FOR MANY DAYS AFTER THEY started their trek southward, the tribe were in familiar territory with recognizable landmarks and known water holes; but at last they came to the point, ten days’ march from the Cave, beyond which they had never previously ventured. It was a small outcropping of rock, nothing to note in the vast emptiness of the grasslands and invisible fifty yards away.
There they halted, and Dom’s father turned to the north, to where the Cave lay far beyond the horizon. He spoke to the spirits of their ancestors who dwelt there, telling them of his sadness at taking the tribe into the unknown lands of the south. It was a hateful thing but necessary; because year after year there had been less game, and without game the tribe could not live.
He did not ask the spirits for their protection in the future. They all knew it would have served little purpose. The protection of the spirits had power only in lands where they themselves had roamed in the flesh. Uncharted strangeness lay ahead.
Then Dom’s father turned his back on the Cave, and raised his hand in signal to the tribe.
“Now we go.”
• • •
Day after day they traveled south. At first the country was no different from that to which they were accustomed: rolling grassland with occasional rocks and small bushes, a few rounded hills. All that had changed was their awareness of it, the sense of familiarity. But that counted for much. A feeling of unease clung to them, bowing their shoulders and chilling their hearts despite the sun that burned from dawn to rapid dusk out of the blue arch of the sky. Children whimpered unaccountably. Hunters quarreled with one another and sometimes fought savagely.
And water holes had to be found. In the land they had known, all but the youngest children could have made their way unhesitatingly to those oases on which, even more urgently than on meat, their lives depended. The tribe could live at a pinch on roots, if need be go for days with empty bellies, but without water they must die.
They searched and found them, following signs—tracks of animals, a bird distantly hovering, small changes in the pattern of vegetation—but it was not easy, and they learned to live with thirst. In addition the searching took up time which otherwise could have been devoted to the hunt.
Game remained scarce. The herds of antelope they discovered were few and small. They hunted them and occasionally made a kill and filled their bellies, but more often than not they went hungry; and hunger increased the unease which racked them. They feared this alien land.
Then one day they met strangers.
The first encounter was at a water hole. They had gone there following a kill and the hunters were resting beside the pool. There were hills nearby, peaked with jagged rock. One of the women called out, pointing to the figure that stood on the ridge above them.
It was a man who wore skins as they did and carried a club. From this distance his features were indistinguishable: he might have been one of themselves. But Dom, hearing the low growl of anger that swelled from the throats of the other hunters, felt the hair prickling on his head. He growled himself with the beginning of rage, and his heart beat faster.
Dom’s father gave a command and the hunters moved, but they needed no urging. They raced up the ridge toward the stranger, yelling their hatred, and the old ones and the boys followed after them, shouting more shrilly. When the stranger fled their shouts grew louder and more savage.
The chase led them in the direction of the hills. The fleeter-footed of the hunters were gaining on the man as he reached the first rocky slope and scrambled up it, scattering small stones. The slope leveled to a rugged plateau, about a hundred yards wide, then rose more steeply. They saw him run across it and shouted in anticipation of triumph. On the second steeper slope the rock was bare of grass or plants, and higher up Dom saw the openings of caves. It was toward them that the stranger was climbing.
Figures emerged from the openings and the hunters yelled with sharpened anger. They flung themselves at the second slope, using their clubs to get purchases in clefts of rock, pulling themselves up with their free hands. The men of the other tribe, standing above them, shouted in reply. The words in themselves meant nothing but what they conveyed—rage and defiance—was plain enough.
Dom’s father was in the lead, Dom behind him to his right. He had no thought of what might happen when they came to grips with these others, beyond the awareness that they were enemies and so must be killed.
Then the rocks began to hurtle down. He thought the first one had been dislodged by accident but it was followed by a second, by a shower of rocks. Near him a hunter cried out and fell backward. Dom looked up and saw one of the enemy, standing on a ledge, hurl down a boulder as big as an antelope’s skull. It would have hit him if he had not flattened himself against the rock face in time and seen it go bouncing and crashing down the slope.
A second hunter fell, and a third. The enemy shouted more loudly, and there was something in their cries which began to chill his blood. He saw his father get as far as the first ledge, on which the man who had thrown the boulder stood; now he swung furiously with a club. He stood half a man’s height above Dom’s father and the blow landed: not cleanly but with power enough to send him tumbling backward. When the other hunters saw that, they retreated and Dom went with them.
They collected together at the foot of the slope. One of those who had fallen had an arm that hung loose and his face was twisted with pain, but the rest were not badly injured. Dom’s father, though he had taken the blow on his shoulder, showed only the small cuts and abrasions of his fall.
High above, the enemy chanted in triumph. They stood outlined on the ledges below the caves, and Dom could see that there were fewer of them than the hunters of the tribe—scarcely half as many. His father looked up, too, silently for a moment while the hunters watched him. Then with a frightening yell that echoed among the rocks he started to climb again.
Stones and boulders crashed down as Dom and the hunters followed him. One caught Dom on his right arm and the club almost fell from his suddenly nerveless hand. This time fear was already in his mind, not far beneath the anger. He clung to the rock face, irresolute. As he prepared to climb again he saw the hunter above him struck by a stone just above the eyes. He fell with a screech of agony, his body dropping through the air only a foot or two from Dom, hit a needle of rock and fell once more, silent now, to lie unmoving on the ground below.
That was when fear overcame anger. Dom scrambled down, concerned only to get away from the hail of stones. He had reached the foot of the slope before he realized he was not alone. Others of the hunters had fled with him and more were following suit; last of all his father.
The enemy yelled but the hunters were silent. They picked up the one who had fallen, though he was plainly dead, and went away. As they descended the second slope toward level ground, the enemy came pouring down and across the plateau to jeer at them. The hunters slouched back in the direction of the water hole. One or two moaned from their wounds; otherwise they walked in silence. The old ones and the boys, who had waited at the foot of the hill, followed dejectedly.
• • •
Dom slept badly and from the sounds about him knew that the others were as restless. In the morning they fed on what was left of the previous day’s kill. Normally this would have cheered them up but it was not like that today. The hunters grumbled sullenly among themselves. At last one spoke out:
“We must go back. These are bad lands. We must go back to the Cave, to the place where the spirits of our forefathers will protect us.”
He was a big man, almost as big as Dom’s father. He had grumbled before but not in the presence of the chief. Dom’s father said:
“That would do no good. In the old lands there is little game and the water holes are drying up. We must go on.”
“But this land takes our courage from us,” the hunter said, “and the strength from our arms. You go on. We will go back.”
Dom’s father walked stiff-legged toward the hunter and, standing in front of him, roared out his anger. It was a fearful sound and Dom shivered to hear it; but the hunter shouted back defiance. Then each took an antelope-horn dagger from his belt.
The hunter moved, making a circle about Dom’s father, his heels raised clear of the ground as he walked. Dom’s father turned with him, not moving from the spot on which he stood. The roaring and shouting were finished—they stared at each other in silence, lips drawn back in snarls of hatred.
After the first circle the hunter made a second, and a third. Still Dom’s father turned and kept his ground. All the tribe watched, the hunters quiet, the women and boys making low hissing noises between their teeth. Dom watched too, in excitement and anger and fear.
The hunter attacked. He threw himself forward with a shriek that split the air, his right hand raised to plunge the dagger into Dom’s father’s neck. But Dom’s father’s own right arm went up, inside the descending one. The two figures met in shock. For a moment or two they swayed together, their strengths opposing and balancing; until with a cry of triumph Dom’s father thrust forward and the hunter staggered and fell to the ground.
He was not hurt, although his dagger had dropped from his hand. Yet he made no attempt to rise or defend himself, not even when the weapon hand of his adversary plunged down toward him. He only groaned as the dagger stabbed through his flesh and found his heart.
Dom’s father put his foot on the body, and looked at the tribe.
“We go on,” he said.
They murmured in agreement. Dom’s father pointed to the body of the hunter who had been killed in the attack on the hill tribe. It had been kept within the circle of sleepers all night, to protect it from scavenging beasts.
“He will stay here,” Dom’s father said. He rolled the other one under his foot. “As this will. Their spirits will attack our enemies after we have gone.”
So the old ones took the corpses and threw them in the water hole. Then the tribe resumed its march.
• • •
The grasslands gave way to higher ground on which there were some bushes and eventually trees. They still did not see many antelope but there were other animals. They saw a giraffe for the first time, and gazed in astonishment at this huge creature with the tiny head perched on top of the long mottled neck.
The hunters gave chase and the giraffe fled away, moving awkwardly and less fast than an antelope but easily outdistancing its pursuers. The next day, though, they sighted two, and tracked them and drove them into the reach of the waiting warriors. One of the beasts lumbered toward Dom and he swung his club at a long spindly leg. His blow glanced off but others succeeded and the giraffe, with a crack of bone, crashed to the ground. The hunters threw themselves on it, driving their daggers in at a dozen different spots as the animal struggled under them. Its heart was less easily found than the heart of an antelope, and it was a long time before it lay still.
When they had feasted on the giraffe they went on. This was altogether better land; greener and with more game in it. Water holes were more frequent, too. One day they came to a small river, and stared at the broad track of water, continually running away and yet continually replenished.
One of the men said: “We could hunt on either side of this water. There is much game.” He nodded to Dom’s father in token of respect. “You have brought us to a good land, chief. Let us stay here and go no farther.”
But Dom’s father said: “In our old land we had the Cave.” He pointed at the sky where, for some days past, the blue had been largely hidden by fleecy cloud. “Where will we find shelter here, in the time of rains? We must go on.”
That night, as though the spirits of the sky had listened to his words, it rained: a downpour which soaked through the covering hides and drenched them all. The next morning they shivered until the sun broke through and dried them. They went on, to the south.
• • •
They came across plenty of game, of many different kinds: pigs and baboons and smaller animals like porcupine. They found zebra and hunted them, but the zebra kicked their way through the line of waiting hunters, leaving two wounded and one dead from the blows of hooves. After that they left the zebra alone and tackled easier quarry.
They did not discover a place to shelter them from the rains but the hills became steeper and rockier and Dom’s father said they must find one soon. No one disputed this. They were grateful and honored him for bringing them into a land so rich in water and game.
One night they slept near the entrance to a valley that was part grassed and part wooded. Blue-white rocks showed among the vegetation that covered its slopes. They had made a kill the previous afternoon and today, Dom’s father said, they would explore the valley walls and seek a cave.
The path they took was along the western side of the valley, through scrub and treeland interspersed with clearings. Some of the boys ran ahead but Dom walked behind with the men, remembering he was a hunter and had a hunter’s dignity to maintain.
Then two boys came hurrying back and went to Dom’s father, nodding their heads in respect.
“We have found game!”
Dom’s father said: “We do not need game. Our bellies are full, and the women carry fresh meat.”
“There are strange men who are with the game.”
Dom’s father glared in anger.
One of the boys said: “They do not hunt. They watch.”
Dom’s father shook his head. Dom did not understand this, either. The watching must be part of a hunt; but the boy had said the men were with the game. It made no sense.
Dom’s father said: “Show us this—the game, and the men who watch.”
Guided by the boys the hunters went stealthily through the bushes. They came to a clearing and peered from behind a screen of leaves. They saw cattle in front of them—animals as big as the large antelope but thicker and clumsier in body. They could not run as antelope ran, Dom thought, with legs like that. When they fled, the hunters would catch them without much difficulty.
He saw the men also. There were two of them, standing near the cattle and talking together. He felt his blood stir, the hair on his neck bristling with anger.
Dom’s father yelled in rage and all the hunters yelled with him. They broke shouting from the bushes and ran through the grass—the two men turned and fled but strangely the animals stayed where they were, not scattering until the hunters were among them and clubbing them down. There were more than a score and they left three dead behind; the hunters could have killed twice as many with little extra effort.
His foot on one of the beasts, Dom’s father roared to the sky his triumph. All the hunters shouted, too, praising him. He had brought them through bad lands to a place where there was water everywhere, to a place where game stood unmoving while you slaughtered it. Soon he would find them a cave where they could shelter from the rains. The enemy had fled at his first cry. This was good land; and the tribe were masters of it as once they had been masters of the grasslands.
Dom shouted with the rest, proud of the tribe and of his father who had done all these things.
They feasted in the clearing which had a stream running beside it. The women cut up the dead beasts but took only the tenderest parts of their flesh: there was far more meat here than they could eat in several days. They stripped off the hides but left the bloody carcasses in the grass. Vultures circled overhead, but dared not come down while the tribe was there.
It was late afternoon and they dozed, full-bellied, in the sun. Dom had a dream of hunting, and his body twitched as in the dream he yelled at onrushing antelope. But the yell became real, echoing in his ears though not from his own throat. Bewildered he leaped to his feet and saw the enemy bursting out of the bushes on the far side of the clearing. His club of bone lay at his feet; quickly he picked it up and ran forward with the other hunters to take up the challenge.
The strangers outnumbered the hunters, though they were smaller and slimmer men. They carried pointed stones which they tried to use as daggers; but the great clubs of the hunters struck them down before they could come to grips. One of the men rushed at Dom while he was off guard from striking at another, but Dom saw him in time and fended the blow off with his arm. The man was fully grown and bigger than Dom, but he did not press the attack and fell back weakly.
The fight was quickly over, with the rest of the enemy fleeing as the first two had done. The hunters pursued them a little way into the bushes, but they ran well and the hunters were gorged with meat. They went back to the clearing where the remainder of the tribe waited.
Now their joy, and their pride in themselves and their chief, were greater than ever. By overcoming this enemy they had avenged the defeat on the rocky hillside. They had said the tribe were the masters of this good new land: their victory proved it true.
In the Beginning
In the beginning, many, many years ago, there were two tribes. Dom was a boy from the hunting tribe, and Va was a girl from the farming tribe. The two tribes fought, but that couldn’t stop Dom and Va from falling in love.
In the midst of battle, Dom escapes and takes Va with him. Together, they journey across the stark landscape of eons past, learning about the harsh and aggressive world around them even as they learn more about the creative and peaceful feelings within themselves.
In the Beginning includes the prequel short story “In the Beginning” and the novel Dom and Va, and marks a captivating departure from John Christopher’s other, futuristic work: this is a tale of the distant past, and of a beginning that represents the conflicts inherent in human nature—and the dark and light in all of us.
- Aladdin |
- 288 pages |
- ISBN 9781481420037 |
- May 2015