Tir extracted a burning brand from the campfire and followed Shaman into the cavern’s antechamber. More of a wide passageway, Shaman ran his hand along the limestone surface as he made his way to the end. He turned and patted the wall.
“You have practiced spirit painting on skins and sketching in sand. Here you will learn to embrace the stone. Speak for the bear and the lion. Let your soul ride the great antlered deer and stubborn rhino.” He toed a circle in the sand. “Build your fire here but, not too big. It must last you all the night.”
“What area is mine?” Tir pointed to the smooth wall to his left. The wall behind him held ugly holes and pockmarks.
“Yours? None of it. All of it.” Shaman shuffled back toward the main chamber slapping the rock face. “Years will pass as you tell your tale here, and here. And here.” He turned at the hall’s entrance. “When your fire dies, return.”
The holy man grunted. “What did you think? I would hold your hand in the dark?” Still carrying his tallow lamp, Shaman left the tunnel, paused to touch the fangs of a lion within the gallery and allowed his voice to echo back to his apprentice. “Let the spirit world take you. Walk with phantoms, earn their trust. Paint their lives.”
Tir sat down in the sand near the chamber’s fire and listened as the old man’s shuffling faded to silence.
The air smelled of knot-wood smoke, but also of dung, some old and some not so old. He’d seen piles of dried scat he knew to be cave bear. There were signs of other carnivores as well. He focused across the wide chamber on the lions, a dozen of them, ready to charge. Sizzling within the fire, a large sap pocket, heated to extreme, exploded throwing sparks to the ceiling revealing the entire chamber in its glory. Startled, Tir realized his time was wasting. He jumped to his feet and got to work.
He first moved the fire to his private corridor, arranged his tools, and then set bowls of pigment in a row. From a seep he fetched water to mix with the burnt umber. The ocher he mixed with fat, the charcoal a little of both.
He began at the far end. With his own lamp sputtering, he took a charcoal nub and set it against the stone. Let the spirit world speak to me.
A dozen breaths passed.
“Spirits, what is your desire?” Nothing. His arm dropped. He stepped back and examined the layout of the flow-stone. “That looks like the round ass of a horse. If I send his tail whipping like so…” With furtive strokes that became bolder, he realized his vision, a galloping horse, outline only, soon burst from the stone.
“Your color would be deep here, a strong dark head with, yes, a mane that flutters like Veena’s when she runs in the wind.”
A scratch here, a smudge with his palm there, the first bit of fire had burned low by the time he nodded satisfaction.
He blinked twice. As the flames shrank to a mere flicker he imagined the horse to move. He added a few more strokes where he believed its legs would blur in wild flight. The illusion came to life. The sound of hoof beats, the defiant snorts and neighs came crashing into Tir’s mind.
“But he wouldn’t be alone…”
Examining his remaining knot-wood, he decided to burn as little as he could, just enough light to allow the mixing of pigment and provide for his sketching. He’d use his dish-lamp for close-up work.
Additional horses joined the first fiery stallion. Tir shifted his feet and adjusted his canvas along the wall. Next came a trio of obstinate woolly rhinos. His arm rotated high above his head—not high enough. He dashed into the gallery chamber and found a boulder. He sniffed the air. “Oof, that smells worse than before.” He shrugged and rolled the rock into his hallway.
Standing atop it, he completed the rhino’s spear-point horn. To the rhinos he applied mottled fur by spitting charcoal and water. Next came bison with great humps at their shoulders. Behind them, he drew a massive elk with tree-branch antlers that stretched so far Tir had to move his rock twice to handle the spread.
Out of breath, he paused and stoked the fire with another splint of resin-wood. He cupped his hand and sipped water from the seep. He’d brought dried meat which he now pulled from his satchel. Gnawing on a strip of deer haunch he surveyed his work.
“Everything is running to the left.” He considered continuing the pattern. “No, this is not a stampede.” The answer to his unspoken question blossomed within his mind’s eye. “This must be what Shaman meant, the spirits speaking to me.”
He jostled the boulder along the wall, away from the noses of the bison. “Cave lions must crouch level with the grass.” Tir sketched the nose and eyes and rounded ears of the first big cat. Quick strokes followed to suggest the muscled shoulders and strong back. He added another, this one appearing closer and more menacing, its head turned enough to give the viewer second thoughts.
Darkness collapsed all around him. “More wood. I should have brought…” In the absolute quiet—his ears, hyper-sensitive—he heard the sound of snuffling. His arm froze holding the last stick of wood. His eyes gravitated to the glowing embers which ticked and sighed. He waiting for the sound’s return. “Old caves full of old bones and old spirits.” His breathing returned but the noises did not.
He ate more jerky, drank more water and outlined his final subject. He had no idea how long he’d been buried in the mountain, immersed in the moment, but he’d covered all but the final ten feet of the tunnel’s wall. With his rock pulled close he made vast sweeping arcs with his arm forming the enormous body of a wounded cave bear.
Wounded, as he’d recalled his packet of red-ocher. First he traced the line of a spear thrusting in from the left. It disappeared into the beast’s imagined side and there, Tir sprayed and splattered the blood-red pigment mixed with the last of his tallow. For the bear’s maw, he drew it as high as he could reach, its dark throat providing outline for vicious white fangs.
The snuffling sound returned. Tir heard it to his left, in the gallery. A deep growl announced the creature’s presence.
Tir snatched up the last sliver of burning wood and padded to the end of his antechamber. He remembered seeing a narrow crevice high on the wall. Getting to it proved difficult. But when the bear, five feet high at the shoulder, its head weaving back and forth in agitation, entered the hallway, Tir scraped his fingernails bloody but made the crack and squeezed into it.
Below, the bear tore apart his satchel, and licked at the fatty pigment. It reared up to the crevice and ran its paw, talons longer than Tir’s fingers, into the hole nearly scraping the lad’s thigh. Tir screamed at the bear which only aggravated it further. It bellowed back, its breath a fetid cloud. The blast rattled Tir’s jawbone and filled his mind with hot terror.
Tir squirmed deeper. The crevice, high up the wall, had saved him, for now. But escape was impossible. The fire fully died and the chamber, tunnel and crevice plunged into suffocating darkness.
The colossal monster dropped and continued to thrash at Tir’s belongings. Trapped, Tir tried to get comfortable. He heard the creature wander back into the gallery but its snuffling never ceased. Tir fell asleep to the vision of horses fleeing the assault of a gigantic bear.