A scream of rage split the darkness. From the side of the fire where the women sat darted Esle, the High Priestess, a bloody bit of liver in her hand. Following her, and snarling like an enraged cat, came one of the maidens of the tribe. The aged hag, Esle, whose duty it was to declare to the tribe the will of Degar Astok, the mighty one who dwelt in the heavens and sent the storms to enforce his will, came to a pause before Uglik, the Chief and tribal Father.
“Una was eating of the man’s piece,” she shrilled as she held the fragment aloft.
Uglik dropped the thigh bone from which he had been ripping the meat in huge chunks. He took the liver from Esle and examined it.
“Bring me my spear!” he roared as he lunged forward and grasped Una by the hair. “Una has stolen that which is tabu to her and I will punish her.”
Una moaned with fright but attempted no resistance. Uglik grasped his spear and raised it over his head.
“Hold, Father!” came a clear voice from the group of hunters who sat near the chief.
Uglik paused in amazement at the interruption. Anak, the Chief Hunter, rose to his feet and made a step forward.
“She stole it not,” he said. “Anak, the Chief Hunter, gave it to her.”
Uglik released the girl and stared at the hunter in surprise. Anak returned the stare coolly and Uglik raised his throwing-spear threateningly. Anak did not let his gaze wander from the Father’s, but his grasp tightened ever so slightly on the sharp flint smiting-stone which he had taken from the skin pouch which dangled from his leather waist belt before he had made his announcement.
“Anak, the Chief Hunter, gave it to her,” he repeated slowly. “Anak killed the buck, and half of the liver is, by the law of the tribe, his to dispose of. Does the Father deny the right?”
Uglik lowered the point of his spear and thought rapidly. Anak’s act constituted unheard-of rebellion against his authority. On the other hand, the Chief Hunter was the cleverest tracker of the tribe and a mighty warrior in battle. The tribe of Ugar had lost most of its warriors in their long six-month march north from the fertile valley where the Mediterranean Sea now rolls. Uglik was too wise a leader to waste men on a trivial quarrel, able though he felt himself to kill Anak, should the latter cry the rannag, the duel to the death by which the Father must at any time prove to any challenger, his right to rule.
“It is the right of the killer to dispose of half of the liver of the kill,” he conceded. “It is also the right of the stronger to take what he wills from the weaker. To Esle belongs the liver. The girl will not be punished. Anak will join me at meat.”
Anak’s face flushed momentarily at the arrogant tone of the Father’s ruling. He realized, as well as Uglik, what had caused the Father to condone his semi-rebellion. He shrugged his shoulders and sat down beside Uglik.
Uglik ate slowly, looking meditatively at Una as she tore off chunks of the meat with her strong teeth and swallowed them. The girl was about eighteen and in the first flush of womanhood. Her tawny brown skin gleamed like satin in the firelight, which was reflected from her slightly curling masses of black hair. She stood eight inches over five feet and her entire body was built on generous lines, lines of perfect health and almost masculine strength. Anak’s eyes followed the direction of Uglik’s gaze and he grew thoughtful in turn.
“Is the Father satisfied with the Chief Hunter?” he asked ceremoniously.
“The Father is,” replied Uglik in similar vein.
“Then the Chief Hunter has a boon to ask.”
“I desire that maiden, Una, be given to me.”
Uglik could hardly believe his ears. All of the women of the tribe belonged of immemorial right to the Father. While he might lend one for a time to a favored hunter as a mark of distinction, the suggestion that he completely relinquish his claim to one of them, and a young and handsome one at that, struck him with such astonishment that he was momentarily speechless.
“I desire that the maiden, Una, be given to me,” repeated Anak. “She pleases me. I would have her carry my weapons on the march and sleep by my side in the camp.”
Uglik leaped to his feet, spear in hand, but before the Chief Hunter’s cool gaze, he wavered, again. Men were too scarce to waste, unless it became necessary.
“I will consider the matter,” he said shortly. “I may lend her to you for a time, but I will not give her to you. Such is not the law.”
“The Father who ruled before you gave women to his favored hunters,” replied Anak. “I was the son of such a one.”
“And Degar Astok assumed the form of a lion and punished him for his impiety by destroying him,” retorted Uglik.
“Then Uglik killed the lion and so became Father,” replied Anak, “since none dared challenge the slayer of Degar Astok. Is it not possible that Esle, who was young and who favored Uglik in those days, made a mistake? Despite his death, Degar Astok still has power.”
Uglik’s face flushed at the hunter’s words.
“Degar Astok may be robbed of one body, but he still lives,” he answered. “Say no more. I will consider your request.”
Anak saluted and strode to the other side of the men’s fire. He dropped down beside Invar, the youngest of the hunters. It was on his recommendation that Invar had been initiated into the ranks of manhood a full season before his time. The young hunter looked up with adoration in his eyes.
“This I saved for my friend, Anak,” he said proudly as he extended a generous chunk of liver. “Invar will be honored if his friend will eat of the liver of his kill.”
Anak took the morsel with thanks and ate it slowly. His thoughts ran to the tall maiden whom he had requested from the Father, and his blood boiled at the way he had been put off. He was half inclined to cry the rannag, but he was not yet ready for the death duel which would determine whether he or Uglik would rule the tribe. There was no other solution, for, while he ruled, the Father’s word was law, subject only to the higher law of Degar Astok as given out by the High Priestess. This overlordship was more nominal than actual, for those priestesses who lived long lives were invariably those who found that the will of the Father coincided exactly with the law of Degar Astok. Anak revolved the problem in his mind for a time, but the repletion of raw meat in his stomach was not conducive to protracted thought. Gradually his head slumped forward and he slept sitting. The other hunters followed his example, leaving the youths from ten to seventeen to guard the camp, keep the fires going, and rouse the hunters should need arise.
The night passed slowly without alarms. Womoo, the lion, roared in the distance, and from near at hand came the coughing laugh of Kena, the jackal, who always prowled around the camp when the tribe fed on meat. Gradually the sky grew lighter. One of the children moaned in his sleep and raised his head. He rose, and with a word to the youth on guard, trotted off toward the stream which gurgled near the camp. He disappeared in the darkness. Suddenly there came a sudden scream, shut off in mid-note. Hardly had the cry ceased than the hunters were on their feet with spears ready in their hands.
“What is it?” cried Uglik.
“Loda went to the stream to drink,” stuttered the guard. “He screamed, and I saw a gray shape run off into the darkness. It ran like Grup, the bear, but it was small.”
“Bring fire!” cried Anak.
The youth seized a burning brand and led the way toward the stream. By the light of the torch Anak scrutinized the ground carefully. With a sudden exclamation, he pointed out to Uglik the print of a long and narrow, but unmistakably human, foot in the mud by the river bank. Uglik studied it carefully.
“What think you?” he demanded of Anak.
“It is the mark of man, yet not of our tribe,” replied the Chief Hunter. “Such marks have I never seen.”
“Wait until Degar Astok sends the light,” directed Uglik. “As soon as you can trail, the hunters will go in pursuit.”
Slowly the light grew brighter. As soon as he could pick out the trail, Anak led the way, Uglik with the warriors and youths following closely. The trail led straight up the valley for a half mile before it turned and followed a branch of the stream which came from a ravine in the valley wall. The hunters went a hundred yards up the ravine following Anak. The Chief Hunter paused and held up his hand. He sniffed the air and then led the way cautiously past a projecting shoulder of rock. On a ledge, half way up the hillside, sat two monstrous things.
They were manlike and yet hardly man. Their bodies were covered with stiff, coarse, gray hair which lengthened into a mane on the head and neck. Their foreheads were low and receding, an impression which was heightened by the enormously developed brow ridges, although the cranial capacity of the creatures was not small, as was evidenced by enormous bulges at the back of their heads. They walked on two legs but with a peculiar slouch, the torso inclined forward from the hips, and their eyes bent perpetually on the ground. Their arms were long and at times they bent forward so much that it appeared almost as though they were going on all fours. A close examination of their hands would have shown that it was impossible for them to hold a needle between the thumb and forefinger.
“Gumor, the gray ape!” cried one of the hunters.
“It is not Gumor,” replied Anak, “although they are like his cousins. See what they eat!”
As the hunters of the Cro-Magnon tribe of Ugar saw the meat which the Neanderthalers were tearing, a cry of wrath broke from them. Uglik stepped forward and raised the war cry of the tribe. The Neanderthalers looked stupidly down at him for a moment. The huge male dropped the meat he was eating and rose, his mane and beard bristling with rage. With a roar, he charged down the slope, a huge flint smiting-stone in either hand.
The hunters closed up on Uglik. As the attacker came within range, he was saluted with a shower of stones which sprang harmlessly from his huge rounded chest. Uglik hurled his spear. It pierced the apeman’s shoulder but did not make him pause. Other spears were hurled and struck their mark, but without a pause the Neanderthaler came on with howls of rage and pain, bloody froth flying from his lips.
Anak had not thrown his spear, and Invar, who stood beside his hero, had likewise retained his weapon. The apeman came on with a rush. Uglik sprang forward to meet him, but another hunter was directly in the path of the attack. He swung his flint smiting-stone with a will, but his blow was futile. He went down before a sweep of the apeman’s arm, his skull crushed to fragments.
Uglik struck at the attacker. The Neanderthaler turned toward him, but as he did so, Anak hurled his spear. At close range, the stone-tipped weapon passed nearly through the apeman. He stopped his rush and began to cough up blood from a pierced lung. Anak seized Invar’s spear and sprang to the attack. An unfledged youth who craved distinction, rushed ahead of the Chief Hunter, but his act spelled his doom. One blow of the huge smiting-stone laid him dead. Anak hurled Invar’s spear and again his weapon found its mark. The Neanderthaler roared with pain and sank gradually to his knees. Uglik dashed in, knife in hand. He threw himself on the prostrate monster and stabbed him again and again. The blows struck home, but with a last effort the apeman threw off his assailant and struck at him with the huge stone which had already robbed the tribe of two of its members. Before the blow could fall, Samo, one of the hunters, threw himself in the way and took the blow on his arm. The arm bone snapped like a pipestem, but it was the monster’s dying effort. With a shudder, he fell back dead.
A ferocious howl rent the air. With a smiting-stone in each hand, the female charged down at them. She was somewhat smaller than the male, but still a match for any two of the men. Uglik’s face paled as he wrenched Invar’s spear from the dead male and turned to face her. The howl was repeated from farther up the ravine. Two more males were approaching at a lumbering run, smiting-stones in either hand. Uglik was a brave man, but he was also a cautious leader. He did not care to expose his tribe to almost certain annihilation and he led a wild retreat down the valley, Samo, with his arm hanging limp, bringing up the rear. The Neanderthalers did not follow into the open valley.
Again at the camping place, Uglik called his hunters into council. The situation was grave enough. With the Neanderthalers so near them, it meant eventual annihilation to stay where they were, yet there was no place they could go. They had been driven from their old home by hordes of men who came up from the south. They had fought to retain their ancestral hunting grounds where they had dwelt since the beginning of time, but a series of defeats at the hands of overwhelming numbers had dwindled down the tribe until a migration was necessary. They had followed the migrating game toward the unknown north.
Several times they had tried to stop, but each time they had found the land in possession of other and stronger tribes. Their men had been killed and their women stolen until they again took up their march to the north. From the hundred that had formerly called Uglik “Father,” there now remained only a score of women and children, a half dozen youths, and five able-bodied hunters, besides Uglik.
South, they dared not go. North, there lay unknown horrors. West lay the raging sea. East, the Neanderthalers blocked the way.
The council broke up with no action decided on. Faced with the alternatives of moving or staying, there seemed to be little choice. Only death faced them, whichever way they turned. Uglik posted guards about the camp and announced that he would retire and consult with Degar Astok as to their future course.
As he disappeared into the woods, Esle sidled up to Anak.
“It seems that Degar Astok no longer loves Uglik,” she said slyly. “Does not the Chief Hunter agree with me?”
Anak looked at the withered hag coldly.
“Who am I to tell his Priestess whom Degar Astok loves?” he asked. “You are his voice and should know.”
“True, Anak, I am his voice, and the God loves me,” she went on, “yet it may be that men do not always love me. Uglik thinks that I have given him false counsel and he is ready for a new Priestess to announce the will of Degar Astok to him. He believes that a new and younger Priestess would bring back the favor of the God.”
“What is that to me?” asked Anak.
“You desire the maiden, Una?”
“And if I do?”
“You are not to have her. Uglik will never grant your request. Already he plans to make her the High Priestess, should an accident happen to me.”
Anak started. If Esle spoke the truth, it ended his chances of having Una. All women were tabu to all save the Father, but the High Priestess was doubly sacred.
“What am I to do?” he demanded.
Esle smiled slyly.
“I was the Voice of the God before Uglik was Father,” she said in a low voice, “and I would be so after he is gone. Cry you rannag on him. I know many things, and I will cast a spell on him so that victory will be easy for you. Then will you be Father. The maiden Una will be yours, and old Esle will remain the High Priestess.”
“To give me false counsel as you have Uglik, and in time to plot my overthrow and death with another,” said Anak sternly. “No, woman or devil, whichever you are, I want no help of yours. If I ever cry rannag on Uglik, I will defeat him by my strength or not at all. If I win to be Father, be assured that an ‘accident’ will happen to you shortly.”
Esle frothed at the mouth with rage.
“You shall never have the maiden!” she screamed. “Rather will I kill her than that you shall have her. It was in my mind to make you Chief and to lead you from this trap that Uglik had brought you into, but you have sealed your doom and hers. I go to prepare a curse.”
She turned to depart, but Anak grasped her by the arm.
“Listen, woman,” he said sternly as he raised his spear, “it is in my mind to kill you and make an end of your evil plottings.”
“Spare me! Spare me, noble Anak!” shrieked the hag, dropping to her knees as the flint point of Anak’s spear hovered over her. “I will not harm her nor you, either. I will soften Uglik’s heart toward you and make him give you the maiden. I will declare it is the will of the God.”
Anak lowered the spear.
“As long as Una is safe, your life is spared,” he said grimly; “but pray to Degar Astok to keep her safe. Should any harm befall her, your life will answer for it.”
“I will weave spells to guard her from harm, Anak,” she cried eagerly. “Only let me live, brave hunter!”
Anak spurned her contemptuously from him. The hag scuttled away and took the path into the woods which Uglik had taken earlier. Later in the day she returned with the Father. Uglik announced briefly that it was the will of Degar Astok that they remain at their present camping place.
Then began a time of horror for the children of the tribe. If one of them strayed for even a short distance from the circle of the camp fire at night, there came a scream from the darkness and the tribe would mourn another lost member. The tales of man-eating giants and ogres which even yet haunt the dreams of childhood have descended to us through the ages from those grim times when the race of men learned the lesson of fear of the dark that they are now slowly and painfully unlearning.
Anak did not renew his request for Una. He knew from her smiles that the maiden was more than willing to become his property, but in the face of their daily peril, he was not willing to precipitate a crisis which might easily cost the tribe most or all of their few remaining warriors. He kept a sharp watch on Esle and on Uglik, but neither the High Priestess nor the Father seemed to notice the girl.
As time went on, the Neanderthalers lost their fear of the fire and grew bolder. Their gray shapes could be seen prowling around at night, just outside the protecting circle of light. The climax came at last. There was a scream in the night. A howl of triumph came from the darkness. The quickly aroused hunters could see nothing at which to cast their spears.
“Who is missing?” demanded Uglik as the hunters returned empty handed.
“The maiden, Una,” cried Esle shrilly.
Anak rushed at her, spear in hand.
“Unsay those words, hag of evil omen!” he roared. “Where have you hidden her?”
“Ask of the cousins of Gumor,” she replied as she ducked behind the protecting frame of Uglik. “They have taken her from us.”
Anak dropped his spear and buried his face in his hands. When he raised his head again, resolution showed in his handsome face.
“Prepare spears and throwing-stones,” he cried. “To-morrow we attack the cousins of Gumor. Either they or we shall be no more when the night falls again.”
A murmur of dissent went around the camp. Uglik sprang to his feet.
“What means the Chief Hunter of the tribe of Ugar?” he demanded.
“I mean that to-morrow we settle for all time who rules in this valley, the tribe of Ugar or the cousins of Gumor.”
“And has the Father no voice in the council of the tribe?”
“We have come to the end,” replied Anak. “If we do not strike now, soon we will be too weak to strike. To-morrow we attack!”
“I am Father of the tribe of Ugar,” replied Uglik with a dangerous note in his voice. “No one gives orders here except me. On you, Anak, the Chief Hunter that was, I place the word of death! Slay him!”
The hunters raised their spears doubtfully. Anak raised his, ready to cast it at Uglik. Before a blow could be struck, a figure sprang across the fire and took a stand, back to back with Anak.
“Who strikes my friend, strikes me!” cried Invar.
Uglik gave a gasp at this fresh defection from his authority. He roared to the hunters to strike. The three hunters remaining to the tribe advanced half-heartedly. None of them cared to face Anak; and Invar, young as he was, had already proven himself a mighty warrior. Uglik shouldered them aside with a roar of wrath. Before he could attack, Anak’s cry stopped him.
“Hold, Uglik!” cried the Chief Hunter. “If you attack, the tribe will lose most or all of its hunters. You have put the death word on me, as is your right. I go now against the cousins of Gumor, and that, I think, is death. Let me go in peace and with weapons. Before they tear me limb from limb, at least one of them will not be alive.”
“And I go with Anak!” cried Invar. “More than one of the cousins of Gumor will know that the Chief Hunter of the tribe of Ugar and his friend have visited their home.”
Uglik paused. No trace of fear entered his heart, but the wily politician saw the force of Anak’s argument. He would gain doubly by the course that the hunter had proposed.
“Go in peace, and with weapons,” he said as he lowered his spear. “Esle will take your weapons and make spells over them that will increase their might. At dawn you shall go. The word of death is on you, so come not back to the tribe again. Once you leave the camp, you are outlaw.”
“So be it!” replied Anak.
Shortly before the dawn, Esle crept to Anak’s side.
“I’ve wrought spells over your weapons, Chief Hunter,” she said softly, “and over those of your companion. Remember this when the cousins of Gumor attack you.”
“I will, hag of evil,” said Anak grimly. “Better will it be for you that we never return.”
“Why leave?” came Esle’s insinuating voice. “I am still ready to help you. Cry rannag on Uglik in the morning. Your weapons have had my attention and his have not. That alone would decide the fight. Slay him and the warriors of the tribe will fight at your back. I know spells, and mayhap, they will prevail even against the cousins of Gumor.”
“I go but for vengeance, Esle,” said Anak wearily. “With Una gone, I have no desire to live.”
“There are other maidens who are fair, Anak, and when you are Father you will have them all.”
“Leave me, Esle,” said Anak shortly. “I desire none but Una.”
“And may the cousins of Gumor crack your bones between their teeth,” she hissed venomously as she slipped away into the darkness.
As the sun rose above the horizon, Anak and Invar took their way up the valley. Each carried three flint-tipped throwing-spears, while a good supply of flint throwing-stones were in their skin pouches. Half a mile from camp, Anak turned to his companion.
“I thank you for coming with me,” he said, his hand on Invar’s shoulder. “It is the deed of a brave man.”
Invar flushed and looked down.
“The least that I can do is to go to Degar Astok with my friend,” he said.
“It is the deed of a brave man, yet I think we are not yet ripe to die.”
“We go against the cousins of Gumor, do we not?” asked the lad.
“And is that not death?”