The villagers followed the route they'd travelled the previous year and indeed since time immemorial, but this year it was obscured by early snow cover. Chief Cave Lion halted the procession at regular intervals to prod through the crisp but thickening snow with a spear to identify the landmarks that would confirm that they hadn't deviated from their intended course.
Herds of mammoth, horse, deer, aurochs, bison and antelope were also advancing across the snow-swept plains in the same southwards direction. Packs of wolf and hyena were trailing the herds and occasionally harried them. These predators were as much determined as the Mammoth Hunters to fill their bellies before the migrating bounty had passed by. Some animals such as bear and beaver preferred to remain in the North and contend with the winter snow. They slept through the bitter cold curled up in tight balls of thick fur deep inside caves or burrows. Some beasts that wintered in the North such as fox, hare and leopard underwent a transformation that turned their fur so white that they couldn't be seen against the all-embracing snow.
"We must rest for a day," announced Chief Cave Lion as the travellers paused beneath the shadow of a huge leafless tree. "The hunters must gather food and the rest of us must gather our strength for the march ahead to the southern mountains. There is a cave half a day's walk from here. The hunters will scout for bears and lions that might be lurking inside. When we know it's safe, we'll rest there for the whole of tomorrow."
A cheer arose from the weary travellers. Such breaks were unusual on the journey, but the Chief evidently recognised how harsh the elements was this year. The break might delay the travellers' arrival by a day, but perhaps more children would survive.
Ivory had never seen this cave before. This deviation from the normal route was one the Chief must have remembered from a southern migration many years earlier. The entrance to the cave was high up on a limestone hillside that the travellers reached by plodding through the patchy snow of a forest floor. It was a relief when it at last loomed into view. However, the Chief was right to be wary about wild beasts. A huge cave lion came into view at the cave's mouth as the Mammoth Hunters ascended the hill, but no lion could withstand a battery of flint-tipped spears and burning flame. At first the lion appeared ready to stand firm and there was the risk that the battle to take possession of the caves might be bloody and dangerous, but he eventually backed down and scampered away. This was a good omen as it suggested that the lion was alone and didn't belong to a pride.
Before the Mammoth Hunters could relax, it was necessary to decide where they would sleep according to their relative status whilst also keeping safe from the constant risk of predators and people from other tribes who might have a claim on the caves' shelter. Ivory and Glade were accorded a location in the cave commensurate with their ambiguous status. This was very nearly as deep inside as the innermost cavern where Chief Cave Lion and his family reposed in relative privacy behind a curtain of furs suspended on hastily assembled branches.
Almost as soon as the company settled down, Glade and Ivory, in their capacities as shaman and shaman's apprentice, were required to minister to the travellers' complaints and concerns. These were mostly just the sprains, scratches and chilblains that everyone suffers from on a winter trek, but two young children were suffering from a fever that could be either a childhood ailment or a seasonal illness. Glade warned Ivory that many more travellers would soon suffer from colds, coughs and worse. Their duty was to determine if the symptoms could be addressed by swaddling the patient in thick furs or whether they were symptoms of worse sickness to come.
"We all suffer from winter aliments," Glade said. "It's as inevitable in the shorter days of the year as the cold wind and the white snow. We must do what we can so that those who are sick and poorly don't have to be left behind. There's only one fate for those abandoned and the sight of the cave lion is a clear reminder of what that might be."
When their duties were performed, Glade and Ivory could at last relax together while freshly slaughtered game was roasted on the flames of the fire and a thin gruel was prepared from the meagre vegetables and mushrooms that had been collected on the wayside.
Ivory warmed her hands and face on the fire. She was grateful for the furs that covered her: the warmth in the cave was not as evenly distributed as it would be in a tepee. The cave walls were only dimly lit by the fires but Ivory glimpsed the small shadows of bats, rats and mice with which the travellers shared the shelter.
"How could you be happy to live with Demure again?" wondered Ivory who found Glade's choice thoroughly incomprehensible.
"I'm not sure I was happy as such," said Glade carefully, "but I would have been unhappy if she wasn't there. My relationship with Demure was an addiction. It gave me intense momentary pleasure but it was also doing me no good whatsoever. It was self-destructive but I couldn't do without it."
"There must have been something good about Demure," remarked Ivory conciliatorily, "otherwise you'd never have fallen in love with her."
"The smell of her skin," Glade recalled. "The taste of her cunt. The way she anticipated my physical needs before I was aware of them. All these things were good. But she wasn't a good person at all."
"Did she find the husband she was seeking amongst the Ocean People?"
"She spoke their language, although not as fluently as I did, and the time she didn't spend with me was engaged in conversation and debate with the men of the village. She rarely spoke to any woman other than me, but I was the one who provided food and kept our home clear of parasites and vermin. It was obvious that Demure didn't choose the men she pursued on account of their physical attractiveness. In fact, I don't think Demure had ever been physically attracted to men, however much she enjoyed having sex with them. I don't know whether I should be flattered, but I truly believe that I was the only person in her life she ever truly loved."
Ivory sniffed disapprovingly, but she understood Glade's description of love as an addiction. Ivory's own peculiar object of obsessive desire was Glade. She could expect nothing more than a very discreet and circumspect show of affection from the older woman she was sitting next to while they were under the constant gaze of the others. There was nowhere private that they could retreat to. The cave's inner chambers were claimed by the Chief and his family. Outside the cave was a carpet of snow and also, no doubt, a hungry cave lion still scowling vengefully within a short walk of the cave from which he'd been evicted.
When sleep came it was very welcome. Ivory had slept uneasily over the last few days, but here with her head nestled on Glade's furs and with no shrill wind she slept so deeply that even the bite of a cave bear stirring from an unsuspected cavern and now seeking prey could not have awoken her.
Much work needed to be done when the sun next rose above the distant plains. The stitches in Ivory's furs needed tightening. The fires needed kindling. Ivory also had to accompany the other women in the foraging of roots, nuts, berries and mushrooms on the forest floor around the cave. The women ventured abroad only very cautiously given the constant risk presented by the cave lion that couldn't be very far away. Even without this fear, there was always danger from bears, wolves and leopards hidden in the woods. Ivory and the other foragers were accompanied by two reluctant hunters who would much rather hunt hare, antelope or great deer than chaperone the women in their unheroic duties.
The sun had only just passed its zenith when Ivory and the other women returned to the cave. They were weighed down by what they'd foraged and were looking forward to a respite from the icy northern wind. There was great rejoicing when they returned: the hunters had brought down a great deer with wide antlers in the forest along with a brace of forest fowl and hare. The travellers would eat well that evening.
"We must celebrate our good fortune!" said Chief Cave Lion. "Have you brought mead with you, shaman?"
Glade nodded. She produced two leather flagons of strong mead which would need to be diluted with melted ice to be palatable. As there was no guarantee that any provision would survive the trek, today was as good a day as any to drink the strong liquor. It would also be a welcome relief to the family that had been carrying the heavy flagons.
The villagers were soon in celebratory mood as the deer and fowl were roasted on the huge log fire while the women prepared vegetable stew to accompany the meat. Ivory sat beside Glade who entertained the company assembled around her with tales of hunters pursuing mammoth or rhinoceros across wide plains and the glory earned by the inevitable slaughter of these proud beasts.
Ivory sipped at her mead. She sincerely loved the shaman even though it troubled her that Glade had once been so foolishly besotted with the wicked black woman who'd earlier been her slave-mistress. How could she have been so foolish: she who was now so wise, compassionate and companionable? Ivory loved Glade's anecdotes. She revelled in the tales Glade told of her travels. She adored it when Glade sung and her voice soared over the crackle of the blazing fire, over the hubbub of conversation and echoed on the cave's dark damp walls. In whichever language she sung, apparently chosen by whimsy, no one could misconstrue the passion, the longing, the pathos and sadness she expressed.
The good humour continued well into the dusk and the subsequent feasting. Ivory was happy to kneel in her lover's shadow and chat with the other women. No man would dare speak to her while she enjoyed the Chief's protection. The animation in Ivory's laughs and chuckles didn't need the stimulus of inebriation. Every now and then, Ivory's ears and eyes focused on the woman she loved. Her heart beat with silent adoration and pride at the shaman's wit and wisdom. It would be a hard task indeed for Ivory to succeed Glade as village shaman, however well her education progressed.
"I see that you're all enjoying yourselves," said Chief Cave Lion who knelt on his haunches beside Glade and Ivory. He'd obviously had more than his fair share of the clay cups of diluted mead that were being passed around the company. There was a strong smell of mead on his breath and his eyes were unfocused. "It's a good thing you are! Tomorrow we climb over the hills to descend into the valleys. We'll need every morsel of strength to reach the southern mountains." He slurred slightly and wobbled on his feet. "Are you ready for the march ahead, my dear?" he asked Ivory.
"Yes, my lord," said the shaman's apprentice apprehensively.
"It's a long journey and we shall have little opportunity for sport," said the Chief suggestively.
"Indeed not, my lord," replied Ivory who already guessed where the Chief's remarks would lead.
"We should therefore take full advantage of every moment that avails itself to us," continued the Chief. "The spirits of the mammoth steppes are now distant and only the spirits of our ancestors guide us on our way. The journey is hard and few are the opportunities for a fuck."
Ivory sighed under her breath. She could never be safe from the Chief's predatory lust. "There is little opportunity to do so here, my liege. Privacy is scarce and the cave walls amplify every sound."
"Then we shall have to be very quiet, my dear," said the Chief, as he gently lifted Ivory up by her elbow and nodded his head meaningfully toward the rear of the cave where his family was stationed. A great bison pelt was hung over the narrow entrance to hide the makeshift chamber from prying eyes.
Ivory gazed pleadingly at Glade who momentarily paused in her story-telling but decided that it would be imprudent to comment. Ivory rose and allowed the Chief to escort her behind the great mammoth skin with one hand held in his and her other still clutching the roasted leg of a partridge. Although little could be seen of Ivory's face under her wild hair and in the shadows cast by the fire, the apprentice was obviously embarrassed by the Chief's blatant request. It was one thing for the Chief to fuck Ivory in the secluded privacy of his home and quite another to publicly announce the irregular nature of his relationship with her. How could Chief Cave Lion now claim to be the village's moral arbiter? How could Ptarmigan abide the humiliation?
Ivory was initially relieved for the sake of Ptarmigan's dignity when she saw that she was already in the Chief's quarters. She hadn't had to bear the humiliation of witnessing her husband flaunt his infidelity to the entire village. She was kneeling by a relatively small fire that she tended with a stick. There were no other people on this side of the mammoth pelt. Ivory was alone beside a recently kindled fire in the company of only the Chief and his wife.
And then it occurred to Ivory that Ptarmigan's shame was actually being compounded by the current situation and not lessened at all. The Chief was effectively proclaiming to his tribe not only that he was unfaithful to his wife but that he didn't care that she knew.
Since Ivory's first tentative and not wholly successful Sapphic encounter with Ptarmigan under her husband's lascivious eyes, this experiment in sexual arithmetic had been repeated with rather less ceremony on several subsequent occasions. Ivory wasn't sure why Chief Cave Lion wanted his wife to have intimate relations with his youthful paramour. Was it to further humiliate her? Was it just his sexual desire to fuck more than one partner at the same time? Was it, as he claimed, merely to ensure there were no secrets between him and his wife? Or was it because the Chief's wife also desired sexual relations with a woman?
Ptarmigan was a woman reluctant to make a lewd display of nakedness in front of her husband while Ivory licked her vagina or kissed her on the mouth. She didn't have a natural inclination toward open sexual expression like Glade or even Oak Leaf. But she was also the only other woman whose body Ivory had known. And, as the Chief told his young lover on several occasions, other than her husband, Ptarmigan had never made love to anyone else in her life. What had become increasingly apparent to Ivory, though perhaps less so to the Chief, was that his wife took genuine pleasure in their lovemaking. However, she was far too reserved to express any but the most timorous passion while being observed by her jealous husband. As she always was.
And as she would soon be again, concealed by the shadow of the mammoth's pelt behind which the other travellers' merry-making could be easily heard over the crackle of the burning logs.
"The fire is very warm, isn't it, my dear?" said the Chief as he pulled Ivory's body towards him and slid his hands inside her dense furs.
Ivory understood what the Chief was suggesting, but the air was actually rather cool and she was also apprehensive that one of the small creatures cowering in the shadows might crawl over her body. Bats were fearsome creatures in any place and any season, but here in their natural home they were far more frightening.
"The fire is indeed warm, my lord," said Ivory tactfully, "but not enough for me to throw aside my furs. But I can part the furs to warm my skin against your even hotter flesh."
The Chief smiled with drunken lecherous delight. He pulled his fur britches down to his knees and parted his hooded furs to bare a penis that stood proudly erect and whose intentions were apparent to all. Ivory reciprocated by unfastening her furs so that her front was also exposed and lay recumbent in as amorous a pose as she could to match the Chief's obvious ardour.
"But my body alone won't be enough to warm you, my dear," said the Chief suggestively. "It is cold and the night's chill can only get worse."
And then, as Ivory guessed he would, the Chief gestured towards Ptarmigan.
"Come, wife," he said. "How can we warm our youthful guest?"
Ptarmigan was not a great wit and had no snappy rejoinder to her husband's banter, but she knew exactly what was expected of her. She strode across the cave floor from the other side of the fire and progressively loosened her furs with each step.
The lovemaking between the three partners was a sloppy affair. Chief Cave Lion had imbibed too much mead to be either expert or able to withhold his ejaculation. The chill of the air and the occasional brush of Ivory's flesh against the cold, unpleasantly gritty, cave floor did nothing to enhance her passion. The Chief's semen dribbled down Ivory's inner thigh, squeezed out from within when she relaxed her vaginal muscles. Small traces of sperm speckled the long tangled hairs of her vulva. The only thing to warm her pale flesh was Ptarmigan's similarly partly unclad body pressed against her. The Chief was above her. His arms were stretched out over the two women beneath him as he strived to release what semen he could still pump out from his aching testicles into Ptarmigan's tight and swollen cunt.
At length, he surrendered to nature and released barely a drop into the proffered receptacle. He fell backwards just beside a blazing log at the fire's edge. His furs were open at the front and revealed a chest sunken with age and scarred by battle, legs that were lithe and hairy, and a limp penis that flopped unprepossessingly to one side.
"And so, my darling wife," the Chief slurred, "I have kept my promise. I haven't wasted my sperm." He then laid his head to one side and stared steadily towards the flames coming off the fire.
Ivory and Ptarmigan remained together in a long embrace. This was partly because their bodies were radiating warmth that neither woman wanted to relinquish. It was also because after so many days of abstinence on the long snow-covered trail, Ivory was reluctant to part so soon from Ptarmigan's close intimacy. Moreover, it was evident that Ptarmigan was also reluctant to abandon so soon the pleasure of Ivory's flesh. Indeed, the Chief's wife was so emboldened that she took advantage of her husband's averted gaze and pressed her nose again and again into Ivory's modest bosom and entwined her fingers in Ivory's thick pubic hair. Ivory recognised Ptarmigan's hesitant audacity and discreetly encouraged her by pressing down the hand that nestled against her crotch and pushed it more forcefully against her swollen clitoris. She lifted Ptarmigan's head up off her chest, pulled it level to her face and kissed her gently on the lips, chin and cheeks.
"What did the Chief mean by saying that he doesn't want to waste his sperm?" Ivory asked.
"He worries that he won't have fathered enough children," said Ptarmigan in her curiously accented dialect. "He's said he no longer wants to waste his seed in any receptacle except my vagina."
"But he still wishes to fuck women other than his wife?"
"It is his right and privilege to do so," said Ptarmigan loyally.
"And do you mind?"
Ptarmigan pressed her face against Ivory's and nuzzled her about the ears and then pressed her lips gently on Ivory's lips.
"I enjoy my time with you," she said shyly and softly.
"More so than with your husband?" asked Ivory, who however nonchalantly she replied was struck with alarm by the implication of Ptarmigan's words. Were these lesbian encounters organised by the Chief genuinely for his wife's pleasure and not merely to satisfy his voyeuristic tendencies?
"It is different," said Ptarmigan softly. "The Chief is my husband and it is my duty to bear him children. When I make love with you it is for pleasure alone."
"I see," said Ivory, who took the cue and reciprocated Ptarmigan's words with caresses, deep kisses and an urgent fingering of her vagina. All the while the Chief lay nearly unclothed on his back, surely at risk of catching a chill.
However passionately, if discreetly and silently, Ptarmigan made love to her in the furs that warmed their backs while their bosoms were pressed against each other, Ivory wondered—but prudently didn't venture to ask—whether Ptarmigan loved her for mere pleasure or whether she loved her with the emotion that Ivory felt towards Glade.
Ivory didn't share these reflections with her older lover when the Chief finally recovered his wits and dismissed her. He looked distinctly uncomfortable as he made sense of the undignified state in which he was slumped and secured himself as well as he could inside his thick furs.
"The Chief was very foolish," Glade remarked when the feasting was finally over and the two women could nestle together in the corner of the cave that for one last night was to be their bed.
"Foolish. Why?" asked a bleary-eyed Ivory. She wondered whether Glade had peeked past the mammoth pelt and seen the Chief lying half-naked by the fire.
"I know this is by no means the first time that you and he, and of course you, he and his wife, have enjoyed carnal pleasure together. And I also can't pretend to fully understand the morals and ethics of your tribe. But although no one has said anything openly, it is public knowledge just why he took you to one side and detained you in his quarters for so long. It is one thing for the Chief to have sexual relations with other women than his wife and another for the village to be made publicly aware of his sexual dalliances, even with women like us who are neither married nor considered marriageable. He was very indiscreet and he will regret his foolishness before long."
"The Chief was very drunk," said Ivory in his defence. "I'm sure he didn't really know what he was doing."
"That may be so," said Glade. "But the villagers want their chief to be someone they can rely on. We are on a long and dangerous trek south where there is no guarantee we shall find winter quarters that will adequately feed and shelter everyone. The Chief has the responsibility of safely guiding his people to their winter home. It isn't prudent for the guardian of the tribe's values to flaunt his infidelity to his wife: even if she speaks with a curious dialect. It suggests a lack of respect to the traditions that bind your tribe together. If his only defence is that he was drunk, this is no recommendation for a man whose sagacity and wisdom has a higher value now than at any other season. No man wants to place his life or that of his family in jeopardy. What greater risk might there be than to follow a chief who loses his wits to mead, sacrifices his virtue to the shaman's apprentice, and shames his wife and the mother of his children?"
"What do you think might happen?" wondered Ivory, as she fearfully surveyed her fellow travellers who were slumbering beneath their layers of fur by the fire's smouldering embers. "Will there be a revolt like in the Knights' villages?"
"There is no one who is an obvious successor to the Chief," remarked Glade. "He is fortunate in that respect. But should his foolishness be reflected by poor decision and feeble leadership, he is unlikely to remain chief for very much longer."