Art Pact 82


There couldn't have been more than a few days until the frost arrived, but life in the camp went on as though it were high summer, despite Nera's growing distress. Every morning she woke up as the sun crept feebly over the horizon, and every day she slept as the sun sank wearily down into the mountains again, but there was less and less time in between, and what light the sun did manage to throw down on them was a cold and discomforting, nothing like the strong warm like of the months past. There were fewer animals on the slopes below them, so few that some days the hunters would not be able to bring back even a deer, and yet the others scoffed at the sentiment that they should move on. Nera pointed mutely at the scrubby grass, tried to indicate that it was not growing, but the hunters simply pointed to the stacks and stacks of smoke meat at the back of the cave, the stockpile that seemed to be infinite, so large had it grown during the rich summer. Nera tried to show that despite their bravado it was still shrinking - how could it not, when they spent less time hunting (and were less successful when they did hunt) and so much more time back in the cave eating - but her appeals fell uselessly at the feet of the elders, so proud of their new discovery that they could not seem to admit any possibility that it had not solved all of their problems forever.

That evening, sitting in the mouth of the cave with the others, huddled around the great fire that kept out the mountain cats, Nera realised that nothing would change if she did not change it herself. She could destroy the stockpile, of course, but that would mean the death of her. If she were to survive the winter she would have to strike out on her own - travel south before the child grew too big for her to walk comfortably. She should have started earlier in the year, of course, but now was better than never.

That night she rested at her customary place in the side-gallery, curled up in the bundle of furs that Farad had left her. She only pretended at sleep, though, nestled deep in the bedding so that the ox-hairs tickled at her nose and the stink of the cave was filtered into a pleasant low funk, the scent of her family. It was so powerful a sensation that for a moment she almost thought about staying, but then the vision came back to her - the cloying cold, like a memory of something that had not already happened, a bone-deep chill that rushed unchecked around the cave, freezing the family in their sleep so that they barely had time to experience their own deaths. She shivered violently, and with that thought threw back the covers.

The rest of the tribe were asleep - no sentries, so much did they trust the tame fire at the mouth of the cave. Nera felt a cold in the air, and for a moment she thought that her imagination had been nothing but the truth, that it was too late and the freeze was already here. She plucked the furs from the floor and wrapped two of them around her shoulders, one around her waist, the rest she rolled into a manageable bundle and tied up with a harness that could go over one arm.

At the back of the main cave her grandfather slept near the stockpile. He looked grey when he slept, sometimes orange when the fire flickered enough to send a particularly agile shaft of light so far back. His hands twitched, clutching at some dream-foe, and she stepped carefully over him.

The cold had lessened the smokey, gamey stink from the stockpile, but it was still strong. She fetched her cutting stone from the bundle of furs and carefully began to cut out pieces of the meat, brushing the worms and fly-children off it as she did. How much would be enough? It might take weeks to get to the safety of the winter plains, could she even carry that much food for herself, let alone the child inside her?

In the end she settled for two deer-legs and the haunches attached. If she could still collect nuts on the way it should be enough. She wrestled and cut at them until they snapped away from the rest of the animal's corpse with a sharp crack. She froze, certain that someone must have heard her, but the rest of the tribe slumbered peacefully on.

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