West of Eden is a novel by Harry Harrison, author of innumerable science fiction novels and stories. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 02, 2012
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Excerpt from West of Eden by Harry Harrison
Spit in the teeth of winter, for he always dies in the spring.
Amahast was already awake when the first light of approaching dawn began to spread across the ocean. Above him only the brightest stars were still visible. He knew them for what they were; the tharms of the dead hunters who climbed into the sky each night. But now even these last ones, the best trackers, the finest hunters, even they were fleeing before the rising sun. It was a fierce sun here this far south, burningly different from the northern sun that they were used to, the one that rose weakly into a pale sky above the snow-filled forests and the mountains. This could have been another sun altogether. Yet now, just before sunrise, it was almost cool here close to the water, comfortable. It would not last. With daylight the heat would come again. Amahast scratched at the insect bites on his arm and waited for dawn.
The outline of their wooden boat emerged slowly from the darkness. It had been pulled up onto the sand, well beyond the dried weed and shells that marked the reach of the highest tide. Close by it he could just make out the dark forms of the sleeping members of his sammad, the four who had come with him on this voyage. Unasked, the bitter memory returned that one of them, Diken, was dying; soon they would be only three.
One of the men was climbing to his feet, slowly and painfully,leaning heavily on his spear. That would be old Ogatyr; he had the stiffness and ache in his arms and legs that comes with age, from the dampness of the ground and the cold grip of winter. Amahast rose as well, his spear also in his hand. The two men came together as they walked towards the water holes.
"The day will be hot, kurro," Ogatyr said.
"All of the days here are hot, old one. A child could read that fortune. The sun will cook the pain from your bones."
They walked slowly and warily towards the black wall of the forest. The tall grass rustled in the dawn breeze; the first waking birds called in the trees above. Some forest animal had eaten the heads off the low palm trees here, then dug beside them in the soft ground to find water. The hunters had deepened the holes the evening before and now they were brimming with clear water.
"Drink your fill," Amahast ordered, turning to face the forest. Behind him Ogatyr wheezed as he dropped to the ground, then slurped greedily.
It was possible that some of the creatures of the night might still emerge from the darkness of the trees so Amahast stood on guard, spear pointed and ready, sniffing the moist air rich with the odor of decaying vegetation, yet sweetened by the faint perfume of night-blooming flowers. When the older man had finished he stood watch while Amahast drank. Burying his face deep in the cool water, rising up gasping to splash handfuls over his bare body, washing away some of the grime and sweat of the previous day.
"Where we stop tonight, that will be our last camp. The morning after we must turn back, retrace our course," Ogatyr said, calling over his shoulder while his eyes remained fixed on the bushes and trees before him.
"So you have told me. But I do not believe that a few days more will make any difference."
"It is time to return. I have knotted each sunset onto my cord. The days are shorter, I have ways of knowing that. Each sunset comes more quickly, each day the sun weakens and cannot climb as high into the sky. And the wind is beginning to change, even you must have noticed that. All summer it has blown from the southeast. No longer. Do you remember last year, the storm that almost sank the boat and blew down a forest of trees? The storm came at this time. We must return. I can remember these things, knot them in my cord."
"I know you can, old one." Amahast ran his fingers throughthe wet strands of his uncut hair. It reached below his shoulders, while his full blond beard rested damply on his chest. "But you also know that our boat is not full."
"There is much dried meat ..."
"Not enough. We need more than that to last the winter. The hunting has not been good. That is why we have journeyed farther south than we ever have before. We need the meat."
"One single day, then we must return. No more than that. The path to the mountains is long and the way hard."
Amahast did not speak in answer. He respected Ogatyr for all the things that the old man knew, his knowledge of the correct way to make tools and find magic plants. The oldster knew the rituals needed to prepare for the hunt, as well as the chants that could ward off the spirits of the dead. He had all of the knowledge of his lifetime and of the lifetimes before him, the things that he had been told and that he remembered, that he could recite from the rising of the sun in the morning to the setting at night and still not be done. But there were new things that the old one did not know about, and these were what troubled Amahast, that demanded new answers.
It was the winters that were the cause of it, the fierce winters that would not end. Twice now there had been the promise of spring as the days had grown longer, the sun brighter--but spring had never come. The deep snows had not melted, the ice on the streams stayed frozen. Then there had been hunger. The deer and the greatdeer had moved south, away from their accustomed valleys and mountain meadows that now stayed tight-locked in winter's unyielding grip. He had led the people of his sammad as they had followed the animals, they had to do that or starve, down from the mountains to the broad plains beyond. Yet the hunting had not been good, for the herds had been thinned out by the terrible winter. Nor was their sammad the only one that had troubles. Other sammads had been hunting there as well, not only ones that his people were joined to by marriage, but sammads they had never seen before. Men who spoke Marbak strangely, or not at all, and pointed their spears in anger. Yet all of the sammads were Tanu, and Tanu never fought Tanu. Never before had they done this. But now they did and there was Tanu blood on the sharp stone points of the spears. This troubled Amahast as much as did the endless winter. A spear for hunting, a knife for skinning, a fire for cooking. This was the way it had always been. Tanu did not killTanu. Rather than commit this crime himself he had taken his sammad away from the hills, marching each day towards the morning sun, not stopping until they had reached the salt waters of the great sea. He knew that the way north was closed, for the ice there came to the ocean's edge and only the Paramutan, the skin-boat people, could live in those frozen lands. The way south was open but there, in the forests and jungles where the snow never came, were the murgu. And where they were was death.
So only the wave-filled sea remained. His sammad had long known the art of making wooden boats for summer fishing, but never before had they ventured out of sight of land or away from their camp upon the beach. This summer they must. The dried squid would not last the winter. If the hunting were as bad as that of the winter before then none of them would be alive in the spring. South, then, it must be south, and that was the way they had gone. Hunting along the shore and on the islands off the coast, in fear always of the murgu.
The others were awake now. The sun was above the horizon and the first shrieks of the animals were sounding from the depths of the jungle. It was time to put to sea.
Amahast nodded solemnly when Kerrick brought him the skin bag of ekkotaz, then dipped out a handful of the thick mass of crushed acorns and dried berries. He reached out with his other hand and ruffled the thick mat of hair on his son's head. His firstborn. Soon to be a man and take a man's name. But still a boy, although he was growing strong and tall. His skin, normally pale, was tanned golden now since, like all of them on this voyage, he wore only a deerskin tied at his waist. About his neck, hung from a leather thong, there was a smaller version of the skymetal knife that Amahast also wore. A knife that was not as sharp as stone but was treasured for its rarity. These two knives, the large and small, were the only skymetal the sammad possessed. Kerrick smiled up at his father. Eight years old and this was his first hunt with the men. It was the most important thing that had ever happened to him.
"Did you drink your fill?" Amahast asked. Kerrick nodded. He knew there would be no more water until nightfall. This was one of the important things that a hunter had to learn. When he had been with the women--and the children--he had drunk water whenever he had felt thirsty, or if he had been hungry he had nibbled at the berries or eaten the fresh roots as they dug them up. No more. He went with the hunters now, did what they did, went without foodand drink from before sunrise until after dark. He gripped his small spear proudly and tried not to start with fright when something crashed heavily in the jungle behind him.
"Push out the boat," Amahast ordered.
The men needed no urging; the sounds of the murgu were growing louder, more threatening. There was little enough to load into the boat, just their spears, bows and quivers of arrows, deerskins, and bags of ekkotaz. They pushed the boat into the water and big Hastila and Ogatyr held it steady while the boy climbed in carefully holding a large shell that contained glowing embers from the fire.
Behind them on the beach Diken struggled to rise, to join the others, but he was not strong enough today. His skin paled with the effort and great drops of perspiration stood out on his face. Amahast came and knelt beside him, took up a corner of the deerskin that he was lying on and wiped the wounded man's face.
"Rest easy. We'll put you into the boat."
"Not today, not if I cannot climb aboard myself." Diken's voice was hoarse, he gasped with the effort of speech. "It will be easier if I wait here for your return. It will be easier on my hand."
His left hand was now very bad. Two fingers had been bitten, torn away, when a large jungle creature had blundered into their camp one night, a half-seen form that they had wounded with spears and driven back into the darkness. At first Diken's wound had not looked too serious, hunters had lived with worse, and they had done all the things for him that could be done. They had washed the wound in sea water until it bled freely, then Ogatyr had bound it up with a poultice made from the benseel moss that had been gathered in the high mountain bogs. But this time it had not been enough. The flesh had grown red, then black, and finally the blackness had spread up Diken's arm; its smell was terrible. He would die soon. Amahast looked up from the swollen arm to the green wall of the jungle beyond.
"When the beasts come my tharm will not be here to be consumed by them," Diken said, seeing the direction of Amahast's gaze. His right hand was clenched into a fist; he opened and closed it briefly to disclose the flake of stone concealed there. The kind of sharp chip that was used to butcher and skin an animal. Sharp enough to open a man's vein.
Amahast rose slowly and rubbed the sand from his bare knees."I will look for you in the sky," he said, his expressionless voice so low that only the dying man could hear it.
"You were always my brother," Diken said. When Amahast left he turned his face away and closed his eyes so he would not see the others leave and perhaps give some sign to him.
The boat was already in the water when Amahast reached it, bobbing slightly in the gentle swell. It was a good, solid craft that had been made from the hollowed-out trunk of a large cedar tree. Kerrick was in the bow, blowing on the small fire that rested on the rocks there. It crackled and flamed up as he added more bits of wood to it. The men had already slipped their oars between the thole pins, ready to depart. Amahast pulled himself in over the side and fitted his steering oar into place. He saw the men's eyes move from him to the hunter who remained behind upon the beach, but nothing was said. As was proper. A hunter did not show pain--or show pity. Each man has the right to choose when he will release his tharm to rise up to erman, the night sky, to be welcomed by Ermanpadar, the sky-father who ruled there. There the tharm of the hunter would join the other tharms among the stars. Each hunter had this right and no other could speak about it or bar his way. Even Kerrick knew that and was as silent as the others. "Pull," Amahast ordered. "To the island."
The low, grass-covered island lay close offshore and sheltered the beach here from the strength of the ocean waves. Further to the south it rose higher, above the salt spray of the sea, and there the trees began. With grass and shelter there was the promise of good hunting. Unless the murgu were here as well.
"Look, in the water!" Kerrick called out, pointing down at the sea. An immense school of hardalt was passing beneath them, tentacles trailing, their seemingly numberless, boneless bodies protected by their shells. Hastila seized up his spear by the butt end and poised it over the water. He was a big man, taller even than Amahast, yet very quick for all of that. He waited a moment--then plunged the spear down into the sea, deep down until his arm was in the water, then heaved upward.
His point had struck true, into the soft body behind the shell, and the hardalt was pulled from the water and dumped into the bottom of the boat where it lay, tentacles writhing feebly, black dye oozing from its punctured sac. They all laughed at that. He was truly named, Hastila, spear-in-hand. A spear that did not miss.
"Good eating," Hastila said, putting his foot on the shell and pulling his spear free of the body.
Kerrick was excited. How easy it looked. A single quick thrust--and there was a great hardalt, enough food to feed them all for a day. He took his own spear by the butt, just as Hastila had done. It was only half the length of the hunter's spear but the point was just as sharp. The hardalt were still there, thicker than ever, one of them roiling the surface just below the bow.
Kerrick thrust down, hard. Feeling the point sink into flesh. Seizing the haft with both hands and pulling up. The wooden shaft shook and tore at his hands but he held on grimly, tugging with all of his strength.
There was a great thrashing of foam in the water as the wet-shining head rose up beside the boat. His spear tore free of the thing's flesh and Kerrick fell backwards as the jaws opened, rows of teeth before him, a screeching roar so close the stinking breath of the creature washed over him. Sharp claws scratched at the boat, tore pieces from the wood.
Then Hastila was there, his spear plunging between those terrible jaws, once, twice. The marag screamed louder and a gush of blood spattered the boy. Then the jaws closed and, for an instant, Kerrick looked into that round unblinking eye poised before his face.
A moment later it was gone, sinking beneath the surface in a flurry of bloody foam.
"Pull for the island," Amahast ordered. "There will be more of these beasts, bigger ones, following after the hardalt. Is the boy hurt?"
Ogatyr splashed a handful of water on Kerrick's face and rubbed it clean. "Just frightened," he said looking at the drawn face.
"He is lucky," Amahast said grimly. "Luck comes only once. He will never thrust a spear into darkness again."
Never! Kerrick thought, almost shouting the word aloud, looking at the torn wood where the thing's claws had raked deep. He had heard about the murgu, seen their claws on a necklace, even touched a smooth and multicolored pouch made from the skin of one of them. But the stories had never really frightened him; tall as the sky, teeth like spears, eyes like stones, claws like knives. But he was frightened now. He turned to face the shore, sure that there were tears in his eyes and not wanting the others to see them, biting his lips as they slowly approached the land. Theboat was suddenly a thin shell above a sea of monsters and he desperately wanted to be on solid ground again. He almost cried aloud when the prow grated against the sand. While the others pulled the boat out of the water he washed away all traces of the marag's blood.
Amahast made a low hissing sound between his teeth, a hunter's signal, and they all froze, silent and motionless. He lay in the grass above them, peering over the rise. He motioned them flat with his hand, then signaled them forward to join him. Kerrick did as the others did, not rising above the grass, but carefully parting the blades with his fingers so he could look between them.
Deer. A herd of the small creatures was grazing just an arrowshot away. Plump with the rich grass of the island, moving slowly, long ears twitching at the flies that buzzed about them. Kerrick sniffed through widened nostrils and could smell the sweetness of their hides.
"Go silently along the shore," Amahast said. "The wind is blowing from them towards us, they will not smell us. We will get close." He led the way, crouching as he ran, and the others followed, Kerrick bringing up the rear.
They notched their arrows while still bent low behind the bank, drew their bows, then stood and let fly together.
The flight of arrows struck true; two of the creatures were down and a third wounded. The small buck was able to stagger some distance with the arrow in its body. Amahast ran swiftly after it and closed on the creature. It turned at bay, its tiny span of horns lowered menacingly, and he laughed and jumped towards it, seized the horns in his hands and twisted. The creature snorted and swayed, then bleated as it fell. Amahast arched its neck back as Kerrick ran up.
"Use your spear, your first kill. In the throat--to one side, stab deep and twist."
Kerrick did as he was bid and the buck bellowed in agony as the red blood burst out, drenching Kerrick's hands and arms. Blood to be proud of. He pushed the spear deeper into the wound until the creature shuddered and died.
"A good kill," Amahast said proudly. The way that he spoke made Kerrick hope that the marag in the boat would not be talked about again.
The hunters laughed with pleasure as they opened and guttedthe carcasses. Amahast pointed south towards the higher part of the island. "Take them to the trees where we can hang them to drain."
"Will we hunt again?" Hastila asked. Amahast shook his head.
"Not if we are to return tomorrow. It will take the day and the night to butcher and smoke what we have here."
"And to eat," Ogatyr said, smacking his lips loudly. "Eat our fill. The more we put into our stomachs the less we will have to carry on our backs!"
Though it was cooler under the trees they were soon crawling with biting flies. They could only beat at them and plead with Amahast for the smoke to keep them at bay.
"Skin the carcasses," he ordered, then kicked a fallen log with his toe: it fell to pieces. "Too damp. The wood here under the trees is too wet to burn. Ogatyr, bring the fire from the boat and feed it with dry grass until we return. I will take the boy and get some driftwood from the beach."
He left his bow and arrows behind, but took up his spear and started off through the grove towards the ocean side of the island. Kerrick did the same and hurried after him.
The beach was wide, the fine sand almost as white as snow. Offshore the waves broke into a rumble of bubbling froth that surged far up the beach towards them. At the water's edge were bits of wood and broken sponges, endless varicolored shells, violet snails, great green lengths of seaweed with tiny crabs clinging to them. The few small pieces of driftwood here were too tiny to bother with, so they walked on to the headland that pushed a rocky peninsula out into the sea. When they had climbed the easy slope they could look out between the trees to see that the headland curved out and around to make a sheltered bay. On the sand at the far side dark forms, they might be seals, basked in the sun.
At the same moment they became aware that someone was standing under a nearby tree, also looking out over the bay. Another hunter perhaps. Amahast had opened his mouth to call out when the figure stepped forward into the sunlight.
The words froze in his throat; every muscle in his body locked hard.
No hunter, no man, not this. Man-shaped but repellently different in every way.
The creature was hairless and naked, with a colored crest that ran across the top of its head and down its spine. It was bright inthe sunlight, obscenely marked with a skin that was scaled and multicolored.
A marag. Smaller than the giants in the jungle, but a marag nevertheless. Like all of its kind it was motionless at rest, as though carved from stone. Then it turned its head to one side, a series of small jerking motions, until they could see its round and expressionless eye, the massive out-thrust jaw. They stood, as motionless as murgu themselves, gripping their spears tightly, unseen, for the creature had not turned far enough to notice their silent forms among the trees.
Amahast waited until its gaze went back to the ocean before he moved. Gliding forward without a sound, raising his spear. He had reached the edge of the trees before the beast heard him or sensed his approach. It snapped its head about, stared directly into his face.
The hunter plunged the stone head of his spear into one lidless eye, through the eye and deep into the brain behind.
It shuddered once, a spasm that shook its entire body, then fell heavily. Dead before it hit the ground. Amahast had the spear pulled free even before that, had spun about and raked his gaze across the slope and the beach beyond. There were no more of the creatures nearby.