In Which a Most Peculiar Predicament Arises
Time slowed to a trickle. Lying on the floor of the pit, Kit fought his way back to a more reasoned frame of mind: he was in big trouble. He was in a killing pit, for heaven’s sake! He was for the chop, and there was nothing he could do about it. Still, he did not feel at all distraught. Every instinct jangled noisily, insisting that he should be rigid with terror. Instead, more than anything-aside from the initial astonishment-he felt only relief.
There was a movement above him, and the face disappeared, replaced by a sturdy length of wood, smoothed and rounded, polished with use. The shaft of a spear? The implement hovered over him; when he made no move to touch it, the creature on the other end prodded him, first in the shoulder, then in the stomach. Kit brushed the thing away, but the blunt wooden pole continued to poke him, ever more insistently, until Kit realised that the creature on the other end of the stick wanted him to take hold of it. Tentatively grasping the smooth, rounded haft of the branch, he was pulled upright in a single, effortless jerk, and quickly scrambled to his feet.
The top of the hole was still two feet or so above his head, so the pole was offered again and, grasping it tightly with both hands, Kit was hauled bodily up out of the pit to stand before creatures whose existence was the stuff of myth and dusty museum dioramas. There were two of them. Large, shaggy, and extremely inquisitive creatures, they regarded him intently, bright curiosity burning in their dark eyes. One was larger than the other, older, but both were dressed in skins held together with strings and bands of woven rope and dried gut. Their flesh was a healthy nut-brown from the sun and weather; their hair long and dark, but sun-bleached at the tips; the older one was aggressively bearded, and the younger lacked any facial hair. Both were barefoot, with broad, splayed toes and thick calloused soles. Both held identical stout-shafted spears with stubby blades made of chipped flint.
Although no taller than Kit himself, they gave every impression of being giants-perhaps owing to their perfectly solid presence and heavy muscular build. They were magnificent specimens: broad of shoulder and deep of chest; with large, square heads on short corded necks and huge muscled forearms, legs, and thighs; short-waisted and thick about the middle, they appeared almost as broad as they were tall, yet there was not an ounce of fat on them, just pure, lean, hard muscle and lots of it.
They gaped at Kit, then at one another, then at Kit again-their wide, expressive faces registering unalloyed wonder at the sight of so strange a being hauled from their trap. Then, after a moment’s consideration, the younger one reached out with a thick, grubby forefinger and poked Kit in the chest as if to test his corporeality. It was the most natural gesture in the world, yet it made Kit’s knees buckle. He swayed and stepped back, whereupon the older one reached out and, taking his entire shoulder in one massive hand, steadied him with a grip so gentle and reassuring that Kit almost swooned at the touch. His heart skipped a beat or two, and his breath caught in his throat as the utter impossibility of this most peculiar predicament broke over him: he had been captured by cavemen.
Kit’s heart thumped in his chest, and he felt faint and dizzy with the surge of adrenaline and high-octane emotion crashing through him. His thoughts skittered off in every direction, leaving him with an utterly useless question. What now? What, under holy heaven, now?
Without a sound or sign, the older of the two creatures turned abruptly and started walking away; after a few steps, the big hunter paused and with a curved hand gesture-the kind a child might make to a playmate-indicated that Kit was to follow. Kit, afraid to do otherwise, obeyed. The little hunter fell into step behind him, and the three moved off in single file together. For beings so stocky, they moved with the agile grace of wild things, silent as shadows; the only sounds Kit heard were those of his own making-swishing through grass, breaking the odd twig beneath his shoes, the rustle of dry leaves.
Every now and then, Big Hunter would pause and sniff the air in an odd doglike fashion, his wide, flat nostrils flaring; he seemed to taste the air as much as smell it and, after each reassurance, moved on again with a little backwards glance at Kit as if to say, “All is well, we go on.”
They walked a long time, and the day began to fade. They were deeper into the wood now, the trees larger, the shadows thicker and darker. Branches closed overhead to form a green canopy, and the river narrowed to a slow-running stream. Moss and lichen grew on the trees and rocks all around, and a scent like that of mushrooms filled the air. They stopped to drink from the stream, first Little Hunter, then Big Hunter-each keeping guard over the other-while Kit lapped water from his cupped hands. They resumed their trek, moving ever deeper into the wooded valley, pausing every now and then to sniff the air. Kit used these little rest stops to surreptitiously check the ley lamp on the off chance that he might find another ley. But there was never any sign of activity.
After the third or fourth pause, Big Hunter gave out a gruff snort and picked up his speed, moving through the forest with long, ground-eating strides. Little Hunter gave Kit a shove from behind that nearly knocked him off his feet, and Kit stepped up to double time. That was not fast enough, however, and soon he was having to trot just to keep pace.
This went on for a considerable time. When at last they slowed again, Kit was sweating and gasping and all but falling over. By his hazy estimate they were several miles from the ley line that had brought him to this world. If Wilhelmina were looking for him, she would not find him there. At first opportunity, he told himself, he would escape and make his way back to the ley and wait there as instructed. Kit keenly regretted having wandered off, but who could have foreseen being kidnapped by cavemen?
By now Kit was getting thirsty again, and footsore. During the next pause to sniff the air, Kit ignored his captors and knelt to drink. Little Hunter grew agitated and jabbed Kit with the butt of his spear a few times until the older one grunted a command that made his companion desist. Kit drank his fill, and when he was done, rose; Big Hunter stooped down and drank too-just a few mouthfuls slurped out of the palm of his wide hand, as if to be polite.
They moved on again, keeping the river on the left as they threaded through the undulating valley. And then, just as the light began to fail, Kit caught a whiff of a pungent stink: a rich, musky ripe scent, like he imagined a den of wolves might smell after a long, hard winter.
The three passed under a low-hanging bough and through a screening wall of bushes, and suddenly Kit was standing in a clearing amidst a collection of crude rounded domes made from branches pulled full-leafed from the surrounding trees and shrubs. They were home. Four primitives rose to greet the returning hunters; Kit saw their eyes flick to him, and all at once there arose a tremendous yowling of excitement. Five more creatures, all female, materialised, some emerging from the rudimentary shelters, others from the nearby wood, and all jabbering at once in what sounded to Kit like an excited, guttural yap.
One or two of the boldest primitives thrust forward and began touching him with little pats and prods. They touched his skin and hair and clothes. Meanwhile, the females formed a muttering, murmuring circle around him. The poking and prodding continued for a time, the chatter coming in waves, until one of the younger primitives, baring his teeth in a ghastly smile, picked up a stick and, in imitation of his elders, jabbed Kit in the leg.
“Ow!” Kit announced, not so much from pain as from the unexpected attack.
That response encouraged the youngster, so he stabbed Kit again, harder, with a sound that Kit could only interpret as laughter. This time Kit kept his mouth closed, which provoked a third attack and a rapid fourth. A slightly older creature joined in, giving Kit a firm punch in the ribs and then crying loudly for everyone to see what he had done-at which point Big Hunter, who seemed to be the leader of the group, loosed a low, rumbling growl that even Kit recognised as a command.
Instantly, all poking and prodding and chattering ceased. Silence claimed the clearing as the woodland swallowed the sound. Big Hunter pushed through the mob, taking charge of Kit with a proprietary gesture of control and possession: cupping a heavy hand to Kit’s head, then thumping himself on the chest with a closed fist. The others appeared to understand this, and the nature of the interaction changed; the whole proceeding became immediately quieter and more respectful.
In this simple act, ground rules were established that even Kit could not fail to understand. One moment he was a strange new animal that had been hauled in for observation and comment, and the next moment Kit was a guest. A new status had been claimed for him and boundaries established. He was not to be poked and jabbed with sticks; he was not to be yapped at or buffeted about for their amusement. Still, the others stared and murmured.
Ignoring the behaviour of his fellow beings, Big Hunter touched him on the arm and beckoned Kit to follow him. Kit was led across the clearing to the biggest bower in the camp; a log lay lengthwise across the entrance and, before the log, a ring of large river stones encircled a heap of glowing charcoal embers. The setup was exactly the sort of bivouac Boy Scouts would have fashioned for a forest jamboree-a generous hearth with benches.
It was almost dark in the glade, though patches of sky glimpsed through holes in the leaf canopy still held a bit of pale pink. Kit was made to sit on the log while dry branches were broken up and tossed onto the smouldering embers of the previous fire. In no time, the glade was lit with a flame that continued to grow as more and more wood was thrown onto the pile. The older primitives busied themselves with some activity or other-huddled together as they were, Kit could not see what they were doing-but while their elders worked, the younger ones gathered around to watch Kit watch the fire.
Presently, a long green reed was produced on which was threaded strings of meat. Kit did not see what kind of animal produced these gobbets, but it was red and fresh. More of these makeshift spits appeared and were put into the fire, and soon the entire group was sitting around the ring toasting meat on thin skewers. The scent of sizzling fat and meat juice brought the water to Kit’s mouth, and though he was seated in what was surely a place of honour, everyone ignored him. Apparently, where important matters of life were concerned-such as cooking and eating-ceremony could wait.
When the first skewer was done, Big Hunter took it and bit off a healthy chunk. The others watched him as he chewed. He gave a lift of his chin and everyone else proceeded to pull their spits from the fire and commenced to eat. Rising from his place at the fire, the chief came to Kit and held the reed out to him. Kit, nodding and smiling, reached to take it; he pulled a morsel of roasted meat from the charred reed and popped it into his mouth, much to the delight of the others.
Big Hunter made a rumbling noise and took up two more uncooked skewers; one he gave to Kit, keeping the other for himself. He sat down on the log beside his guest and then, with gestures and grunts, instructed Kit in the art of cooking meat on a reed. Kit proved himself to be a ready and able student-as if he required any schooling-and his evident ability to feed himself so expertly seemed to meet with the approval of the gathering. The others murmured among themselves and, with much nudging and many a sly glance, let Kit know they were discussing him.
As grateful as he was for the food and the chance to sit and rest a little, Kit could not help feeling that his next act must be to escape. There was little hope for that, he decided, while they were all still watching him. He would have to wait until the camp was asleep to make his move.
Kit planned to return to the ley line and find a place to wait for Wilhelmina to show up-if she was not there already. If he had done that in the first place he would not be in this improbable situation now. Just thinking about how Mina was no doubt searching high and low for him, muttering dark oaths against his name-deservedly so, he had to admit-made him that much more eager to be on his way.
Then another and altogether worse thought occurred to him: maybe he had already missed her. What if she had arrived as planned, seen that he was not there, and promptly left again to search somewhere else? What then?
It did not bear thinking about-so he tried not to, but the glum thought cast him into an apprehensive and fretful mood. The meal went on for a considerable time, and at a pace that could only be described as leisurely. Kit grew increasingly anxious to be on his way. When at last the younger primitives began to drowse and fall asleep, some of the older ones picked them up and carried them into the nearby bowers. Finally, as the food disappeared, the others drifted off-most to bed down in the shelter of their leafy hovels, but a few of the young males simply curled up in the root hollows of the larger trees or on the ground near the fire ring. Big Hunter crawled into his shelter behind the log and gestured for Kit to join him. With reluctance bordering on dread, Kit acquiesced, thinking that any refusal on his part would only delay the inevitable, or worse, rouse the suspicions of his host, who might then take steps to forestall any escape.
So Kit crawled into the bower to wait. The problem was that the interior of the rude, branch-constructed hut was much more comfortable than he imagined possible. The floor was carpeted with alternating layers of moss and leaves covered by dry grass; there were even pillows-animal pelts rolled into bags and stuffed with grass and, of all things, fragrant lavender. The excitement of the day-which had begun a long time ago and far, far away-combined with a good stint of healthy exercise, served to smother Kit’s resolve. He drifted off to sleep on clouds of lavender and was soon dreaming of lambs frolicking in sun-dappled meadows.
He woke again with the sound of a whippoorwill singing in a nearby tree. Otherwise the camp was peaceful and quiet, and dawn, he guessed, still some way off. Big Hunter was sound asleep, his breathing deep and regular, so Kit gathered himself and, creeping as quietly as he could, backed from the hovel and, rather than cross the camp, slipped around the side and directly into the forest behind.
Once away from the camp, he paused; the moon was low, but there was still enough light to navigate his way without stumbling around. He listened for the river, then followed the sound until he reached the stony bank. The rounded stones appeared like humps of overgrown mushrooms, grey and white in the soft moonlight, the water gleaming all slithery and silver.
It was, Kit decided, merely a matter of retracing the route back through the valley until he reached the place where he had entered the gorge. He had a fair distance to travel, but time enough if he did not dally along the way.
He started out with a determined step and hope in his heart, his pace quick but measured. Fed and rested, his spirits high, he covered ground at a respectable rate, pausing now and again to listen for any sound of pursuit. Each time he continued with greater assurance that he had made good his escape and would reach the meeting place in reasonable time, counting on the fact that it would be morning by the time he approached the vicinity and he would recognise the turning when he saw it again in the daylight.
Assuming, that is, he lived long enough to see the light of another day.