Ayla and Jondalar walked back to the hunters. Joharran and his two closest friends and advisers, Solaban and Rushemar, were standing together in the middle of the group that was left. It seemed much smaller now.
'We've been discussing the best way to hunt them,' Joharran said when the couple returned. 'I'm not sure what strategy to use. Should we try to surround them? Or drive them in a certain direction? I will tell you, I know how to hunt for meat: deer, or bison or aurochs, even mammoth. I've killed a lion or two that were too close to a camp, with the help of other hunters, but lions are not animals I usually hunt, especially not a whole pride.' 'Since Ayla knows lions,' Thefona said, 'let's ask her.' Everyone turned to look at Ayla. Most of them had heard about the injured lion cub she had taken in and raised until he was full grown. When Jondalar told them the lion did what she told him the way the wolf did, they believed it.
'What do you think, Ayla?' Joharran asked.
'Do you see how the lions are watching us? It's the same way we're looking at them. They think of themselves as the hunters. It might surprise them to be prey for a change,' Ayla said, then paused. 'I think we should stay together in a group and walk toward them, shouting and talking loudly perhaps, and see if they back off But keep our spears ready, in case one or more come after us before we decide to go after them.' 'Just approach them head-on?' Rushemar asked, with a frown.
'It might work,' Solaban said. 'And if we stay together, we can watch out for each other.' 'It seems like a good plan, Joharran,' Jondalar said.
'I suppose it's as good as any, and I like the idea of staying together and watching out for each other,' the leader said.
'I'll go first,' Jondalar said. He held up his spear, already on his spear-thrower ready to launch. 'I can get a spear off fast with this.' 'I'm sure you can, but let's wait until we get closer so we can all feel comfortable with our aim,' Joharran said.
'Of course,' Jondalar said, 'and Ayla is going to be a backup for me in case something unexpected happens.' That's good,' Joharran said. 'We all need a partner, someone to be a backup for the ones who throw first, in case they miss and those lions come at us instead of running away. The partners can decide who will cast first, but it will cause less confusion if everyone waits for a signal before anyone throws.' 'What kind of signal?' Rushemar asked.
Joharran paused, then said, 'Watch Jondalar. Wait until he throws. That can be our signal.' 'I'll be your partner, Joharran,' Rushemar volunteered.
The leader nodded.
'I need a backup,' Morizan said. He was the son of Manvelar's mate, Ayla recalled. 'I'm not sure how good I am, but I have been working at it.' 'I can be your partner. I've been practising with the spear-thrower.' Ayla turned at the sound of the feminine voice and saw that it was Folara's red-haired friend, Galeya, who had spoken.
Jondalar turned to look, too. That's one way to get close to the son of a leader's mate, he thought, and glanced at Ayla, wondering if she had caught the implication.
'I can partner with Thefona, if she would like,' Solaban said, 'since I'll be using a spear like her, not a spear-thrower.' The young woman smiled at him, glad to have a more mature and experienced hunter close by.
'I've been practising with a spear-thrower,' Palidar said. He was a friend of Tivonan, the apprentice of Willa mar, the Trade Master.
'We can be partners, Palidar,' Tivonan said, 'but I can only use a spear.' 'I haven't really practised much with that thrower either,' Palidar said.
Ayla smiled at the young men. As Willamar's apprentice trader, Tivonan would no doubt become the Ninth Cave's next Trade Master. His friend, Palidar, had come back with Tivonan when he went to visit his Cave on a short trading mission, and Palidar was the one who had found the place where Wolf had got into the terrible fight with the other wolves, and took her to it.
She thought of him as a good friend.
'I haven't done much with that thrower, but I can handle a spear.' It's Mejera, the acolyte of Zelandoni of the Third, Ayla said to herself, remembering that the young woman was with them the first time Ayla went into the Deep of Fountain Rocks to look for the life force of Jondalar's younger brother when they tried to help his elan find its way to the spirit world.
'Everyone has already picked a partner, so I guess we're left. Not only have I not practised with the spear-thrower, I have hardly ever seen it used,' said Jalodan, Morizan's cousin, the son of Manvelar's sister, who was visiting the Third Cave. He was planning to travel with them to the Summer Meeting to meet up with his Cave.
That was it. The twelve men and women who were going to hunt a similar number of lions - animals with greater speed, strength, and ferocity that lived by hunting weaker prey. Ayla began having feelings of doubt and a shiver of fear gave her a chill. She rubbed her arms and felt an eruption of bumps. How could twelve frail humans even think of attacking a pride of lions? She caught sight of the other carnivore, the one she knew, and signalled the animal to stay with her, thinking, twelve people - and Wolf 'All right, let's go,' Joharran said, 'but keep together.' The twelve hunters from the Third Cave and the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii started out together walking directly toward the pride of massive felines. They were armed with spears, tipped with sharpened flint, or bone or ivory sanded to a smooth, round sharp point. Some had spear-throwers that could propel a spear much farther and with more power and speed than one thrown by hand, but lions had been killed with just spears before. This might be a test of Jondalar' s weapon, but it would test the courage of the ones who were hunting even more.
'Go away!' Ayla shouted as they started out. 'We don't want you here!' Several others picked up the refrain, with variations, shouting and yelling at the animals as they approached, telling them to go away.
At first the cats, young and old, just watched them come. Then some began to move around, back into the grass that hid them so well, and out again, as though they weren't sure what to do. The ones who retreated with cubs returned without them.
'They don't seem to know what to make of us,' Thefona said from the middle of the advancing hunters, feeling a little more secure than when they started, but when the big male suddenly snarled at them, everyone jumped with a start, and stopped in their tracks.
'This is not the time to stop,' Joharran said, forging ahead.
They started out again, their formation a little more ragged at first, but they pulled together again as they continued on. All the lions started moving around, some turning their backs and disappearing into the tall grass, but the big male snarled again, then rumbled the beginning of a roar as he stood his ground.
Several of the other big cats were arrayed behind him. Ayia was picking up the scent of fear from the human hunters; she was sure the lions were, too. She was afraid herself, but fear was something that people could overcome.
'I think we'd better get ready,' Jondalar said. 'That male doesn't look happy, and he has reinforcements.' 'Can't you get him from here?' Ayla asked. She heard the series of grunts that was usually a precursor to a lion's roar.
'Probably,' Jondalar said, 'but I'd rather be closer, so I can be more sure of my aim.' 'And I'm not sure how good my aim would be from this distance. We do need to be closer,' Joharran said, continuing to march forward.
The people bunched together and kept going, still shouting, though Ayia thought their sound was more tentative as they drew closer. The cave lions became still and seemed tense as they watched the approach of the strange herd that didn't behave like prey animals.
Then, suddenly, everything happened at once.
The big male lion roared, a staggering, deafening sound, especially from such close range. He started toward them at a run. As he closed in, poised to spring, Jondalar hurled his spear at him.
Ayla had been watching the female on his right. About the time that Jondalar made his cast, the lioness bounded forward running, then vaulted to pounce.
Ayla pulled back and took aim. She felt the back of the spear-thrower with the spear mounted on it rise up almost without her knowing it as she hurled her spear. It was so natural for her, it didn't feel like a deliberate move. She and Jondalar had used the weapon during their entire year-long Journey back to the Zelandonii and she was so skilled, it was second nature.
The lioness soared into her leap, but Ayla's spear met her more than halfway. It found its mark from beneath the big cat, and lodged firmly in her throat in a sudden fatal slash. Blood spurted out as the lioness collapsed to the ground.
The woman quickly grabbed another spear from her holder, and slapped it down on her spear-thrower, looking around to see what else was happening.
She saw Joharran's spear fly, and a heartbeat later another spear followed. She noticed that Rushemar was in the stance of one who had just thrown a spear.
She saw another large female lion fall. A second spear found the beast before she landed. Another lioness was still coming. Ayla cast a spear, and saw that someone else had, too, just a moment before her.
She reached for another spear, making sure it was seated right - that the point, which was affixed to a short length of tapering shaft made to detach from the main spear shaft, was firmly in place and the hole in the butt of the long spear shaft was engaging the hook at the back of the spear-thrower. Then she looked around again. The huge male was down, but moving, bleeding but not dead. Her female was also bleeding, but not moving.
The lions were disappearing into the grass as fast as they could, at least one leaving a trail of blood. The human hunters were gathering themselves together, looking around and beginning to smile at each other.
'I think we did it,' Palidar said, a huge grin starting.
He had barely got the words out when Wolfs menacing growl caught Ayla's attention. The wolf bounded away from the human hunters with Ayla on his heels. The heavily bleeding male lion was up and coming at them again. With a roar, he sprang toward them. Ayla could almost feel his anger, and she didn't really blame him.
Just as Wolf reached the lion and leaped up to attack, keeping himself between Ayla and the big cat, she flung her spear as hard as she could. Her eye caught another one hurled at the same time. They landed almost simultaneously with an audible thunk, and thunk. Both the lion and the wolf crumpled in a heap. Ayla gasped when she saw them fall, swathed in blood, afraid that Wolf was hurt.