toes and made him want to laugh out loud. It was a totally bizarre concept since Xander hadn't actually laughed since he was a young boy. Yet here he was, feeling light-hearted and carefree.

The only thing missing was his clan. He was confused as to why he was here all alone. With his hand shading against the nearly painful bright glare, Xander spun in a full circle. His eyes squinted as he called out to search for any sign of another human.

"Liam! Vin! Stubs! Where are you?"

After shouting, Xander stood and strained to hear any response. When there was none, he started to feel a niggling of apprehension. Despite the beauty and supposed peace of the field, he was totally unprotected. He was exposed and out in the open for any predator to spot and attack. Xander felt his heart rate kick up a notch. He needed to find cover. He needed to find protection against assault.

When he again studied the horizon, this time he noticed a distant glen of trees. It seemed odd. He could have sworn it wasn't there earlier, but it didn't matter. The trees were there now and they would give him an area of shelter and defense. Wasting no more time, Xander turned toward the direction of the glen and he began to run.

He ran as hard and as fast as his strong, muscular legs would take him. His feet drove him at a gait so wide, it felt as though his bare feet barely grazed the soft grasses below, and hislungs and heart began to acknowledge the physical strain on his body.

He kept his eyes locked on his target as his feet pounded out a rhythm akin to a jungle drum while his arms swung tightly at his sides. Before long it dawned on him that although he was moving at a seemingly impossible speed, the elusive patch of trees never came any closer. It was confusing. It was frightening, and it drove him harder.



~*~*~*~*~


"What's wrong with him?"

Spike stood beside the prone body and wondered about the whimpering sounds it made and the ways its legs twitched and jerked. Ignoring her brother's question, Willow threw another handful of medicinal herbs and plants into the campfire which resulted in a spark, a crackle and a stinky puff of smoke that engulfed the unconscious man.

"He is living in the land of dreams right now. It is up to him to choose. If he chooses to stay there, his body will die. If he leaves the land of dreams, he will live. All we can do is wait."

Spike squatted down beside his sister and he ran his hand through her tangled, wild hair. Her appearance was startling. Her pale skin was now nearly transparent, with the blue veins clearly showing on her neck and chest. Her small body had grown even thinner by the ravages of the morning sickness and was mocked by the slight swell of her tiny breasts and the beginning of a bump on her belly.

"You don't need to sit here with him. He is not of our clan. It doesn't matter if he dies. It was not my choice to drag him back here. It was the insistence of your foolish mate!"

Willow chuckled. That sounded just like something her man would do. Penn was a strong warrior but his heart was pure. He showed compassion, and was not like the men who took pleasure in the death of the animals that were killed for food. He was gentle and unashamed to show her love. He would always bump noses, even when they didn't rut.

"He was right. You can't leave a man to die. If his own clan turned their backs on him, we will take him in. I have made a paste of mud and roots and packed it on the wound at the back of his head. I have straightened out his legs in case they are broken inside and I will watch over him till his time of decision has passed."

Spike suddenly wished they had killed the man where he lay by the pond. His Willow did not need this added stress to her mind and body. At the same time, he was oddly fascinated by the dark-haired man. Spike found himself wanting to sit near the man, to look at him, and it was all Spike could do not to touch him. It was the strangest reaction he had ever had to another person.

Still, his immediate concern was for the health of his beloved sister and her unborn child, so he tried one more time to persuade her to go deeper into the warm cave to where her nest of furs was kept. "Go. Lay on your furs and rest. When the others get back I will bring you some food and water."

Willow smiled and shook her head as she placed a small, cold hand on her brother's cheek. "You worry too much, brother. The women of our clan have always worked right up to the time that they drop their babies and I will do the same. Now you go out and join the other men of the hunting party. I will tend to this sick one and keep the cave fire burning."

Spike rose to his feet and gave her a sad nod of his head. He then studied the sleeping man to assure himself that the stranger would not wake and become a threat. When Willow pushed on his legs, Spike reluctantly collected his long spear and flake stone. He wrapped himself in his extra furs and he trudged from the warmth of the cave, bracing himself against the bite of the bitterly cold wind.

Willow chanted repeatedly as she knelt before the injured man. She had watched his eyes dart rapidly behind his closed lids, and because she knew he was still trapped in the land of dreams, she prepared a magic that would coax him back.

With the others gone, she could do what needed to be done without interruption. Quickly she hurried back to her and Penn's nest, where she collected a carved wooden bowl. She fished around beneath her furs until she found a pouch left her by her mother, and she jumped to her feet and turned to run back. The sudden movement left her dizzy and clutching for the side of the cave as she struggled not to faint. After a few minutes her equilibrium returned and she took a deep, cleansing breath. When her footing was certain, she returned to her patient.

She collected several small branches from the stockpile and she tossed them onto the fire as she stared into the hypnotic, dancing flames. As expected, it sent a new wave of warmth radiating throughout the cave and caused a single stream of sweat to trickle from her scalp.

When the heat replaced the need for furs, Willow removed all her patient's coverings. She took only a moment to observe his naked form through strictly professional eyes, judging the progress of healing of the discolorations on his legs and side. Because he was apparently well fed, she was pleased to note that his body would correct itself faster than if he were weak and malnourished.

But she knew it was what was in his head that mattered now, so she continued on.

She carefully opened her pouch and reached in for a handful of dried berries and ground ginseng root, which she put in the bowl and mixed with a small amount of water. Sitting cross-legged next to the man, she squished and swirled her fingers through the foul-smelling concoction until it had thickened and turned a bright shade of reddish brown.

Recalling the words of her mother, the clan's previous medicine woman, Willow mumbled the sacred chants that would call to the dream world and the man trapped there. After a few minutes, she was pleased to see his face fall slack and the jerking of his eyes and limbs cease. Although still unconscious, he seemed to be waiting. To be listening.

Next, Willow dipped her fingers into the paste and she swiped two stripes across her own face, first on the left cheek and then on the right. She then lurched forward, throwing her leg over the exposed body of the sleeping man and she sat straddling his hips and ignoring his flaccid manhood.

She held the bowl over his face and she closed her eyes as she again murmured the utterances and phrases that would help her reach out to him. Suddenly she felt lightheaded and swayed forward overtop the quiet body of the stranger. She placed a hand on his chest for stability and she continued.

Leaning down, Willow painted an X of the mixture directly over the part of his chest that thumped with life. As she did, she felt a quickening in its rhythm. She then painted another X on his forehead. With that done, she placed the bowl on the ground by the fire and she took a moment to summon up all her strength for what was to come.

With determination and resolve, Willow placed her right palm over the mark on the man's chest. She tipped forward until her forehead pressed against the X that was marked on his and she began to chant in earnest.

Xander had stopped running. He was out of breath and his legs ached from the exertion, yet he was still no closer to the forest ahead. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught a flash of movement and he spun around with his spear held in ready. The warm, gentle breezes continued to cause the high grass and wildflowers to sway in the field where he stood and he thought for a moment that it was just this movement that he had seen. Until he spotted it again, still peripheral and still indistinct.

He spun around again, trying to catch the elusive specter as his heart rate kicked up several notches. This time he was quicker. This time it was more clear. It was a woman, but no woman of his tribe. She was pale. Too pale, as if her skin had never seen the sun. And her hair! Her hair was a riot of red that blew and floated around her head as if the birds were building their nests there for the spring.

Xander was filled with terror. He remembered the stories the elders had told the young boys at night by the campfires. Stories of the specters of the enemy clansmen that the warriors of the Wind Clan had killed, who returned from death to walk the earth and feed on the blood of the living.

Taking a step backwards, Xander raised his spear and he shouted, "Get back! Leave me! I have never killed a woman. You cannot come for me!"

At first, although he could see her lips move, Xander couldn't hear what she was saying in response. The wind that blew around him had grown to the proportions of a tornado and was now roaring in his ears and blowing dirt and grass into his face. It stung against his chest and whipped his long hair up and off of his shoulders.

Placing his hands protectively over his eyes, Xander lowered his face against the debris. When he again lifted his face, he was shocked to see that the woman was now close enough that he could see the startling green color of her eyes. Surely no human could have eyes that were not brown. She had to be a spirit. A creature of the mystical forest.

Yet, when she lifted her hand toward him, he felt no more fear, only confusion. "Who are you? Why do you come to me?"

"You are lost here in the land of dreams and I have come to show you the way out."

Xander lowered his arm and the spear fell slack at his side while he mulled over the puzzling words. It was absurd. Lost in the land of dreams? He again looked all around him, as he searched for reason in an unreasonable situation.

Perspiration rolled off Willow's body as she held her awkward position atop the unconscious man. Her strength was rapidly draining away and she knew if she continued much longer, she too would tumble into the land of dreams, possibly never to return.

"Come with me now. I will show you the way."

Without waiting for a response, Willow turned and began walking through the warmth of the dream fields. After a moment's hesitation, Xander ran to catch up.





Part Seven

A flash of white lightning exploded behind Willow's closed eyes and with all her strength sapped, she tumbled off the body of the prone man and landed in a heap at his side. She was weak and exhausted and hoped she hadn't done something that could put the life of her child at risk. She dipped her hands in the cold water of melted snow, and wiped the traces of her spell from both their bodies.

Needing to rest, her arms and legs curled into a fetal position and her head tucked low as though nodded under a feathered wing. She cringed against the dull throb of a headache that thankfully began to retreat as her ability to think lucidly returned. She wasn't entirely clear about what had just happened, but deep in her heart, she felt like she had reached him. That they had made a connection on an undefined level. Now it was up to him. She wouldn't try again. She was certain that doing that a second time would kill her.

After a few minutes, she gathered all her remaining strength and pulled herself to a sitting position. When she did, she slowly opened her eyes and looked directly into the dark eyes that stared back at her.

"Oh!"

Immediately, terror sent her scrambling backwards on her butt until her shoulder blades hit the cold, damp cave wall. When the strange man did nothing beyond follow her with his gaze, she tipped her head slightly to the side inquisitively. He still did not speak or react, which caused her to relax fractionally and she moved an inch or so towards him. "You are awake?"

The man gave no acknowledgment of her question or presence. He neither spoke nor indicated he heard or understood, and the only movement of his body was the occasional blink of his deep, dark eyes. Suddenly the small area of the cave seemed dangerously intimate as the fire hissed and crackled, warming and bathing them in a flickering glow that accentuated his nudity.

Cautiously, Willow moved closer. She gingerly extended her hand toward him, ready to snatch it back should he give any indication of attack. When he didn't, she expeditiously went about the task of recovering his body with his furs. By the time she was finished, she was physically spent.

Her vision was blurred. Her ears buzzed like a thousand bees, and her head hurt. Without weighing the inadvisability of her actions, Willow curled up beside her patient and she closed her eyes. In less than a minute, she was sound asleep.

Xander blinked. When he had opened his eyes, his mind was cloudy and befuddled. The first things he saw were the strange green eyes of the odd, pale woman. He had no idea if he was still lost in the land of dreams or if he had found his way out. Concentration and rationalization were impossible, but for now, his instincts told him they were unnecessary. Without giving thought to why, he knew that his body was warm and that he was safe.

The unfamiliarity of the surroundings and the presence of the female with the red hair led him to believe that he was still in the land of dreams. Therefore, when she touched him with gentle hands and then laid down beside him, Xander oddly felt all right with that. So much so that when the dream-woman went to sleep, Xander did too.



~*~*~*~*~



"Wo! Wo! Wo! Wo!"

The hunting party chanted their elation as they waved their spears high over their heads. Their luck had shifted, and for the second day in a row their clan would have full stomachs and a reason to rejoice. Spike had caught up with the others as they were returning from the pond of clean water where they had stabbed three fat salmon with their spear tips.

That in itself would have been cause for celebration, but on their way back to their cave, the group had come across two small boar pups. Young pigs who had somehow become separated from their herd and now were fair game for any hungry predators. By sheer good fortune, that had been the White Clan and not the howling, hungry wolf packs that owned the night.

As soon as they had been spotted, Penn dropped to a crouch and began his approach, but Spike stopped him with a hand on his arm. These young creatures, without the protection of the mother pig, were unfamiliar in the ways of self-preservation. They were easy pickin's. Because of that, Spike saw them as a perfect training tool for Andy, the oldest
of the two boys of the White Clan.

The boy was slight in stature, grown through his formative years as the clan suffered the lean times. Still, despite the shortcomings of his diminutive physique, Andy's loyalty to Spike and the White Clan was unquestioned. When the others broke off, divided the clan, and deserted the sacred ancestral caves, Andy stayed. That alone earned Spike's respect and gratitude and, as was tradition in the clan, two more turns of the seasons would see Andy a full warrior of the White Cave Clan.

Silently, Spike gripped Andy by the back of his neck and he leaned in, whispering in the boy's ear. "Keep your spear low. Circle around behind the animals. When you are in place, we will make just enough movement to catch their attention but not frighten them. Go for the one on the left. It is just a bit larger. When you are close enough to think you can make the kill, raise your spear. We will shout to startle and distract it while you rush it from behind. Make the kill as you have practiced. Ram it cleanly through the back of the neck. Don't hesitate. You can do this, boy. A warrior of the White Clan is charged with feeding his people."

Andy's blond head nodded vigorously as every word whispered from Spike's lips sent vibrations shooting through the boy's trembling body. He shuddered with excitement. His eyes were huge and bugged and his hand held his spear with an iron grip.

In the background, Penn chuckled. This was no big challenge. The animals were confused and slow. If Andy failed, he and Spike would easily salvage the hunt with an expertly aimed toss of their spears. But this time, it wasn't the food that mattered most. This was a test of enormous proportions. Win or lose, this would be a day young Andy would recount for the rest of his life. It would either be his greatest pride or his folly of shame.

Penn remembered his and Spike's first kills. The clan was huge then. Numbers too high to count with cuts of his flake stone on a cave wall. They had been awakened during the night in the spring of their twelfth season, taken from their families' side and walked in the dark to the pasture of white flowers. There they had been left to await the rising sun.

They were both terrified and exhilarated. Although they could not see another human, they knew they were not alone. The men of the clan who had brought them were nearby, unseen and watching. At the first red streak of dawn, they heard it. The thunderous hooves of the running elk. Headed directly toward them! They wanted to scream and run. They shared a glance of horror and panic. When the first of the running animals broke through the tree line at the edge of the field, instinct kicked in.

Spike and Penn dropped into a stance of preparation and the reasoning parts of their brains shut down. They had trained for this their whole lives. They had sat for hours shaping and pounding their spears to perfection and under the tutelage of the elders, they had practiced their aim and hunting skills. They were ready.

"WAHOOOO!!!"

They shrieked and charged toward the rampaging herd, sending the animals scattering and splitting the weak from the strong. Immediately the predator picked out a prey. In the end, despite being kicked, cut and scuffed up, Spike and Penn had each proven themselves that day and still proudly wore the elk skins of their first kill.

And now, through the traditions of the elders, it was Andy's turn. If successful, his place of manhood in the clan would be assured. If he failed, more seasons would pass with him still toting for the women. Spike placed a cold, comforting hand on the small of Andy's back.

"Are you ready?"

Spike took the quiet, high-pitched squeak as an affirmative answer and he gave the back a slight nudge, encouraging the boy to get started before he exploded. Andy gave a small leap into the air and landed with his feet wide apart and bent at the waist. His head snapped in all directions and he lurched off to a wide left circle. Puff, the younger boy, held his breath
as he mentally cheered Andy on. Andy's success would give Puff hope for his turn.

Spike and Penn all but howled at the comical sight. Through tears of stifled laughter, they kept one eye on the piglets and one on the small, hyper boy. Following Spike's instructions to the letter, Andy reached the tree line at the far end of the field. His stomach churned nervously. Before he could chicken out, Andy signaled and when the men slowly milled around in front of the creatures, Andy flung himself into the air and he charged.

"YIP! YIP! YIP!"

Andy ran for all he was worth. He howled like a banshee and waved his spear high over his head as the men distracting the pigs hooted. The startled and confused pigs never had time to understand their precarious situation before the young boy was on them. He skillfully plunged his spear point into one's neck, then shocked and impressed Spike greatly by leaping on the back of the other while the first writhed in the throes of death.

With a fast twist of his hands Andy snapped the neck of the second, and he had made two kills on the chance of one. The fact that each of these animals was so small that it would take both for one small clan meal meant nothing. It was a monumental day. The cold and desperate state of the White Clan was temporarily forgotten. Tonight would be a night of celebration, and Andy had earned his place at the fire to regale the clan with the telling of his first kill.

It took little time to gut and snow-flush the piglets for return to the cave. Spike and Penn carried the fish, and the pigs were small enough that a drag was not needed. Each of the boys tucked one under their arms and they chatted in an excited babble as the hunting party made its way back to the cave.

Two days in a row. The clan had found food two days in a row. Despite the frigid, inhospitable temperatures and conditions, maybe this was a sign that things would get better. Maybe the clan would thrive again. Maybe Willow's unborn child would have a chance to breathe life.

By the time the sun had started its trek past the highest point in the sky, the cave entrance was within view. With the fish flung over his shoulder, Spike took off at a run, anxious to see if the stranger left in Willow's care had died yet. Rushing in, he hurried to the warmth and comfort of the glowing fire and what he saw halted him dead in his tracks.

The fire had gone low, unattended for far too long, and the reason was obvious. Willow, who had been charged with its tend, was sound asleep. That alone would not have upset him but the fact that she was curled up, cuddling against the man who still lay prone on his back, did.

The dark stranger's furs were in disarray and there was a red x visible over his chest. Spike was furious. Not at what on the surface appeared to be a clandestine coupling, but because he knew what the berry stains on the man's flesh meant. Willow had put herself at risk to work the magics of the earth.

Before he could wake and scold her, he heard a bloodcurdling shriek directly behind him and saw Penn's spear as it plunged toward the stranger's heart. In a flash, Spike's hand grabbed the shaft of the spear and halted its deadly mission. The ensuing scuffle woke Willow and again caused her to recoil.

"What is it? What's happening?"

Penn's body shook with rage while his finger of accusation snapped back and forth between his woman and the dark-haired man.

"What has he done with you? I come back and you are lying with him! And his furs have been removed!" At the same time Penn was yelling, Willow was babbling her explanations and Spike's voice was trying to calm the volatile mix.

"Stop shouting! You are making my head hurt."

The quiet words from the mouth of the stranger snapped them all into a shocked silence





Part Eight

The shouts and angry discord at the mouth of the cave brought the others scurrying from the furthest corners and passageways. Frog and Harmony appeared first. In her hands she still held the bloody intestines from yesterday's kill that she had been stretching to dry for use as sewing material. Her mate, Frog, carried the broken spear he had been mending. Falling into protective stance, Harmony scurried behind her man knowing he would die to protect her. From there, she peered around for the source of the problem.

"What? What is it? EEEEE!!!"

Everyone in the cave cringed at Harmony's ear-splitting scream when she spotted the strange man who was struggling to pull himself into a sitting position. By this time Badger and Lida had darted in through the mouth of the cave. Now nearly thirty, they were the eldest of the clan, and they made their own contributions to the group by tending to the smaller, less strenuous details such as keeping the bones and remains of the meals cleaned from the living space. Both were bent and crippled by the ravages of time and cold, and their days
of hunting and toting were done. As elders, they had earned the respect and care of the clan. They had just one child in their time of coupling, a daughter named Dawn, born in the sunset of their years.

"SHUT UP! SILENCE!"

Spike directed his orders toward his clan but his eyes never left the man on the cave floor, whose face strained not to grimace in a display of weakness as his hand held his injured side. His beautiful dark eyes were wide open now, but his lips were sealed shut as he waited to see how this would play out.

Xander's attention was locked on the small-statured man who apparently spoke for this clan. Pale, thin and with hair the color of winter wheat, Xander was absolutely fascinated with him. Then Spike looked directly at him, and the sight of the clear blue eyes caused Xander's heart to leap into his throat.

Though he remained silent, his brain spun around in a maze of questions. 'Who were these people? Why have they captured and brought me here? Is it really possible to have eyes the color of the sky?'

Spike finally tore his gaze from the stranger's and he calmed his tone. "It's all right. This man was injured and we brought him here to keep the coyote and wolf from eating him alive. The rest of you, go back to your chores. I will speak to him alone. We are in no danger."

Penn stepped closer. He had no intention in leaving until his fears were soothed and his anger eased. Spike snorted and shook his head at his friend as he placed a firm hand on Penn's shoulder. "The stranger has not violated our clan or your woman. He is too weak to force a rut. That is not what you see. Against common sense, Willow has done her earth magic on him to cause him to awaken. Nothing more has happened. Go. Take the boys with you and prepare for our evening meal. I will speak to this man."

The explanation fit all the pieces that were before Penn's eyes and that, along with Willow's face, told him that his woman may be guilty of foolishness, but nothing else. With one last glare of intimidation, Penn stormed off.

The others were reluctant to leave but grudgingly grumbled as they finally collected the day's good kill that had been dropped outside the cave. As soon as their attention was focused on the bounty of meat and fish, Andrew began the wild, enthusiastic telling of his first kill. It was a story that would be often repeated and generally embellished countless time in the coming days and seasons.

Willow was the last to drift away, and before she left, Spike grabbed her by the arm. He took her to the side, away from the curious ears of the stranger, and he spoke to her quietly. As he did, his hand rested on the small swell of her belly.

"That was foolish, sister. The clan needs this child. The clan needs you. I need you. You must not do anything that will put your health at risk. Please."

Willow smiled and leaned in to bump her nose affectionately against her beloved brother. She knew he was right, but apparently no harm had been done. She and her unborn were fine. "You are right as always, my brother. My child and I will be more obedient."

Her green eyes sparkled mischievously. When she patted his cheek, he tried to scowl but failed, and she was sent on her way to join her mate. Xander had watched this exchange with great interest. Although he couldn't hear their words, their affection and the small swell of her belly told him all he needed to know.

And then they were alone. The day was growing late and the wind outside the cave howled with a frigid snap and the threat of coming snow. Inside, it was dry and warm and more than just a niggling claustrophobic. The shapes and shadows of the flames danced on the walls in a way that made the cave paintings seem to come alive. The great beasts appeared to charge and undulate as the fearless warriors chased and captured them.

Xander sat against the far wall. His hand continued to press on his injured side, and he wondered if the dark colors on his legs were just that or if there was something broken inside. Spike stood on the opposite side of the fire and he watched the man carefully, gauging him. Evaluating him. Waiting to see what his first point of concern would be. He didn't have long to wait. Angrily, Xander asked, "Where is my spear?"

'A warrior.' Spike attached the label. It made sense. The man was strong. His body was wonderfully formed. Spike frowned at himself and the odd line his thoughts were taking.

"I am Spike. I am leader of the White Cave Clan. You were found broken at the bottom of the high rocks near the pond of fresh water. Because you still have sound in your chest, my hunter insisted we bring you here to live or die. What is your name? Why were you alone? Who is your clan?"

Spike's low, calm tone went a long way toward easing the fear and trepidation Xander felt. However, as a clan leader, he would not be questioned like a pup.

"I said, where is my spear? I am Xander, leader of the Wind Clan, and I order you to give me my spear."

Spike's eyebrows shot straight toward his hairline and he snorted his amusement and disgust. He rested his own long spear against the far wall, well out of the reach of an injured man, and he tossed his long white hair over his shoulder as he sauntered around the fire to stand directly in front of the leader of the Wind Clan.

"Well, Xander, if you are the leader, why has your clan not looked for you? You were brought here at the first light of this day's sun. The sun now rests at the furthest corner of the sky and there is no sign of a party of warriors searching for their lost leader. What were you doing here in the territory of the White Clan?"

Xander's left hand felt around the back of his battered head. The splitting pain from his cracked skull made thinking hard. Obviously, though, what Spike was saying rang true. The sun had traveled far in the sky. Apparently his clan had left without him. By now, they would be miles away. Possibly they had already returned to the settlement. Probably with Liam as their new clan leader. But none of that would be revealed. Xander would show no weakness.

"You are a fool. My clan will come for me, and when they do, you and all of your people will die by our spears and stones. We are a clan of great skills. We are warriors and hunters. That is why we were in this valley. My men took three great boar in one day's hunt."

Xander's head was held high and his chin tipped upward as he boasted, but his words did not stir the envy or fear he had anticipated. Instead, his bragging incited a rage in Spike that caused his blue eyes to flash like the lightning in the sky. His face turned red and his hand very nearly reached for his quiet spear.

"You come to our land and steal our food? Is that the way of the Wind Clan? My people are hungry and fighting a land that has gone cold, and you sneak in here like thieves in the night to steal food from the mouths of our women and children? You are a clan of jackals and hyenas!"

Xander was genuinely bewildered by the accusations and response. He had expected fear and respect, not anger and words that sounded stupid in their lack of logic.

"That is ridiculous. No clan owns the land or the beasts that roam on it. The land is the land. It is for the strong to hunt and grow stronger. A weak clan that cannot feed its members dies. It is not right or wrong, it is the way of the land."

Spike turned away and broke eye contact. The truth in Xander's words were sharper than the point of a spear, and it pierced Spike's heart. Not about the land and not about the beasts that run on it. This was White Cave land and Spike would die believing that truth, but Xander was right about the rest. A clan that could not feed itself would die.

Spike's lack of response, gave Xander time for his own speculation. As he looked around, the cave told a story of this clan that was far bigger than the paintings on the wall. He could read the signs and knew that this had been a clan of great numbers and power. The cleared, swept floor and smooth shelves of the walls said that every inch of this space had been utilized for the clan's comfort and assembly. But just now, when an uproar had called them to converge, only a handful responded. For whatever the reason, their numbers had
greatly dwindled and Xander was fairly certain that the White Cave Clan was in deep trouble.

"If your food source is getting scarce, why do you stay in this cave? The great flocks of sky birds are following the warm air. Do you not follow their path? The wise men of my own clan have read the signs that the sun has forgotten this land and we will not return when the bears come from hibernation."

Spike marched over and unexpectedly sat down, cross-legged in front of the man who spoke of odd things. He wondered if it was true. Did his clan really know of a land where the sun still warmed the grass and caused the fruit trees to bear fruit? There had not been a day go by that Spike had not pondered on the fate of the ones who had deserted the White Clan in search of a better place. Ri and Buffy. His friends. Were they happily rutting in the warmth of a new land? The part of him that was a man hoped they had found it, but the part that was a clan leader cursed them for their abandonment of the ancient ways.

Quickly, Spike mentally checked himself. Leaving was not an option. He would stay. He would feed his people and the sun would return to the land. His clan would again grow strong and many. He had to believe it to be so.

"We live here. In the caves as our fathers and their fathers did. Your words are false. There is no land beyond the deep forest and even if there were, how would we find new caves to shelter us? Do you propose that we walk in the ice and snow with no fire to warm us and no rock to break the wind and snow from our bodies? No man can live like that. It is a lie. It is a trick to try and take our caves for your own clan."

Xander just rolled his eyes. His head hurt, and his side ached more with each movement he made. He didn't care if this fool believed him or not. Let them starve and rot within this cave. It made no difference to Xander. All he wanted was a couple days to rest. As soon as he was able, he would try to catch up to his clan and regain his leadership.

With a dismissive wave of his hand, Xander slid down and tried to get comfortable. "I'm tired and thirsty. Send someone to me with fresh water and a pouch that I can empty my man-part into. Then I want to sleep. When I awaken, you can bring me food."

"What?" Spike was astounded that anyone would speak to the leader of the White Clan in such a disrespectful manner. He jumped to his feet and as he snatched his spear up, he considered plunging it into the annoying man who was already snoring.

Instead he took one long last look, then muttered curses to the moon and stars as he headed further into the cave to send one of the women back with two gut skins. One of fresh water and one for the foul waste.





Part Nine

The whole of the clan, Spike included, had spent the late afternoon in the deeper part of the cave, cleaning and preparing the food. The talk and chatter was charged with excitement and enthusiasm over both the sudden bounty of food and the mysterious stranger within their cave.

For Spike, it was a heartwarming change from the far too many nights that the clan would fret quietly over the sharing of wilted roots or bitter berries that would leave the clan with still hungry bellies and cramped guts that shot out foul-smelling scat.

Earlier, Spike had sent Coy with water for Xander. Coy, short for Coyote Moon, was a man of twenty seasons but his mind was stuck in his childhood. He was strong as a black bear and a good hunter. He was loyal to the leader of the White Clan and would walk through fire if Spike asked him to. It was generally believed that Coy's mother had heard the howling of the coyote at the full moon on the night before Coy was born and thus he was dim-witted and infused with the animal's spirit.

Spike was of the belief that when Coy's mother squatted and dropped him from her body, he landed head-first on the cave floor. But the origin of his shortcomings was unimportant. Coy was White Clan and that was all that mattered.

Despite his age, it was assumed that he would mate with Dawn as soon as she reached the age of an acceptable coupling. In fact, she had already begun her training of him, and as she was not hampered by his lack of a quick wit or snappy intellect, it was an arrangement that was brewing nicely for both of them.

Hesitant to send one of the women to do Xander's bidding, Spike had startled himself with the consideration that he himself would hold the dark haired, girthy manhood while Xander emptied himself into the foul gut-skin. It was an outrageous notion that he dismissed almost as quickly as it slithered into his conscious thought. As concession, he sent Coy.

Finally, as was the age-old tradition of the clan, all the members of the White Cave Clan prepared to congregate around the full fire as the last light of the sun slipped quietly below the edge of the land. The meat would be divided amongst them and cooked as they talked and ate.

Xander was awakened by the same daft man who had tended to him earlier. He was given fresh water and then gently helped into a sitting position. The man, who had announced himself as Coy, had a permanent grin on his face and an open honesty about him that gave Xander a feeling of welcome, despite knowing that the warm reception was probably just the result of the man's short thinking.

While he had slept, outside the slight, windblown flakes of earlier had now turned to a heavy, silent snowfall. It blanketed the ground and, Xander knew, by morning it would make travel difficult for a large pack of humans following the migrating birds.

As the others of the White Clan fussed around inside the cave, Xander stared out into the faded light and he imagined his own clan, bedded down and sheltered for the night. He wondered if they spoke of him or if he was a forbidden topic. He wondered if they thought him to be dead, or if his broken body was left behind deliberately as assurance that the clan would not be slowed down. His mind told him it was reasonable and logical. His heart used other words.

Xander scooted around to try and get comfortable. He rested his back against the warm rock wall and shifted his legs. His body was warm inside this cave, but his soul craved the lean-to shelters of his nomadic clan. He was in the midst of a bustling group of people yet he felt all alone. Xander was homesick. It was shameful. It was a sign of weakness that he would not show, so as the others fussed around, banking the fire and cutting the meat into fair shares, Xander remained silent and stoic.

By the time the sun had completely gone and the only illumination in the cave was supplied by the campfire, he was given a spit, sharpened at the tip, with an ample slab of meat pierced upon it. When he struggled to hold it steady over the glowing red coals, Dawn took it upon herself to scoot over and wrangle around to cook for them both.

With a nod that spoke more of acknowledgement than gratitude, Xander relinquished his spit and watched her sear both their shares. The truth was, he wasn't very hungry. He was more concerned if the others of this clan shared their leader's opinion of him and if his life was in jeopardy. Did they all believe him to be a thief and a jackal? If so, none of them gave that indication and certainly no one confronted him as such.

Ordinarily on a night of bounty, the clan would chatter freely. On a lean night, of which there were far too many, the members of the White Clan would eat silently. Tonight was something else. The strange addition of a foreigner in the midst of the sacred circle had all common conversation forgotten. It was replaced by gestures, incoherent grunts, and questioning, apprehensive looks as they chewed their meat and sucked the juices from their fingers.

The initial debate of why a stranger should share in the food of the kill was quickly resolved by Willow's pronouncement that the White Clan would not shame its ancestors by the mistreatment of a guest.

Spike and Penn shared an arched eyebrow and a wrinkled-nosed glance that questioned if she really understood the definition of the word guest. In the end it was a common conclusion that the abundance of food arriving on the same day as an extra mouth was too big a coincidence. This was perhaps a test of the sun to determine their worthiness. Xander was given a fair share of the day's meat.

Finally, Andy could hold his tongue no longer. He didn't see this stranger as an interloper or even an intruder. He saw him as another human being who had not yet heard the story of Andy's great day of conquest and hunt. So, ignoring the groans and eye-rolling of the rest of the clan, Andy again launched into the finite details of how he stalked, cornered and slaughtered not only one, but two of the magnificent beasts that fed the entire clan of the White Cave.

Despite having heard the tale several times before, the others soon became caught up in the new, colorful, added points of interest. As the cooked meat was devoured, and between the licked fingers and gulped water, each member asked questions, laughed and took great pleasure in noting discrepancies and inconsistencies in his story. Even Xander had to smile, as this mirrored numerous nights spent with his own clan. Maybe they weren't so different after all.

Hours later, the mood calmed and the voices fell quiet. It had been a good day for the White Cave Clan and sleep would come easy tonight for them all. By mutual agreement, the circle around the fire broke up. Several of the clan went outside to relieve themselves. Andy, Froggy and Coy collected firewood that had been stored near the mouth of the cave as Willow, Lida and Dawn cleaned away the bones and remnants of the day's feast.

Penn remained at Spike's side, sitting on the opposite end of the fire from where the stranger now slumped at an ungainly angle. The strained expression said that his injuries were again throbbing painfully, but Penn took nothing at face value. He would not leave until Spike assured him it was safe.

"Go ahead, Penn. Bed down and sleep. I'm going to stay here and sit the watch fire. The snow outside is heavy. The wolf and coyote won't prowl on this night so it should be safe. If you wake before the sun does, come and relieve me."

Penn made no move to unfold his legs or rise to his feet as his stare remained locked on the man who was all but asleep on the far side of the cave fire.

"It is not the wolf or coyote that our clan needs to fear. It is the snow weasel that has already found its way into our midst. He is the beast that bears watching. The weasel is a slippery animal that will bite and kill you in your sleep. I vote that he be made to sleep outside for the protection of our women and children."

Spike gave Xander an analytical once over and pronounced him harmless in his present state, and Penn was sent to tend to his woman. As the activity of the cave slowed and settled, Spike rose and eased his way around the perimeter of the fire on the pretense of stoking it from all angles and adding an even amount of firewood. When he reached Xander's side, without comment he squatted down and gripped the injured man under both arms. He then swung him around on his butt and laid him gently flat on his back.

Xander sighed. The new position greatly eased the sharp pain in his side and made his breathing easier and less labored. Opening his eyes, Xander looked up into the curious face of the White Clan leader who was hovering over him. Physically, they were close. Intimately close in the dim light of the flickering flame.

Despite the vulnerability of his situation, Xander felt no fear or apprehension. In fact, that wasn't what he was feeling at all. Much to his shock and bewilderment, Xander felt hisman-part stir and fill beneath his furs as his mind planted evil thoughts of noses bumping with this man.

Spike too found himself on unsure footing. His heart pounded like the warning drums of a warring clan. His hands were planted at either side of the dark stranger's head and he stared down into the deep, brown eyes. Spike's long white hair tumbled over his shoulders and the tips of it brushed against Xander's cheeks, tickling like the feathers of the great red-tailed hawk.

The fire crackled and sparked as the fresh wood was greedily consumed, radiating more heat than Spike could ever recall a fire expelling. He wanted to stay angry at this man over his hunting party's trespass and thievery on White Clan territory but it was almost pointless. His own clan had eaten well this day and all slept with full stomachs. The interloper's treachery had not damaged them. Yet in his heart, Spike knew there was something else to fear about Xander being here. He just couldn't put a name to that fear.

Quietly, off in the distance of the deep cave, the muffled sounds of coupling and rutting echoed off the cool, stone walls. When the realization of what he was hearing crept from his ears to his brain, it sent an unfamiliar, invisible mouse skittering down his spine and tickling in the stone pouch that hung behind his man-part. Spike's eyes grew wide with shame and alarm as he shoved himself backward and away from the leader of the
Wind Clan. Xander startled at the sudden retreat.

"What is it? What's wrong."

"Nothing. Nothing. I helped you lie down. That's all. It's late. You should sleep. I will be sitting the watch fire so you needn't fear any predators."

Even though the fire continued to burn, Xander felt cold when Spike had moved away. He was oddly excited by the thought that they would be here alone during the dark night, with the sounds of rutting males and the snapping fire bouncing off the walls around them and just feet from the blanket of falling snow. Sleep was the last thing Xander wanted to do.

"I find the pain in my side makes sleep difficult. Can we talk?"

"I suppose so."

"I'm...I'm sorry you feel that my clan stole from you. We just don't...."

"I understand. I don't agree, but I know it wasn't done with an intent to stir a war between our peoples."

Xander flinched as he rolled over and propped his head up on his hand to search Spike's face. It was now very important that Xander made Spike understand that a war or intentional starvation was not the intent of the Wind Clan.

"No, no, we were only hunting in the ways of our people. The land provides food for anyman strong and quick enough to take it. We belong to no land, and eat and hunt as we move. The boar we took were seen only as food, not possessions."

As he explained, Xander's hand drifted to the sewn pouch inside his furs where his fingers sought the long, sharp boar's tooth that he had cut out as a trophy. He wished now that he hadn't taken it. It no longer symbolized his pride but instead stirred bewildering feelings of shame.

Spike tucked his feet up under him and he lazily poked his stick into the fire. "It doesn't matter. What is done is done. For now, we have eaten well and tomorrow will bring whatever it brings. Soon the sun will remember us and return. Our days of cold and hunger will end, and the prosperity of the White Clan will be as it was in the time of our fathers."

Xander shook his head at the words of hope in a hopeless situation. He knew the sun would not come back. The entrails of the horned owl had told them so. If the White Clan was to survive, they would have to leave this cave and go the way of the migrating birds. If not, they would surely die.





Part Ten

The wide open, gaping mouth of the White Clan's cave was partially concealed amongst the tall trees and thick vines of the dense oak forest that had grown up around it. Legend told that the opening in the rock wall had been carved out by the bare hands of the ancient bird people. The forefathers wove campfire stories of a race of people who fell from the skies in huge shiny eggshells. When these people needed shelter, they used their mystical powers to burrow deep into the cliffside and make a safe haven from the elements and the beasts of the land.

Unable to return to their home in the stars, these people rutted and mated with the White Cave women, and their children grew to be the leaders of the White Cave Clan. Infused with the wisdom of the bird people and the strength of the land, these cave dwellers knew themselves to be the rulers of the earth. They were proud. They were strong. The stars and sun and moon trembled before them.

It was a story that was told in the pictures that covered the north wall of the main room of the cave. As a boy, Spike and the other young males would ghost their fingertips lightly over the paintings, staring at them as the elders spoke of great hunts and huge beasts. They heard fables of long, bloody wars with other clans and how the White Cave Clan always lunged their spears toward the sky and shouted in victory as the bodies of the lesser men soaked the earth with blood.

But that was ages ago and Spike was no longer an awestruck boy. Now he was a man. The leader of the White Cave Clan. And Spike had failed them. He was the last in a direct line from the ruler of the bird people. By birthright, he was clan leader and charged with the protection and guidance of the White Clan. Yet he had not produced a male child that would stand in his place some day. He had allowed the clan to splinter and diminish and, worst of all, by his failures he had so greatly offended the sun that it had retreated and
abandoned the White Cave people to die a slow and shameful death.

All these jumbled thoughts flowed through Spike's mind and body as he stood in the quiet of the cave. His people had settled in, sleeping soundly, and his conversation with Xander dwindled away into yawns and fragmented sentences as the toll of the day claimed the leader of the Wind Clan and swept him back into the land of dreams.

When Spike was certain the dark man was asleep, he stood overtop of him and studied the shape of his face, the line of his jaw, the broad expanse of his chest and shoulders. He was strong, well fed, and Spike took great pleasure in gazing upon him. So much so that Spike worried that the Wind Clan might possess some sort of magic that lured the unsuspecting to them much as a spider lures a fly.

Everything about the man was a puzzle, including his strange ideas of life. Xander had explained that the wise men of his clan said the sun's decision to leave was not a punishment of any clan or people but simply an agreement with the moon to share the earth in dark and light, warm and cold. A people who wanted to live had to follow the birds whose flocks would go the way of the sun. A clan who remained in the dominion of the moon was cursed to die.

Spike argued that that could not be the truth of it. As White Cave Clan, they were the rulers of the earth, and the sun answered only to them. They had to pray. They had to chant and shout until the sun heard them call and came back to them.

Xander grew frustrated and tired as the conversation went round and round the same bends. Clearly Spike was a fool, and as a chieftain he would ignorantly lead his people straight to their deaths. In appreciation of their saving him and of their hospitality, Xander had tried to help them by giving Spike his counsel. Spike proved himself to be obstinate as well as ignorant as he refused to understand the fate he was condemning his people to. By the time Xander dozed off, his conscience was assuaged. He had done all he could. As soon as he was strong and steady on his feet, he would go the way of the sun.

The whole conversation left Spike restless and confused. Usually, stirring the hot, red bed of coals in the cave fire calmed his restless mind, but on this night it did nothing beyond devouring his long thin tree branch. As the snow piled up outside and the heavy dark clouds blocked out the treacherous moon, Spike allowed a small centipede of many questioning feet to skitter about in his mind.

What if Xander spoke the truth. It had been many seasons since the sun had turned the wild grass green and filled the trees with fruit and seeds. None of their chants and dances had reached the sun and persuaded it to return. Xander said he knew of a way to the land of food and warmth. He said his clan had traveled it every season since he was a pup, yet the prospect of leaving the safety and security of their cave terrified Spike.

"Spike?"

Penn's sudden whisper jolted Spike out of his musing. He was somewhat startled to realize how long he had been staring at the sleeping stranger, and he wondered what Penn must think of his reason for doing so.

"Yes. I was, um, just....he is sleeping. What do you want?"

Penn frowned as he looked back and forth between his friend and the foreigner who appeared so comfortable next to the clan's fire.

"I woke up and thought I would relieve you. You need to get some sleep. I'll watch the fire till the light. Is it still snowing?"

Spike nodded. He knew Penn's reason for asking. If the snow grew too deep, the herd animals would bed down in their dens. There would be no prospective food roaming the land. Fortunately, there were still some hard nuts in storage and there were a few smaller fish from the day before. It would be lean but the clan would manage as they always did.

"Yes, it hasn't slowed at all. We will rest in the cave today and reserve our strength. As soon as the sun melts some off, we will resume our hunt."

Penn nodded his head. He then turned his attention to the still body of the interloper. "What about him? What are we to do with him Spike? We cannot continue to feed a man who does not hunt and provide."

For some odd reason, the comment stirred protective feelings within Spike. He recognized the stark validity in Penn's statement but he just couldn't see them tossing an injured man out to fend for himself. If it was more than that, Spike refused to acknowledge it.

"We didn't bring him here just to kill him, and that is what we would be doing if we put him out before he is able to feed himself. If our stores are lean, I will give my day's share to Willow to feed her unborn child. The snow will stop soon and we will be able to hunt for fresh meat. Besides, it was your insistance to drag him here."

Xander waited silently to see what the other man's reaction would be. After dozing for a short time, he had awakened when he realized the White Clan leader was standing over top of him. Xander's instinct for survival sparked and vibrated as he feigned sleep while trying to determine Spike's motive for studying him.

When the man called Penn arrived, the odds of two to one should have given the wounded man reason for concern, yet after his brief conversations with Spike, Xander had no indication that his life was in peril. As contradictory as it seemed to a member of the Wind Clan, it appeared that the White Cave Clan were not warriors. It was an odd concept. Men who did not take joy in the power of a conquest over others.

Despite his best efforts to remain alert, Xander again tumbled into a deep, healing sleep. The next time he awoke, the fire was low and the light just outside the cave was muted and pink. A new day was quietly slipping onto the horizon. Another day of struggles for the remnants of the White Cave Clan.

"The snow has stopped."

Penn turned his face toward the man on the opposite side of the fire, then returned his line of sight to the outside. He had been watching the silent white flakes fall ever since he relieved Spike at the time of the high moon. It had only just stopped, and although that was a good thing, on the bad side, the snow had already piled up nearly as high as the mouth of the cave. If they went out, it would reach as high as a hunter's knees.

"Yes. It has just. It won't be a day of hunting. We will melt snow to drink and spend our time inside the cave mending our spears and sharpening our flake stones."

Xander nodded and glanced toward the back of the cave. "Where is Spike?"

Penn stirred the firebase and added a small amount of wood. The cave fire would also require conservation during their time of confinement.

"He is sleeping."

"With Willow? The medicine woman?"

Penn scowled at the intrusive question. Because of Willow's condition, when Penn was not with her Spike insisted on sleeping nearby, but what business was that of this stranger?

"Why do you ask such a thing? How does it affect you? Our Clan leader does not answer to you."

Even Xander had been surprised when the offhanded question came out of his mouth. It wasn't his business. It shouldn't have even been his interest. Spike was a clan leader who slept with his woman and their unborn child. It was to be expected.

"I'm sorry. You're right. It isn't my business. I was just wondering if...um, oh, I was wondering if Willow was going to see to my head. I think it is better this morning. The pain is less."

Penn relaxed and nodded. It made sense. It was an explanation that fit Xander's personality. He wasn't asking about Spike or really even Willow. Xander was only showing a concern for himself. Penn was quickly coming to the conclusion that the Wind people were assholes.

Within the first showing of the sun at the edge of the sky, the cave was in full activity. Coy braved the deep hindrance of the snow in order to dump the foul gut-skins and collect a bit of firewood from the buried stack at the base of the nearest oak tree. When he returned, Dawn scolded him for getting wet and cold and fussed over his damp feet and frosty face as Coy grinned like a loon.

Badger and Lida went about the chore of spreading out the fresh deer skins that they had scraped clean the night before. Stretching the furs repeatedly as they dried would ensure a soft, even skin free of lumps and wrinkles.

Willow, who was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a morning without her sickness, made a paste of ground nuts, roots and water that was warmed near the fire and shared amongst the other inhabitants of the cave.

As promised, Spike claimed to still be full from the previous night's abundance and he passed his share of morning nourishment to Willow. Xander watched without comment. Women had children every day, but a clan leader must remain strong. A clan leader had first rights to food. Xander came to the conclusion that Spike was a strange man, yet not to be outdone, Xander too turned his small share over to the woman whose child would someday lead her clan.

Spike gave Xander a small smile of gratitude that made the gesture no sacrifice at all.