Preparations were fully underway now. The Kodash clan had accepted the Challenge; and, finally, the conflict over the plains to the setting sun would be resolved. Too much blood had been spent, many hunters lost on both sides. There seemed no way to achieve peace other than the Challenge. The members of both clans detested each other; fighting broke out whenever they came across one another. Though the dispute centered around the rich hunting grounds, the animosity had grow such that each claimed superiority and, therefore, sovereignty over the other. But the battles never seemed to resolve anything. Neither clan was willing to submit. The Challenge was the only way one clan could be called “rulers.”
The head of the Unganah clan –the one with whom the Kodash warred– was intently involved in his preparatory responsibilities. The bulky Neanderthal the Unganahs called Krec was, studiously and with great care, just finishing his third mastodon shank. He was just now beginning to eye the fourth one, recently brought in by four of the clan’s females. Normally, Krec would never eat more than three of the tremendous cuts of meat, but the Challenge called for extreme measures. The only way to outlive the Kodash bastard was to outeat him. Preparation was everything.
Outside of Krec’s cave, other Unganahs were hard at work with easier, but equally important, duties. Several females were hurriedly sewing specially cured, water-proof padding into Krec’s skins. The clan’s shaman was buzzing around them, watching over their progress and bestowing the proper charms and wards upon the outfit with his dervish prancing. In a secluded grove of trees, Krec’s first mate was carefully weaving what would serve as his arm bindings once the Challenge began, an honor his other mates envied but understood to be hers by right. By the river, Krec’s son-by-first-mate was consumed with hollowing a sapling’s trunk: Krec’s drinking tube within the Challenge cave.
It was the last day before the Challenge began, and all who worked to prepare for it did so with a fervor. By sundown, all was ready. Krec was laying, bloated, on his sleeping mat, trying not to think about the six, maybe seven, tremendous shanks he had just dispatched. He mulled over his chances of winning the Challenge. He had certainly eaten all he could and, although the Kodashs’ ruler was a big creature, he would never outdo Krec’s preparations. The Challenge victory was assured.
The sun leered over the surrounding hills, intently contemplating the westerly mountains: its resting place after the coming day’s trek. The only life in its field of vision was a small, busy member of the rodent family and several large members of the Neanderthal family. Two families, actually, for the group atop the shining knoll represented the two parties who had escorted their chiefs to the ritual cave of the Challenge.
The psychological games of the Challenge had already begun, as each leader strove to look the most… nourished, for lack of a kinder term. The padding in each creature’s “garments” added, of course, to the desired effect; and, knowing this, the two gargantuan mammals stood before one another and tried to guess the real bulk hidden beneath their skins. The added warmth from the pads was secondary to this important first stage of any Challenge. As primitive as they were, each leader knew that confidence was crucial, and the more obese one looked, the better one’s edge was over one’s opponent. As the parties who escorted their chieftains were looking edgily at each behemoth, making their own predictions, the signal to fully commence the Challenge sounded.
Krec’s stomach growled.
His emissaries began tying his arms back with the binding his first mate had fashioned; the Unganah’s escorts followed suit. Krec’s men were worried, for the longer it took the challenging leader’s stomach to show signs of renewed interest in eating, the more psyched-out his opponent became. It had been an extremely short time since the group had gathered; for a growl to have occurred so soon was a bad omen for the Kodash. Nevertheless, there was no honorable way, nor reason, to turn back. Krec would not have if he could; the conflicts between his clan and the Kodash had to end. The Challenge was the end-all.
The decent down the steep natural chimney into the ritual cave was tedious, but each leader made it down unaided: another psych game. It was well understood that the eventual victor would have to make it back up; so if either had failed to get down unaided, he could count on not making it up, and subsequently not living. Having avoided such an unnerving prelude, both chiefs and their parties were somewhat encouraged by the successes.
A small fire was laboriously built, for the sun had not crept high enough into the still bleeding sky to cast much light into the chamber. When the tinder finally caught with a flare, Krec realized he was mere inches from falling into a small, silent stream running through the center of the chamber. Wishing to quickly begin the main part of the Challenge, he somewhat sluggishly, with a rumbling of the surrounding rock, dropped to a seated position, his back against a basalt outcropping and his knees pulled as close to his chest as possible. About three feet. The Kodash chief did likewise, thudding down opposite and across the stream from Krec. The two others who had been chosen to descend with their respective chiefs now placed the fashioned drinking tubes upon the knees of the two furry masses. One end of each tube dipped into the slowly moving stream. The other ends, once the tubes were steadied with nearby rocks, rested within easy stretching distance of the seated giants’ mouths. The two escorts double-checked the bindings, and after parting expressions of homage to their leaders, began the accent out of the cave. Above, there could be heard the beginnings of a quarrel between the others. The Challenge would end that habit soon enough. The two chieftains locked eyes and each began waiting for the other to die.
Four days had passed, and both creatures had begun to feel the first wrenching pangs of hunger. These represented the beginning of the end and caused the first bits of fear to pick their way into the minds of the two combatants. He who survived the longest, won. It was as simple as that. In a sense. Surviving the Challenge also required escaping, without the aid of hands, from the cave that had become, after a lunar month or more, the tomb of the loser. Few accomplished this. Fewer still made it back to their clan. Still less survived the shock of renourishment. To live to enjoy the fruits of a successful Challenge was the mark of a truly strong individual. All of these facts sifted around in Krec’s mind. Slowly, yes; but with sullen weight. He was certain that the Kodash pig’s excuse for a mind was mulling over the same things.
Suddenly, something inexcusable happened. Krec felt his stomach begin to churn, and, before he could think of any way to stifle it, a long, low, thunderous grumble sounded from his midsection. Krec felt his face flush; letting such an obvious sign of hunger be revealed filled him with shame. He reluctantly looked to the face of his opponent, knowing that a triumphant grimace would be smeared all over it. He made eye contact and tried, for the other beast’s benefit, to look unconcerned. Krec was staggered with surprise when he saw an obvious look of sympathy and understanding on the chieftain’s face. The Kodash leader signed, with his face, that the feeling of hunger was mutual. Krec realized after a few stupefied moments that his mouth was hanging open. He quickly snapped it shut and averted his stare from the sympathetic visage that faced him.
Between the spells of sleep and semi-consciousness that Krec experienced over the next ten days, he drank and pondered the Kodash’s reaction to his cataclysmic churnings. He chose to regard it as a sign of his enemy’s weakness. He could not, however, convince a quiet, pestering voice in his mind of this. It argued that he should, in some way, return the gesture. This feeling he was able to keep at bay when awake, but his dreams were plagued with images of he and the Kodash scum hunting and eating together as clan. Of course, even these loathsome dreams were preferred to the other dreams.
Krec had just awakened with a start from one of these other dreams in a frigid sweat. This time it had been slightly different. Before, he had dreamed of being in this same cave, in this same situation, except his opponent was his first born son. Each time, the dream would end with his son slumping forward and face down into the stream, dead. Then, in the dream, Krec felt himself stand and cry out in a scream of joy and victory and… anguish. This pattern repeated for several sleeps, unvaried, until tonight. In this dream his opponent had been his first mate.
Krec looked over to his opponent’s slumped form; the dim moonlight made him see, in brief flashes, the image of his mate. Try as he might, he could not exorcise it. He stared for a long time at his mate’s body, which had now fully resolved, and slowly but surely began see something wrong with it. He suddenly realized the problem. His mate’s drinking tube had fallen off her knees and into the sluggish stream. With a shudder, Krec saw his female’s image waver and be replaced by the Kodash’s grim features. The Kodash was looking at him with a face filled with sadness and yet accented with a grim determination. Then Krec realized that the image of the tube in the stream had not disappeared with his mate’s. The Kodash’s drinking tube lay about one foot from Krec’s right leg, wedged against a stone in the water. His opponent feet stretched out over the stream, seeking purchase on the wet wood. The tube then, with slow, lethal leisure, shifted slightly and came to rest entirely out of reach of the Kodash’s straining limbs.
It was over.
The tube had drifted across the water to a spot thoroughly inaccessible to the starving, weakened Kodash; his only solace was that, for him, the torture of the Challenge would now be quickly resolved. Both creatures stared at the oversized straw as it undulated to the rhythm of the slow current. Krec felt an elation. As a smile began to spread across his haggard face, he looked towards his adversary. His gaze fell upon the deflated looking Kodash and he began to see a change come over the beast. He saw it slowly and deliberately shrink in bulk, withering away as the dehydration set in. Creepingly and yet impossibly quickly, Krec watched the fetid mask of death spread across the features of the slumped figure. Just as his flesh started to turn to dust, the Kodash looked up into Krec’s eyes. The sole emotions which shimmered across the cadaverous, nearly skeletal, face were sorrow… and pity.
Krec’s confused eyes blinked in surprise without the aid of his numbed brain. This reflexive action was sufficient to disperse the hallucination, but the sad sympathy still hung on his opponent hollow visage.
Sympathy?! Krec’s mind reeled at the presumptuous prospect of it. His response was one which he typically favored when backed into this familiar state of uncertainty; he went on the defensive. He summoned, for his opponent, the most full expression of elation his uncomfortable features could muster. The result: he looked somewhat pleased. His opponent’s pity seemed to almost swell on his features. Not to be so easily daunted, Krec attempted a scream of victory. An unenthusiastic, almost nervous, cry issued forth from his lips. His opponent regarded him with the same look for a moment longer and then tried to rise in an effort to retrieve the tube. Then, with a final look of defeat, the Kodash seemed to realize that, even were he make it to a standing position, there was no way, with bound arms, to properly reposition the vital device once he reached it.
It was over.
For the rest of the day and half of the ensuing evening, Krec mulled over all that he had seen. Actually, he mostly considered the Kodash’s eyes for that time; his hallucinations were too much for his feeble intellect to comprehend. He failed to fully understand the meaning behind the obvious sympathy in them… if anything, his opponent should feel sorry for himself.
It was as the first glow of dawn began seeping through the natural chimney that Krec understood the significance of the beast’s emotion. He began to feel ashamed and dishonored. He realized that, of the two seated in this cave, he was the more beastly. The sanctity of the Challenge allowed for victory on one condition: starvation. He was the “scum” for trying to revel in his opponent’s misfortune. No wonder the Kodash viewed him with such pity.
Krec could not take it. He quickly positioned his feet over the rocking tube and then, lifting with one foot and pivoting it while the other braced the tube, he carefully rested it on the other Neanderthal’s knees. This motion woke the dozing creature; and it looked at the tube and then at the man seated across from it. Krec stared back into the man’s eyes… and smiled.
The two men began waiting again. It was all they could do. It was all the beasts in their clans would accept.