A dozen naked men, their bodies smeared with mud to mask their scent, crouched, tense with expectation, amid thick undergrowth at the edge of a forest. Their nakedness was part of a hunting ritual, a spiritual bonding with their unclothed quarry, and a reminder that the practices they followed could be traced back to a time when their ancestors had not worn clothes at all.
Beyond the forest there lay a shallow river valley, and along the further side of the valley rose a low escarpment of hills.
In the valley before them, a herd of mammoth was gathered at the river’s edge. They had been tracking it for several days. There were about twenty adults, with eight or nine calves: huge animals with thick, matted fur coats. Among them were five males, including the leader, a magnificent beast whose superb tusks almost formed a complete loop. He stood somewhat aloof from the others - watchful, scenting the air with his trunk, alert for the least sign of danger. It was early in the day, but the sun was already hot, and a number of the mammoths were wading in the river, sluicing water onto their backs.
The leader of the men, Crispin by name, was a taut, sinewy man of twenty-five, with a shaggy head of hair and a full beard, both of an unusual reddish tint, and eyes of a pale watery blue. He surveyed the scene with an expertise acquired following his father on hunting trips since his early childhood. He had watched every move, learned every facet of the art, and little by little, under patient tutelage, he was putting it all into practice for himself. His success had earned him an enviable reputation among his fellows, and he was now regularly chosen to lead major expeditions such as this.
His prowess, together with his lean build and the warmth of his personality, had also been instrumental in attracting to his side Tana, considered by all to be the most desirable woman in the village. Even now, at this most critical moment in the hunt, he found himself thinking of her, and how she had enchanted him with her long lithe legs, her glossy black hair and that winning smile of hers.
A movement among the herd jolted him back from his reverie. He examined each mammoth in turn for signs of possible ill health, and settled on a young female as his target. He would have preferred to approach more closely to be sure of a clean kill, but the wind was not in the hunters’ favour, and if the animals were spooked, it might be days more before they could be approached once more.
The hunters’ weapon of choice was the crossbow. Perfected over centuries, it guaranteed a clean kill at anything up to five hundred paces. The iron bolt, With the cranequin, the tensioning device, he gradually drew back the string, his eyes fixed on the mammoth as she cropped the leaves from a low bush. From a leather drawstring bag lying in the grass at his feet he emptied iron bolts, known as quarrels, the only projectiles which would be sure to penetrate the animal’s thick skull from such a distance, ensuring a swift painless death. He picked a quarrel and placed it in the trough that ran along the upper surface of the stock.
He gave a swift sideways glance to the men beside him. They nodded their silent assent, and he raised the bow to his eye and looked along the sight. Close behind him, his friend Arne was tensioning his own bow, ready to provide a second shot if Crispin’s misfired. Crispin aimed for the beast’s head, just in front of the ear. He tensed, drawing in his breath to steady himself, and braced his elbows against his ribs. He curled his finger over the trigger.
And then came a noise - a strange, unnatural noise, loud and fierce, emanating from beyond the ridge of hills. It was a noise neither men nor mammoths had ever heard before, a metallic chattering that froze men to the spot and sent the mammoths into confusion. The thing which appeared before their eyes was like some huge flying insect with a glittering carapace, partially coloured red and blue and partially transparent, and a tail like a monstrous sting, buzzing with deadly anger as it swept over the hills and circled over the heads of the mammoth. Crispin stared in terror
The great flying beast breathed fire, and emitted brilliant flashes of light. And then another sound: a rushing sound was heard. With each flash of light a mammoth buckled at the knees, crashed to the ground and was still. The herd leader was first to go, then males, females, calves, all were brought down. In moments, the entire herd had been destroyed, and the grass and the river were littered with massive silent carcasses.
The men gaped, wide-eyed and slack jawed, at the terrifying apparition and the devastation it wrought. They were held in a heart-wrenching limbo between pell-mell flight and desperate curiosity.
When all on the ground was still, the circling thing came to rest. Its chattering ceased, replaced by a swishing sound, as if it were panting from its exertion. The watchers among the trees saw that it possessed great rotating blades that had been spinning so fast as to render them invisible. But who, or what, might dare to even approach such a thing?
The hunters knelt in a state of quivering anticipation, trembling like the fern fronds that hid them from the sight of the monster. They anxiously awaited the next development.
And then Crispin gasped, for two men, each wearing gleaming white headgear and dressed in strange clothing, stepped out of the thing. Each was carrying an instrument of alien description. One of the men advanced towards the leader of the herd, the other headed for one of the other tusked males.
Standing with one booted foot on the outstretched foreleg of the herd leader, the first man brought his instrument screeching to life. Moments later the second man did the same. They laid their instruments alongside the mammoths’ tusks, and as the sound rose from a screech to a scream, they sliced off the tusks and left them on the grass. They repeated this with all the males, then, each taking an end, they loaded the tusks one by one into the bowels of the flying insect.
Watched all the while by the thunderstruck hunters, they laboured on until all the ivory was stowed. Then they stood and looked around for a moment, laughed, clapped each other on the shoulder and shook hands. They turned back towards the insect and as they were about to climb into it, one of them said something to the other and pointed. The second man had left his cutting instrument beside one of the mammoths. He shambled over to it and picked it up, and began walking back, casually looking around as he did so.
Crispin could not believe what he was seeing. One mammoth carcass would feed a village for a month, and yet these two hunters had wiped out a whole herd, and were clearly only interested in the tusks. The senselessness of the waste enraged him. So much good meat would be left to rot for nothing, attracting scavengers who would then threaten Crispin’s camp. Hunters would be forced to journey further and further away from home in future if they were to continue to supplement village agriculture.
He realised he was still gripping his crossbow so tightly that his knuckles were white. He raised the crossbow to his eye and for the first time in his life took aim at a man. With the fury at wanton destruction burning in his mind, he pulled the trigger.
A strangled cry escaped from the man’s lips as the bolt passed through his body and he fell forward. The other man turned and stared at him. He ran to where the corpse lay, turned it over and cried, “Dale!”
He stood up, still not fully comprehending what had happened, and looked towards the edge of the forest. At that moment, Arne, taking his cue from Crispin, let loose his bolt, and the second man fell backwards.
After a moment’s pause, the group of hunters gradually emerged from the forest, fearful that the powers possessed by the men lying before them might include returning from the dead. But they lay still, their blood mingling with that of the slaughtered mammoths.
Crispin and the others approached slowly, cautiously, leant over the dead men, studied them, their faces, their clothes, their tools, and then, more warily still, they approached the great insect, which seemed to have no life without the men. close inspection revealed that it was not a living creature but a creation of men, a flying machine. Fear mixed with wonder as they moved round it, touching it with outstretched fingers, half expecting it to somehow reanimate itself and take to the air.
Crispin approached the cockpit. He understood metal, even if he did not understand how it could be made to fly. But the shiny transparent material was beyond him. It looked something like ice, but it was warm to the touch. Summoning his courage, he climbed into the interior. It had a curious smell, or a mixture of smells, which he found almost intoxicating. The seats were still warm from the bodies of the two men. The interior of the machine was littered with bizarre detritus. Crispin ran his hands over the instrument panels, like a blind man trying to build up a picture through touch. He brushed a switch and the windscreen wipers arced across the glass, the blades squeaking as they did so. Those standing at the front of the machine jumped back in alarm. Crispin flipped the switch off. The wipers returned to their rest position. He flipped the switch again, and again the wipers sprang into life, complaining that they had nothing to wipe. Crispin switched them off again and smiled at his discovery. He tried another switch, and the men outside announced that there were lamps, but without flames.
Another switch, larger and more central than the others, attracted his attention, and he tried it. The engine coughed into life, and the rotor blades began scything through the air. The men flung themselves to the ground. Hastily Crispin reversed the switch. The engine was silenced and the rotor stopped turning. Crispin scrambled out of the machine and joined the other men as they got to their feet and fled.
They returned to the corpses and the tools. Crispin picked up the chainsaw. It was small and light, and he had observed the ease with which it had sliced through mammoth tusks. With their own tools, the men would have laboured all day to carve up a carcass into manageable pieces. With such a tool, he realised, the labour could be greatly reduced, and they could be well on their way home by nightfall. He had no desire to be in this place of death longer than he need be.
He sent two men to bring the hunters’ wagon and horses, concealed deeper in the forest. As they vanished among the trees, he examined the chainsaw to determine how to bring it to life. It was mostly black and silver, with two patches on the handle, one red and the other green. He decided that these must be significant. He touched the red and nothing happened. Then he touched the green, and the machine roared into life. He was so startled that he almost dropped it. He felt as if he had a Great Forest Cat by the tail. He also discovered that by squeezing the handles in a certain way, he could change the note that the machine emitted.
Gingerly, he lowered the blade over the shoulder of a mammoth, imitating the action of the other man. The blade sliced through the thick fur and on into the animal’s flesh, throwing up a spray of blood. As he severed the huge leg from the body effortlessly, he felt a thrill of power surge through him, and he laughed, watching the red meat, the sinews and the mighty bones laid bare in moments. His laughter spread to the other men as they watched with amazement how easily the mammoth was dismembered.
By the time the two men returned with the wagon and the horses, Crispin had removed the mammoth’s forelegs and was standing on its back, his body now covered in thick blood as well as mud, as he laboured to behead the beast. As he continued to carve it up, the other men took barrels of salt from the wagon and began to apply it generously to the exposed flesh of the joints he had already removed, and to load them onto the wagon.
As the men worked, the scent of blood on the air attracted carrion crows, which swooped on the other mammoths and began to pick through their coats in search of choice morsels of flesh. The eyes were always their first target, and they plunged their beaks into the orbs and squawked with joy. Where they could they also found their way into the mouths to snap off pieces of tongue. Every now and then a crow would approach the two dead men, but would be shooed away, and it woulf flap sullenly back to where the others of its kind were feeding.
“The crows will make short work of these men,” said Arne to Crispin. “Should we bury them, perhaps?”
Crispin looked at the two corpses. Burying them would take time. He was keen to get moving.
“No,” he said at last. “Let them be.” He turned to his work with renewed vigour.
By early afternoon, the mammoth had been dismembered, its flesh loaded onto the wagon until it was groaning on its axles, leaving the grass a foul-smelling jumble of bones, blood and entrails for the crows to pick over at their leisure. Other scavengers would come later, he knew.
While some men waited round the wagon, shouting at the birds when they came too close to its enticing cargo, the rest washed themselves in the chilly waters of the river, then relieved the guards on the wagon so that they could do likewise.
When they had bathed, they opened a chest on the wagon and took out their clothes and dressed. Crispin and Arne put their crossbows and the two chainsaws on the wagon. Two men climbed on to the wagon and took their seats on the clothes chest. They set the horses into a walk. They snorted as they took the strain of the heavily laden wagon, while the remaining men walked alongside them.
As they turned to enter the forest, Crispin glanced back one last time to impress the scene upon his memory. The crows were already turning their attention to the two dead men. He shuddered, wondering at the meaning of what had happened, and sensing that he had been changed somehow, but could not yet say exactly how. He turned his back on the scene and entered the forest.