- The Spear of the Dal - Part 1
The Spear of the Dal - Part 1
When the twins Dal'Harma and Dal'Horah first settled Mina'Wai, they found a land crowned with stormclouds. The rainy season was upon the land, yet still the hunt called them forth into the heart of the tempest. On the last storm before the Night of the Golden Moons, they sought shelter in a small cave in the Shattered Mountains on the north side of Nupoanqa.
The cave was cramped – little more than an overhang – but it was enough for a fire. Whilst the two warriors who accompanied them slept at the rear, the brothers sat at the cave mouth, watching the forest below and enjoying banter over a shared drink of te'anike'e water. As the rain began to ease, Dal'Horah thrust the wineskin at his sibling, declaring he had had too much, that his eyes now played tricks with him. He had seen a great beast, Dal’Horah claimed, larger by far than the banaak, but white as the night stars. It had vanished into the forest floor below them. His brother jabbed him with his elbow and guffawed loudly, rousing the slumbering warriors.
His laughter did not last. Moments later, Dal'Horah pointed to where the creature re-emerged and they stared in stunned silence, watching it prowl around the tree and pause to look in their direction. And then it was gone, vanishing once more into the earth. Gathering their wits and their weapons, the men smothered their fire and scurried down the rock-face.
Now the hunt was underway. Their senses grew keen, every snap of twig or crush of insect underfoot a thunderclap to their ears, each waft of disturbed foliage a delirious bouquet. They could taste the very hunt itself, and craved more with every breath.
Dal’Horah rummaged among the lattice of exposed roots and there he unearthed an opening – a burrow of sorts, no more than three feet wide. Dal'Harma set his spear-thrower to one side and squatted to peer into the blackness. His grip tightened on his dagger in apprehension, eyes staring.
The interior was cold and damp. The rush of cool air told him that beyond his vision the tunnel went much farther and, reassuringly, the musty smell of moss and mulch mixed with fertile earth signaled that the beast had withdrawn into the depths. So they would follow.
The black enveloped them. Though the air was chill, the low flame of Dal’Harma’s kaob-sap torch brought slow, clammy sweat to their bodies. All sound echoed in the depths; even their rhythmic breathing was as a drum beat in their heads, the inhalation of fetid air like the draw of the long-horn.
The further they went the smaller the passage became; no longer able to crouch, they crawled on all fours. Dal'Horah wondered in silence whether they had been misguided. Had they in their eagerness entered the wrong place? Would it leave them pulling themselves on their bellies like worms through mud, unable to turn around until, starved of oxygen and light, they collapsed in exhaustion and despair?
This was no way for a Benghi to meet his death.
Ahead, Dal'Harma’s torch guttered and died as a gust swept down the tunnel and doused the light. The black grew palpable. It clung to the skin, filled the mouth and lungs; like sodden furs its weight was smothering. But if there had been a gust of air, then there must be other entrances up ahead. Determination gripped them now; they must find the source of the draught.
On they crawled. The incline grew steeper, the ceiling lower. Their bodies ached beyond measure, every limb screaming out for relief. And then, out of the darkness wafted a cool breeze, bathing them in sweet, fresh air, chilling the sweat against their skin. There was light. As one they sighed and slumped against the mud in exhausted gratitude for the blessing. They edged forward, the sound of water gently tumbling over rock greeting their ears, blessings indeed.
What they beheld, as the tunnel opened before them, stopped them in their tracks: a great cavern, its walls adorned with primitive drawings depicting beasts both known and unknown. Stalagmites and stalactites pointed this way and that. Lichens of bronze and green splattered the rocky outcrops and ledges, glowing as if they housed the spirit of the moons and stars. The floor was alive with crawling insects; long and thin they scurried on their multitude of legs away from the hunters' footfalls. Tiny winged beasts buzzed at head-height, their voices echoing and growing beyond their size.
The men were so in awe of what lay before them they did not at first notice the half-eaten pig carcass, neither did they note the array of skeletal remains that lay between the rocky formations at the edges of the cavern. Their quarry had escaped their minds in their fight for light and life. It was not until they had slaked their thirst from an icy pool that they sat and took stock of their surroundings.
Relief still dulled their senses. They felt no fear, no need to keep to hushed tones, no need to keep weapons close to hand. Not until a great roar rent the air, sending the insects racing for shelter. Wrenched from their reverie, they were too slow to their weapons, too slow to stop the giant cat, almost twice the length of a man, as it leapt from some hiding place to land full square on the flailing form of one of their number.
Its claws pinned the hapless hunter and it lowered its bulk and growled at them. Slowly it eyed them, turning its head to follow their scrambling forms before moving in for the kill. In one swift movement, it ripped out the man's throat. Blood arced high in a steaming jet, vermillion on white fur.
It was enough to rouse the hunters from their terror. With spear-throwers and daggers in hand they charged the beast, screaming obscenities in hope of turning it from their dead comrade. They were not successful. The beast was not fearful of them. It did not move from its prey but continued to issue warning growls, swatting the lifeless form with its paws, taunting them.
Dal'Harma let loose his spear. It flew true and struck the animal's shoulder. The beast roared in outrage but no blood flowed. They circled, Dal'Harma and Dal'Horah positioned to the left and right while their friend Nah'Ahayn tried to keep its attention ahead, throwing the last of his spears in vain. The beast was unimpressed by their posturing and between threats of its own, continued to leisurely tear chunks of flesh from the body beneath it.
With a mixture of fear and anger Dal'Horah bellowed and thrust his spear, their last, at the neck of the animal. He did not reach his target.
From out of the dark another pounced, biting deep into his side and carrying him forward into the shallow water. His screams echoed throughout the cavern. His brother could not reach him – the beast blocked his path – and soon Dal’Horah’s cries subsided into feeble gurgling sounds. Between loss of blood and the water that filled his lungs, all breath was stolen from him.
Dal’Harma cried his brother’s name, but knew there was nothing he could do. They must find a way out, or die here in the dark.
To the left, Dal’Harma spied a ledge, and beyond that a narrow pathway that led up to an opening. It was possible that it went nowhere, but it offered hope and hope was preferable to the jaws of these nightmare creatures. They made a run for it, not once glancing behind. What for? Their brothers, friends, were beyond aid.
The beasts did not follow.
They scrambled up the ledge, through the opening, and into a chamber beyond. Their hearts sank as they saw what lay scattered around on all sides. The skeletal remains of numerous people littered the floor, adult and child, and from the teeth-marks on shattered bones they had not met their ends in peace. Yet there was also evidence that people had lived here, at least for a short while, as here and there they spied pots, broken weapons, lengths of cloth, moldering furs still rolled in bundles for travelling. As they picked their way precariously through the rocks they noted too the remains of pig, deer, monkey, even the rotting carcass of an adult irrithi. And there, amid the prey were the skeletons of great cats. Could they be more of those they had fled? Had they been here, unknown to the hunters for so long?
Below them deep water lay, black and forbidding, laughing at their despair as the rain from above fell upon its surface. Rain from above. Rain.
Relief flooded through them and they turned their heads skyward, only to have their jubilation dashed.
The walls reached up beyond measure. It was as if the earth itself had opened its mouth to drink in the rain and slake an unending thirst. Freedom awaited them up there, so far out of reach. Forlorn, they sank against the cliff-face, their demeanor subdued. Were they truly to be trapped here? For the only alternative was to return the way they had come. And only death awaited them there.
Despair grew and they shrunk into the darkest recesses of the cave. It was cool in the shadow of the rock and they longed for home, hunger gnawing at their bellies, echoing the chill on their skin. They felt pathetic, humbled by their situation and, as exhausted resignation swept through them, they slept. Perhaps dreams would be kinder than the jungles of Nupoanqa…