This is a blog hop to celebrate Jacqui Murray's publication of an interesting book, Against All Odds. If you think travel is tough today, or even in the era before cars or trains, imagine what's it was like almost a million years before McDonalds and even before Howard Johnson's dotted the highways. In this prehistoric saga, Xhosa faces hardship, courage, survival, and family. After having read Craig Childs Atlas for a Lost World, I'm intrigued. But Murray goes back way before Childs! Check it out.
Big Heads smarter than Xhosa’s species?
What Xhosa refers to as “Big Heads” were an archaic form of our species, Homo sapiens. Morphologically and behaviorally, they fall between Homo erectus and modern Homo sapiens. They had higher foreheads and prominent chins. They were probably less violent than Homo erectus but based on the shape of their cranium, solved more problems with brains than brawn. If we define “smarter” as “cleverer”, then yes, they were. The rise of multiple archaic forms of Homo sapiens contributed to the end of the long-thriving Homo erectus.
Remember: Xhosa and Wind resulted from a mating between archaic Homo sapiens and Homo erectus making them brighter than the average among Xhosa’s People.
?What does “strong” and “weak” side mean?
Based on artifacts from 850,000 years ago (and longer), paleoscientists speculate that early man preferred their right hand. That made their right hand stronger than the left (though they didn’t identify “right” and “left” at that time). Because of this, my characters call the right side their “strong side” and left the “weak side”.
The foothills of the Pyrenees
They came out of the mountains, hair frozen in sparkling strands, hands and feet wrapped in shredded pelts, ribs etched against their skin under ragged hides white with snow, faces haggard with fatigue. Blood crusted scrapes and gashes, many recent, others almost healed, reminders of the violent struggles endured on their journey.
Though their steps flagged, not one of these upright creatures exhibited a hint of defeat. All males and a few females carried at least one spear, some two, many with warclubs strapped to their backs. Despite the anxiety and fear of entering this foreign land, hope energized them today, that their migration might be at an end.
All of them—Xhosa and her tribe, Pan-do and his, Wind, Zvi, and Seeker—had been chased from their homes by enemies. In their flight, they found each other. It took time to work through their differences but now they traveled side by side, respected ideas not theirs, and called themselves the People.
Their charismatic Leaders—Xhosa, Wind, and Pan-do—were known as reliable friends to those who earned their trust and dangerous enemies to those who opposed them. Two wolves—Spirit and Black Wolf—journeyed with them. Though the People lacked the animals’ sharp claws, dense fur, and piercing teeth, each considered the other “pack” and would defend them to death.
The exhausted group straggled down the gently sloping flank, feet shuffling carefully over the slippery scree. The ground changed from talus to stunted tufts of grass, sparse and brown which made walking easier. Optimism shone from their faces even as their tired eyes flicked side to side in search of unexpected movement, ears strained for out-of-place noises, and noses sniffed.
Rather than continue across the meadow, Xhosa led the People into the shade of the edging forest.
“Do you smell it, Wind?” Anticipation filled her gestures.
She and Wind, pairmates as well as Co-Leaders, stood quietly, absorbing their surroundings. Light filtered lazily through the canopy, the shadowed ground dappled with patches of warmth. She sniffed in the essence of wet earth and rotting leaves, the mustiness of moss, and something else much more enticing.
“It’s there.” She pointed and strode forward, lengthening her stride.
An icy gust whipped down the hillside through the shadows and raised bumps on her arms but she ignored it. The forest gave way to open sky and searing heat. It was too hot for her thin pelt but she didn’t stop to remove it. Green stalks swayed as far as she could see, edged on one side by more mountains and the other by some sort of leaves and branches. Sunlight glinted off the rippled surface of a distant river as it curled over the terrain.
“Dung!” The scent overpowered every other odor.
Wind huffed to her side. “It’s been a long time since we smelled dung that wasn’t frozen.”
“We did it, Wind.” Her eyes glistened with relief.
For most of a Moon, dread gnawed at her courage and left her wondering if following the guidance of Seeker—a boy barely a man—was a mistake. But Seeker assured her in his ebullient way that once out of the hills, their new homebase would welcome them. Xhosa wanted to believe him because she wasn’t sure what else to do. Nor did she know what to do if it didn’t work.
Wind motioned, arms inclusive, “It’s beautiful, Xhosa.”
Siri, Pan-do, Ngili, the wolves Spirit and Black Wolf, and the rest of the People gathered around Xhosa and Wind, eyes locked on what lay in front of them.
Pan-do whispered, “We made it.” His eyes were moist, mouth open.
Ngili, the People’s Lead Hunter, motioned, hands close to his body. “With all this grass, Gazelle or Mammoth must be nearby.”
Dust, the Lead Scout, trotted up, coming from a tall cliff far ahead on their forward path. “I think there are caves there.”
The People hadn’t slept in a cave since leaving Viper and the Mountain Dwellers. It would be a treat if true.
Xhosa looked behind. Shadows already stretched as far from the bottom of the rocky slopes as sunlight to the top. Daylight would soon end.
“We don’t have much time. Let’s rest and then see if those are caves.”
Ngili, the People’s Lead Hunter, motioned, fingers spaced out, palms up, “I’ll go with Dust to check.” He added a swift spread-fingered swipe with first one hand and then the other, followed by a quick bob of his head and a puff.
Xhosa brushed both hands down her sides. Go.
The People spoke with a complex combination of hand motions, facial expressions, body movements, and sounds augmented with chirrups, snaps, hisses, and whistles. By the time Ngili finished talking, Xhosa knew how many would join him, where they would go, and how long they’d be away. The People’s communication was sophisticated but quiet, a precaution especially in unfamiliar areas. Unusual sounds—voices, for example—stood out. All animals made noises but few as varied as the People’s. Why alert Others who lived here to their presence? Xhosa would do that in her own time, in her own way.
Dust, Ngili, and two scouts soon receded into the landscape, the only evidence of their passage a slight disturbance in the slender waving stalks. Despite the dung scents, the abundant plant food, and the glisten of a faraway river, Xhosa crossed her arms over her chest and paced.
Something is wrong.
She searched the forests and the rippling field that had swallowed up Dust and Ngili . Xhosa possessed the ability to see great distances in sufficient detail to find trails, footprints, movement, or the glitter of sun off eyes.
She saw none of those and that made her more uncomfortable.
With this wealth of food and water, Others should be here.
Wind motioned, palms flattened against his chest, “The mountains we crossed touched Sun. They’re cold and barren. Few can do what we did to get here, Xhosa. We are safe.”
Xhosa could hear in his voice, see in his gestures, that despite his bravado, Wind too felt uneasy about what they didn’t see and hear.
But she grinned. “I don’t know how I survived without someone being able to read my thoughts.”
She trotted over to a stream that fed into the river she had noticed. She stretched out on her belly, flat on the soft grass at the water’s edge, and took a long, satisfying drink of the sweet liquid. Thirst quenched, she collected handfuls of the tender shoots of new plants growing along the shore, ate what she wanted and tossed the rest into a communal food pile that would be shared with all the People. It was already filling up with fat fish speared from the slow-moving pools beside the river, tasty reeds and cattails, and even a handful of eggs plucked from nests not hidden well enough along the shore and in the roots of trees. The wolves snapped birds from the air and swallowed them almost whole, coughing up feathers.
Xhosa leaned back on her hands, sniffing the unique fragrance of each groupmember. Zvi was sweaty from wrestling with Spirit. Siri smelled sourly of hunger but she wouldn’t eat until Honey’s bleeding foot was wrapped in mulch and leaves. The females with new babies exuded the pleasant aroma of milk. Some scents jumbled together making them impossible to identify. When Xhosa became Leader of the People, before it merged with Pan-do’s and Hawk’s, the People had been small enough that she could recognize everyone by their odor. Now, she kept track of her tribe while Pan-do did the same with his. Wind helped everyone.
Done eating, the People sprawled on the warm ground, soaking up Sun’s remaining rays, chatting contentedly with gestures and the occasional sigh. Water dripped from their thawing bodies, soaking into the thirsty ground, as the remaining ice and snow on their pelts and in their hair melted away.
Xhosa and Wind sat apart from the others, on a log long ago softened by rot. She uprooted handfuls of grass and wiped the sweat from Wind’s body, as he did hers. The soft scratch felt good and the earthy fragrance reminded her of times long gone. When he finished, she harvested chunks of green moss from the log’s decaying bark and stuffed them into her neck sack. All the People wore one of these around their necks. Even the wolves did when they were migrating.
Finished, she leaned against Wind and closed her eyes. In a group of Others, her pairmate stood out. A Big Head, the People’s traditional enemy, the ones who drove Xhosa and her tribe from their long-established home, Wind had earned Xhosa’s trust by saving her life more than once and then, as a member of her People, sharing Big Head spear tricks and warrior skills with her Leads. Before long, each of them individually told her that thanks to Wind they could now defeat an attack which they couldn’t have done in the past. Whatever distrust her People harbored toward him faded away.
“Xhosa!” Dust panted up to her. “I found a cave. And we found trace of a herd. Ngili is tracking it.”
By the time Sun settled into its night nest, the People were ensconced in the cave Dust found. They had to squeeze together to fit but all were thrilled to sleep without waking to frozen toes and numb fingers. Stone and Zvi—the burliest of the People—lugged rocks in and Siri built a fire that quickly warmed the interior. The subadults gathered kindling to feed it and arranged who would be responsible throughout the night for keeping it lit.
Usually, the wolves slept scattered among the People but with Black Wolf close to delivering her pups, she dug out an opening in the back and claimed it as her den. Then she settled to her belly, one leg forward, the other bent back, eyebrows twitching.
Xhosa strode toward the nest she would share with Wind but stopped at the sight of Seeker, weight on his bottom, legs crossed in front of his body in the uncomfortable position he preferred. His pairmate Lyta curled next to him with their best friend, Zvi.
Xhosa approached Seeker. “You are not outside.”
Every night as long as Xhosa could remember, the enigmatic male lay on his back, gaze fixed steadily on the star-dotted sky, spouting what to Xhosa sounded like gibberish to whoever listened. Intermittently, he leapt to his feet and spun dizzying circles or bounced from one foot to the other, huffing and chirping. Lyta and Zvi would either join him or watch. He once explained to Xhosa that this was how he studied the changes in the night sky—the appearance and disappearance of particular stars or their movement in relation to each other—so he could guide the People accurately. This nightly process was how they had moved from the distant start of Endless Pond to this cave where Endless Pond seemed to end.
He didn’t respond to her statement, didn’t even acknowledge her. That worried Xhosa. She hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that danger lurked around them, somewhere. Seeker’s anxious look didn’t help.
She squatted at his side and added a question to her declaration. “The stars aren’t talking to you?”
To the side, Lyta wriggled, not comfortable in the seated position Seeker preferred but determined to try because Seeker liked it so much. Zvi crouched on the balls of her feet, the more traditional pose. She’d tried to sit on her bottom, legs crossed in front, but kept falling backward. Besides, it took her too long to rise from that position which meant if Lyta needed help, she couldn’t respond quickly. Squatting, for her, made more sense. Seeker didn’t care. He expected all to do what worked for them. Both his best friend and his future pairmate were long accustomed to his eccentricities.
Finally, Seeker offered Xhosa only a confused frown.
That’s not a “Yes they are,” and that raised the hair on her neck. Before she could ask more, Ngili scrambled through the thistle barrier the youngsters had placed around the cave’s mouth to prevent the entrance of intruders and hurried toward Xhosa.
He motioned, “I lost the herd’s trace in the dark. I’ll try again tomorrow,” and then raced toward where the hunters had gathered. They were all tired. Some would mate before sleeping but not Ngili. He hadn’t given up hope that his pairmate, Hecate, would come back.
After a final glance at Seeker, Xhosa joined Wind in their nest. She squatted behind him and teased the dirt and debris from his long head hair, occasionally focusing on a difficult tangle until her fingers could move easily through his hair. When she finished, he did the same for her.
As he groomed, he said, “I’ll join Ngili tomorrow. If there are herds, we will find them.”
“Pan-do and I will continue with the People.”
They said nothing more, both enjoying the calming feel of nails scratching on their skin and the intimacy of someone they trusted implicitly. Done, both fell asleep.
The first rays of daylight filtered into the cave. Black Wolf was already outside, padding back and forth restlessly, huffing uncomfortably. Wind left with Ngili and a handful of scouts, knowing Xhosa would leave a trail to wherever they settled when Sun’s light ran out. Though Spirit usually went with the hunters, today he stayed with Black Wolf.
Xhosa and Pan-do led. Dust copied their pace and direction but a distance away. With Ngili and Wind searching for meat, Xhosa focused on finding a cave large enough for the People. They strode onward, gaze sweeping the landscape, everyone grazing on berries, roots, and worms as they walked. Sporadically, Xhosa heard a faraway squawk or glimpsed a covey of birds as they exploded into flight, fleeing an unknown threat. It was the direction Ngili and Wind had gone, and told her how far they’d gotten.
The People rested by a waterhole. They searched its shoreline for prints but found none. Wherever the herds lived, they didn’t drink here so the People moved on, through copses of young saplings and around a bed of haphazardly-strewn boulders. The air tasted of flowers, warm earth, and the mild tang of salt, but the dung they found was hard and old.
Xhosa touched Pan-do’s hand and both stopped, eyes forward. “Do you smell that? It reminds me of Endless Pond.”
He pointed to his strong side and the direction they were walking. “From there and there. How can it be on two sides?”
Xhosa tingled. One of her People—Rainbow—had abandoned them long ago, taking many males and females with him. Others she and her People ran into while migrating here told her Rainbow traveled the same route she did but along the opposite shore of Endless Pond. For him, as for her, this was as far as he could go without folding back on himself.
If they got this far. If any survived.
She pushed aside those thoughts. Before searching for whatever remnants remained of Rainbow’s group, the People must find a homebase. All they suffered to get here—the interminable walking, the loss of Hawk, the death of groupmembers, Nightshade’s treachery—was for naught if they didn’t establish a home.
Spirit bumped her leg. Black Wolf panted at her mate’s side, her belly almost touching the ground.
Xhosa motioned, “Your mate’s pups won’t wait much longer. We will find a den for her.”
Spirit took off, his movements graceful and fluid with Black Wolf lumbering after him.
Not much later, Pan-do squinted ahead. “I think Spirit found a cave.”
Xhosa leaned forward, narrowing her gaze, and finally saw where Spirit stopped. He sat on his haunches at the base of a cliff, facing her, nose twitching, tail swishing the dirt behind him.
It took the rest of the day to cross over the craggy scrubland, up and down the deep ravines, and around the occasional spot of slippery ice. The cave proved too small for the People but not for Black Wolf’s needs. With much scuffling and panting, she created a nest for her pups and disappeared into the cool dark hole. The People settled outside, under an overhang that would protect them from rain and predators, and far enough away to not bother the new mother. As soon as Ngili and Wind arrived, shaking their heads that they hadn’t found a herd, they left again to search for signs of a trail left by former inhabitants of this cave.
Xhosa’s chest squeezed and her stomach knotted. Spirit padded up to her side, hackles puffed, nostrils flaring. He agreed. Something about this area made her tingle but for now, until Black Wolf finished, they must stay.
Title and author: Against All Odds
Series: Book 3 in the Crossroads series
Genre: Prehistoric fiction
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Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Jacqui-