Runa strutted through the village, crouching vigilantly like a hunter. Her long brown legs and powerful shoulders glistened with sweat, her unkempt black hair falling down the small of her back, like the mane of a wild beast.
Cayaleb watched her move among the crude grass and dwellings. He wanted her.
She wore a short skin around her waist, a new style to compliment the stifling summer heat. She sat down on a wooden seat and drank from a water flask. Water ran over her chin and down onto her breasts. As she moved, Cayaleb could see flashes of the thick black bush between her legs. He looked away, the desire too much for him to resist.
He moved into a recess of the cave, glad to be sheltered from the heat. Dark thoughts tumbled through his mind, sensing a nearing danger. He could hear Jinsa moving around inside the cave, the sweet smell of boiling roots making him wretch. He had eaten nothing but scraps for months.
Jinsa brought him a skin of brackish water. She moved more like a wounded insect than a woman, her hollow face scared and withered by lines, creases and sores. She was an ugly woman, if she was indeed a woman at all.
He took the skin in the dried claw that passed for his hand and thanked her. She had been a loyal companion, and he loved her as much as he could love any other. He remembered the days when they lived in the village together, when food was plentiful, when they were welcome. He shook the longing from his mind.
He had not produced any offspring with Jinsa for many summers now. In the days of his youth, mounting her had been easy. His lust had been slaked by the tribal women’s enthusiasm to serve their holy man in the ancient rituals of fertility. Now, things had changed, and he could barely stand the sight of Jinsa’s wizened frame. It was years since the women from the village had visited him. He wished it otherwise.
Water splashed down his hairless chest, trickling between the deep crevasses of his jutting rib cage. He was twisted and malformed, but he was still important to the tribe. He was their Shaman.
There had always been a Shaman in the valley. He was bred from a long line of celebrated holy men. His kind had been living with the tribes long before they moved out of the ice fields, over two hundred winters ago.
But things had changed so much in his lifetime. The animals were scarcer now, and people had resorted to cultivating tall yellow grasses and roots, and cooking flat tasteless disks of grain. He knew it was only the beginning.
He felt Runa’s presence as she moved around the village, a gift that worked both ways. He wondered if she too could read his thoughts, but imagined she could not.
Jinsa had produced one child, a male, a deformed heap of contorted arms and legs. It had been sent away from the valley when it was young, to learn the secret knowledge of an old Shaman, as Cayaleb had once done himself. They kept their bloodlines pure. If a child was born deformed in the village, it was killed at birth, never to become a Shaman. Their line had to be protected, or their secrets would be lost.
He sensed someone approaching. He dragged himself from his threatening thoughts. He knew it was Runa.
She had a kind face with a shy smile. The teeth around her neck were ornamental, representing the kills she had made alone. She was better at hunting than most men. She was alone and childless, and her time in the village would be limited. She had skills that others would not understand. They would drive her out in the end; he had seen it before.
“There is a new rumor in the village, Cayaleb,” she said, her voice anxious, “A scout returned this morning.”
“Rumor?” he asked in his crackling voice.
“About the valleys beyond the white tooth mountains. They say the tribes are doing terrible things.”
His last vision flashed across his mind, playing out in full, the Shaman screaming, his woman screaming, their child screaming, flames wrapping their warped bodies, searing their flesh, and causing untold agonies.
“I know, the terror is spreading fast now.”
Runa sat down on a rock. Cayaleb resisted the urge to comfort her, to touch her.
“They say that a new god will replace the old ones, that the servants of the old gods are liars,” she said, “These people are as stupid as the square heads who dwell in caves.”
She was in her seventeenth summer; her green eyes were bright and alert. He ignored the comment about caves.
“The Shamans are being replaced by those who seek power,” Cayaleb said, “It has been happening for some time, over distances we could not travel in a lifetime of walking.”
“You have spoken to other Shamans, through visions?” she asked.
“Yes, we have seen it in our collective mind. Many now hide in secret. Our time amongst the tribes is drawing to an end.”
She flashed anger.
“Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“What could you have done?” he asked, smiling with his crooked mouth.
“You must go away before the hunting party returns,” she said, “you and Jinsa.”
A commotion stirred in the village, shouting and cheering. Booms from skin drums echoed among the rocks in a foreboding rhythm.
Runa looked surprised, helpless, and more beautiful than ever.
“They have arrived already, and I fear they bring our demise,” he said.
Runa looked fearful then angry.
“You knew?” she asked in accusation.
“Yes,” he said calmly, “But how could we outrun them? We are so very slow of late, Jinsa and I.’
They moved to the entrance of the cave to watch as a stream of hunters walked among the thatched dwellings, gathering others to the center of the village. There was a new man with them, dressed in a red hyde that didn’t look like a hyde at all. It was thin and billowed in the breeze. Cayaleb had never seen anything like it. The man must have traveled far, for his skin was dark and his hair jet-black.
“A holy man with no more wit than a mongrel dog,” Cayaleb scoffed, “But his lies carry the words they want to hear. Their food is scarce and too many die of disease. Fear is a powerful ally.”
“I should know,” He shrugged with no remorse.
Jinsa stood beside him. She took his malformed hand in her own. He allowed it, glad for the comfort of her touch.
The holy man was surrounded now, and he began shouting and raving. The hunters waved spears in the air and cheered. The holy man pointed at the cave on the hill. He muttered words Cayaleb couldn’t hear, but he didn’t need to hear his words. Their meaning was clear. The entire tribe whooped hunting cries, and started moving up the hill towards him, drums beating.
“Jinsa, fetch me the ritual spears. I have a parting gift for those ungrateful bastards. Runa, go inside, you will gain nothing by dying on our account.”
The mob approached. The village elder had been a friend of Cayaleb’s and showed reluctance; his son did not. The young man hated Cayaleb almost as much as he coveted Runa.
“This thing is the reason you have no food, why the great animals have left you,” the Holy man shouted with a heavy accent, “This thing wants your deaths. His gods are not your gods.”
The mob approached, then slowed. They were confronting their Shaman, and their apprehension began to show.
“Kill them and cleanse our homes!” The elder’s son shouted.
Jinsa brought a bundle of spears and dropped them at Cayaleb’s feet. She was crying and trembling, but stood defiantly by his side.
“Death to the broken ones!” he shouted again.
The fear was gone and hunting cries filled the air once more, the fury and frenzy of a bloodthirsty mob.
Cayaleb picked up a spear. He would throw it to save his pride, but he wasn’t sure how.
They drew closer, thirty paces, climbing the steep incline to the cave, sweating and stinking.
A spear whistled past Cayaleb’s ear. It flew straight, smashing into the chest of the elder’s son, taking him off his feet. A second spear was already airborne. It struck the holy man in his mouth, smashing his teeth and breaking out of his skull on the other side. The crowd stopped dead, murmuring, whimpering.
Runa was ready to throw a third spear. A cry went through the hunters and several lunged forward. She launched. Another man was impaled. This time they stooped in dead silence, only whispers.
The elder rushed to his son and glared at the cave entrance, overcome with confusion and grief.
“I guess we are no longer friends,” Cayaleb said quietly, “The village elder and I.”
Runa smiled and readied another spear.
“We are leaving now. Anyone who follows us will die,” she spat, brandishing a spear.
The crowd murmured and some began to back away.
“Witch!” the village elder cried, stricken with grief, “Kill the witch!”
His shouts reinvigorated the mob, and they prepared to attack again.
Runa launched the spear with impossible speed, and it arced through the air, piercing the neck of the village elder, pinning him to his dead son.
“Now he isn’t anyone’s friend,” Runa said.
Cayaleb smiled with relief; the visions he’d had from the others were true. There were others like Runa all over the lands, and they had defended the Shamans and protected them.
“I know where to go. Many of my kind are gathering there, far away from this rabble.”
They watched the crowd retreat to the village, terrified of the young woman who talked to animals, and fought like a man.
They would set off into exile, an unlikely trio, but they would survive, and Runa would be his.