Mad Sun bears down like hot breath. Shadows dart from His gaze, clinging beneath rocks and falling in hard-edged knots along Mountain’s sloping banks.
A’Tana gazes at the baking valley floor far below, her brow glistening. Catarrhine nostrils taste the air’s scent, pale blue eyes scan the golden plains. She is young, tall, supple, considered a rare beauty among the womenfolk of the tribe. She is Hunter. Her bow hangs loosely from one hand, while the other provides her brow with shade from Mad Sun’s glare.
Many dark shapes move upon the scrub. The herds here are plentiful – but so too the predators. Even as she watches, a lithe form darts across the plains, scattering the pack, and takes one of the young. A’Tana hears the weak, fading echoes of its death drift up and – in unison – her mother’s disembodied voice fills her head: Only strength lives.
Acknowledging the ghostly advice with a sigh, she continues her ascent.
She has not come to these majestic peaks today to hunt, but to gather. The herb K’sha grows only in the high-lands; she intends to discover it. For if she does not, her mother might soon pass into Sky. Sickness comes to many in the tribe, but her mother is old . . . Yet, she thinks hopefully, the Shaman’s magic is powerful, and – when integrated with nature’s secrets – it is rumoured that it can raise even the dead!
Her efforts thus far have been fruitless, but there’s a great deal more Mountain, and she will not surrender its slopes empty handed. Pushing on, using her bow as a staff, she steps with measured strides, eyes fixed on the snow-capped peak high above.
Be among the strong, mother, she prays to Sky. Then she offers the same prayer to Mad Sun.
For the God’s must be worshipped equally.
A short time later she comes upon a stream, gurgling between two jagged gully walls and stoops to drink. The water is cold, delicious, clearing her tired mind at once. Wiping her mouth, she appraises the route. It will be necessary to climb, she realises with a smile. A good job she’s come prepared! . . . Once the length of knotted vine has been uncoiled, A’Tana swings the heavy Abobo tree root at its tip in tight circles and releases. The root sails up between the narrowing rocks and catches somewhere near the top.
“Praise Sky.” She starts to haul herself up, grinning now.
The going is tough; the rocks are slippery with moisture, and her hide-bound feet keep losing grip. Mad Sun bakes moisture from her brow. Salty drops run in her eyes, blinding. Twine digs into her palms as she wills her body ever upwards. She considers what might happen were she to fall now, so far from home. Two lives would be ended by those jagged rocks, for the sickness is now in its fifth day. The Shaman has warned that should a similar length of time pass again her mother will be taken to Sky. And then the door will close forever.
A’Tana calls upon Sky, bids Her lend strength to weary limbs. Already she can see the lip of the rocks above, and hauls with all her might.
Then, with a jolt, she hears Sky reply.
Her first thought is thunder: A low, rumbling growl that cascades among the rocks, making them tremble. Holding on grimly, swaying back and forth, A’Tana waits for the sudden sting of lightning to dislodge her . . . All at once she realises, Mad Sun is blazing! How can it be a storm? . . . And, even as this thought dawns the world around her seems to change. Lights flash – red, orange – upon the rocks, rippling as though reflected from water. She feels a pressure sweep over her, a giant, unseen weight. Craning her neck, she looks up.
A vast, white disc crawls across Sky, trailing colourful lights.