Chapter Eleven - The Cave of Castillo.
WINTER had descended upon the mountains and valleys of northern Spain. Snow covered the slopes and lowlands. High above the ice-bound surface of the river pass opened the Cavern of Castillo, near whose entrance, Totan, hetman of the Castilians, and his band were gathered about a roaring fire. Skin garments now relieved their summer nakedness. These were no more than untrimmed hides fastened about their bodies, hair outward. They were much frayed and blotched with bare patches which gave them an extremely shabby appearance. These garments had seen more than one winter season, for hides were scarce. The hunting had grown worse and worse and many a hide had been chewed and swallowed for the small nourishment it contained. The men of Castillo in their penury were driven to eating the clothes oft their backs for the want of something better.
Even the hyenas had packed up and gone away from a country that offered such poor pickings. Nobody regretted their absence. There was no need for scavengers or undertakers. The men of Castillo attended to such matters themselves. Whenever a man died, his companions made the funeral arrangements their duty and an occasion for general rejoicing, using the corpse itself as material for the funeral feast. For the Castilians were cannibals when game was scarce.
At times parties of men would detach themselves from the fire and sally forth in search of game. Rarely did they conic back with anything worth eating. Not infrequently a band would return numbering one or two less than when it set forth. At such times, those returning would appear well fed and contented and would curl up by the fire to rest and aid their digestion. It was a case of each man for himself. He who hungered must go forth and hunt his food. If he perished from weakness or exposure or was slain by wild beasts, his troubles were ended and his companions devoured what was left of him.
Totan and a dozen of his followers had but recently returned to Castillo from one of these hunting trips. They and the rest of the band were now gazing down the mountain side at two men near its base who were slowly ascending. Even at that distance. Totan recognized one of the newcomers. "Gonch !" he exclaimed in surprise. "I thought him dead long before this. And there is someone with him. Is it possible he has made good his boasts of bringing to us the Mammoth Man, maker of flints !"
When the pair had completed two-thirds of the ascent they could be more easily distinguished by those watching from above. All recognized Gonch. The one with him was but a boy. A murmur of voices broke the stillness.
"He has not kept his promise after all. I fear that our comrade will be disappointed with the welcome we give him," growled Totan. "It will be a warm one." He looked knowingly at the fire as he said this, meanwhile licking his lips and grinning like a hyena.
Gonch arrived at the end of his long climb and stepped upon the cave threshold. The boy Kutnar stood behind him. No shouts or other noisy welcome greeted his appearance. He brought no food and his companion was a boy - not a man as might have been expected.
Such a reception was no more nor less than Gonch had anticipated and he was prepared for it. Neither his wit nor courage had deserted him and he now saw the need of both.
"I have come back as I promised," he began boldly. "The journey has been a long one. I have survived much danger and suffering but I am here and alive."
"Alive? Yes, for a time," said Totan in as honeyed a voice as a bear would be capable of. "We see that you have brought the Mammoth Man with you. The journey must have been too much for him. He appears to have shrunken. No doubt you can explain why."
"Young he is but more than a Match for our best hunter," Gonch replied without flinching. "None can equal his skill with the fling-stone. If you do not believe, try him."
Everybody laughed, not with genuine humor but in the only way these savage men knew how to laugh. One of them, a young fellow barely out of his teens, strutted forward and sneered in Kutnar's face. Up to this time the latter had remained a passive listener and spectator, staring curiously at the throng, but at the sound of taunting laughter and the sight of him who sneered, he drew back and scowled angrily.
"A match !" roared the hetman springing to his feet. "Into the cave every one of you and give the youngsters plenty of room. Let the Stone Thrower try him. If he fails, I will be the first to pick his bones."
Thus cautioned, the Castilian tyro selected his best stone and placed it carefully in the cleft end of his fling-stick. Kutnar did not hesitate, even though this was his first test in single combat. In a moment he saw what was expected of him. Quick as lightning he unwound the thong from his waist and set a pebble in place.
"Good," muttered Gonch between his clenched teeth. "The boy bears himself like a true warrior. I could be his friend if I could be anyone's. No man young or old lives who can best him at his own game."
Totan was now in fine spirits. This was good sport. A fight to the death, although rough and tumble with stout cudgels and grown men, would have been better. Stone throwing was child's play but there was novelty in such a contest and it might prove entertaining. He hustled his followers out of the way into the cave entrance and thus gave the two gladiators the whole threshold to themselves. Kutnar took his place at one extremity of the ledge; the stone thrower stood at the other. The spectators howled joyfully, then at a sign from Totan, all became quiet.
Swish! The Castilian drew back his arm and made the first throw - not badly aimed but Kutnar saw the stone coming and dropped flat. The missile whizzed over his head. Instantly he was up again whirling his sling. Hiss! The pebble sped like a bullet. No chance to dodge a thing like that. Before the stone thrower could tell what struck him, he lay sprawling upon the ledge. His skull was cracked but there was no more than a bruise upon his temple to show for it.
Nobody laughed this time. All stared in wonder at the fallen man, then at the boy. Kutnar had no eyes for those about him. He stood motionless, mouth half-open, watching the contortions of his victim. This was the first human being he had slain. A fair fight and not one of his choosing but his triumph was tinged with remorse. It was with such feeling that he crossed the ledge and stood over the vanquished. Every pair of eyes followed him. Every voice was hushed. The stillness of death was in the air. And then as every Castilian waited breathless, anticipating the final blow, the victor kneeled upon the rock and rubbed his foeman's forehead.
A chorus of astonished grunts arose. Kutnar heard the sound of bare feet scraping on the ledge behind him. He looked around and saw the giant hetman.
"Well done," growled the Castilian leader. "Even though it were a lucky stroke, a boy who can use a toy like that must be good for something. And yet you are but a child. The Mammoth Man is not a child." As he said this, he scowled at Gonch who was standing near. The latter made haste to divert his chieftain's mind.
"The boy is a skilled hunter," he explained. "He can kill food enough for a dozen men. If you do not believe, try him."
The cave men were now gathering about the lad pointing at both him and the sling he held. By look and act it was clear that they were deeply impressed with the way he had borne himself. Even the hetman eyed him approvingly. "Here you," he said to the men nearest him, "take him down to the river and see what he can do."
The boy gazed longingly at the fire. He felt cold and tired. He would have given almost anything for a chance to warm his body and rest himself but this could not be. Those chosen to escort him were already descending the mountain side and beckoning him to follow. Kutnar looked appealingly at Gonch but the latter's back was turned, so he merely sighed and went away with the cave men for a test of his skill at food gathering.
When the party had taken itself off, Totan led Gonch to one side. "Son did you say? But that does not make him the father. What has become of the Mammoth Man? You promised to bring him with you."
Gonch gave a brief account of his doings in the Mousterian country and his dealings with Pic, the weapon maker. He described the latter as a hetman too but made no mention of his physical powers.
"A hetman?" Totan lifted his eyebrows, then scowled darkly. "He would be no more than a flint worker here. But you have not yet said why he failed to come with you."
"I used the boy as a lure," chuckled Gonch. "The Mammoth Man is following to rescue him. The son is a prize in himself but before long we will have the father too."
"That may be," Totan grumbled. "But I would have preferred the man. You should have brought him with you to make sure."
"More easily said than done," the Muskman replied. "No man could force him to do anything against his will."
"No man?" the hetman scowled with wounded pride and jealousy of the unknown champion. Gonch gazed at him vindictively.
"He would yield to no man, for no man is stronger or braver than this giant weapon maker. He is mightier than the Cave Lion, larger than yourself, and ... "
"You lie," roared the now thoroughly aroused hetman, beating his bristly chest with both fists and displaying his great bull teeth. "No human being is my equal. I could eat your lion man."
Gonch exulted inwardly although he was careful not to betray his true feelings and draw the other's rage upon himself. "You might find him a big mouthful," he said. "This weapon maker can crush men's bones in his hands. I have felt his grip. Never have I known such power. That is why I used trickery to bring him here. Such a big strong man." Gonch lowered his voice and said, "Perhaps it is well that I did not bring him. It is not yet too late. He may be induced to return. We can send the boy to him and . . ."
"Ar-r-r!" Totan's face swelled and reddened as though it would burst. He was no coward and the knowledge that there existed a foeman worthy of his steel, only aroused his fighting spirit. He was like a pit dog held in leash, all aquiver with waiting for the joy of blood and battle. For a moment, the fight-lust nearly robbed him of speech.
"Bring me this man," he snarled in a choking voice. "He is mine - mine; I will tear him to pieces with my teeth and eat his living body. Bring him to me and quickly. I cannot wait.
"Have patience; he will soon come," was the answer. Totan could only glare and pant. He listened sullenly as Gonch told of Pic's pursuit.
On the way down the mountain side, Kutnar had an excellent opportunity to gain a better knowledge of his new acquaintances. His first impressions were far from flattering. A more squalid, beast-like lot of men he had never seen. He mistrusted them at sight. On his long journey to the southland he had anticipated much pleasure in meeting them and learning more about their superior flint industry. The latter was disappointing as the men themselves. Fine weapons? Never had he gazed upon worse. He saw not a single flint ax head or poinard; in fact, no stone implements with the exception of a few badly-hewn quartz flakes. Apparently the Castilians relied almost entirely upon wood. Their clubs, javelins and fling-sticks were all made of this material. Even it was badly chosen and shaped. Kutnar made a wry face as he looked at his companions and their miserable equipment. "These cannot be Gonch's people," he finally consoled himself. "Soon we will pass on to the country of the southrons and the sooner the better."