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This is my first (and last) Writer Story. It was never published anywhere, but it did mark the beginning of the end of my very first writers' group. Please see Rights and Permissions before redistributing it in any form.

" . . . and Crogar took the delicate hand of Shrooma in his own and led her out from the Mountains of Darkness and into the warmth and safety of the Valley of Light. And there they lived happily until the end of their days." Grook dropped his arms and stood still, sweating. The circle of five sat around him in stunned silence."Uh, that's it."

Nobody said a word.

Finally, Blooga stirred, scratched her graying pelt, crushed a flea between two black thumbnails, ate it, and spoke."Well. Why don't we all take our break . . . I'm sure Koodjar and Wuzzok need to bite a few berries and sniff some pollen after sitting still that long . . . and then we'll reconvene and discuss Grook's little effort."

The Group scattered, leaving Grook alone where he stood, except for Kreena. Grook winced when he saw the exalted glow on her face. He'd been dreading this moment.

"That was wonderful, Grook." She rose to her full height, half a head taller than anyone else in the Group. Her close-set eyes widened, peering down at him from under the shelf of her black-furred brow ridge."I've never heard anything like it. It was so . . . real!" She moved closer, uncomfortably so."At the end, where Crogar and Shrooma mate for life . . . it seems so natural, so right."

"Uh. Thank you. I, uh, didn't really mean to make that big of a deal of it. . . ."

"I just hope the rest of us can take our noses from the mud long enough to truly listen to ideas like yours. Look to the skies, right?" Grook made a desperate grin and took a shaky step backwards, out of range of her ripe scent.

"Right. I, uh, I've got to go . . ." here he mimed the twisting of a pine cone and the sniffing of its pollen " . . . and, uh, you know." She nodded and smiled her gaptoothed smile and went to join the non-sniffing faction--Blooga and her daughter Haff--at the bend of the tiny creek that fed their temporary camp.

Koodjar and Wuzzok stopped talking at Grook's approach. This was never a good sign.

"Cone, Grook?" Wuzzok, gray-furred and almost toothless at the advanced age of twenty-seven seasons, held out a fresh green pine cone covered in golden pollen. Grook politely refused it and moved upwind as Wuzzok twisted it nearly in half, jammed it up one cavernous nostril, plugged the other, and inhaled.

Koodjar scribbled in the dirt with a stick, spitting berry juice, obviously deep in thought.

"No," he muttered."I don't think it would work. You'd need a tremendous amount of grazing land. . . ."

"What? What wouldn't work?" Grook asked.

Koodjar grimaced and held his lower back as he stood. A small individual just easing into middle years, he sported a twitchy, pollen-encrusted moustache and an unfailingly polite demeanor."Now, now," he said, blinking and trying to focus his nearsighted gaze on Grook."Wouldn't do to speak out of the circle."

Wuzzok peered through narrow, pollen-reddened eyes, swayed, and sneezed out a tremendous yellow cloud. Rubbing his nose, he leaned close to Grook."They're gonna cream you, kid. Run for the hills while you've still got both your hamstrings." And then he grinned, showing berry-stained gums and the rotting stump of a lone incisor."Welcome to the Group, by the way."

"Uh, thanks. I think."

Wuzzok turned back to Koodjar."So. As I was saying before, when, oh exalted one, are we going to hear the latest installment of Nobo's Adventures in the Great Northern Forest?"

Koodjar sighed."If I had a bowl of redroot stew for every time I've been asked that question--"

"--you'd be too fat to stand, much less spin tales. Come on, now . . . give. You're not wasting any more time on that silly spear-launcher idea, are you?" Koodjar rubbed his nose and looked down into the scribblings in the dirt."I tell you, the shamans are right on that one. If the spirits had intended us to kill from a hundred paces they would have made our arms longer! Seriously, guy: you've got more storytelling talent than any of us . . . why not leave the toolmaking to the rock-bangers?"

From across the clearing, Blooga's fit of sneezing, whether affected or genuinely pollen-induced, cut off Koodjar's reply. The three of them splashed across a shallow part of the creek; the Group was back in session.

Blooga dipped the time-bowl . . . the crown of the skull of Quk, one of the founders of the Group . . . into the glacier-fed stream that defined one edge of their temporary retreat. Water began to trickle out through the axe wound that had ended Quk's short but memorable career.

Koodjar went first, picking up a ceremonial handful of dirt and tossing it in Grook's direction. His words, however, stung worse than the hardest-thrown rock.

"Grook," Koodjar began, rubbing the dust off his hands."Let us discuss the difference between science fiction and fantasy." Grook swayed on his feet. This was going to be much worse than he'd expected."Science fiction brought us the spear, the snare, and the organization of the first successful mammoth hunt, all in accordance with the laws of nature and the will of the spirits. In seasons to come, science fiction will continue to extend our grasp, perhaps--" here he winked at Wuzzok "--even as long as a hundred paces."

"Fantasy, on the other hand, by its very nature contains elements or ideas that fly in the face of natural law, the spirits, and society's conventions, and is therefore dependent for success on the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener. And, while I found the way you said it to be utterly fascinating, I simply could not believe in what you had to say." Koodjar held up a skinny hand and ticked off a finger at a time."Let's see. In this story we have the domestication of plants and animals, the containment, propogation, and use of fire, non-verbal transmission of information, the construction and occupation of artificial caves, and this ominous-sounding institution called family, where men and women are tied together for life. Plus other stuff." Koodjar's eyes twinkled, belying his stern tone."If you really want to stir up the fundies, just go piss on the Bear Altar and get it over with--"

"Time!" Blooga held up the empty bowl.

"What?" Koodjar's eyes bugged out. Somebody had to have been widening the crack in poor Quk's noggin."But I didn't get to the part I liked!"

"Sorry. Time."

Koodjar sighed and sat back onto his scrawny haunches."I want seconds on that family thing, though. That could get you skinned--"

"Thank you, Koodjar," overrode Blooga, dipping the bowl full again."Kreena."

"Hmm?" She twitched awake from the depths of her daydream."Oh. My turn? Sorry." She reached behind her and pulled out a rudely-woven chain of dandelion flowers."I thought it was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard." She laid the wilted wreath before him, as gently as possible. Blushing to the tips of his furry toes, Grook wanted to run, fast and far."I felt like I was there with you. I was Shrooma, taming the horse, planting the redroot. And you--" here a fresh, strong wave of her fertile scent wafted past Grook's nose, making him sway on his feet once more "--were Crogar. Building a cave out of mud and sticks, where none stood before. Capturing fire, taming it, and bringing it back into our home. And saving it all, writing it all down on the walls of our home for the betterment of the children. Our children. Oh, Crogar . . . our children will be so beautiful. . . ."

Much to Grook's relief, Blooga tipped the time-bowl and slopped out the remaining water."Time," she said, shaking her head with disgust and dipping the bowl full once more."Wuzzok."

The gray-pelted oldster had a surprisingly strong arm. The gnawed end of an antelope femur made a half-turn in the air and hit Grook's sternum with a hollow thump. Grook staggered and gasped for breath, but remained standing.

"I think Gromnish the Wise said it best: ninety per cent of everything is hyena crap. Sure, a lot of crap gets told at Gatherings. But do you want to be the one up there telling it?" Grook shook his head, rubbing at the sore spot on his chest."I didn't think so. Look, kid . . . you've got a lot going for you here. Your pacing is okay, your characters are passable; hell, your microspeaking is topnotch. But you blew it when you started dragging in all this gee-whiz-let's-build-our-own-cave garbage. Once you tied your characters to one place, you lost me. I mean, what are they gonna do when they run out of forage? Plant their own stuff? Okay, but what are they supposed to do, starve for a year while it grows? And why the hell would anybody jump on top of a horse and go hunt down a bison, anyway? How do you catch the horse in the first place? And even if you could get the horse to go where you wanted, as soon as you let go to chuck your spear you'd fall off! Why not just eat the spirit-forsaken horse and be done with it?" The Group hooted its amused agreement. Grook glanced over at Blooga. She was nodding and holding one thick finger over the crack in the time-bowl, slowing the flow to a trickle. Wuzzok went on.

"Which is not to say that it isn't commercial. It's got loads of commercial potential . . . you saw Kreena's reaction. You tell this thing in front of the Gathering and you're gonna have every unhappy female in the Six Clans wanting to take your hand and head right on out for the Valley of Light. Hell, Grook, you swing this stick hard enough and you could be the next Kranth."

Grook brightened . . . Kranth was an enormously successful author; every camp of any size had heard one of the Chanton-Eep tales, endless variations on Kranth's central theme of heroic fantasy. Wuzzok, however, read Grook's mind."Yeah. That's right. Standing up at every Gathering until you're my age or more, reciting the same goddamn hunt-song over and over again, only with different names and places and enchanted weapons. And earning absolutely no respect from the people who really count. . . ."

"Time." Wuzzok rocked back into the dirt. If nothing else, age had taught him to shut up when it was time to shut up. Blooga filled the bowl once more and turned to her daughter."Haff? Did you have something to say?"

She did.

Normally the quietest member of the Group, Haff's scruffy red fur bristled with barely-checked anger. Crouching in her favored spot on Blooga's right, she scooped up a big handful of loose gravel and sprayed it at Grook in a wild arc. Only a few of the sharp little stones hit, but they came in hard enough to make Grook cringe. Haff grubbed out another handful of rocks and rose to her feet.

"You really pissed me off, Grook. You had me suckered in, right along with Kreena, until I figured out what your agenda really was." She flicked a nut-sized stone, striking the broad bridge of Grook's nose."In the name of progress, you want to undo every advance made by womankind since we came down from the trees!" Flick."Sure, living in one place sounds great, until you think ahead a couple of moons. Animals aren't dumb; they're gonna figure out that if they wander through your Valley of Light they get killed and eaten. So you've got to plan longer and longer hunting trips. And who gets to go on all these long trips?" Flick. Flick."The strong ones. The ones who can march a day and a night and kill a wildebeest for breakfast and drag it back for lunch. The men, dammit!" She flung the rest of her handful, peppering Grook from head to toe."And who's stuck at home, minding the kids and elders? Who shovels out the shit that piles up all over the place? Who sits in a corner and has baby after baby, season after season, until she's the size of a mammoth and dead of sheer boredom? That would be me, Grook, me and Kreena and Blooga, and all our mothers and sisters and daughters, now and forever!"

"Time," said Blooga, seizing the dramatic moment. Haff sat down, breathing hard."Would you hold the bowl for me, darling?" Haff took the time-bowl and filled it to the brim.

Blooga dug both hands into the spreading mud puddle that had formed at her feet, hauled up a black, sloppy lump, and slung it across Grook's narrow chest with a resounding splat!

"I'm afraid I have to agree with just about everything Haff and Wuzzok have pointed out," purred Blooga, wiping her hands against her hairy flanks."Not only is this a slick, commercial piece of trash, it shows absolutely no sign of social responsibility. Even if your audience is muddy-minded enough to overlook the question of female servitude. . . ." here she glanced pointedly in Kreena's direction " . . . surely even the most diehard fan would recognize the impossible recklessness of intentionally propagating such a deadly and chaotic element as fire!" The Group concurred, some reluctantly, but all nodding and grinding their knuckles into the dust in the age-old display of bravado in the face of their most terrifying enemy. Blooga rolled on, hitting her stride."Fire is, has been, and will always be the exclusive tool of the spirits, used to punish ignorant mankind for transgressions against nature. I can think of no greater affront to the spirits than for a youngster like yourself to advocate its theft. And furthermore-- Excuse me! Where do you think you're going?"

"I'll be right back!" And Grook scampered out of the clearing into the brush, leaving the Group staring openmouthed at each other. Leaving in the middle of one's critique was simply not done.

Grook reappeared in a few heartbeats, straining to carry something heavy, something round and flat and wider than his narrow shoulders. Covered by a crude wrapping of large green leaves, it carried the alarming smell of fresh, hot ash. Grook set the thing on the ground, grimacing as his knees cracked. Then he speared Blooga with a triumphant look that belied his tender years.

"Behold, unbelievers--fire, tamed by the hand of man!" And he whisked away the leafy green covering. On the ground was a flat piece of shale. Atop it, in the center of a loose arrangement of tiny sticks and dried leaves, was . . . a cinder. Black, cold, and dead.

"I don't understand. This worked fine in the demo." Grook crouched over his apparatus."Hang on a second.. . . ."

The Group sat for an instant, stunned by Grook's effrontery.

And then Blooga howled. Not for Grook's blood, which was fortunate, since it would have been shed on the spot. Blooga threw back her grizzled head and howled in delighted laughter.

"I get it! It's a joke! The whole thing is a wonderful joke!" Haff and Wuzzok screamed their appreciation, hammering their fists into the dirt, spraying dirt and gravel everywhere. Kreena didn't move. Her mouth hung open as her tiny little brain scrambled to catch up with current events. Koodjar only chuckled a bit, just to remain polite. It wasn't really that funny, not to him. The poor guy was serious. Seriously insane, maybe, but serious nonetheless.

"Okay, okay . . . I'm getting it now!" Grook bent over his device, shielding it from the wind and the view of the Group, offering it tiny bits of dried moss, and blowing into its blackened center.

"No! No more! Stop! You're killing me!" Blooga rolled on the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust.

Wuzzok and Koodjar, however, quit laughing. Haff's sensitive nose twitched to attention. Even Kreena's vacuous look evaporated.

Something was happening.

A tiny tendril of smoke curled into being over Grook's sweaty brow as he blew into the space between his cupped hands. The gray tendril fattened, doubled, went greasy and black--

--and a tongue of orange fire, tiny and weak but there nonetheless, crackled into sudden magical brilliance between Grook's callused palms.

"Well, I'll be dipped in tar," Wuzzox said, mesmerized by the glow."It works. It really works." Grook added more dry wood to the bowl, quickly building the flame into a healthy knee-high blaze. The Group sat in awe.

"But . . . but why isn't it burning you?" asked Koodjar, fascinated.

"Because I'm keeping it small and harmless," said Grook, raising himself to a squat once more."I'm smarter than it is."

"Heresy! Blasphemy! Sacrilege!" shrieked Blooga from behind them. Then she flung the half-empty time-bowl at the flames, as hard as her arm would allow.

Her aim was excellent. Her missile, however, was defective. Turning over twice in flight, the bowl sprayed water everywhere but at the flames. And then it hit the fire, flipping again, scattering burning debris over Grook and a wide area of tinder-dry grass.

Grook backpedaled, eyes gone huge. He slapped at sparks as they crawled across his belly-hair like angry bees. Then he tripped, hit his head on a rock, and lay still.

Suddenly everything was on fire.

"See! See! I told you! Heresy!" Blooga danced on her knuckles and knees, spitting foam, her eyes huge and red."The avenging fire-spirit comes for the blasphemer! Burn, heretic! Burn!" She spun like a whirlwind, kicking more dry grass into the sparse flames, freshening the blaze.

"Moth-err!" Haff shot her an annoyed look."You promised! No more fits of zeal in public!"

The flames grew into a wide patch surrounding Grook's prostrate form. Koodjar and Wuzzox, ever-practical, took a single stab at stomping out enough of a path to reach their fallen comrade. The smoke, however, became too much for even their pollen-caked sinuses before they made two strides."Screw this, good buddy," said Wuzzox."The kid had it coming."

Koodjar faltered. Grook's fur was starting to smolder. That had to hurt. But still . . . well, old Wuzzox was right, as usual. It would have happened sooner or later. At least this way, Grook was spared the indignity of having his liver torn out and eaten by his own tribal elders.

And, with any luck, the Group would get a new time-bowl out of the deal, in a moon or so when everything cooled down again.

"Okay," said Koodjar."But I get first dibs on the horse-riding thing."

"You got it, pal."

They turned tail and splashed across the creek, followed by Haff and Blooga, still wiping the drool off her nonexistant chin. Only Kreena remained, wringing her hands and pacing back and forth before the shoulder-high wall of crackling fire. She'd never seen anyone unconscious before; people who lay down like that were either asleep or dead."Grook! Wake up! Come out of there!" Pace. Turn. The flames chuckled and crackled, laughing at her."Grook!"

The heat made the skin on her face grow tight and shiny. The long hair on her forearms began to crisp up. Past the fire, the coolness of the stream beckoned her away, its surrounding greenery promising relief from the oppressive red heat.

Greenery. A chain of yellow and green caught her eye, inside the blackened circle of fire. Her dandelion wreath, dragged backwards and crushed by Grook's heel, but still . . . something of hers, touching him.

Kreena took one deep breath, lowered her head, and charged into the flames.

The ground burned under her feet. The matted fur on her calves and shins went up all at once in a stinking rush. The fire roared like a sabertooth over a fresh kill. Smoke blinded her before her third running stride came down into the pit of Grook's stomach. By some miracle she kept her feet, reached down, and grabbed him under one arm. Four more staggering steps brought her out of the flames and into blessedly cool creek mud; with a groaning heave she yanked Grook out of the fire and into the icy meltwater.

He splashed in and lay, face down and sinking. For an awful moment Kreena thought that she'd waited too long. And then Grook's entire body convulsed. His back arched and his fire-denuded face pitched up out of the water, pink and wide-eyed and shiny-wet. He thrashed his arms, spat water, and gasped a single word."C-c-cold!"

Then he sank like a rock. The water closed over his head.The poor little bastard can't swim, Kreena realized. All that noble art and high-flying technology and futuristic civilization and he still needed someone to haul him out of the deep stuff when he fell in.

Someone like her.

She plowed in, yanked his struggling form back up into the air, and towed him to the other side of the creek. There the two of them lay panting in the sun. The fire looked like it was going out; there wasn't much grass left in the small, cliff-enclosed flat on the other side.

Something was different, Grook realized. Maybe the smoke had deadened his nose, or the unexpected drenching had washed her clean, but Kreena didn't smell nearly as ripe as she had before.

Stranger still, he wasn't sure if he liked it better that way or not.

"We should go," said Kreena."Blooga will bring the rest of the tribe. If they find you.. . . ."

"Yeah. I know. Liver sushi for the house."

They stood, wincing at their burns. And Kreena took Grook's delicate hand in her own, and led him out from the Valley of Light into the Mountains of Darkness.

,:.

None of the rest of the Group ever saw them again. Blooga, however, maintained that they were both killed and eaten by wolves before the next dawn, struggling to the last to make the silly things sit up and beg.

And just before sundown that evening, Koodjar brought howls of disbelief and a hail of hard-flung dirt clods and dinner scraps, after relating Nobo's daring horseback escape from the Great Northern Forest. Retreating from the barrage under Wuzzox's protecting arm, he vowed to stick to hard science fiction from then on.

Fantasy was way too risky, after all.

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