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Chapter Four - The Cave
The rain had not stopped for days on end, turning the edges of the plains into a swamp, the rivers swollen and leaking. The grey clouds had camped out over our heads and gave no sign of breaking up. I hungered for sunlight on my face. We lived between a few caves at the foot of the boulder-strewn range which marked the start of the mountains. Frost-cracked flint pebbles were everywhere and we filled our days refining the simple but fiddly process of making smaller blades and hunting birds. We knew all the methods to make cordage, start fire even in the damp, but wood was a problem and we kept it just to embers to get through the night, heating flat stones to put under our clothes.
Then one day, we came back to the main cave, our hoods up and eyes down against the rain and saw him sitting at the entrance - an older man, dressed almost entirely in furs.
He raised his head to take us in, squinting slightly, impassive and calm. He had no beard and his hair was long and tied up in the manner of our people, but he sported the lines under his eyes of a distant and unfamiliar pedigree. We stopped. The silence hung between the three of us. No one moved.
“I’m sorry boys, I can see I’m in your home, but I mean you no harm”
He spoke, stood up heavily and approached, grasping our forearms in the traditional manner. We said nothing.
“come now, we’re all kin here boys, you can speak”
It was my brother who broke the silence. “did they send you after us?”
“after you? I don’t know who you are, or why you’re out here, but I can assure you that nobody sent me anywhere” he smiled and opened his arms, stepping back slightly. “I’m here for the same reason as you right now though, to get out of this rain”
He turned and walked back into the cave, settling himself by the fire.
“will you share your fire with me, or at least give me a coal or two?”
I nodded and followed him in, denying a man an ember would be unthinkable, regardless of his intentions. We sat together and stoked up the flames with what little wood we had stored. As per our customs we exchanged the names of our parents, our cousins, our grandparents, until we found who we had in common. My name was the same as his mother’s brother’s son, and he told me of his exploits - a name-brother - I had never had one before.
He in turn shared his meagre rations with us. Some dried meat, moulding at the edges, a few cakes of pounded belly fat and sweet berries, some dried roots of a plant neither of us recognised. We chewed slowly in silence, washing the parched lumps down with rainwater.
He started speaking in the measured rhythm of a storyteller, the pace was almost lulling, drawing us into his world. He described his lands, his family, his kin. He spoke of hunting great beasts, moments of pain and sorrow, and how he left to recover an old treasure. I wasn’t so sure, it all sounded just too easy, something felt off. But he continued, explaining how he became familiar with the cave systems around the main mountain ranges, and how he never went home again.
He paused for breath and then made to stand up
“come boys, let me show you something”
We wrapped our shoulders and went out into the rain again. Following his feet we moved to another cave entrance a few minutes away up the incline of boulders and crags.
“don’t bring any evil into this place boys, shake it all off outside”
We stood in silence for a moment or two, feeling all the unpleasantness of the lion, the escape from our homes and fires, trying to cast off all that residue of pain and confusion.
Then we followed him slowly inside. The mouth of the cave narrowed sharply a few feet in, forcing us together in a more compact passage. This opened up into a void of almost pure darkness. The air felt colder, the rock seemed to exude a stagnant and mineral taste. Water dripped somewhere. The man breathed onto a tiny coal wrapped in a skin, some fungus and tinder suddenly bursting into light
We couldn’t help but gasp. In the few seconds of light we got a glimpse of the most extraordinary painted sight. Leering faces seemed to stick out of the rock face. Animals charged out of a hole in the wall, their movement like rushing wind or a sprinting horse. The surface was alive with colour and eyes and blood. Like a wall or membrane of translucent skin had been suspended between this world and another, the denizens of which were pressed up against it, their silent screaming mouths, charging horns ready to impale.
The man held up the soft remaining cinders and pursed his lips, a steady glow emanated across the wall to his left, and he gestured for us to run our hands across its damp skin. I felt something sharp and jumped.
“what is that?”
“old bones, fingers, wrists”
I recoiled, while he tried to explain that our ancestors believed in touching those who lived beyond the cave, but I felt trapped by this place. It was cold, full of sodden, grasping, clutching things in the air. The red smears of ochre across the rocks felt desperate, despairing almost. Smashed up fingers stuffed into cracks in the stone spoke of something cruel, manic. Something horrible happened here. But the man beckoned once again.
We pushed ourselves into a corner and he seemed to disappear above us. A shelf of rock, a different, softer hue, jutted out and he was up to his waist in the gap it created. He handed me what was left of the torch bundle and I hesitantly rose up from a crouch. The light illuminated a broken jawbone, pegged into the rock by hands immemorial, the teeth grinning back in an infinite laugh. I felt dread in the pit of my stomach. Who put this here, and why?
I was ready to leave, I’d seen enough. The man turned with us but extended a finger out into the thick gloam. Even in the darkness we could see that another hole sank further back into the rock on the other side of the cavern, sucking even the whispers of light from the torch into a pit of nothing. A total absence. It exuded a menace of absolute heart-stopping terror. I couldn’t imagine what fear would drive me into that place.
“they say the elder’s elders would come here, sink onto their knees and go down that tunnel for most of a day”
Panic started to rise in me, my brother gripping my arm tight. Why would any mortal crawl into the depths of the mountain like that?
We left, bursting back out into the daylight with such force it felt like coming up from underwater. Our eyes stinging in the brightness, the comfortable rain falling onto our faces, washing away the smell of the place. I shut my eyes, but all I could see was that darkness, chilling me to the bone, it felt lodged in my very soul, like a piece of ice cold flint had wormed its way into my chest. lodged in my lungs.
My brother was equally as wide-eyed and tense, he clutched my forearm and I his