The Little One's mother was dead.
She did not understand why that happened and what it meant; all she knew was that her mother was weak and frail, and when she was cold she coughed and moaned and trembled and her hands were terribly cold when the Little One held them in her own. She tried to hold her hands often to warm them, but it didn't do much good, and one day her mother stopped moving and making any sounds, and when the tribe had to move yet again, she was left behind.
The Little One missed her terribly. But at least she still had her father. She worried about her father. The tribe's chief, a large man more apelike than the rest of them, but cunning and effective, obviously disliked him.
In fact, the chief was a good leader. Powerful and brutal enough to convince any man to back down, cunning enough to keep a group of sycophants supporting him, he kept the band together through the latest hardships. The journey to the colder north, after the larger southern tribe killed many and chased the rest off, was long, trying and uncomfortable, but they made it through together, as a strong group, not as lost animals only fit to be eaten by other, fiercer animals.
Yet a chief was only as strong as his next contender was weak. Any man who attracted attention was a possible rival, and her father had attracted it in the worst possible way: by saving the tribe.
It was when they were preparing to cross the narrow opening through the northern mountain range, with the enemy tribe not far behind, ready to slaughter the rest of them. There was an unexpected blockage, where rocks had fallen and made the opening impassable. The chief tried to get men to pick up the rocks and clear the way, but the work was obviously going too slowly to save them. They stood there and yelled complaints until he cracked a skull open, but even after that, it was all too slow. Then the Little One's father, who had been staring at the rocks with a curious expression, climbed the pile for some crazy reason, to the accompaniment of sneering noises from other men. He wedged himself between two rocks and pushed with his legs, and there was another slide and the rocks fell, injuring two men and frightening them all, as well as breaking the Little One's father's leg as he fell from the pile.
But once the new bout of yelling and threats ended, they realized the crossing was no longer completely blocked. The tribe escaped.
Most avoided looking at her crippled father as they entered the opening he created. Some others, either too stupid or too loyal to follow where the winds of tribal favor were blowing, stayed behind, and two men helped him up and carried him with the rest of the band.
And so they all made it through. There were only four or five times as many of them left as the Little One had fingers, and there had been at least three times more before the larger tribe attacked. But they did it, and some remembered who'd made it possible. That was why, even with Little One's father's bad leg, they didn't starve.
The man was hobbling back to his group's caves, as it had started to rain. He managed to do only a little gathering, and with his bad leg he was useless for hunting, so he thought perhaps he should stay and do more. But spirits were angry that day, and he was afraid. White flashes crossed the dark sky, and each time thunderous voices sounded throughout the forest.
A sudden spear of white light striking down from the sky in front of him nearly blinded the man for a moment, just as the roar of thunder almost deafened him. When his vision cleared, he saw that the spirits had struck down an enormous tree, which split and fell. Afraid, he was going to go around, but something attracted his attention. Something yellow and bright and sort of moving and yet staying in one place. Unable to resist his curiosity, the curiosity that was so alien to the others of his tribe, and earned him many strange looks, the man approached.
There was a yellow spirit dancing on a branch of the fallen tree. It seemed to originate from the wood, and to flow up and up in overlapping waves, and yet in the end it remained where it was.
Awed, the man watched the fascinating, changing-yet-unchanging thing as it slowly consumed the branch with cracking sounds. The rain had long stopped and the man still watched. The branch's connection to the trunk was eaten completely, and the piece of wood fell to the ground, startling the man, but it continued burning in peace.
At one point he mustered the courage to touch the yellow thing. He could feel no resistance, and yet it hurt so suddenly and unexpectedly that the man yelled as he pulled his hand back. He muttered unintelligible apologies, hoping the spirit would not call the other spirits to strike him down like they had the tree. But even from a distance, he could tell he was feeling different in the spirit's presence than without it. It took him another minute to gather the courage to test it, but he discovered what it was: the closer he was to the yellow dancer, the warmer he felt. It was only when he moved his hand too close that the warmth became too much. So the spirit was friendly, but brooked no excessive familiarity.
Something clicked in the man's mind. He imagined the spirit running out of wood to consume, and for some reason he found the idea sad. He picked up another branch and fed it to the spirit, mumbling encouragements. It seemed to regard his offering with caution, flowing around the new food without taking a bite, hissing softly. Finally it started consuming the new branch, and brightened happily. The man smiled.
The Little One was lured out of the cave by the commotion of everyone gathering and yelling and whispering to each other. Whatever it was, if it was interesting to others, it was interesting to her. But then she froze with apprehension. At the center of attention of all the men and women gathered was her father. Apparently, wherever he had been in the morning, he had brought back a bright, yellow spirit, dancing through a pile of branches that he had carefully placed in front of the cave.
The Little One's father was calling them and gesturing to approach and befriend the spirit, but none dared. Some were afraid of the yellow dancer; others were afraid of being the first to try something new when everyone else was watching; yet others were afraid to follow the voice of the man whom the chief disliked.
The Little One's hands curled into fists at the sight of her father standing alone. She ran up to him, unafraid. He smiled at the girl, and took her hand, directing her to the source of warmth. The onlookers watched in fear. The girl's eyes went wide open. It was pleasant! Ever since they crossed the mountains, she had rarely known comfortable warmth; cold was a constant problem for all of them. She had wondered if she'd end up like her mother, with cold hands and unmoving. But now she laughed softly, happily, and the people murmured in wonder.
In her innocence, she tried to reach closer to the yellow spirit, but her father restrained her, a soft but sharp bark telling her 'no'. Apparently, you had to keep your distance. That was all right. She trusted her father, and had no wish to disrespect the spirit.
The chief watched on with a mix of fear and envy in his face. He took the closest man by his arm and pushed him forward, barking in an ordering tone. His supporter understood the intention, and kneeled by the Little One and her father. The father tried to show him the proper way that would not offend the spirit, but the other man shook his hand off contemptuously and put his hand all the way into the yellow thing.
With an outraged yell, he jumped up, ran around while beating the hand against his hairy chest. Obviously, the spirit had hurt him.
The chief snarled, finally given his excuse. He came at the Little One's father, growling angrily, and smashed his club into the man's skull. The victim fell to the ground, blood and brains flowing out. One of the men who had helped the cripple through the mountains shouted, then rushed at the chief. He too fell dead in a moment. That was that. No one else dared say or do anything.
The chief ignored the screaming of the little girl. He herded his people back into the cave, applying as much yelling and kicking and waving his club as was needed. They would not stay in the presence of the evil spirit. Who knew what could come out and contaminate them, and make them crazy like the man he had destroyed? They would stay inside, and if the spirit didn't leave, they would all have to move elsewhere.
Only one little girl stayed outside, sobbing across her father's chest.
A strange shadow made her look up with a quiet yelp. There was a small animal in front of her, white, with red eyes and ears like she had not seen before. It was staring at her. She stared back, not understanding. Animals did not come this close to her kind only to sit quietly. They either were bigger than this and came to eat you, or they ran away.
The creature's eyes drew her attention. They seemed to grow bigger, taking up her entire attention, until she understood that the thing was not an animal, but a spirit as well. Then she was seeing... something that was not there.
Her father's head wound closing, leaving no trace of what the chief's club had done with it.
Her father again, rising up on two good legs, and looking around with a confused smile. The tribesmen gathering in awe, the envious face of the chief, the worshipful attitude of most of the rest.
The yellow spirit that could have warmed her mother, being fed branches and kept alive forever, scaring away predators and warming them all.
Her father wielding the chief's club, others obeying him.
Everyone gaping at yet another miracle: the yellow spirit giving birth to more of his kind, when single branches were taken from a large pile.
It was beautiful.
She looked up into the red eyes of the white spirit. She had no language to speak of, but she understood the pressure in her mind; the creature was asking a question.
Do you want this?
Smiling through tears, the Little One nodded.