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The dogs beat her to the kill, so once again she satisfied herself with the tall, dry, yellow-green shoots of the tundra hiding the mouth of her cave. Far below another band of nomads crossed the plain stretching from the base of her mountain to as far as her eyes could see, the nomads moving across the high grasses like seeds blown in the wind. They wore heavy, thick furred coats and boots, meaning they came south before catching the herd trails taking them north and east, the place the old skywalkers called Next Place, the place some called Heaven.
Hidden from view, she sucked what little juices she could from the stalks in her mouth and wiped the core resins on her skin to mask her scent. The nomads were dirty and smelled, but their dogs knew their masters’ scent and would bark if they got wind of hers. Then these nomads would rush up her mountainside with their stone knives and spears, barbarians whose children were of less use to them than their dogs. At least their dogs would get something to eat.
She spit out a shoot that had nothing left to offer and pulled a tick from her hair, crushing it between her fingers then licking the juices back in. The nomads’ dogs weren’t all tame. Some would hunt their masters as well as hunt with them, an uneasy truce Yu-Ping used when she could. This was the third such party she’d seen, another slow procession to pass the day, the first so long ago she could not count it.
But oh, that day.
Others in her band came running, warning of hunters marching through their lands. Her family and others sought refuge in the mountains the skywalkers said gave them birth. There they escaped the sickness of those first wanderers. Those of her band that did not die on the tundra from the wanderers’ breath died by their hand and were eaten. For that she could not blame them. Many of the herds found their way to the Next Place long before any people followed leaving nothing to eat. Often those in her own band waited impatiently for one of the old ones to die, or in some cases, if the old one had no one, hurried them along.
Her belly ached when those first wanderers came. She climbed further up the mountain than did others in her band. That’s when she heard the horror and, fascinated, followed it to its source: a bear and a tiger rending each other limb from limb at the mouth of a cave, a cave in time she would call her own.
She never saw anything like it, never heard of anything like it. No elder spoke of such a thing. The bear and tiger fought fiercely but for what? Her mouth opened to call the others but her words were silenced by their roars.
She watched for what seemed like days as these two great beasts circled and mauled each other. Blood poured from them, skanks of fur hung from exposed bones, until finally both fell, exhausted or dead she did not know.
What caused these two great ones to battle each other? Powerful magic, this. Old ones and the skywalkers talked of such things but never anything so dramatic as this. Seeing these two animals fight would shape her life, this she knew. It must. She would make it the mission of her life to find out why these two great spirits fought until both lay dead.
Yes, as soon as she rejoined her band, she would tell them and she would do this.
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