I could smell him a long time before i could see him.
He was alone. Moving slowly.
I knew what he wanted. I could tell from the funk of his scent, but i didn't need to rely on anything as subtle as that for clues.
It was obvious.
He was hunting alone, and his kind only ever hunted one thing alone.
He was hunting me.
He wanted me all for himself.
I put down the basket where i stood and slipped away, silent among the branches. It annoyed me to lose a good basket and a whole morning's work, but there was nothing else for it.
When one of them got you, you were finished.
The snow would squeak if i moved too fast. I was still hidden from his sight, but he would definitely hear me if my feet made the snow cry out. His kind had good hearing, so the wisdom ran.
It was their one good sense.
The riverbank mud was cold and silent beneath my feet. I lowered myself into the water and felt it grasp onto my legs. If he managed to find my tracks, he might be able to follow me. Among my people, this was common strategy, using the river to hide your path. Many girls before me had used it and passed the knowledge on to the others of us listening transfixed around the fire.
Of course, there was no way of telling if it worked every time. Those his kind caught never got the chance to pass on what they'd done wrong, to tell the rest of us what had failed.
I drew my skin cloak tighter around me.
My good, broad feet gave me plenty of purchase under the water, the rocks barely shifting in their beds as i stepped upon them.
Boys admired my feet. Muscular and wide, they marked me as a good traveller, and that was a worthwhile strength to have lately. For sport they ran with me, these boys, their heads back, laughing; me laughing too.
It felt so good to run. And i was very talented at it.
But when our boys ran, they were always running toward something, on a hunt, facing death.
Right now i was facing death, and i just wanted to run away.
I left the river just after i passed a fallen tree. I hunkered down behind the trunk and waited, to see what would happen next.
Ants were running along the trunk, most carrying fragments of something glistening. I gathered a few; they were tart. There must be a fruit tree somewhere nearby, putting out the first of the post-snow fruits. I made a note. It would be a satisfying reward for having escaped being hunted to be able to return to the group with actual stone fruit instead of just berries.
I nibbled a few more ants, and then there he was, on the far bank.
I lowered my head even further into my shoulders, and thought like a rock.
He was scouting the perimeter. He knew i was around here somewhere. The boys, when they were flirting with me, had showed me how they themselves did this type of tracking. They let me run off into the scrub on my much admired feet, and then they called out what they were doing, step by step, as they surely and steadily tracked me down to my hiding place.
When the eyes of whichever boy who'd found me finally glinted through the leaves, i always exploded out at him, roaring like we'd all heard that enormous, toothed beast roar the time it had turned the tables on us, and tracked us to our own lair.
The boys loved me doing that. They used it as my nickname: Beastroar.
I liked that name much better than my real name.
Then, still roaring, i would grab the boy, roll with him on the ground. Then, the two of us laughing and panting, i would let him mount me.
For fun he would not just climb on, but actually get his pointer out, make it hard, slide it into me. My pads, of course, would not be swollen - a girl didn't rough-house with a boy when she was in swell - so it made no difference if he made milk inside of me or not.
It was just for fun.
I liked that, the business with the pointer. The boys did, too. That was why they played the hunt with me.
But it was just a game. Something you did as a child, and then grew out of.
A grown man wouldn't make milk inside a woman who was not swollen. That was meaningless, and forbidden. An insult to Nature.
But this wasn't one of our kind, the one hunting me.
He didn't understand about insulting Nature.
And for him the business with the pointer wasn't a game.
We'd watched them, in their groups.
We were curious, after all. We wondered where they'd come from. What they wanted.
Appearing amongst us so suddenly.
So we'd watched them, unseen, from the scrub.
Not me, personally. But i'd heard the reports.
They always fought with each other. Men fought with men. Men fought with women. Women fought with women. When they weren't fighting, the men were mounting the women.
There didn't seem to be any order to it. Their society was chaos. The men were always fighting to see who would be the leader for that moment. The leadership changed sometimes three, four times in a day! And the women seemed to give mount to a different man as the mood took them, with any resulting young ones pooled together and left to fend for themselves from the communal carcass.
And so many young ones!
Our kind only had a few young at a time. Their kind were always thigh deep in young: bobbling, naked, bone-coloured creatures with those peculiar domed heads of theirs, just a tuft of hair right on top.
They were certainly very good at making young. Much better than we were.
The wise women thought that it must be because they mounted all the time. With their kind, the women must be on swell always.
This seemed unlikely, but there was no other explanation for why they mounted so often. Literally they would go straight from one partner to another. In the course of a meal, one woman might give mount to two or three men.
There was something else, too, about this mounting. Something that the watchers had decided to keep from the rest of us.
If anyone asked for details about the mounting, the watchers always moved the report on to the astounding hunting methods of these strangers.
Apparently, they threw their spears at their quarry! They didn't run in close and stab, as our boys and men did. They... hurled their spears. Our men had tried to do it themselves, and it was impossible.
And yet they did it, these skinny visitors.
This story of their otherness was just as unbelievable as their constant mounting, and it always served to drag our attention away from whatever it was about the mounting business our watchers wanted kept secret from us.
I watched his eyes sweeping the riverbank for signs of me, and i wished now that i'd persisted in finding out that secret, so i knew what lay in store, if he found me.
He was thin. They were all thin, his kind. He looked like i could throw him over my back and snap him like a bough for the fire.
His skin was pale, like the inside of a scraped fur. His cloak wasn't anything compared with mine. Just some awkwardly shaped offcuts left over from a feast, it looked like, with no tooling to be seen.
My own cloak bore, in exquisite tooling, the complete story of my family, and of our contributions to the group. It told of the deeds in hunting that my father had accomplished as a boy, and as a man, and it told of the way that my mother had raised us all up and kept us from harm and starvation. It showed where i belonged in our group, and in our land, and in our history.
His cloak said nothing. If anything, it said that he was nobody, from nowhere.
He had coloured marks on his cheeks, such as his cheeks were. His face was flat, his nose like the point of a snapped bone. His domed head swelled up over his eyes, smoothing out his ridges so that they were barely there at all.
I could still smell him, and wondered that he couldn't smell me. I'd heard that they were virtually blind and that they couldn't smell their own shit if they fouled themselves, and it seemed to be true.
He crouched, looked at the ground with his tiny eyes, and looked back up, scanning the bank on the other side from him. He could see nothing. I almost snorted with disgust at his incompetence.
He stood up and moved back into the scrub.
So, that was that.
Apparently they gave up pretty easily. Our watchers had found that out, too.
I sat back and gathered a few more ants. The tartness was growing on me. It reminded me of the Newtime, when everything came out from under the snow and began again.
I decided to stay where i was for a while, so that i'd be sure he had given up and gone back to his filthy camp with his hurling spear dragging between his toes.
The fresh spiral of a fern frond was tempting me, just within reach. It curled up out of a bowl of snow in the fern's crown, begging to be eaten. I looked up and down the river, decided it was safe, and reached out to snap it off.
That was the mistake that i made.
His hearing must have been remarkably good. He heard that snap over the burble of the river, and from so far away that i couldn't even smell him.
I was still mashing the spiral in my back teeth when i smelt him again, and then saw him running my way. They were fast, his kind, with their long, skinny legs and their stick-like bodies. I knew that i couldn't outrun him, even with a head start.
When he was almost upon me, i lived up to my nickname.
I burst up from behind the tree trunk and roared my beast's roar at him.
There was no laughing now.
He swung that fragile-looking "spear" around his head and brought it down upon my back.
The blow was slight, but it stung. Even with the thickness of my cloak to protect me, i felt the skin on my back radiating heat from the whipping.
I roared again. He threw himself at me, and caught me all along my gathering side. My sturdy feet didn't fail me, and i didn't fall, but then he smacked that spear across my face, and the pain sent me staggering.
This time when he threw himself against me, i did fall. I was bleeding from my ridge, and my ears were ringing. My balance was gone.
He held the point of his spear against my throat, and he bleated at me in that half-language that they have.
I wanted to get up and run, get up on my good feet and get out of there. But it was no good. He was lifting that disgrace of a cloak over his head with his free hand, and it was clear what he wanted next.
Not that i hadn't known all along.
He bleated at me like i was stupid, or a beast. I sat up, taking my time. No need to rush things, since they were going to happen anyway. I reached up and touched my bleeding ridge. I looked into his eyes, hoping for compassion. He just bleated some more, and jabbed the fire-hardened speartip into my shoulder.
I started carefully removing my cloak, with the complete history of my family tooled into it. I realised that my part in that history was now at an end. I wasn't fast enough getting it off for him, and he produced a cutting stone and grabbed at my cloak. He hacked through its fine patternwork with his clumsy stone and destroyed the work of three moons, an entire Snowdark, in an instant.
He dragged the ruined cloak off of me, flung it onto the ground, and looked down at me, where i sat naked before him.
He jabbed at me again with his spear - more of a stick, really - and i slowly lifted my arms, which was what he seemed to want me to do. He gave me a good long look, and his face seemed to say that he wasn't too happy with what he saw. I knew that his kind's women carried around flesh bags on their chest all the time, even when they weren't nursing their young, and the absence of these bags on me seemed a major disappointment to him.
I wondered for a moment what he'd been expecting, what he'd been told about us in that respect.
Surely he knew we were different from his kind?
Similar, but different.
I glanced at his pointer, rising from a ludicrous nest of hair on a body otherwise unsettlingly bare, and i could see right away that what he was wanting from me was against Nature.
On our men, the pointer is long and tapered, coming literally to a point. When we women are in swell, our pads, one to either side of our young-passage, fill up and expand so much that only such a pointed shape can find its way through.
His "pointer" was ridiculously short. Even now as it started to grow stiff it hardly lengthened at all. It didn't taper in the slightest. In fact, at the end, it seemed as if he had been trying to piss out a large nut, or perhaps the stone of a fruit, and it had become lodged there.
It looked terribly uncomfortable for him.
He jabbed his spear at my legs, and i began to get into the kneeling position, so that he could mount me. But he bleated and bleated and slapped me on the sides, clearly trying to tell me that i was doing something wrong.
I turned and looked at him. What did he want?
He pushed me so that i was sitting again, and then he shoved me in the chest.
He wanted me to lie down?
I lay down.
He knelt between my legs, which i opened as he whacked at them with his spear.
What was he going to do?
He felt about in my pelt for something with his free hand, and bleated again, apparently to himself. He looked up into my face, like there was something wrong with me.
Whatever it was that was missing from the top of my pit, or whatever it was that i had there that his womenfolk didn't, he seemed ready to put that whole matter aside. I waited again for him to let me kneel so that he could mount me, but then he did something totally unexpected.
He took a hold of his stubby little nut-tipped thing, and he tried to feed it into my young-passage.
So we were to mount... facing each other.
That must be the thing that the watchers wouldn't tell us.
It was so utterly awkward. I had to watch his ugly, flat face and the top of his domed head as he tried and tried and failed to slide that chunky tool of his into my tight hole. Even with me unswollen it was clear that it would never fit, but he seemed determined.
He was clearly flustered. He grabbed at the red hair across my chest and pulled at it, no doubt looking again for those flesh bags that his womenfolk carried uselessly with them everywhere all the time. He tried again to get his stubby into me, and - with some quite excited bleating - this time he managed it.
I could barely feel it inside of me, but it was in there somewhere.
I looked into his flat face with as much hatred as i could manage, under the circumstances of his total stupidity.
Then he did something that made no sense at all.
He started jabbing his stubby into me.
Over and over.
He'd push it in as far as it would go - which wasn't very far - and then he'd pull it almost all the way out, and then he'd repeat the performance.
What he was trying to do, i had no idea.
When a real man puts his pointer inside of a woman, he holds it there until the milk comes, and then he pulls his pointer out. That normally takes five or six breaths at most. This creature was stabbing away at me for what seemed like enough time to make babies with the whole group!
Then it made sense to me! It seemed that this had something to do with the women taking on all the men they wanted. That nut shape at the end of his stubby must be to pull out the milk of all the other men who had come before him, so that only his milk is left, and any young that result are his and his alone.
I had a tool just like it, a long stick with a knob on the end, that i used for pulling marrow out of bones. I'd slide the stick up the bone through the hole in the broken end, and then jerk it back out, dragging the sludgy marrow with it. It took quite a bit of violent effort to get all the last globs of marrow out, and so in the end i'd be ramming that knobby stick in and out of that bone like i was trying to stab it to death.
And that was what their mounting was like.
It was so like their kind, always fighting with each other to be the most important. Even their mounting was violent, an attack.
He seemed to suffer some sort of injury with his stubby, as he cried out in a grunt almost deep enough to be our language. Then, after he'd caught his breath, he pulled it all the way out and stood up.
It was covered with milk in a slimy coating. A real man emerged from inside a woman with no milk on his pointer. I wondered if the same happened when he mounted his own kind, or if there was something about the way that they fitted together with each other that made it less of a mess.
I lay there and looked up at him, wondering what he was going to do next.
He picked up his cloak and arranged it over his body. His knees were muddy now, from where he'd knelt down to jab at me and make milk all over himself.
He looked disgusting, and his stubby stank of his milk. I could smell it on me, too, and i wanted to get back into the river and wash it out of me, but i didn't like the idea of moving while he was standing over me with a spear in his hand and a cutting stone in hand's reach.
This was the moment. This was when i would find out why our women never came back to our group after one of their kind had gotten to her. Would he kill me, take him with him, or something else? Perhaps he had some sort of spirit companion that would take me back to wherever it was his kind originally came from.
We suspected them of magic.
He swung that spear of his at me, cracking it against my upper arm. He made some of his twittering bird noises, and i assumed that i was meant to put my cloak back on and go with him.
I put the hacked apart cloak back on as best i could. He hit me again with the spear, and made a number of waves with his hand, all the while twittering at me.
I assumed he wanted me to go in the direction he was pointing.
I started walking, on those broad, strong feet of mine. I knew that no boy of our kind would ever admire them again. The skinny kept jabbing at me with his spear, as though i were a stunned hunt animal that he was directing toward his fellow hunters, for the final kill, and then the feast.
For all i knew, that was exactly what he was doing.
It was either that, or i was to be kept on hand for more bouts of the violent and meaningless mounting that i had just been subjected to, a back-up for the men when their own womenfolk were feeling too lazy to be bothered with them.
I wasn't entirely sure which fate would be worse.
I looked around at the familiar landmarks in the scrub that i'd always thought of as belonging to our group, and i walked, step by step, out of my world, and into a world that had become his.