I will find it before it does more harm. But Strongarm says this beast cannot be killed, this terror bird which has only madness in its eyes and does not hunt but slays without reason.
So I say to Strongarm; be silent, your words do us no good. He scoffs at this and shakes his head, forcing a grin, and I say it is the truth, because Longbeard told it to me and he knows a great many truths.
And tell me how, I say, laughing, can an eye have madness in it? Every eye is like a small dark moon inside a bright moon, except for those eyes which are dark and hold the image of Man in their watery blackness. Longbeard says it is there, the image, because all beasts are jealous of Man–of His ability to carve and craft and make fire.
Already the terror bird has chased away our horses and ruined our flock, and Strongarm’s hand which it half ripped off, rendering him without strength and thus disloyal to his own name. I know I shame him by taking up the spear, but someone must, and we are only four. Who else, if not me? Strongarm could not kill it now.
But I will. I, being not so strong as he nor as wise as Longbeard. I owe it to those who are dear to me, to Strongarm and Longbeard and the girl, Softhair, who is small and lovely like a flower and who I like the most.
It is colder now, here, beneath the spreading trees. The grass is not dry like on the plain, but is long and dewy and brushes against my legs like wet fur.
The bird’s prints pointed this way, though I am no master like Longbeard when it comes to tracking, nor am I a true hunter, like Strongarm. Why do you think such things? You will slay what little bravery you have before you slay the terror bird, and to go at it with fear is like to lay down before it, naked, eyes closed.
So stop thinking. You are thinking too many things. Surroundings. Think of your surroundings. The grass. The trees with high boughs and bark of hard wrinkled flesh, opening up, now a glade.
The air here smells different. Thicker. Pressing into my nostrils even when I hold my breath. Ignore the flies. Look to the ground, for signs of the bird–what is this? Crouch, so you may see. White on the grass. It crumbles between my fingers, dusty chalky white. There is some more, a pile of it over there. And here are bones, cracked and splintered, darkened with dried blood, flies crawling in the hollows.
I can hear something now. Ready your spear. Grip it firm, like Strongarm showed you. There it is again, coming to me distorted, bent around the trees and reshaped by the wind, slowed by the haze of heat which sits fat and god-like on the plain.
Through these trees, and out, now I stand on the edge of the wooded hill. Before me lies the hazy plain, and in the far distance I can see the grey plume–Softhair is helping Longbeard prepare a meal. She will want me back soon. Is she worried? I hope not. She must not fear for me.
The sound comes again, and now I know, now I feel inside me I am spinning and blackness prances in my eyes as dark wraiths on the hillside. That sound, a hawking screech like the call of the falcon but still more guttural, deeper, summoned by a throat set in a neck thicker than my thigh, blasted horn-like from a heavy beak of curved pink-stained bone.
I know it now, oh gods I know it. Run faster! Return to them. Make them safe. Wind is high today. The sound may have carried from the far meadow. It is in the far meadow and not near the huts. Please, not near the huts. Why did I leave them? If I had the wisdom of Longbeard I would have stayed, or if I had listened to Strongarm’s warning, then, then.
Quiet. On the central fire there is meat roasting. It is starting to burn. Why has Softhair left it to burn? It will spoil.
I lift the skewered meat above the flames, rest it on the flat stone.
There is only the rattling of pebbles in the wind to answer my call. I look round at our three huts. Little Softhair? The meat was burning so I–
It emerges from the larger hut, Longbeard and Softhair’s hut, pushing its head under the loose hide doorway and lifting, curved beak sliding into view, stained and scored bone as long as my forearm, clicking softly, curiously, then bone turns to blue plumage, two black-pupiled yellow stones set in feathers the colour of the valley lake and dappled with moonless night.
It stares unblinking and I back away. Its beak is strung with quivering strips of flesh, dripping red, so I cannot look and must look beyond, at the blue tree-trunk of a neck pushing the head out, and the head rises high and upright as it comes clear of the doorway, and the fattened, tiny-winged, thick-legged body emerges beneath it.
And I know now that Strongarm was right, that this monster cannot be slain, that it walks with madness in its eyes.
It caws that hideous honking screech, so loud and close I stagger, and the head is lowered forward, beak clacking open and closed, and inside I can see the pinkish tongue and the soft wet flesh. My heel comes down on hot embers and I leap back, so that now the smouldering fire is between us.
You, beast, I say, mumbling low. I will make you work for meat as all creatures must work–even you, terror bird, who has come from afar in search of penned-in animals and roped horses and people without defence against your beak and claws.
The bird seeks a way around the flashing flint tip of my spear, weaving to either side as it approaches.
I give it no pause, now backing off, growling in response, waving the spear in its face, now standing fast with legs braced, spear tip lunging and hissing at the air.
Beast, have my spear! Back! Get back! You want meat? Have this which Softhair was preparing. I will not eat it. You, bloated devil, you have it.
I pierce the burnt skewered meat on the end of my spear, raise it, and the head snaps forward, the meat and the spearhead disappear, the neck twists, trying to drag the haft from my grip, and then I press forward and the haft sinks further between the two slabs of champing bone.
The bird opens its beak and tries to retreat. I hold the haft high, thrusting it down. The bird caws, but the sound holds no power. Its throat is stuffed with burnt meat and razor-edged flint and the twisting wooden length of the spear haft. I drive it with what strength remains in my arms. The flint tip pushes red and purple through the blue-feathered trunk. Its legs buckle, the neck sags. The spear is pulled from my hands.
All is still. Wind sighs through the huts, rustling the hide hangings and rattling the pebbles on the dry ground. The sombre crackling fire lays warmth across my shoulders like a cloak.
So I am alone, and the others… poor Longbeard, who knew so much, and Strongarm, and… and Softhair, little Softhair who will laugh and smile no more, who I will never again help to carry the heavy firewood, or wrap in my fur cloak when the nights are cold, or… Softhair. Poor little Softhair.
I am squatting now, glad no one can see me. Wipe your mouth and your eyes. This is no good, to sit and wallow in such a way. Dry your face, and–what is that noise?
Blood has ceased to gush from the bird’s pierced neck. The eyes are blank and there is no madness in them. What noise, then? There, inside the hut. The larger hut. Can it be? Softhair!
The curtain parts and Strongarm stumbles out, clutching a bruised gash to his cheek. Blood is streaming down his neck and chest.
I rush past him, cling to the doorframe, and he catches my shoulders, drags me away, do not look, he says. Do not look. They are dead. Look at me! Listen. In your head she still laughs and smiles, yes? To look on her now will take it away.
I know he says the truth. I walk from him to hide my face.
He would be sad if he knew my thoughts. If Strongarm, who has been a good friend to me, knew that I wish he was dead, deeply and truly, and my little flower had come from the hut. If only he knew. But I cannot change it. There is nothing to be done.
Come now, he says, and help me torch the hut. There are embers still in the fire. We cannot stay here. We must move on.