The sun bled, eviscerated, across the skyline as the Crone climbed the mountain to visit the Storyteller. Skulls on fraying strings of rags swept the ground in her wake, and at the cave mouth the clansfolk awaited her like crows come after the dead.
The old woman paid them no mind. They all knew of what she had come.
“Sharrah,” said the Crone, into the dim and soundless cave. “Talk with me.”
The Storyteller did not take visitors often. She had come to the clan some years ago, one leg broken, half of her hair gone, abraded by the elements. Through the Gods’ blessings she had crawled the many miles from one territory to another, reeking of exertion, skin torn from palm to knee on treacherous rock.
The Chieftess hadn’t wanted her, at first, for there had been enough hungering mouths to sate without taking in an injured one, as well.
But the newcomer had arrived with a hundred tales as her offerings, and with the long winter ahead such a skill as story telling could not be turned away lightly.
So it was that Sharrah had stayed, speaking little but when required. Few of the clansfolk dared approach her without summon, such was her reputation. Even the great hunters were wary of her, for one did well to fear the woman that had traversed a ravine on all fours and still stood upright at the end of that brutal journey.
The Crone, however, cared not. By rule she spoke on matters of diplomacy even before the Chieftess, who had not quite her years of wisdom, and was as dogged as a she-wolf in her purpose. Besides, the Crone was too old to be much afraid of anything, and was certainly not so now.
Into the cave she stepped, a gnarled hand raised in greeting. Sharrah, who crouched, stirring a fire with a blackened stick, looked at the old woman from under fronds of matted hair and grimaced.
“You want something,” she said, gruffly. “What?”
The Crone rocked on her heels, unperturbed, warming herself upon the flames.
“Guidance,” she rasped. “There is something in the valley. It goes into the animals, a dark spirit. Now it is in a mammoth. Lives there. Stole its eyes.”
At this Sharrah laid down her stick and studied the Crone in earnest.
“This is the truth?”
Jutting her chin, the old woman spat into the shadows.
“It is the truth. Saw it myself. A blind animal, taking our children, our women from the riverbank.”
At this Sharrah sneered.
“How does it take, without eyes?”
The Crone made a mask with her fingers across her face, a strange mesh of skin and bone.
“It still sees. With Heksra.”
The Storyteller heaved a shuddering breath and glanced at the wall, where one of the clan’s painters had daubed a scene from one of her most popular tales. A hunter speared a winged snake, its blood shattering about it like red stars.
Sometimes the image seemed to move in firelight as though its simple figures lived within the stone. Now they were quite still, less than corpses in that they had never breathed.
Leaning upon her knees, Sharrah said, “The clan thinks I have Heksra. But magic does not give me words to advise. Words just come. The clan must know this.”
The Crone chuckled with the harmless mirth of a child.
“The clan knows,” she said. “But the Storyteller has magic, still.”
Sharrah did not deny it; she only said, “The Shaman has more.”
There was a lull, then, as the old woman picked her teeth with a chip of bone.
“The Shaman is dead,” she muttered, at last. “Taken by the dark spirit mammoth. So you must go into the valley. Make the demon leave us.”
Standing abruptly, Sharrah walked about the cave in jagged circles, her hands wild, dancing the air. She seemed in conversation with herself, although her mouth was unmoving.
“If I die,” she said, at last, “all the clan dies. The dark spirit will come and take all, for revenge.”
With a twisting smile, the Crone responded, “So do not die.”
Later the Storyteller dressed in the black furs of a slain bear and wore a flint knife against her thigh, its blade cold and bracing. She went out of the cave like a hunted fox and beheld the clansfolk swarming the mountain, watching her descent.
The Chieftess came forth and held out a staff of burning wood.
“So you will find the way,” she said, simply.
The Storyteller nodded and accepted the staff. There would come a point in her journey that she must leave it behind, lest the mammoths see her coming. Still, there was much honour in this gesture of gift giving, from the Chieftess, no less, who had once spurned her.
“Gods watch you,” said Sharrah, and made the symbol of their deities, a thumb closed between fingers, as the earth was by their protection.
At once many hands went up in that same gesture, and did not go down again until Sharrah had reached the bottom of the mountain and set out into the valley of dust and stone.
The night was a victim of silence, the absence of what had once been. Sequestered in her cave the Storyteller had not perceived this, but now she sensed the land much changed through the fear of death’s tyranny across its back.
Even the stunted trees seemed withdrawn, ever-still in a mode of terror. There were no insects in the humid air, no lizards under the stones that turned beneath Sharrah’s boots.
The only thing alive was the wind, and even that was stale with some distant foulness.
As Sharrah came again to some high point she saw its cause: piled corpses in the valley below, arranged in strange configurations as altars to some starving God.
Who or what, then, did the mammoths worship?
As the Storyteller edged down the mountainside the torch in her right hand flickered. Kneeling in the dirt, she put it out.
The moon was as high and full and milky as a mother’s breast, lighting the plain with its pouring silver. Sharrah saw now, by its light, the blunt figures of shaggy titans roving in circles about their flesh-hewn effigies. It was only after having watched them raise their trunks skywards with great, howling cries that the Storyteller realised their ritual.
It was the moon itself they worshipped, their white and celestial God.
She crept slowly down a rock face, favouring her better leg, the long-ago broken one having never quite been strong again.
As she inched towards the ground her gaze sought out the dark spirit mammoth, finding it, at once, by the crown of bloodied bone resting upon its forehead, its empty eyes mere ragged pits.
The creature stood at the heart of the circle, amidst the offerings, the very emblem of malice. Sharrah could feel it watching her, as she descended, with the sight of its black magic.
Despite this it made no rallying cry to its tribe, nor did it charge upon her.
The Storyteller had known that it would not.
From the elders of her first clan Sharrah had learned that such dark spirits had been human, once, Shamans that had turned in greed and wicked intent to Heksra only the Gods should know. The minds of men were not made for such power, and they went swiftly mad in the sway of it.
Conceivably such creatures could still be moved enough by their avarice to be bargained with, however.
Sharrah approached the dark spirit mammoth, restraining a flinch as the others in its tribe rounded on her, blaring their alien cries into the night. They could crush her to death, if they chose it, or else rip her through with the pale spears of tusks.
“Call down your people, great spirit,” said Sharrah, lowering herself to her trembling knees in the earth. “I bring an offering to you, Great One.”
The eyeless mammoth ambled through its herd, parting their number like a primal sea. It loomed over Sharrah, and from its shape she sensed a rolling evil, like the heat of offal, or a split open womb.
“WHAT IS YOUR OFFERING, WOMAN?” asked the spirit. “OUR ALTARS ARE FULL. WE HAVE NO MORE NEED OF FLESH.”
Its voice was a thing not heard, but felt, like thunder, a shuddering dread.
“I do not bring flesh,” said, the Storyteller, “but something you cannot take from the clans. It is only given. A great prize.”
At this the herd stirred restlessly, and the dark spirit mammoth rumbled deep in its colossal chest with disdain.
“YOU HAVE NOTHING I CANNOT TAKE.”
“Not true,” Sharrah replied, her tone flat, patient. “In my clan I am a Storyteller. I know many tales. I have come to give one to you.”
The spirit considered this a moment, the blunt whip of its tail thrashing the night. Amongst Sharrah’s people stories held the same value as food, and shelter; likely the demon knew this, and coveted such spoils as had been lost to it when it took on the form of the mammoth.
“WHY DO YOU BRING THIS?” asked the spirit, with a sudden suspicion. “WHAT DO YOU WANT, WOMAN?”
“Your favour,” Sharrah replied. “You are strong. You have much power.”
At this the mammoth scoffed, its fantastic bulk roiling.
“I TAKE YOUR CLAN WIVES AND OFFSPRING IN SERVICE TO THE MOON. YOU WISH TO BE SPARED HER DESIRE.”
Yet it was in the dark spirit that desire lay, a coiling cancer, twisting the hungers of man and animal as one. It stepped towards Sharrah, the leaden python of its trunk outstretched in a longing to caress her. She moved back across the dirt, her eyes low, still curtly reverent.
“I would defend my life,” she confessed. “If you allowed it.”
“TELL YOUR TALE, STORYTELLER OF THE MOON BOUND CLAN,” said the dark spirit mammoth. “IF IT IS GOOD, YOU WILL LIVE.”
“It is good,” she repeated. “So I will live.”
The dark spirit mammoth laughed, a sound like wind blowing through a cairn at night.
Thoughtful, the Storyteller turned her head to the mountains, each peak picked out like sabre’s teeth by the moonlight.
“One night,” she said. “Rain came down like falling stars, and white fire opened the sky. In a lost clan a child was born. Their Shaman said the Gods sent it. Its mother died in the birth, and so the chieftess raised it as her own.
“The sons of this leader were jealous. They did not like the child. People worshipped it, and said the babe would rule before them. But the child did not want to lead. This was not its purpose.”
All around Sharrah the mammoth tribe watched with arid eyes. The spirit stood close enough to kill her, and yet it too only listened with rapt attention.
“The child had many dreams,” said the Storyteller. “It saw beasts in great water, far from here. It saw warriors fight one another, and which of them would take victory. It saw the Gods bring snow down so deep that many froze to death, or starved. Some of these things had happened, long ago. Some had not yet passed, and some would never be.
“The child began to tell these dreams to others, and people gathered to listen.”
“WHO WOULD LISTEN TO A CHILD?” the spirit leered.
Smiling thinly, Sharrah said, “The child grew, and was a woman. The chieftess’ offspring still hated her like the sun hates the night. Their mother had an illness, and was dying. They were sure, now, that she would favour the Dreamteller as leader over them. One of the brothers asked this woman to be his wife, thinking to keep his claim. She denied him. This made the brothers angry.”
Sharrah looked to the sacrificial dead, cold and reeking, more of meat than the people they had once been. She had known none well enough to love them, yet they were hers, still.
“The second brother accused the Dreamteller of having a dark Heksra. There were others in the clan afraid of her stories that wished her gone. These people helped the brother shame the woman. They cut off her hair. They pelted her with stones. But, though close to dying, the chieftess rose from her bed furs to protect the Dreamteller, for she loved her like a daughter. She was harmed no more.
“Time passed. The Dreamteller stayed by the chieftess, under her guard. The brothers waited. Then there came another storm, wild as the night the Dreamteller was born.”
The circle of mammoths had tightened around Sharrah, lured in by the pull of the tale. Their leader was quiet, still, a motionless audience.
“Stones were shook down the mountain,” said Sharrah. “Trees burned. Then, as the sun rose, the chieftess died. It was said that the Dreamteller had killed her. A lie, but it was believed. The third brother, swallowed by grief and hatred, dragged the Dreamteller from his mother’s deathbed and threw her down the mountainside. None of the clan stayed his hand, only watched the woman fall. She landed upon a ledge of stone, and so did not die. Only her leg was broken.”
Swallowing, the Storyteller paused, and the black spirit mammoth twitched its impatience.
“WHAT THEN?” it asked. “THERE IS MORE?”
“Yes,” said Sharrah. “As the Dreamteller lay, dazed, another rockfall came down the mountain, stones loosened by the storm’s winds. They struck the clanspeople gathered at their cave mouths, killing the sons of the chieftess, and many who followed them. The Dreamteller was protected in an alcove. She heard the screams, the tempest of stones, the silence of the dead, afterwards.
“When she crawled free of the hole in the mountain again the air was thick with blood-stink, and worse. She did not stay. She did not want to. Slow, slow, she went down into the valley. Across it there was another clan. The Dreamteller went to join them. They sensed her power, but for this they kept her. She was honoured there, not hated. So they there lived, and will live on.”
Sharrah stepped towards the dark spirit mammoth, quivering as the flesh-scented filth of its hot breath stifled her. The smoke of it seemed to blacken the evening, dense and vicious with excitement.
“THAT IS HOW YOUR TALE ENDS?” asked the demon. “IN DEATH, AND VICTORY?”
“As all the great stories of our clans do,” Sharrah returned, gently. “So what of ours?”
Then from her thigh she took the flint knife she’d hidden there in a deer skin sheath and leapt up to the throat of the mammoth, her good leg strong, carrying the jump. Into the soft folds of the beast’s throat she sunk her blade and tore it left to right, spilling free blood and with it an unearthly billow of steam.
The herd—freed of the spirit’s magic, yet now bewildered and afraid—staggered about the human offerings, trumpeting and howling their emotion. Slowly the beast that had been their leader fell to earth, a leviathan of flesh and ebony hair.
Sharrah lingered, bathing in the sapphire fall of blood. She sensed the dark spirit, furious in the air around her. It was unable to claim another host with its previous form deceased; in its arrogance it had not thought to prepare itself for this.
“Go, now,” the Storyteller commanded. “You have lived enough.”
Still the spirit seethed, tearing about her, typhoonous, and vivid in its threats of killing and defilement. She endured it, for even then she felt it fade. Perhaps the moon would take this spirit as Her offering, as She had the lives of many in Sharrah’s clan.
The mammoths were all gone, now, having run across the valley, away from her. There was the scent of rain and dirt in the air; they had taken the spirit with them, these elements.
With the killing done, the Storyteller returned to her clan, walking all night, ignoring the ache in her weaker leg, which she was long used to. The sun was up again by the time she arrived at her cave, its orb ruddy as afterbirth on the opaline horizon.
The clansfolk were waiting upon the mountain to greet her, as she had known they would. As Sharrah passed them the Crone nodded and smiled with barren gums, but the Chieftess only watched, awed and fearing, as she lay down the spirit’s bone crown in the earth before her.
“Go into the valley,” said the Storyteller. “You will find a dead mammoth there. I could not take the tusks or pelt alone. Leave the meat. It is long spoiled.”
She did not wait for thanks, only went on into her cave and its consoling blackness. The others did not follow her. Sharrah lay down under her bed furs and, exhausted, she slumbered.
In her dreams she tumbled down the mountain, awakening only at the very end of her fall in a fierce and livid gladness. It was but a memory, she knew, one she’d conjured herself in the spell work of words.
Soon it would pass, and other dreams would come that were not hers.