The deer bent its slender neck, reaching for a bit of tall weed near the edge of the clearing. Hidden behind a nearby tree, Uklar slowly raised his bow and drew. The wooden frame creaked, and the deer looked up suspiciously. Uklar froze, holding his breath, and the deer, perceiving no threat, turned back to its meal. Sighting along the shaft, Uklar aimed just above the shoulder, and released.
The stone arrow thudded deep into the deer’s side. A good shot. A death shot. Uklar could tell just from the sound. The animal stumbled sideways, falling briefly to the ground before righting itself in a mad scraping scramble of hooves. It was sad watching the animal try to drag itself away, but the sounds were what really bothered Uklar, the pitiable screeching cries of pain, uncannily similar to the cries of his first two children in their own death throes.
This animal will feed us tonight, he thought, as he approached.We will have fine new clothes, sewing needles, and bone-carved totems for the gods.A snack had taken the edge off of Uklar’s hunger a little while before, but now as he approached the collapsed deer, he began to grow hungry again. This deer would be delicious roasted over the fire pit.
Uklar bent down to where the creature lay rasping in the grass. Pulling out his stone knife, he slit its throat. Uklar adjusted the positioning of his tools where they attached to his shirt and belt, preparing to lift the creature onto his back.
But something was wrong.
He fell down flat on the ground, unsure of what had triggered his fear. Looking around for cover, he spotted a little tussock and crawled over to it, where he lay still, sniffing the air and scanning the trees.
Wind stirred the grass, causing it to rustle loudly, and Uklar used the opportunity to shift himself until he was sure that the tall grass was concealing him. When the wind died back down, he heard a faint shuffling and the crackle of a branch.
At the edge of the trees, a head emerged from behind a thick trunk: a man, whose dark hair and beard were much like Uklar’s. Yet, he was not from Uklar’s clan.
So who was he?
Not a loner–a loner would be hungrier; he wouldn’t have full cheeks and quick, darting eyes like this man. A scout from another clan, then? The Boulder Folk had been very active recently, and their territory was close.
The intruder watched the clearing. Uklar watched him. He saw the intruder’s eyes fix on the deer, Uklar’s kill.
He knows I’m here, thought Uklar, feeling his hand begin to tremble.
The intruder moved slightly and Uklar spotted a club hanging from his hip. So he was a Boulder Man then. In addition to the club he would have a sling and throwing stones. Uklar’s spear and bow were better weapons, but he had left them leaning against his shooting tree. To fight or to run–it would all depend on what the other man did. Would he back away? Would he stay to hunt Uklar?
Neither, it seemed.
The Boulder Man stepped forward into the clearing. Confused, Uklar followed his eyes to the deer, and realized… it had fallen such that its wounds were hidden from the other man’s view.
Uklar would have to act quickly. As soon as the Boulder Man saw the blood on the grass, he would know that Uklar was there. But despite the tension, a new confidence rose in Uklar. He had the advantage, the surprise.
The Boulder Man continued in his slow crouch towards the fallen animal, scanning left and right for danger. He stopped just next to the tussock, turned slightly away from Uklar.
Now.
Uklar burst out of the grass, planting his knife into the Boulder Man’s shocked face as it turned towards him. Blade scraped on bone and the Boulder Man fell back screaming, grabbing at his face with one hand. Uklar jumped on top of him, swinging at his enemy’s face and throat with knife and fist, roaring with battle rage. The Boulder Man slapped away Uklar’s blows, grabbing at his wrist and trying to disarm him.
Uklar tried a killing blow to the throat, but the Boulder Man caught his wrist and grappled for control of the weapon. Prying at the Boulder Man’s fingers, Uklar pulled his wrist free, but the Boulder Man shoved him hard so that he fell back and got tangled in the grass. Uklar freed himself and dove back at his enemy, only to find a club swinging at his left eye. He caught the spiked weapon painfully in his hand and gripped it tight, wrenching it from his enemy’s grasp. Uklar dropped his knife to the ground, grasped the club handle with both hands, and smashed it down into the Boulder Man’s fear-widened eyes.
His head caved in, and he died instantly.
Uklar dropped the club and collapsed onto his rear, breathing heavily, but still alert, looking for danger. The sounds of the struggle would have carried. More enemies could be coming.
As soon as he was able, Uklar stood. His hand stung, but he would have to worry about that later. For now, he had to get his deer and his story home. He took the Boulder Man’s club and attached it to his own belt. Then, retrieving his knife from the ground, he knelt down next to his fallen enemy and took his scalp. Uklar couldn’t help smiling as he imagined the reactions of the young women when they saw this trophy. How they would fawn over him. How they would desire him. A deer over his shoulders and a scalp at his belt: a good hunter and a strong warrior.
He walked over to the deer and pulled out his arrow, examining the shaft. It was still functional. One of the boys would be able to use it to practice his shooting. Uklar secured the weapon in his quiver, then bending down to grab the animal, heaved it up onto his back, and headed for home.
Sunset’s orange fingers cradled the sky as the deer roasted on a spit over the main fire, tended by the clan women. Everyone else watched the roasting meat hungrily as they performed various evening tasks, and Uklar stopped for a moment to enjoy the smell before continuing on his way, massaging the fresh hide wrapping on his injured hand, which itched and stung. He passed the clan’s infirm, laid out prostrate in the grass around the Shaman’s dwelling, where the wise man tended to them. Loora was there shivering, still in the throes of child sickness; the baby had been weak, sent to the gods for judgment. Glodmira had only fallen down and cut her knee, but the leg was black now. Uklar knew what would happen next. The spirits would come for her, just as they had for Guklar, his brother, who had received a cut in battle.
Guklar would have cheered proudly for Uklar if he had been alive that day. Uklar imagined his gregarious brother, hoisting himself onto a mound of firewood to loudly extol the strength and fighting spirit that flowed through their family.
A small group was already assembled around Leader Ordbog’s hut, and Uklar joined them, taking a modest place in the circle, though not as modest as usual, for his day’s achievements were being celebrated.
A hand clapped his shoulder, and Udok Blood-Eye smiled at him, his flickering reddish-purple eyelid half-closed.
"You have done the clan proud today, Uklar," he said.
"Yes, indeed," said the tall, lithe Ogrot. "We are elevated in the eyes of the gods."
The back-slapping continued until Leader Ordbog strode over with Adviser Onik, one of the leader’s hands resting on Onik’s broad shoulder while the other massaged his own unusually ample stomach. Ordbog took a seat next to Shaman Genarut, and Onik settled on Ordbog’s other side. The shaman gave Uklar a four-toothed smile and then whispered something in Ordbog’s ear. He had to repeat it several times before Ordbog gave his quiet nod of understanding.
They all shared a pinch of Godweed before Ordbog held up his arms to call for silence.
"An intruder encroached on our hunting lands today," he said. "Thanks to Uklar, he is dead. But we must now decide whether or not to respond and how. Onik?"
The adviser leaned his scarred face forward and spoke in a low rumble. "The scout was definitely a Boulder Man. I have inspected the club Uklar brought back, and it is just as they make them."
"Very good, then. This was the work of the Boulder Folk. Who has a consideration to make?"
Ogrot leaned forward and spoke. "Uklar claimed in his report that the scout appeared well-fed and healthy. It means that this is not a move of desperation, but a challenge."
"That’s not certain," said Onik. "Scouts are generally well-fed, even in poor times, but I think we should assume the Boulder Folk are strong until we know otherwise. Have we heard of any trouble with their tribe? Anything that might tell us their motives?"
They all looked at Scout Glugor, recently returned from a long foray. He had been forced to eat spoiled meat to survive the journey, and his disease-weakened frame was being supported in its sitting position by a heavy tree stump. He coughed weakly. "No, we haven’t had much news of them of late. Last we knew they were fighting with the Lake Clan. But we have not had word of bad spirits or drought among the Boulder Folk."
"So… what then? A land grab?"
"Does it make a difference?" asked Blood-Eye. "Either way, this action means trouble. If they are desperate, they will try to poach our game secretly. If they are powerful, they will encroach, make war with us. We should fight them."
"Maybe. Or we could make an alliance, join forces. We are strong. It will be better for them not to fight us."
"No," said Ordbog, finally weighing in. "No alliance. That may work for a time, while the meat is plentiful. But we all know that won’t last. We have little enough food as it is even in good times. Joining forces will only starve us all."
"Battle then, you think?" asked Udok.
They all paused while Genarut whispered in Ordbog’s ear.
"Perhaps," continued the leader. "It seems that we have two choices: ward off the Boulder Folk by strengthening our areas of control, or force them off with battle. Udok, you wish to respond?"
"Yes. We should fight. The Boulder Folk will not learn of their dead scout for at least a day. They do not know that we have discovered their encroachment; therefore, they have no reason to believe we have hostile intentions towards them. This is our best chance to take them by surprise."
"Blood-Eye is right," said Ogrot. "I say battle as well."
"Glugor?" Ordbog looked questioningly at the scout, who was known for his wise caution and careful considerations.
In response, Glugor turned to Uklar.
"What did you do with the body, Uklar?" he asked.
"I left it as bait for the animals," said Uklar, hoping now that the action hadn’t been a foolish one.
"Then any other scouts they have around could find it. If we attack, they may not be as surprised as you think."
The elders in the circle nodded thoughtfully. Uklar felt a twinge of shame.
Glugor continued, coughing intermittently: "The Hill Clan has toolmakers who supply them with strong, sharp blades made of metal. I say we trade with them and supply our scouts with these weapons. Anyone who comes into our territory will learn to fear us. They will bring word back to their tribes who will not wish to attack us."
Ogrot raised his eyebrows at Uklar, clearly tempted by the idea of more powerful weapons.
"This idea is worthy of consideration Glugor. Those are fearsome weapons that would give us an advantage over many of the other clans."
"I agree," said Udok. "But we can do that after we attack the Boulder Folk. If Glugor is right about the corpse being discovered, then that is an argument for moving more quickly and not less. The chance to defeat the Boulder Folk is too good to miss. This is not the first time they have encroached. They see us as a threat, and they desire our hunting lands which are teeming with beasts. One way or another we will have to confront them. It should be at a time of our choosing and not theirs."
Ordbog turned to Uklar.
"And what is your consideration, Foe-Slayer?"
Uklar was surprised. Leader Ordbog was asking his opinion? He puffed out his chest and looked around at the men in the circle. He was one of them now. He had to act like it.
"The Boulder Folk are not so strong," he said. "I defeated one with only a knife. If we fight, they will fall before our spears and arrows."
The other warriors cheered enthusiastically.
"Onik?" said Ordbog.
All eyes were on the adviser as he nodded his agreement.
Ordbog stood up to address them.
"Blood-Eye is right. The opportunity is here to end our trouble with the Boulder Folk. We must seize it. We will move tomorrow, arrive in their territory at dusk, and kill them while they sleep."
Uklar yawned as he made his morning trip out to the waste pit, though he was more excited than tired. Tonight would be his first real battle–a chance to prove himself, to earn more respect in the eyes of the gods and the clan, and to take a new wife.
Udok Blood-Eye was coming back from the pit and stopped Uklar where the air was still breathable to talk to him.
"Are you ready, Uklar?"
"I am, and I am eager to fight."
The older warrior gripped his shoulder with strong fingers.
"Tonight will be a glorious victory. You proved your strength yesterday, Foe-Slayer. Will you join me in leading the battle against the Boulder Folk?"
"I happily accept that honor."
"Ah-ha! Just like your father and brother. The warrior spirit is strong in your family. Now go relieve yourself so we can depart."
When Uklar returned to the camp, he gathered his weapons. While his wife rewrapped his injured hand and painted him for war, another young woman prepared a few supplies: a skin of water, a bundle of dried meat, some charms and necklaces for luck and protection. His father’s wooden-ribbed breastplate, his hide shield painted with the red bear of their family, these would have to stay, for stealth would be the key to tonight’s success. But Uklar touched each of them with a prayer for luck before he left. With all the necessaries secured, he walked to the edge of camp where the rest of the warriors were gathering, thirty of them, tall and muscular, painted for war. It was a fearsome sight.
As Ordbog had predicted, the journey took them all day. The first half went quickly as they jogged through their own territory, but at the borderlands they slowed, easing their way into Boulder Man territory quietly, Uklar and the other scouts leading the way with arrows nocked in their bows.
Blood-Eye was the first to kill a Boulder Man, a scout who had been hiding in a tree. Uklar got one next, shooting him in the back as he ran away to warn his clan. They killed six before they made it to the edge of the trees where they hid themselves, waiting for night to fall.
Two hours after dusk, the warriors began to crawl forward through the tall grass. By the time the moon had reached its peak, they had surrounded the boulder-laden hill on which the enemy made their main camp, huts scattered haphazardly around the big fire. They lay in silence, waiting for a signal from Ordbog.
From his left, Uklar heard rustling noises and then a quiet voice.
"Stop shifting around."
More rustling.
"Stop it. What are you doing?"
"Sorry, it itches terribly."
"What itches? This grass is soft."
"It’s not this grass."
"What then?"
Uklar felt someone crawling past him.
"Back in the woods, when I relieved myself. I wiped with some leaves. It must have been three-leaf ivy."
Uklar couldn’t help snickering with the others.
"Quiet everyone." It was Ordbog. They immediately fell silent. Uklar feared what Ordbog would do to him if he caught him laughing.
He felt a tap on his foot–the first signal.
Uklar crawled forward up the hill. To his left and right, the grass was shifting where Udok and the other two scouts were making their path. He felt like a snake, elbows digging into the hard, rock-studded earth, weaving a zigzagging path over mounds and around holes and defensive pits disguised with grass.
Stopping before one such pit, he heard a slithering, and held his breath as an actual snake skittered out of the hole, over his arm, and away down the hill. A good omen.
Uklar’s target, a Boulder Man guard, stood near the top of the hill, where he leaned against a rock, looking out onto the plain. Uklar stopped his crawl and slowly unhooked his bow. Then, carefully, he plucked an arrow from his quiver, nocked it, and began to draw it slowly back.
"Goddess Moon," he muttered, "light the way. Spirit Wind let my arrow fly straight and true."
He aimed at the guard and waited, gritting his teeth against the pain in his injured hand which was causing his aim to shake slightly.
A low whistle like the call of a swallow sounded to Uklar’s left. The guard jumped up alert, and Uklar quickly adjusted his aim, letting fly the arrow into the man’s chest. Around the hill, more arrows loosed and guards fell.
Over to his left, Blood-Eye stood up and waved everyone up the hill. Uklar scrambled to his feet and ran at a low crouch towards the felled guard. Briefly, he knelt down next to the body and held a hand over the man’s lips. He didn’t breathe.
Uklar secured his bow, and took up his spear stance. Below him, the other warriors swept up the hill, quiet as shadows, Ordbog in the lead.
Whump.
One of the warriors fell into a stake pit. He screamed loudly. Uklar stopped, horrified, and turned to watch. He looked around, unsure of what to do, until Ordbog put his spear through the man’s neck.
"Go, go, go," hissed the leader.
Blood-Eye was already at the top, and Uklar and Ordbog hurried to join him.
People in the camp were waking up having heard the screams. The first one fell with Udok’s spear through his throat. Then Uklar and Ordbog came level with Udok, and, ignoring the people stirring from the ground, they went together for the largest hut, the leader’s hut.
Ordbog kicked aside the stick-and-rush covering and ducked into the hut, brandishing his knife. Uklar followed him in.
A large man was sleeping between two women, a child huddled at their feet. Ordbog leapt over the child and planted his spear into the man’s chest. The women sat up in shock. Ordbog turned to one of them and kicked her in the chest, then began to stomp on her repeatedly. Uklar killed the other woman with a single spear thrust. Behind him, he heard the sound of the child choking and turned to see Blood-Eye with his hands on the boy’s throat.
Together, Uklar and the other two emerged from the tent. The screaming began as the Boulder Folk ran every which way, the clan warriors chasing them down and slaughtering them easily.
A group of Boulder Folk had managed to gather their weapons and were now fighting in a tight circle, holding off five of the clan warriors, including Ogrot. Ordbog led the way towards them, yelling a battle cry which Uklar and Udok joined.
A trembling boy jumped in front of Uklar, wielding a club. Still yelling with the thrill of battle, Uklar got him through the stomach and hurled the body aside. He then joined the other warriors in a moving circle, surrounding the remaining Boulder Folk. The warriors darted in and out like wolves, testing for weak spots. Grut darted in and got a club to the chest. The next warrior got hit in the face. Ordbog soon got sick of the dance and charged in with his spear, stabbing and shouldering his way into the Boulder Folk. Uklar and Blood-Eye followed.
Blood-Eye dodged a club and used his attacker’s own throwing sling to throttle him. Uklar stood at Ordbog’s side and held off the desperate Boulder Folk who had converged on the leader. He killed two, but his spear became lodged in the second man’s torso. He yanked it out, only to have the handle grabbed from behind and wrenched out of his hands. Uklar turned quickly and dodged the assailant’s swift spear thrust. He dodged again, but this time the jab was only a feint. The Boulder Man brought the spear back with full force at Uklar’s left side.
Instinctually, Uklar reached out his left arm to grab the spear. The handle smacked into his injured hand, sending a wave of paralyzing pain shooting up his arm. The blade was deflected but raked Uklar across the chest and knocked him down. The enemy raised the spear for the killing blow, but Ordbog came in from nowhere with a backhanded club swing that took the Boulder Man down with a loudcrack. Uklar’s leader immediately turned and leapt back into the enemy swarm while Uklar pushed himself up, retrieved his spear, and followed.
When the slaughter had finished, the warriors roamed around the camp to scavenge food and finish off survivors. Uklar burst into a hut to find a woman huddled there, crying, clinging to her dead husband. Uklar dragged her up and over to a mat of animal furs, where he forced her to undress.
He emerged tired and triumphant from the hut, dragging the weeping woman behind him. He was truly a warrior now. He had led the way in a victorious battle and taken a second wife.
Uklar pushed her into the huddled group of prisoners–a handful of women and young girls who would return with them to camp. All the warriors were watching the fire now, where Ordbog was removing the
Boulder Folk leader’s man parts from where they had been roasting. He ate them, taking the strength of the Boulder Folk for the clan. Uklar cheered with everyone else.
As they encircled the fire for the victory feast, each warrior accompanied by his prisoners, Udok and Ogrot came over to Uklar, followed hesitantly by a woman and two girls.
"You fought well, Foe-Slayer."
"And you, Blood-Eye." He clapped Udok on the shoulder, wincing at the pain in his chest where his own spear had cut him. He glanced over at his new wife and saw that she was covered in blood. He hadn’t noticed that before.
"Uklar!" said Ogrot in surprise. "You won yourself a woman! You are just like your brother; he won a woman in his first battle too." He laughed wildly. "Here."
Ogrot took one of Uklar’s necklaces, bent down, and put it around the shaking woman’s neck. He grabbed her by the chin and forced her head up. She tried to look away, but Ogrot slapped her.
"Look. This is Uklar Foe-Slayer, your new husband. You will give yourself to him in pleasure and bear him fat, strong sons for as long as he lives."
The three warriors laughed. Uklar looked down at his new wife, who was staring up at him.Yes, Uklar thought proudly,I am just like Guklar. The woman even looked like the wife his brother had won: wildly attractive, with big brown eyes like a doe–eyes that were looking, not at Uklar’s face, but at the bleeding cut on his chest. He looked down at it too. It was worse than he had first thought.

I am just like Guklar. . .
Uklar’s gaze returned to his new wife, whose eyes were locked on his, wearing a grimace of triumph on her lips.