A good efriend, Liz Gaudet, mentioned in a comment that she enjoyed the snippets writers share from their own writing. It reminded me I pretty much never do that. And she’s right–if people don’t know what my writing is like, why would they risk the time to read the novel?
So, I’m sharing a snippet from each of my fiction over the next few months. In this excerpt, Xhosa and Nightshade must compete for leadership of the tribe. Nightshade is stronger but Xhosa cleverer. The question: In this primeval world, which will prevail? I hope you enjoy!
Xhosa dragged after the warriors, refusing to miss this last and most treacherous challenge. The group jogged for a day and another, leaving the People’s territory far behind. Xhosa memorized the landmarks that would guide her home, glancing back often to see their position in relation to the point of departure.
The morning of the third day of travel, Nightshade was led toward Sun’s rising place and Xhosa the opposite. They traveled until Sun slept, taking no breaks to eat or drink. When Xhosa arose the next morning, she was alone in an unknown valley. Lush stalks of grass bent gently in the breeze. Slow-moving mammoth, tails flicking, grazed on the undulating stems. In the distance, Hipparion galloped. Eagles circled overhead, preying on rodents. Steep, rugged cliffs as treacherous as those from the first challenge, surrounded the area.
Her task was deceptively simple: Survive until Moon disappeared and then make it back to homebase before Nightshade did. The first to reappear would become the new Leader.
According to the rules, Xhosa brought only what a hunter would on a day trip. Everything else must be created from resources in this area. That included a handaxe, choppers to remove meat from bone, a spear, throwing stones, and a new neck sack because hers had split. The sack required a dead animal with an unchewed stomach.
The search for water took most of the morning, trotting over open savanna punctuated by scrubby ridges and dry washes which led finally to the damp edge of a stream. She drank her fill and then swamped herself, watching the steam rise from her overheated body.
Her stomach’s growl interrupted the glorious cool feeling.
“I guess food is next.”
She collected a handful of throwing stones from the stream, climbed a tree, and waited. It took a while but a family of pigs finally passed, headed for the water, trailed by a lone wolf, yellow eyes bright with hunger. He killed the largest piglet but fled when the female charged him, raking him with her horns. When the mother and her remaining babies left, Xhosa harvested the carcass’s stomach for a new neck sack and ate her fill from the still-warm meat.
It was late, time to set up a camp. The cliffs that edged the savanna looked promising. Heading toward them, she collected vegetables, healing herbs, seeds, vines, and a cast-off antler to use for digging or as a spear.
The hair on her neck rose. Someone was watching her.
She melted into the grass, looking for moving leaves, listening for animal calls or the flap of ground-dwelling birds as they fled.
“It must be the strangeness of this new area.”
With a shrug, she found a cave that looked perfect—small enough for warmth but not big enough to interest cats with families, wolves with packs, or wild dogs. The front was soft ground rather than hard cliff rock and the weeds grew around it with abandon, both perfect disguises for the trap she had in mind. Inside, the floor was swathed in scat, clumps of fur, chewed bones, and debris. Claw marks scored the walls from previous inhabitants. Spider’s webs hung on the corners of the entry, sparkling in Sun’s light. The interior reeked of wet, dung, musky hide, rotten vegetation, stale air, and body odor from another Upright.
None of that worried her. She dumped the pig carcass in the rear, saw no light from another entrance, and then collected rocks that would seal off the entry and protect her from the cold night air.
Again, her neck hairs tingled. Keeping her eyes down, her side vision searched but picked up no movement or shadows. Still, her senses screamed. Casually, she walked into the brush as though to relieve herself but instead, circled the area. The only prints were old and smudged, probably the Others that left their stench in the cave but nothing that would make her hackles rise.
With the last of the day’s light, she sharpened the antler. Tomorrow would be spent digging a pit and finding out who else traveled this area.
When dusk deepened to full dark, she rolled boulders across the cave’s opening and curled beside the entrance, antler in hand. A chill draft made her shiver but her thick hair warmed her. A wolf howled and a mammoth trumpeted. Bushes rustled as night prowlers crept from their lairs to investigate the new smell.
Only the strong survived alone at night. Such was the way of life.
He recognized this female Primitive, the one who had stood boldly with her Leader, fighting as skillfully as any warrior, fleeing only when another male dragged her away. She had called the dead Leader “father” and he called her Xhosa.
What brought her out here, alone?
Wind crouched on his haunches, watching her work. Her legs, longer than any other Primitive, made her his height. Her slender body curved in at the waist with prominent breasts like females of his group and decidedly unlike other Primitives he’d seen. Her ebony hair extended below her shoulders, glimmering like an iridescent waterfall. He needed to touch it, feel it in his hands, against his skin. He sniffed, wondering what scent it carried.
Something about this female made Wind want to be close to her.
Wind fought with his brother the day this female’s Leader died. The Primitive unmistakably wanted peace. He saw Thunder’s warriors first but did nothing more than watch. Thunder took that as a sign of weakness. After the Leader’s death, as his tribe fled, Thunder had wanted to chase them but Wind convinced him they would risk losing the fresh meat.
Wind couldn’t help but be impressed by this one called Xhosa’s strength. Few females could roll that massive boulder over the mouth of the cave. Odd there was no fire. His people built them for warmth, cooking, and to scare away predators.
Finally, Wind left, wondering how long she would remain. Maybe he should make contact.
The next day, Xhosa excavated a pit in front of the cave, disguised it with branches, and sprinkled dry leaves at its edges. No one could get by without being heard. Defenses complete, she knapped cutters and choppers from the river rocks, and collected berries, pausing often to listen. Something other than the old Upright prints caused her senses to spark to every sound and smell.
As Sun began the downward path to its sleeping place, Xhosa washed the pig’s stomach with silt and sand, and then rubbed it with salt to keep it from decaying. Next, she pierced small holes in the top and wove a tendon through that would circle her neck and allow the sack to rest between her breasts. By the time it was finished, Sun slept and the sky was dark.
The nights came and went, each with a smaller Moon as it lost pieces of its brightness. During the day, she scoured her surroundings for signs of Big Heads or Others. The impressions discovered the first day were useless, leading only to a rock bed, exactly where she would hide from prey. Just to be safe, she scrubbed her backtrail with dirt, dung, and water.
One night, on her usual tour of the area, fresh Big Head tracks crossed in front of her cave.
“He’s probably passing by, nothing else,” but the frown on her face, never absent since that first day, deepened and her stomach coiled into a tighter knot.
“I leave tomorrow. I need only survive one more night.”
The next morning, she pushed aside the boulder and squatted to await Sun’s glow. Sleep had been restless, her thoughts filled with worry, her senses pricking to every sound.
“One sliver of Sun above the horizon and I leave.”
Out of the corner of her eye, in the dark recesses of the cave, something moved. She snatched her spear while pivoting and howled.
A Big Head, spear raised, eyed her.
Outside, from a distance, someone yelled her call sign.
Why was Nightshade here?
The momentary distraction allowed the Big Head to score a searing cut to her shoulder. She yelped, heat scorching her body, which gave him time to drive another spear into her leg. The pain was nothing compared to the retching agony when he yanked the spear out.
“I’m coming, Xhosa!”
“Go towards Sun, Nightshade!” Hoping he would understand.
The Big Head leered at her, confused, rotting teeth stinking even from this distance.
“Xhosa is it? I’ve heard of you.”
A high-pitched yelp and muted thump confused the Big Head for a breath and then he roared with laughter. A smile crept across her lips, so subtle the Big Head missed it.
“I guess help will not be arriving, Xhosa. You are mine!”
He circled her, jabbing and thrusting as he tested her proficiency when injured.
She confused him again by yelling, “Nightshade—raise your spear!” Then flew out of the cave, almost tripping when her wounded leg sent pain lancing down to her toes. The Big Head was so intent on catching her, he failed to notice what was under—or not under—his feet. With a snort, he leaped, trying to grab her arm but instead crashed through the tattered foliage that covered the pit. His startled cry ended with a squeal and a wet oomph.
Muted grunts and chirps came from the pit and then Nightshade’s voice.
“I skewered him although if I hadn’t, that antler you embedded in the bottom would have. Your warning was appreciated.”
Her body shook with relief that Nightshade was safe and unharmed. “Why are you here?”
“This same Big Head crossed my area, headed your way. He looked ready for battle as though he knew exactly where you were. I should have known you need no help.”
Xhosa panted. “I’ll get a vine.”
“I can get out. You go. With that leg and shoulder, I’ll still beat you.”
Nightshade, of course, must prove himself the worthiest to lead the People, which meant working alone. She limped away, slowed by the gash in her leg and wincing as heat burned deep into her shoulder. It took longer than it should have, trying to hide from anyone who had been hunting with this Big Head.
Xhosa washed the blood from her injuries and coated them with honey harvested from a nearby hive. Next, she slathered the wounds with mud layered with moss and wrapped everything with leaves.
She paused, ticking off the sounds, but found nothing worrisome so continued homeward. As Sun approached the horizon, it took everything she had to clamber up a tree to an abandoned nest. Her knee throbbed from groin to toes, her shoulder was stiff, her arm numb, and her leg threatened to blow up.
None of that kept her awake.
The next morning, a search for her backtrail revealed that time and rain had erased it.
“That doesn’t matter. Fire Mountain never moves.”
Keeping the massive landmark to her weak side, she staggered homeward, each day harder than the last. Her thoughts became blurred, her leg grew to twice its normal size and so stiff, it wouldn’t bend. After a day, she simply dragged it behind her. When that no longer worked, crawling did, one armed because her wounded shoulder locked in one position. Her teeth chattered but the skin on her forehead was hot to the touch. She finally collapsed, thoughts so jumbled that moving forward became impossible. Someone—friend or foe, it didn’t matter—grabbed her arms and dragged her away, scraping her bare skin over the dry rough earth. When the ground smoothed, they stopped and someone applied moss and herbs to her wounds before darkness took over.
Consciousness was momentary before she sank back to darkness but one of those times, she smelled the sure scent of Nightshade, sleeping by her, before oblivion again took over. The next time, he was staring at her, worried, finger brushing her hair, and then again, sleep overcame her.
When her eyes popped open this time, something felt different. Her body ached, all over, but not with fatigue. Nightshade lay by her, eyes closed, skin pale.
She nudged him and his eyes burst open. Her spirits rose just from the sight of his familiar face, his assured expression, and the strength radiating from his body.
“How did you get out?”
Nightshade rubbed his eyes, still locked on her. “The Big Head’s body hardened in death. I tilted it up against the wall of the pit and used it as steps.”
A giggle bubbled out before she could bite it back. “No enemy can outsmart the People’s new Leader. You deserved to win, Nightshade, and you wouldn’t miss the rear entrance.”
It took a moment for him to respond. “I await your direction, new Leader of the People. My warriors are at your disposal.”
The next day, Xhosa got the first of what would become chronic burning head pains, one with no wound to treat, but one she wasn’t entirely unprepared for. Another female warrior Xhosa respected as much as any had warned her.
Her name was Lucy.
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice, a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Laws of Nature, Summer 2021.