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Authors: Harper Swan

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Raven's Choice

BOOK: Raven's Choice
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Table of Contents

 

RAVEN’S
CHOICE

THE REPLACEMENT CHRONICLES: PART ONE

 

 

Harper Swan

Raven’s Choice

Copyright © 2014 by Harper Swan. All rights reserved.

First Kindle Edition: December 2014

 

Editor:
Red Adept Editing

Cover and Formatting:
Streetlight Graphics

 

This eBook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.

Dedication

To
Cleon, whose enthusiasm for this story never ceased to warm my heart.

 

The present contains nothing more than the past,

And what is found in the effect was already in the cause.

—Henri Bergson

California, Early Twenty-First Century

M
ark trots across the parking lot to a low, unassuming building. Barely pausing, he jerks the glass door open and darts inside, the door almost smacking against the outside wall. From behind her computer screen, a receptionist’s head snaps up, eyes wide.

“Conference Room Two—I’m Mark Hayek from the Parkinson’s Institute,” he says before she can open her mouth.

The receptionist pats her chest and takes a quick breath.

Mark blinks at her, chagrined. He hadn’t meant to startle anyone.

She points across the room. “Go through that door into the hall. It’s the last room on your right. Don’t worry”—she shakes her head—“the fun and games haven’t started yet.”

“Thanks,” he says, going toward the door. But now it’s Mark’s turn to be rattled.
Fun and games
—he doesn’t like the way those words sound. Surely this blasted meeting hasn’t been scheduled during the same time slot as something else. He groans inwardly and takes long, loping strides down the empty hall.

Genetics and Me, Inc. will provide important research used to further explore the genetics behind Parkinson’s disease, and he fully comprehends that. But this meeting the company asked for means precious time is being taken away from his own worthy efforts.

Even filling the small, clear tube from a kit G&M sent over was time-consuming. He slipped inside a bathroom near the break area, taking the kit along, sure that he would only be in there a moment. But rapid-fire spitting into the tube was a bad strategy—his mouth soon went dry. He waited long minutes for more saliva to flow while several people tried the bathroom door, rattling it in vain before giving up.

The attached note said he could drop off the tube at their offices at Santa Clara. Instead, so he wouldn’t have to leave work early, he mailed it in their provided prepaid packaging.

Mark’s supervisor made it sound like an honor that she’d chosen him to be the lead collaborator with G&M. Mark now wishes she’d taken that honor for herself. Let
her
be at their beck and call.

A loud clattering behind the door of Conference Room Two makes him pause, hand on the door handle. He sighs. Apparently, they’re just now setting up the meeting area. He checks his watch. If he is to be an errand boy, then he’ll perform this task efficiently and get out of here as quickly as possible.
No
longer than thirty minutes inside
, he promises himself. He doesn’t bother to knock before going in.

A confusing beehive of activity greets him. People are pushing chairs to the corners of the plain, veneer-paneled conference room. A table is being set with food platters, wine, and beer. A man stirs a pot on a hot plate, steaming out a savory aroma. The smell is almost familiar—it reminds Mark of chili.

“Excuse me,” he says to a woman in a lab coat as she rushes by. “I’m looking for Dr. Gregory Underwood.”

She stops and searches the room. “Over there in the blue shirt. Right under the banner.” She gives an explosive little laugh.

Mark stiffens and wonders what’s so amusing but, remembering his manners, simply thanks her as he turns away. Tilting his head while he walks, he reads a banner hung from the ceiling. Oddly, it reads Proud to be Neanderthal.

He fingers his closely clipped beard. That’s like saying you’re proud to be extinct, and that doesn’t make sense. Mark catches himself pulling at his beard and yanks his hand down. It’s the latest habit he’s been trying to break.

A somewhat stocky guy under the banner is fiddling with note cards on a podium, and Mark can’t help but grin a little, although “Viking” would probably be a better description than “Neanderthal.” Gregory Underwood’s hair and eyebrows are as blond as Mark’s are dark.

Mark reaches into his jacket pocket and brings out an envelope as he approaches the Viking. “Dr. Underwood, I’m Mark Hayek from the Parkinson’s Institute, point man for our partnership. Here’s my contact information.” He places the envelope on the podium. “The institute sends its greetings and gratitude.”

“Likewise from our side. Call me Greg, if you would.” He grins at Mark. “We aren’t too formal around here. Glad you could come for our  party.” Greg puts Mark’s envelope under the note cards. “I’ll show you around the place before we get started. Hey, Ben,” he calls over Mark’s head, “text me when things are ready.”

Mark’s head jerks back slightly
. Party?
No one had mentioned a party. What kind of loosely run organization had the institute paired him with? As Greg heads for the door, Mark bolts after him.

“Wait a minute. I’m sorry,” Mark says. “As much as I’d like to, I really can’t stay long right now. Maybe just for a quick tour. This is only a touch-base kind of visit.”

Greg stops and turns so abruptly that Mark bumps into him. “You’ve
got
to stay. You’re our guest of honor. Look on the back wall.” Greg raises an arm, his fingers spread back toward the podium. “One of those is yours. We got your saliva sample in time to work it up, and man, do we have a surprise for you.”

Mark knows he’s frowning, but he can’t stop. A surprise isn’t necessarily a good thing. Earlier, he didn’t notice the clothesline stretched along the wall behind the podium. He focuses on what is hanging there, and the sight is so offbeat that his brow loosens, and he barely notices his fingers once again going through his beard.

Colorful plastic clothespins hold T-shirts all along the line. Gracing the front of every shirt is a Neanderthal man or woman, redheaded and wearing animal skins.

Western Asia, Late Pleistocene

T
here had been signs—bruised grass here, a disturbed cluster of stones there. The men who’d come for Raven did not discuss such things with her. Their abrupt silences, whenever she approached to better hear them, made her isolation as the small group’s sole woman almost complete. But while she was breaking off rosemary stalks growing against a rock, several large footprints nearby caught her attention. She straightened so briskly her dark braid flew back over her shoulder. She waved the stalks overhead and let out an owl hoot. Bear, her sister’s mate and the journey leader, led them all over at a run, his wolverine hood flopping in agitation around his face.

Raven pointed out the prints. But instead of being grateful for an extra pair of eyes, Bear practically snarled at her.

“Stop wandering away over the steppe, woman, or you’ll be taken by a lion,” he said. The frown gave way to a sly smile, his lip curling over an eyetooth, white and sharp. “Or you could
accidentally
be left behind.” His tall, fur-draped bulk blocked the sun, and the cool spring day suddenly seemed colder.

She did not snap at him—choking back the impulse with a small cough—that if left behind, she would simply follow the group’s tracks until she caught up. Instead she said, “I need to replenish certain medicines before we reach the valley. Plants will be different there.” The strong rosemary smell was suffocating, so she stuffed the bunch into her herbal pouch.

“Forget that for now. If you don’t reach camp alive and well, I’ll have to put up with your sister’s sorrow. Understand me. I am fetching you only because she begged me to, so don’t burden us.”

His black eyes on her face, he motioned toward the other men, who, when she glanced at them, gawked back with curiosity from where they leaned on their spears. “Stay in our midst.” His wolfish smile glistened. “Unless what you
actually
seek is to join your dead mate.”

Although she kept her face calm and relaxed, his words made her taut inside, like sun-dried sinew. One full turn of the seasons had already passed since Reed had gone, yet her sorrow remained deep and wide. Her throat tightened, silencing her, and all she could do was lower her eyes to cut off his scrutiny. He turned away from her without saying anything more, and everyone followed him back to the trail.

But the freshness of those footprints could not be ignored, nor could the smell of smoke floating on the breeze. After huddling with the men, Bear halted their advance. He led them all, Raven included, up a large, wide outcropping of rock that sloped down toward a dry canyon on the other side.

They crouched on the ridge behind boulders while Leaf, the young scout, eased his way down a projecting ledge for a better look around a curve in the canyon walls. He froze suddenly with his head tilted forward.

Blue and clear though the sky was, Raven heard rumbling like the muttering of a distant storm. Suddenly, nearby rocks began to tremble. Birds flapped into the sky, and several rabbits bolted out of cover, running in confused circles on the canyon floor below as the rumbling became thunder.

The scout scurried back and leapt into the gap beside her. “Bison,” he said.

A dark, shaggy flood poured down the old riverbed below them. Humps rose and fell behind bearded, horned heads as they stampeded through the rift, leaving—when they’d finally passed—a sudden, dusty silence pierced only by the distant howl of a wolf.

Everyone remained in place for so many heartbeats that Raven slipped her pouch strap over a shoulder, impatiently preparing to move down. She felt a light touch on her arm.

“There will be stragglers,” the scout murmured. He’d no sooner said the words than a small group of bison rounded the bend in the canyon.

Another wolf howl ripped the morning air from close by, startling Raven, and she jerked her hand across a sharp rock. A narrow red streak welled across her fawn-colored skin. Before she could tend to it, several of the men grunted loudly, and she looked up.

What had howled apparently wasn’t a wolf. Several burly figures, their bare chests and backs drenched in what appeared to be blood, waved spears and burning branches as they chased the bison, the beasts tossing their heads and kicking with their back legs. Raven drew a sharp breath and momentarily ducked lower before curiosity made her peer over the rocks and focus on the approaching runners.

An odd clicking started beside her ear, and the hair on her arms rose. She realized that the sound was young Leaf’s teeth chattering. But before she could take a look at him, the gaps between boulders on the ravine’s other side spewed three more brawny shapes onto the canyon floor.

Raven had difficulty understanding what her eyes were seeing. Stories she’d heard about the Longheads hadn’t prepared her to expect that the forms below would look so much like actual men. Their bodies were broader, and something was odd about their arms and legs, a difference she couldn’t quite grasp at the moment, but clearly they were men. Those last three weren’t bloody, and the bloodied ones, nearing rapidly, confused her. She thought they might be injured before remembering how hunters sometimes covered themselves with blood from a boar or some other animal so the smell would panic large, hoofed game.

Two of the Longheads who’d just burst from the rocks darted out in front of a bison, isolating it. Confounded by suddenly facing two screaming figures waving spears, the bison’s gait slowed considerably. This gave the third Longhead an opportunity to slip in closer from the side and bring his enormous wooden club down on the beast’s back. Its hind legs bowed, and it stumbled, struggling to regain balance. The bloodied Longheads joined the others in jabbing their spears and screaming, but only one spear was dangling from a shoulder when the bison gave a loud bellow and began to fight back. With head lowered and horns hooking, it wheeled around so its back and flanks were protected by an indentation in the canyon wall.

The Longheads scattered, except for the one who’d swung the club. He dropped the wooden chunk and grasped the bison horn nearest him with both hands, attempting to wrestle the giant head to the side and down.

Raven’s eyes widened at the Longhead’s boldness.

Behind her, someone gave a hushed, breathy whistle.

“It’s always been said that they are crazy.” Bear’s awed voice, low and husky, belied his disdainful words.

Leaf snorted. “
Crazy
doesn’t say enough.” His voice was filled with venom.

As for Raven, the fierce sights and sounds on the canyon floor had rendered her mute, her jaw tightly clamped. A shudder went through her, and she knew she would forever remember the brute struggle playing out below.

The Longhead’s mantle of skins had fallen to the ground, revealing his enormous, straining muscles. He was making progress in pressing the bison’s head downward, and the animal’s foreleg on that side was bending ever closer to the ground. In an effort to loosen the Longhead’s grip, the bison bucked its backside partway around. It managed to wrench the Longhead’s hands from its horn but in doing so exposed its flanks again to ready spears. A moment later, the bison, with several spears now dangling from its sides, rammed its head into the cast-off Longhead. His body flew back against the canyon wall, crumpled to the ground, and lay still.

Even as the bison was brought down, blood streaming from nostrils and mouth, its tongue sliding out, Raven’s glance kept sticking on the fallen Longhead like a moth alighting on oozing sap. Her hand patted her herb pouch, but she held back the urge to go see if he was still alive. With the other Longheads still there, that wasn’t possible. Besides, he had likely died after hitting the wall with such force.

Reed would have said her concern was misplaced. He had believed the Longheads were beasts even if they did somewhat resemble men. She stilled her hand. If he was right, then two magnificent animals were dead. She would gladly feed from the one—she should not feel dismay over the other.

The Longheads straightened their fallen companion, stretching him on his back beside the canyon wall. But they stayed with him only a short while before butchering the bison, their arms slashing sharp stone through hide, gristle, and muscle. Chunks went flying onto several large skins nearby.

While they worked, they turned to each other occasionally and made noises in turn, mouths moving. Raven’s shoulders hunched forward. Her ears strained to hear the indistinct sounds, and she looked at Leaf, crouching beside her, wondering if he heard them and if he thought those sounds were words. His mouth was a tight line, his eyes unblinking as he also listened.

All at once, four more laggard bison hurtled through the pass. The Longheads surrounded their kill, whooping and jumping with limbs spread-eagled, warding off the beasts. The four bison swerved and kept to the far wall as they passed. Using the roiling commotion below as cover, Bear signaled for their group to return to the other side of the ridge, and they rapidly crawled after him.

They stopped a short way down the other side. Bear shed his parka and threw it over a rock. He looked at the others, his eyes full of challenge. “There are only six of them, one dead. We are eight.” He kept his voice low. “We’ll reach the valley well before nightfall. The meat will still be fresh.”

“If you will permit me to speak, great Bear,” Leaf said in his somewhat high, cracking voice.

Leaf’s manner surprised Raven. That was how one spoke to a respected tribal elder, not to someone leading a journey between camps. But then, Leaf was a much younger man, too young for Bear to send him out alone in all directions, his beard just downy black strands. He reminded Raven of her youngest brother when last she’d seen him—timid but at times brash.

“Speak,” Bear said, frowning, “but keep your voice down.”

“Each one of them has a lot more strength than any one of us.”

“I do not believe it. Most of us are not so weak.” Bear eyed the scout’s lean frame with scorn. He made a fist of one hand and ground it into the palm of the other. Rippling muscles stood out on his neck, shoulders, and arms.

Instead of being reassured by this display, Raven felt a feather of fear float down her spine. Her future was tied to that man, who was, like his namesake, powerful and irritable and—her gaze fixed on his broad chest as she realized the strangeness of another thought—whose body build somewhat resembled that of a Longhead.

“They are worn from the hunt,” Bear added. “Our spears and knives are better made. Haven’t you said so yourself?” He stabbed a finger toward the scout. “You of all men should want to go down there.”

The scout cowered, and though he was trying to control it, his teeth were chattering again. Raven looked back and forth between the two men. There was much to learn about her adoptive band.

“We ease ourselves halfway down, keeping behind boulders,” Bear told them. “If more bison should come through, we go to the bottom while they’re protecting their kill. If there are no more bison, we will depend on surprise. Wait for my signal.”

He made eye contact, one by one, with each man. “I won’t do it now—I’ll wait until we safely reach the valley. But I will personally whip anyone who causes a rock slide, and if I am the cause, one of you shall crack the whip.” The men averted their eyes and nodded their assent.

Raven was aghast at how no one protested that last, unyielding rule. And none of them, other than Leaf, had questioned Bear’s plan for taking the kill. She had always assumed that, within the Fire Cloud tribe, every band behaved much the same. In Raven’s old home band, decisions were reached with much more discussion and argument. She had to admit, however, that there was little time at present for arguing.

The men took off their parkas and lowered their leather bags and pouches from their shoulders to the ground, keeping only their spears.

Bear pointed his at Raven like an overly extended finger. “You stay here,” he said.

She let her eyes slide away from him as if he were something slippery.

After they had gone over the crest, Raven clambered up to watch, defying Bear’s order. The men were carefully working their way from boulder to boulder. When they were midway down, Bear raised a hand to halt them.

As everyone waited, a hawk flying overhead screeched its bothered cry, and crows flapped darkly from rock to rock, curious about the activity below. One of the Longheads who’d hidden in the boulders before the kill went again to his unfortunate ambush partner. After leaning in for a closer look, he returned to butchering. The wind picked up, whistling around the outcrop.

Raven adjusted her fur cape, worked her leggings farther up. She was being careful, but a few pebbles began to roll. She gasped. The small stones stopped moving almost as soon as they’d started, but her heart still pounded at the thought of being whipped by Bear. Her father had done enough of that, with braided leather strips, to last her a lifetime.

Yarrow was growing in a sandy place nearby, the leaves covered with white, longish hairs. Raven already had enough yarrow, but her hand closed unbidden around several stems. In her fist, the leaves felt like a bristling caterpillar as she crushed them until their weedy odor filled her nostrils. The stronger the plant smelled, the more intense its effects would be.

She had fought Reed’s fever with the strongest yarrow she could find, mixed with elderberry—it didn’t help. None of her desperate remedies worked. He’d been a stubborn man, and he battled his illness the same way, eating and drinking everything she gave him though he gagged. But his fever had proven more stubborn than the both of them.

Bear had made light of Reed’s death, and Raven still stung from that. There was no way to avoid him when she was going to live at his hearth. She should put aside her sorrow, seek another mate, and make her own hearth again. She quietly dusted the crushed leaves off her hands.

Raven had just decided that no more bison would push through the canyon when a noisy blend of grunting and snorting drifted over the wind. A group of cows with several large calves trotted around the curve, seeking the main herd. They sped up, determined to pass. Again, the Longheads shunted the animals away, and as the last group had, the bison hugged the wall opposite the kill and lunged through in single file. The last one gave a bleating bellow upon smelling the bloody meat and bucked its way down the canyon.

The Longheads turned to watch the bucking bison, and Bear’s group used that distraction to surge down the outcrop and dart from the lower ledge. His spear jerking forward, Bear headed the charge across the gap.

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