CHILD OF EARTH
E. C. TUBB
The night had anticipated the coming winter, darkness masking the sky as sleet filled the air to the eerie sough of wind that rose, at times, into a maniacal shrieking as if tormented creatures writhed in an extremity of pain. Images too mature for his imagination yet they lingered and teased his mind as he moved cautiously over a bleak expanse of stone, sand and scrub in the growing light of dawn. A twig culled from a stunted bush eased the chatter of his teeth and gave the pretence of food as he chewed at the tough fibers. Frost made the going even more treacherous and twice he slipped to lie, fighting the fear of injury, rising to nurse bruised flesh and scraped skin, to move on, to reach his destination, to turn his back to the east and adopt his position as the sun rose higher into the sky.
Waiting, fighting the desire to close his eyes, to rest, to sleep, to escape into a more hospitable place. One touched by the gossamer fabric of vaguely remembered dreams. Of warmth, comfort and security. Of unknown contentment. An empty wish--he had no choice but to stay alert.
Crouching, cold, almost naked against an expanse of gritty soil as he stared at the area ahead. The wind touched his near-naked body, driving knives of ice through the rents, numbing the flesh and chilling the blood and causing his teeth to chatter. He clamped them shut, feeling the jerk of muscles in his jaw, the taste of blood as his teeth caught at the delicate membranes of his cheeks. Weakness blurred his vision so that the scrub barely masking the stony ground danced and spun in patterns of bewildering complexity. Impatiently he squeezed shut his eyes, opening them to see the landscape steady again, seeing, too, the twitch of leaves at the base of a matted bunch of vegetation.
The lizard was cautious. It thrust its snout from the leaves and stared with unwinking eyes before making a small dart forward to freeze again as it checked its surroundings. Watching it Dumarest forced himself to freeze.
To rise now would be to lose the prey; it would dive into cover at the first sign of movement. Only later, after it had come into the open to warm itself by the weak sunlight and search for grubs would he have a chance and then only one. For now he must wait as the wind chilled his body, gnawing at him with spiteful teeth, sending more pain to join the throb of old bruises, the sting of festering sores, the ache of hunger.
Dumarest touched the crude sling at his side. Braided thongs the length of his hand and forearm joined by a pouch made from the skin of a small rodent. Each thong ended in a loop; a convenience, only one needed to be slipped over the middle finger, the other, the release, clamped by the thumb and first finger. A pouch held stones carefully selected as to shape and size. One was cradled in the sling. He would have time for one cast only. All depended on choosing the exact moment, of hand and eye working in harmony, of speed which would enable him to strike before the lizard could escape.
The creature was alerted, head lifted, eyes like jewels as they caught and reflected the sunlight, scaled body tense on the soil. It would be best to wait.
To wait, then, guided by subconscious dictates, to act. To rise, the loaded sling spinning in a sharp circle, the thong released at the exact moment to send the missile hurtling through the air.
To land in the dirt at the side of the lizard's skull.
Dumarest was running even as it left the pouch, mouth open, legs pounding, breathing in short, shallow gasps to oxygenate his lungs. To gain energy and speed so that, even as the half-stunned lizard dived for cover, he was on it, holding it fast as his teeth dug into the scaled throat and released the blood of its life.
Blood he gulped until the creature was dead.
It was dark by the time he arrived at the place he thought of as home, the fire a warm beacon in the gloom. The only welcome he would get but, with luck, he would be given a portion of his kill; the lizard swinging over his shoulder. A hope that died as a man came to the mouth of the cave to snatch it and send him reeling with a vicious, back-handed blow.
"Lazy young swine! What took you so long?" He didn't wait for an answer, standing tall and bloated his scarred face twisted into a snarl. "You've been eating! It's on your mouth! Blood!"
"From the lizard! I had to--"
"Liar!" Again the thudding impact of the fist. A blow that sent his own blood to mingle with the dried smears on his chin. "You useless bastard! I took you in, let my woman tend you, and all you do is lie! A day's hunting for this!" He shook the dead reptile. "Well, it's too bad for you. Stay out there and starve!"
"So freeze. What's that to me? To hell with you!"
Another blow and he was gone, snug within the confines of the cave, warmed by the fire and the food Dumarest had won. From where he crouched he could hear the mutter of voices, the harsh, cackling laughter of the crone as she heard the news. A liquid gurgling as they gulped fermenting liquids. Later came the sounds of animals in rut. Later still the sound of snores.
Dumarest rose from where he had crouched. Softly he moved towards the cave and pushed aside the curtain of skins covering the opening. The fire burned low and he squatted beside it, warming his hands and rubbing them over his limbs. From the pot standing beside the embers he found a bone and sucked it, cracking it open to get at the marrow before throwing it on the coals. More followed until the pot was empty and, drugged by the nourishment, his outraged physique demanding rest, he fell asleep.
And woke to a scream of rage.
It was day and in the light streaming through the curtain the crone stood glaring at him, her raddled face convulsed with fury. A slut, her body sagging beneath the filthy clothes she wore, lice crawling in her matted hair, sores on lips and chin. A fit mate for the man who woke and reared to his feet, wiping the crust from his eyes.
"He's eaten it!" She pointed at the empty pot. "The stew's gone! The thieving young bastard's eaten it!"
"I'll teach him!" The man pushed her aside. He was naked aside from an apron around his loins. It fell as he stripped off his belt. The leather whined as he swung it through the air. "Now you greedy young swine! Stand still and be taught a lesson!"
Dumarest dodged as the belt swung towards him, feeling the wind of its passing through his torn garment. Unimpeded the heavy buckle swung on to crack against the woman's arm. Her shriek of pain was echoed by the man's roar of anger. He rushed forward, belt swinging, the buckle catching Dumarest on the shoulder and sending him to stagger and fall beside the fire. Again he felt the impact of the heavy metal and rolled, reaching out, feeling heat, fire that seared as he gripped a handful of embers and flung them into the snarling face.
"God!" The man screamed pawing at his eyes. "He's blinded me!"
The woman was fast. Water showered from a pot and washed away the ashes to reveal eyes filled with streaming tears. A face that had turned into a killer's mask.
"I'll get you," he panted. "I'll make you pay for that. I'll have you screaming for mercy before I've done with you!"
Dumarest backed, his stomach knotted with fear, and felt the touch of wind against his shoulders as he left the cave. It was barely dawn and a milky opalescence softened the harsh outlines of the terrain, wisps of fading mist clinging to the face of the cliff, shredding as the man lunged through writhing vapors forming a curtain to create an isolated area of conflict.
How to fight a man so much heavier and stronger than himself?
Dumarest turned, running to place distance between them, stumbling as his foot struck a stone. Stooping he snatched it up and held it poised to throw.
"Stop! Leave me alone!"
"Begging, you little bastard?" The man gloated, enjoying the moment. "Well, beg on, boy. I owe you nothing. Nothing but the beating of your life!"
The stone could be thrown but if he missed what then? A second stone would provide another missile and Dumarest looked for one as he retreated from his enemy.
He found it as the man charged.
Desperation fed power to his arm and he threw the stone with all his strength. It hit a temple, the man halting to touch his head, to examine the blood on his palm. Before he looked up the second stone had followed the first, striking against his cheek. In a frenzy he rushed forward, hands extended, fingers clawing. Dumarest felt them catch the neck of his garment to jerk the fabric from his body. A jerk which threw him to the ground beneath his opponent, a fist smashing into his face, fingers closing around his neck.
Fear drove him to attack in turn. He writhed, sending his hands over the bloated flesh, searching the groin, finding the soft bag and gripping the testicles. He heard the shriek as he jerked and twisted, pulling with nails dug deep. Rolling clear to leave his opponent moaning, clutching at his groin, blood thick between his thighs.
More blood flowered beneath the hammering impact of stones from his sling. Missiles that tore flesh and shattered bone exposing the brain and turning the skull into an oozing pulp of gray and crimson.
The woman said nothing as he entered the cave but silently handed him a bowl of water, her eyes frightened, little sucking noises coming from her lips. Her man was dead, who would provide? The boy was better than nothing, a decision that dropped her hand from the knife tucked into her rags but Dumarest noticed the gesture and was cautious as she washed blood from his nose and mouth.
"He hurt you." The woman was at his side judging the right time to establish her authority. "He was drunk, mad, crazed and dangerous. I was afraid of him. That's why I couldn't help you last night."
Snorting he cleared his nose of clotted blood.
"I tried to stop him this morning," she continued. "He pushed me aside. You didn't see that, you were out of the cave by then. The bastard hurt me." She winced as she pressed a hand to her side.
"He was always hurting me. I'm glad he's dead. Your nose hurt?
"It will." She lifted her hands towards him. "Unless you let me fix it you'll have trouble later on. It will block your breathing."
Dumarest said, "Give me your knife."
"Knife? Knife? What the hell are you talking about?"
"The knife," he said again. "The one in your skirt. I just want to see it." Then, as she continued to shake her head, he added. "I might be able to make one like it. It will be useful when hunting. I'll be able to get us more food."
"You'll hunt for me?" Dirt cracked in the creases of her face as she smiled. "You're a good boy, Earl. I've always thought of you as my own. Stick with me and I'll look after you. Stand by me and you won't regret it."
"The knife?" He held out his hand. "I'll look at it while you fix my nose."
It was crude, a strip of pointed and edged metal with slats of wood to form a grip, the whole held together with lashings of twine. He turned it as her fingers pressed at his nose, pushing cartilage back into place, roughly shaping the damaged tissue.
"There!" She stepped back dropping her hands. "You finished with my knife?"
"I'm keeping it."
"Keeping it?" Her voice rose in a shriek of protest. "Stealing it, you mean. First you kill my man then you rob me. Why stop there? Why not kill me too? Go ahead, you young swine. Kill me. Kill me, I dare you!" Her face changed as he lifted the blade. "No! No, I didn't mean that!"
"How do you sharpen it? With a stone or a file? If you have a file I want that too."
"A stone," she said bitterly. "I haven't a file. Not now. He sold it for a bottle." She watched as he moved about the cave. "What are you doing now? Robbing me some more?"
"I need clothes."
Clothes and food and something to carry it in. Water and a container for that too. A blanket against the cold of night and coverings for his feet to protect them against the savage terrain. All the things which an adult had and which he had been denied because he was a child. But he was that no longer. He would take what he needed and make his way towards the east to live how he could.
A killer, a thief, a bully and a liar--a child of Earth.
Copyright © 2002 by E. C. Tubb