The forest is never more deadly than at night. Even an experienced and well armed hunter fears being alone in the prehistoric wilderness after sunset. The painted woman was not only alone in the forest, she was naked, unarmed, tired, and hungry. Although she had leapt at the opportunity to escape from the Bellamani she had also realised that the Matriarch had probably given her a death sentence; and perhaps also a death sentence to poor young Rosha. It occurred to the painted woman that this may have been the Matriarch’s intention: kill off the strongest Paximani woman. In truth, there was a voice inside the huntress that beg for death. After watching all her friends, the men of the tribe, slaughtered and mutilated by the Bellamani, and the subsequent easy capitulation of the remaining women of her tribe, had filled her heart with so much woe and despair that death seemed like a welcome avenue of escape from her current situation. The ultimate way to destroy your enemy is to trick or convince them into destroying themselves. Despair and misery are just another two weapons of war no less important than a spear or a bow.
But another voice also spoke inside her head. A voice of an old warrior, Tannas, she had known him as a little child. She could hear his deep cavernous voice echoing inside her head, “The most dangerous foe is not the one who strikes you down with his spear, and not even the foe who can convince you to lower your guard foolishly, but the one who can convince you throw yourself on the point of your own spear. For this reason you must learn to conquer the despair in your own heart before you attempt to conquer enemy.”
The painted woman fell on her knees and clasped her hands together tightly and placed her forehead against them momentarily before throwing her head back and her hands up into the sky as though trying to reach up and pluck Tannas’ departed soul from the heavens and drag him back down to the world.
“O Tannas, noble dead warrior of the Paximani, give me the strength to not despair!” she cried.
She waited with her hands in the air looking searchingly up to the dark heavens for an answer, but only a cloud passed slowly across the moon. Her breathing steadied and she brought herself back onto her feet and started making her way cautiously through the darkness. Cave lions, bears, wolves, and the ferocious sabretooth all hunted in the forest at night, and all of them would make an easy meal out of the lone woman. She found herself a wooden branch with a knot of wood at one end; it would do for a club. Many times during the night, she stopped to climb a tree and wait. Sometimes it was nothing, other times foxes and badgers would stealthily tread past her and she breathed a sigh of relief that no bigger predators had been on her scent.
It was spring and there were many wild fruits and vegetables she could snack on, if only she could see them. By chance early on in her night time passage she had found a bush with some almost ripe berries on it. Although most were sour, she had eaten as many as she could and that had been her first mouthfuls of food in almost two days. She was not wandering aimlessly; her experiences with the hunters of the tribe had taught her the geography of the land and she knew the location of several places called “fougous” where the men of the tribe salted meat, fermented cheese and vegetables, stored eggs, and most importantly the seed crop for the following year. These places were well hidden, and most of the men and the women of the tribe were not trusted to know where any of them were in case hunger drove them to eat the seed crop during the winter should the rations be deemed too meagre. Knowledge of these hidden caches was limited to the hunters, the wise men, and the select women who knew the arts of preserving food. Although, even among those women it was common for the hunters to blind fold them so they did not know the locations of the fougous.
In the aftermath of the Paximani’s defeat at the spears of the Bellamani, the painted woman alone knew the locations of some of these fougous. It was towards the nearest one that she knew of that she was slowly making her way.
After many hours of creeping through the forest the painted woman at last found the fougou she had been seeking. It lay at the foot of a muddy moss infested crag surrounded by tall trees and thick brambles. Not far away a small creek gurgled peacefully in the night. The painted woman was just about to climb down from the top of the crag when an owl hooted loudly. She hesitated and surveyed the small clearing at the foot of the crag and the creek for the third time. The owl hooted again, and to the painted woman’s horror what she had thought to be an immense black boulder by the stream stirred and made its way into the clearing to the foot of the crag she was now perched halfway down. A thick cloud passed over the moon and total darkness poured into the space beneath her but just as the light faded she could just make out the distinctive white fangs of a cave bear.
The painted woman clung to the side of the crag stifling her breathing and tensing every muscle in her body. She couldn’t see what was immediately below her but she would occasionally feel the warmth from the cave bear’s nossils as it was snorting in and out lungfuls of air looking for her. The scent of the gigantic apex predator was wafting up to her. It smelled like wild beast, blood, and death. It wasn’t long before she heard the great claws of the beast scratching against the sides of the crag searching for her. The only thing keeping her safe right now was that lack of moon light had left the cave bear as blind as she was. When the moon came out from behind the cloud the cave bear would see her and she would have almost no chance of escape. The animal clawed in the night and once came within half a metre of the painted woman. However, the cloud obscured the moon long enough for the cave bear to grow impatient trying to find her on the side of the crag and instead the great creature had started making its way back towards the creek. But should it glance behind it then it would now be able to see her clinging to the rock just above.
Without wasting a moment, the painted woman climbed down to the ground directly behind the cave bear and quietly ducked onto her stomach where the rock at the base had been worn away leaving a cavity just big enough for a woman to squeeze into. The cave bear sensing something was happening behind it turned around to find the crag behind it completely bare. It sniffed the air a few times dubiously, before plodding off back along the creek. The painted woman wiggled along the overhang of rock until she found a small hole above her head and then athletically pulled herself up inside a narrow cave. She pulled herself up into a hollow chamber inside the crag. Long ago a water spring had run through the middle of the crag hollowing it out. This stream had eventually been diverted by a tree fall and became the nearby creek, leaving the perfect place for the Paximani to build a fougou.
Once safely inside the fougou the painted woman felt around until she found some furs and wrapped herself up inside them. As well as food a small cache of clothing and weapons was also often stored inside them in case a hunter needed fresh equipment on their hunts. The painted woman was so tired that after realising she was at last safe from all immediate dangers she fell asleep almost instantly.
The following morning it was still dark inside the fougou, the only source of light came from the small entrance hole the painted woman had wiggled through the night before. This particular fougou was cramped and smaller than average. She had only chosen to come to this one because it was the closest one to the Matriarch’s camp. She felt her way around the inside, there were shelves everywhere. Some were made out of branches, and others carved into the stone. The painted woman soon recognised that the food was all stored on the shelves made out of branches, while the niches inside the rock contained tools; including weapons. She pulled out some buddles of salted meats to eat for her breakfast, and from the weapons supplies she found four stone-tipped arrows, a hunter’s bow with two strings, a sling, a stone knife, a flat cooking plate made of crude copper, and a hunter’s belt.
Not far away from the fougou she made a small fire to cook the meats. They had only just been stowed in the fougou a week earlier. She shed a few silent tears for the Paximani hunters who had last been here just days ago celebrating what would be their last successful hunt. She offered her thanks to the god Hain, the god of warfare and the hunt, and ate her first wholesome meal in days. She strung her bow and loaded her hunter’s belt with stones harvested from the creek bed. There hadn’t been any spears inside the fougou, nor axes, but beside these two missing weapons she was ready to go hunting, more importantly, she was ready to pick off a few Bellamani warriors if she got the chance to.