In a cave chamber deep below ground, there are ancient bones.
The low light of a sinking sun glimmered off warm brown eyes. It was the only hint, at first, that the unsuspecting shrub was occupied.
There were more. In a landscape of verdant green, turned burnt orange and deep gold by the sinking of a sun gone copper at the end of the day, there were more eyes. They glinted from the tops of trees, under bushes; between leaves and branches.
Intelligent eyes. But not the eyes of predators. These were furtive – darting about. The gazes of prey.
The Noru were silent. Tense. They all knew to stay as quiet as possible. The sounds were no more than the light rustle of a breeze and the raucous chatter of carefree birds.
As the sun set further, the light became glistening crescent moons on their irises, glowing gold and ethereal in those rich pools of brown. Shadows lengthening and pooling together around trees and bushes, hearts beat a rapid tattoo against quietly breathing chests.
The hope was that they wouldn’t have to, but the young man, crouched in the shrub, knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d have to run.
He knew where to run to. The light growth of whiskers on his chin becoming visible for the second he peeked out of the bush, he looked in that direction. They all knew.
The call of an elephant was a false alarm, but it sent a ripple of startlement through the tribe. They had only seconds to relax.
There was a sound only one thing made. Murdu had heard it before. It had been the cry in his nightmares for these past days:
A scream of unnatural rage, that split the silence with its unearthly shriek. A scream that meant death. And it wasn’t in Murdu’s dreams this time.
Every bird fell silent, just the breeze stirring the leaves in the scream’s wake.
There was a moment of stillness, then the landscape was alive with movement. Murdu caught the fleeing – saw the trees rattle, leaves upset, and feet pounding; friends racing up trunks.
He launched out of the shrub. Small, he was fast, and dextrous, both on the ground and in the trees.
His feet pounded with the others. The young ones flew up the trees, too slow on the ground. Murdu stayed on his feet for now. Those youths too big to be held by their mothers needed the limited tree cover to move fast. The forest would thicken soon. Murdu would join the swinging and scurrying above when there was space.
He lagged behind, a little, then a little more. Fast, but not fast enough.
His friend Jinu, bounding along beside him, turned wild eyes on Murdu. On two feet, or, for any uneven ground, fists as well, they weren’t the last of the pack. Murdu stared behind him, just for a second. There were more wild eyes. The tribe knew: to lag was to die. Murdu caught the gaze of his closest uncle. But to stare behind was to lag.
The start of the thick forest broke over him. Murdu launched into the trees, Jinu making it up after.
A yell – one of pain and panic – had them both freezing in the trees. Not the two of Murdu’s uncles that had been behind him. Even the one with his bad leg. They Murdu could see, hustling into the tree cover. The rest of his family group…
Murdu knew most were up ahead: Manna and Nori, his younger sisters, and his mother, with little Umuni. But his cousins – his friends. The yell could have been any of them. His eyes darted around, frantically searching the chaos of his tribe members racing through trees and underbrush. He couldn’t make out enough. Couldn’t see far enough –
His gaze was caught by vivid red feathers: just a glimpse of them between the obscuring foliage and bushes. They were behind the racing members of Murdu’s tribe, but to see them at all meant they were too close.
Jinu’s fingers biting into Murdu’s wrist made him jump. The yank Jinu gave him wasn’t needed. Murdu was already turning back, braced to flee. Whoever had been caught, there wasn’t anything they could do for them now. All they could do was run – make it to the Cave of Rising Stars as fast as they could. There they’d have some chance of finally being safe.
The thick forest helped them make up for lost time. The Rhondizi were faster than them on land, but not in the trees. Here, Murdu’s tribe had the advantage.
It wasn’t the first time he’d seen those vivid red feathers. Forcing himself to move faster, Murdu tried not to stall or look back again.
Until four sunsets ago, the Rhondizi were nothing more than legend to the Noru tribe. Rhondizi: the Men of Death. Caused death, or were born from death. It was both. They were men who had died long ago, but were still here, hunting – wanting others to be as they are. They look like the apes, but are intelligent. They adorn themselves with bright red feathers, stuck into their own scalps, and bits of painted leather like body necklaces. No need for clothes over their fur.
Insane – their minds twisted, the legends say, after so many turns of the moon on this land.
The Tall Men could fend them off. Sometimes. But the battles waged were won with much death. The Noru had fared worse. Their only advantage was speed in the trees and their ability to fit into small places.
It was one of Murdu’s distant uncles who was telling the tale. He spoke to the young who gathered around him with his hands making large gestures, his face pulling scowls, the low and guttural tone of his voice keeping the breath of the young bated. He sat on the dirt floor of the cave chamber, ensuring the young were entertained and quiet as the morning meal was passed around.
The Rhondizi had gone north long ago, into the lands of the Tall Men. It had been thought they’d never return. That, finally after so long, they’d stay gone. Die and stay dead, like they should have long ago.
“Wanting others to be as they are” – it was the part one youth fixated on. The little boy asked, and Murdu’s uncle scowled, showing cracked teeth.
Dead, Murdu’s uncle repeated, but still here.
The answer made the short hairs down the youth’s spine raise on end.
Murdu felt the cold for other reasons. He pulled his skins further over his bare chest, hoping to stay warm. It had been a cold and dreadful night. They’d made it to the Cave of Rising Stars with two of their number caught in the flight. The mourning was being done in low keens, so as not to make too much noise. Neither tribe member killed this time had been close friends or cousins to Murdu, but the keening sunk a deep despair into his heart.
Four days ago, the first Noru lost to the Rhondizi had been all but one of a hunting party. The dead had included two of Murdu’s dear cousins. Quietly, Murdu added his own low keen to the rumble of it, singing away his lost family members.
The cave chamber was lighter now it was morning. They hadn’t lit any fires in the night, not wanting smoke wafting up the natural chimney to signal their hiding place. Eyeing the chimney now, casting a rough circle of light down on the cave’s dirt floor, Murdu wondered whether drawing the Rhondizi to that cave entrance wasn’t a bad idea.
Hunting parties didn’t usually use the Cave of Rising Stars for shelter. It was a bit too far from their home lands, wasn’t the easiest to climb through, and the ground above was known to be treacherous: too many holes into caves they could fall down and not be able to get out.
Holes like the natural chimney high above at the top of the cave chamber. Over the night, Murdu’s tribe had blocked up the safe entrance, the one they’d used to get in, with large rocks. The chimney was the only other entrance. It was wide enough to fall down, and it wasn’t easy to see when running on the ground above. To fall would be a long and painful way down.
It was one reason why the Cave of Rising Stars was the shelter they’d run to. Hidden, underground; and, if they didn’t see it until it was too late, the chimney may kill a few Rhondizi. The chamber Murdu and his people were hiding in was large enough for all the Noru of their tribe. And it wasn’t the only chamber.
If they needed to retreat, there was a narrow passage to a second chamber the Noru would fit through better than the Rhondizi. The air became stale further in, but if they needed to, they could crawl deeper underground for safety. Wait out the Rhondizi’s hunt.
Murdu’s people were runners, not fighters. But running now may well be little more than a way to make fighting easier. If the Rhondizi found them. If they got through the barricaded entrance…
Murdu had a hand axe in his pack. He reached for it then, fingers finding the places he liked to grip it. It wasn’t the spears of the older Noru, but if he had to hack at Rhondizi following them, one by one, through tight stone tunnels, it would do.
And maybe they’d fare better that way than if they were just stuck to slowly starve down here as their food supplies ran out.
The best they could hope for was that the Rhondizi, not able to find them, would just move on.
But that was a hope already dashed. Murdu’s gaze, as the low keening and slow munching of dried meat carried on around him, had drifted back to the natural chimney. No Rhondizi had conveniently fallen down it, to crash on the cave floor below. Instead, first one, then another, had stepped up to the edge, and were staring straight down at him.
Murdu froze. Until now, he’d caught only glimpses of the Rhondizi. Only heard their surreal cry.
Their short fur was dark, yet shone red in the morning sun, as though bathed with so much blood over the endless time they’d lived on the land, it could never come clean. Not as big as Murdu had feared them to be, they were no less fearsome. Faces bizarrely wide, they had the jaws of predators; eyes high-set under a heavy brow ridge. Like intelligent and cruel apes.
But, unlike apes, a central ridge – a high bony prominence – jutted out in a line over the tops of their heads. On either side of it, the Rhondizi had jammed bird feathers deep into their scalps, each one a vivid red, and standing on end like a headdress embedded into flesh.
There were no whites to their eyes. Murdu noticed that, squatted below them on the cave floor, as he watched one lift what looked too much like the arm of a lost Noru. Calm and staring with those blank animal eyes, the Rhondizi bit right into it, through flesh and bone. The feathers on his head fluttered back and forth as he chewed.
The crunch, a sound that sent all the hairs on his body to standing, was what unstuck Murdu from his spot. He dashed out of the way just in time. Spinning around, out of sight from the Rhondizi hunters, Murdu saw the spear dig into, then skid onto the cave’s dirt floor. Right where he’d been sitting a second before.
The Noru didn’t need that unearthly screech, sounding now like it was laughing, to let them know the Rhondizi had found them.
What had seemed before a tense wait, now felt like a calm morning as it shattered in rushing bodies, food being packed back up, the young being ushered towards the narrow stone passage at the back of the chamber, and the adults grabbing up spears and axes.
Murdu was a man, but only just in the eyes of his tribe. His mother pushed him towards the passage after Manna and Nori, his young sisters. And then, at the scrum waiting to climb through, she pressed little Umuni into his arms. For a moment, as the older Noru hustled into positions behind Murdu, his mother’s eyes caught his. Hers were large, scared, but trusting – begging. Look after her little ones, they said.
The passage to the deeper chamber was only wide enough to crawl through one at a time. All of Murdu’s uncles and his mother would wait until last, to hold the Rhondizi off if they got through. A force of thirty adult Noru, against who knew how many Rhondizi.
Umuni’s arms were wrapping around Murdu’s neck – the little boy hanging on even though his head craned back to stare after his mother as she turned away.
Murdu hugged the boy close. His friend Jinu was being told to go through into the deeper chamber too. Murdu stood beside him. Beyond the readying Noru, this chamber of the Cave of Rising Stars was empty. But it felt like a coming end. The circle of sunlight, shining down from the natural chimney, was shifting with shadows. Murdu couldn’t see them, but he knew the Rhondizi were there.
One, then another and another and another… Murdu took a moment to realise the things thumping down onto the cave floor, skidding and rolling to the Noru’s feet, were the butchered remains of his tribe members caught in the flee. Tossed into the Cave of Rising Stars by the Rhondizi above.
And then there was the sound of grinding rocks from the safe entrance. The one they’d barricaded.
The Rhondizi knew where it was. They were getting in. And they were strong.
The keening of mourning had started up again as feet, fingers, ribs and severed heads tumbled into the cave, the sound echoing in a low reverb off the rock walls and ceiling. Mothers hissed commands to hurry, and the young around Murdu’s legs scrambled to obey, tumbling in, one after another, to wiggle through the narrow tunnel.
It was Jinu who poked Murdu to follow the latest youth into the tunnel. Murdu cast a last, lingering look, seeing his mother, her back to him, strong and straight, and his uncles, before scuttling over rough rock to the tunnel.
Little Umuni didn’t want to let go Murdu’s neck. He wanted to cling on to safety. But he’d be scraped and squashed if he didn’t go on ahead.
Murdu pulled the boy off, and lowered him to the tunnel entrance by a clinging arm. A smooth of the fuzzy hairs on Umuni’s head, and Murdu pushed the boy on by the bottom with a Go! I will come, more gestured than spoken.
In his small, fluffy face, Umuni’s eyes were wide and glistening. Push after push had him crawling into the tunnel; Murdu, securing his pack over his shoulder, following after.
The instant he was inside, Murdu’s body blocked the light from the tunnel. Near entirely black, the passage was tight and quiet but for the breaths of those wiggling through and the sounds of scraping or whines as young heads knocked on sharp outcrops of rock. Murdu could feel Umuni’s back – could hear his wisps of breath and the effort of a boy trying to move fast when small and terrified. Murdu kept his head down, his eyes near closed. Trying to keep it from the rock that scraped his arms and legs – that jammed, jagged, into his scalp.
Further and further in, it got darker and darker. More shuffling bodies behind blocked out what light might have gotten in through the tunnel. Twice, Umuni wanted to stop. Murdu found it hard not to snap – not to just shove the boy on. But that would hurt. Pat after pat to the boy’s back, with gentle pushes, and, whining continuously now, Umuni continued.
He wasn’t the only one whining. They were all young. All scared. Murdu rumbled low in his throat: a noise of calming, comfort, and reassurance. A moment later, he heard Jinu, somewhere behind him, pick up the same rumble.
Slowly, slowly, they made it through onto more rocks below, but not above. The tunnel gave out into a space that seemed enormous from the way the sounds took their time to find the stone walls through the cold and stale air. In the complete dark, Umuni froze. It was his whines that had Murdu finding his arm and swinging the little boy back up to hang from his neck. Umuni clung, tight and close, his little whimpers burying themselves against Murdu’s chest.
A quiet prompt from Jinu had Murdu moving cautiously aside. He could feel the youths as he shifted down onto a dirt floor. Instinctively, they clustered close to the older Noru. Manna and Nori found him, the former pushing her back up against his side, all her hairs on end. Nori’s fingers twined into the skins draped over Murdu’s shoulder.
But he was one of the elder ones. He was supposed to guard the tunnel entrance to their refuge.
The protestations were quiet, but painful to hear, when Murdu passed Umuni over to Manna. She was the second eldest. It was time for her to watch Umuni.
With an order for them to stay huddled together, Murdu shuffled blindly back towards the sounds of youths struggling through the tunnel. He found his hand axe, and gripped it tightly.
For a while, that was all he heard. Just the sounds of scared young ones, and shuffling through the tunnel. Murdu waited, listening, for long enough that his eyes began to grow better accustomed to the dark. For him to be able to pick out the hints of shapes around him. And for the knocks to his head to stop throbbing; the scrapes on his skin to begin to sting.
Then the sounds changed. The bodies moving through the tunnel were larger, heavier; the rock rubbing more closely against them. As they slid along their bellies, they added to the quiet and reassuring rumbling: the mature members of Murdu’s tribe were coming through now too.
One after another, the thirty adults began to wriggle into the second chamber. By smell and sound, Murdu identified them. One distant uncle, another close one, then Jinu’s mother, before, finally, Murdu’s own mother made it through.
Murdu may be a man now, but the tender pat his mother gave his shoulder settled ease and comfort into his body. He wasn’t alone with his younger siblings now.
The youths were shuffled back, further and further, towards the darker recesses of the cave, as the adults gathered around the entrance. With their eyes not yet as used to the dark as Murdu’s, they weren’t aware enough of him stood right beside the tunnel to push him back too.
Murdu stood ready. His ears strained, trying to hear what the Rhondizi were up to. Instead, he heard something else.
The mournful keening had subsided in the fear and activity. There was still the reassuring rumbling, but under that…
It was like a whistle of wind, in a cave with air so stagnant it mustn’t ever have seen a breeze. But it wasn’t coming from the air. Murdu’s shoulder was leant against the cave wall: it seemed to be coming from the very rocks.
But he didn’t get time to ponder it. Even far away from it, Murdu heard the largest rock over the barricaded entrance fall. Or, he felt it. Then he heard the cries of the adults left to fight in the first chamber.
And then, drowning them out, the Rhondizi’s unearthly screeches rang through the cave system, echoing loudly off the walls.
Those wriggling through the tunnel stalled, then, heeding cries, sped up. Better in the second chamber than the first – here they had a chance.
Murdu’s heart galloped as, all the while, it felt like his last breath was breathed out of him. Prickles ran up his limbs, and on, to his head. His teeth grit as the first scream of pain rang through from the chamber on the other side of the rock wall. He gripped his hand axe tightly.
It was his people who were crying in pain. Either the Rhondizi didn’t scream, or none of them were getting hurt. The adults hurried faster and faster to get into the second chamber, shouting from those left to fight telling them to hurry!
Blinded by rock and darkness, all they could do was listen to their friends – their families – dying on the other side of that thick cave wall. Even the young didn’t whimper this time. There was no sound that could recognise the horror of it.
Until, for one long moment, there were no more screams. No more shouts to hurry. One adult scrambled out of the tunnel just as another inside let out a shriek of agony.
They shrieked again and again. Shrieking, scraping, and fighting from inside that narrow passage. And then the tunnel shone clear. Empty. More light getting through to the second chamber than Murdu was now used to.
He jittered, his hand gripping and relaxing, reflectively, on his axe.
He waited for it: for the light from the tunnel to disappear again, blocked by the body of a Rhondizi coming through.
Everyone was silent. And waiting.
A twang Murdu didn’t understand – a sound he’d never before heard. But what followed it was a cry from the woman next to him. Then there were more. More and more and more –
A hand grabbing his arm yanked Murdu away. He stumbled, staring back towards the entrance. It had blocked up now, but it didn’t seem bodies were coming through. There was more of that twanging. More cries.
Were the Rhondizi throwing stones?
Murdu stumbled, and something sliced through his arm. He grabbed it, yelping. That hadn’t felt like a stone.
It was his mother’s voice. Her pulling him, Umuni clinging around her neck.
Murdu went. His fingers were wet – slick with blood from his arm. He was hustled, his mother pulling him quickly, across what seemed like the entire depth of the second chamber.
This time, it wasn’t Murdu his mother was commanding. It was Manna and Nori. With only little whines for protests, they moved, climbing up what seemed, to Murdu’s exploring hand, the ragged wall of the cave.
Mama was clicking to Umuni now. Making little noises, like she would to settle Umuni off to sleep – like she had done for Murdu when he was that age.
His mother didn’t tell him to, but Murdu knew that for the second time in this retreat, she wanted him to take and watch over her baby.
Not knowing where they were supposed to be going, a lingering touch from his mother on his back, Murdu heeded her once again. Umuni secure to his chest, he started the climb after Manna and Nori.
Maybe his mother knew of a way out on the other side. Maybe she was making them go on ahead, and she’d follow after with the others.
Murdu thought that, and climbed. Behind him, the cries continued and continued, echoing in the bleak, black cave. Adding to the cries, seeming to follow after Murdu and claw up his back, was the Rhondizi’s horrible gloating screech.
It was a treacherous and long climb. Murdu panted, feeling hot even in the cold chamber. His limbs were covered in cuts and scrapes from the blind stumble up and over jagged rock after jagged rock. He lost his footing and toppled again and again, and, hard as he tried not to, he’d knocked little Umuni up into the stone too many times.
Despite the rough climb, Murdu caught up with Manna and Nori, and all the other climbing youths. It seemed, without any other direction and well above the fighting now, that perhaps they should stay there. Murdu felt Jinu before he bumped into his friend, come to a stop one rock up. The others seemed to feel the same, slowing into a rest around them. Murdu sunk against a rock, breathing hard. He found Nori’s hand reaching for him, and clasped it tightly.
A murmur from above, breathless and croaky in voice, told them to come. Told them to follow the voice. It was the voice of an elder. Wise. Capable…
So they followed it. Tired, panting, many limbs shivery, they climbed, backs turned to that unseen, unknowable battle waging on below.
Followed it to a top, then, Jinu being grabbed first, ushered by the elder to somewhere that looked as black as everywhere else. Jinu was prodded further on, the rest of them being told to stay.
It was Jinu’s squeak and whimper that told Murdu something wasn’t right. He started forward, cracking his knee on a rock, only to be pushed back by the elder.
If Murdu could see, he’d stare at the man.
To hide, the elder hissed at him. Go down!
Without light, Murdu couldn’t see what else the elder might have said. Conflicted, he waited, listening to Jinu’s quiet yelps. It sounded like his friend was squeezing, in pain and afraid, through another tiny tunnel.
And what the elder wanted them to wait for… Murdu didn’t know until he heard a muffled thump from somewhere below. Then it was him being pulled forward by the elder.
Murdu stumbled, tumbled, caught himself on a rock – an arm curled protectively around Umuni. And then his foot fell straight into a hole.
It blew the air out of his lungs in a scream he stifled just in time. He’d thrown out both arms to stop a fall. And his leg had scraped, once again, up against rough rocks.
It was Jinu’s voice, calling up from below. And now it made sense. It was another tunnel, both Jinu and the elder telling Murdu to go down it.
But even as he eased both legs into it, going slowly to find the way in the dark, he could tell this vertical cute was even narrower than the previous passage he’d wriggled through. That would be the benefit: there was no way the burly Rhondizi could follow them down. But there was also no way Murdu could squeeze down it with Umuni hanging from him.
The boy had to climb in after him. And Umuni didn’t like it.
Murdu shushed, and rumbled, trying to keep the boy quiet and compliant. Squirming into the passage, Murdu let Umuni jump onto his head – let the baby’s toes curl into his hair. Umuni was shaking.
An unearthly cry, louder than before, rang out into the chamber. It made Murdu’s head swing around, as though he’d tried to see what he knew he couldn’t. His scull cracked on the rock wall of the chute.
The Rhondizi had gotten into the second chamber.
Down. Down. Murdu had to go down. Else the others couldn’t follow after him. His sisters would be trapped above.
Screams from the battle ringing in his ears, Murdu hurried. In places, the chute was so narrow he could barely expand his chest to breathe. Twisting and squirming, his eyes screwed up against the sounds of brutality, Umuni pulling on his hair and whimpering in panic, and the unseeable rock always right before his face. Murdu inched through the chute until, finally, his feet found open air. He squirmed more, wary about falling, then felt Jinu grab his leg right as he slid out and tumbled to a dirt floor.
Murdu heard Umuni’s yelp. In a horrible moment of panic, he realised the boy was no longer hanging on to him – not even by the hair. In that second, the chamber he’d fallen into felt massive, unknowable in the pitch black. And Umuni could be anywhere in there – thrown aside in the tumble.
The darkness seemed to press heavily on Murdu’s eyeballs, far more than it had out in the second chamber. His breathing ratcheted up.
Another yelp from Umuni. This time Murdu could tell it was from above: as though the boy was still hanging on to the rocks at the bottom of the passage. A fourth youth was coming down the chute. Murdu called, and Umuni called back. And then the boy squealed as he fell.
Before Murdu had even gotten a hand out – before he’d worked out where to jump for the catch, Jinu had caught the small boy. Umuni back hanging from Murdu’s neck, all they could do was wait, and help down each of the young Noru as they made their slow way through the chute.
Nori came through, then Manna. The slow pace, each young Noru taking time to get down the chute, felt like they were crawling from racing danger. And when the young stopped dropping to the floor of the deep chamber, Murdu felt keenly the absence of those who weren’t there.
He stared up at where he thought the chute was, the names of those who weren’t wriggling through in his mind. The elder didn’t come down either. He was moving away. Moving back toward the fighting in the second chamber. Towards those screams, the terrifying screeches of the Rhondizi – towards certain death.
It was a realisation Murdu was battling against feeling: it would be just them. None of the others – not his mother, nor any of his uncles – would survive to come and find them when this was over.
There was nothing to do about the warring of hope and despair inside him. No action to take to relieve it. The sounds of his tribe crumbling under a murderous battle rang in Murdu’s ears as he stood, in the pitch black, with Umuni curled in tight against his chest.
It had felt like a coming end before. Now it felt like it had already ended.
There’d been only thirty Noru adults left alive when they’d reached the Cave of Rising Stars. From the sounds ringing down into the third chamber, there were far more Rhondizi than that.
The screaming of Murdu’s own people died away, until only one shriek rang out. Then nothing but the Rhondizi’s screeches, voices raised in triumph. And then even that went silent. Murdu sunk to sit on his haunches between Jinu and his sisters.
Starting quietly, then getting louder, Jinu began to keen. A heavy weight landing in the pit of Murdu’s stomach, he grabbed Jinu and hissed to shush.
But the other youths had the same idea Jinu did. They picked up the keening, wanting as desperately as Murdu himself did to mourn the dead – to sing their spirits on. Especially with his uncle’s tale so fresh in their minds. Knowing the Rhondizi made their kills like they were: dead, but still here. Murdu knew the need to sing their dead on – felt it deep in his chest even as he hissed for all the youths to be quiet.
The Rhondizi were still there. They must stay hidden.
Manna’s sharper rebukes finally silenced the youths. It left Murdu’s ears feeling as deprived of sense as his eyes. As though he was locked away inside his own body, unable to experience anything outside of it.
And it made him hate the stagnant smell of the chamber. Made his sense of touch seem essential.
He was still holding Jinu’s arm. It twitched, then stiffened. Jinu’s breaths, Murdu noticed then, were shallow, coming in brief and pained jerks.
Murdu shook his friend, gently, by the arm. It was a gesture Jinu understood. With shivering fingers, Jinu grasped Murdu’s hand, and pulled it to a spot just below his ribs.
There was something poking out of Jinu’s belly. Murdu felt around it, felt the slick blood on his friend’s skin. It felt like a stick, speared deep inside Jinu’s body and broken off to remain deeply embedded.
Murdu tried to grasp it. To grab it and pull it out. But, stifling a screech, Jinu stopped him with frantic hands.
Starting distant, then getting closer, Murdu’s ears, straining in the silence for sound, picked up the movement of someone climbing towards the chute above. He was sure it wasn’t – could hear it was a creature larger than a Noru – but it didn’t stop him stealing that moment to hope. Hope it was his mother – was someone to trust. There to tell them it was safe to climb out now. Help them do it.
But it wouldn’t be. They all knew it. And there were more sounds of climbing. More footsteps headed straight toward the chute, as though the creatures knew the cave far better than the Noru did.
Murdu had thought the chute too narrow for a Rhondizi to get down. He wasn’t as certain about that now. Tense, the young Noru fell into even greater silence, not even a light wisp of breath to be heard.
But for movement, the Rhondizi made no noise. It made the wait for something to happen torturous. Kept the future uncertain.
The Rhondizi were gathering above, but they weren’t coming down. Instead, startling all the youths, something that sounded softer than a rock tumbled into the chute.
The youths nearer where it landed on the cave floor jumped aside, the sudden movement punctuated by little yelps they tried to suppress. Beside Murdu, Manna had grabbed Nori to keep her quiet, the older cuddling the younger for comfort. Manna herself pressed closer against Murdu and reached for his hand.
This time, what was thrown into the chute was a rock. They heard its tumbling fall, then heard it stop. Stuck partway through.
Climbing up the chute would have been hard. It seemed the Rhondizi, rather than come down, had decided to make escape impossible.
More and more was thrown into the chute, some rocks, mostly something else. Not all of it got stuck. Some tumbled out into the chamber below.
Something landing right beside Murdu made him reach out to feel what it was. He hesitated, realising, one second before his fingers touched the severed foot of a Noru, what it was.
So quietly Murdu was sure only he heard, Umuni whispered a forlorn, Mama?
They were stuck. The Rhondizi had left. And left them trapped in a pitch black cave, deep underground.
They had nothing to make a fire with. But Jinu had struck his flint. The brief flashes of light from sparks had given them views of their surroundings in bursts far too short to properly comprehend.
They’d explored, the older ones navigating the chamber with only the flashes of light and touch. It was smaller than the second chamber, with pillars of stone between below and above; small crevices in the walls that led nowhere.
In one, there was a single trickle of water.
At first, there’d been no panic. Just the quiet of forlorn hopelessness. Then the keening had begun anew. Neither Murdu nor Manna shushed it then.
When the panic did strike, it was the keening that brought them back to order. When fights broke out over the scarce scraps of food left, they were reminded to be civil by the memory of their elders, lost now. And needing to be sung on.
The smell of the cave grew feted. Stinking in the black and cold.
There was no way to know whether it was day or night. No way to tell the passing of time. They slept in huddles close together when exhaustion overcame the hunger.
They tried to tell stories. But without sight, only a few words could be communicated. For all they could cluster together and keep up the keening, united by mourning, the darkness felt isolating.
It was a realisation that grew more and more profound: they would all die here. There was no way out. They had no food.
And when Jinu died, his body boiling hot until it froze stiff and cold, the hopelessness became overpowering.
All they had left was the mourning. The keening. It became the only thing that remained of them: a duty to sing on their dead, as, one by one, the youths lost the will to keep drinking.
And when they did stop mourning, the chamber wasn’t silent. It had begun like the whistle Murdu had heard waiting for the Rhondizi to break in. A quiet noise, sounding like wind, but coming through the rocks.
Then it got louder. Any time they stopped keening, it was there. The sound of whistling without wind started to drive them mad. To hear it, but never feel it.
Know they never would feel the wind again.
It was Manna, mature beyond her young age, who stopped a boy banging his head on the wall. He’d been banging and banging. Until Manna pulled him in close and cuddled him until he slept. He did not wake. The keening rose again to fill the deep chamber. Drowning out the whistling of the rocks.
Murdu thought idly it should be called the Cave of Whistling Rocks. Not the Cave of Rising Stars. Why it was called that, he didn’t know. If anyone did, they couldn’t tell him the legend in the dark.
Manna leading the mourning, Murdu fell asleep with little Umuni snuggled up against his side and Nori with her head on his arm, shivering.
And woke to the same keening, Nori, curled in beside him, warm from his own body, but stiff and no longer breathing.
Murdu carried her to the corner they were leaving their dead, singing her on loud enough to reverberate the walls of the chamber. Then he sat back with his two remaining siblings. Manna buried her head in his shoulder. She’d been doing all she could to keep Nori drinking. It hadn’t been enough.
The corner took more bodies. And Manna, though she remained committed to leading the mourning, finally lost hope.
Murdu had fallen asleep to her keening, it the last voice keeping up the vigil in this cave of death. In his dreams, he was hearing the keening in a bright forest, scurrying and swinging from tree to tree. Not running from anything, just being free. Family nearby. Safe. Like his youth had been.
It wasn’t the forest of his youth, but a different one: a new home. A wonderful place, fruitful and filled with stories, laughter, and singing.
There was no keening when Murdu woke. There was the whistling, running through the rocks all around him. It made him shiver. Made all the hairs rise on his body.
He caught Umuni close to him as, his stomach screaming with hunger pains, he sat up. The little boy was floppy, weak. But he gave a low groan as Murdu moved him.
Manna was right next to them. Murdu, no longer having enough strength for hesitance, touched her with a shivering arm.
She wasn’t yet stiff. But she didn’t wake. And her chest didn’t rise with breaths.
It had been Manna who’d ensured they were all sung on. Murdu ached to do the same for her. But it wasn’t in him right now. He couldn’t muster it.
Alone, just him and Umuni left. Nothing felt worthwhile anymore.
Nothing but making sure Umuni drank. Making sure he ate the last scraps Murdu had hidden for him.
He’d failed his mother. He hadn’t looked after her little ones.
But he’d keep Umuni alive. How, Murdu didn’t have the strength to work out. Or even think about. It was simply the only drive he had left.
The boy was slow to respond to the water dripped on his lips. Murdu brought handful after handful to Umuni’s lips, not giving up until the baby drank.
And then Murdu just lay down with his baby brother and his dead sister. Standing had him woozy. His eyes slipped shut, and the whistle in the rocks rang through his ears.
No longer kept at bay by the keening, it got louder, and louder still. Until it seemed to shock Murdu’s head. His eyes popped open.
He’d grown so used to that making no difference. Open or closed, he couldn’t see.
It would be a dream, were Murdu not sure his dreams would gift him with visions of his family back with him again.
That he could see their dead bodies was worse than the blackness. Murdu turned his gaze away, staring up at the ceiling.
He didn’t wonder why he could see them. Not until the little wisp of light, as though released from the rock wall itself, twirled and swirled up into his line of sight.
Weak, flat on his back, Murdu just gazed at it. The wisp rolled itself, then rose to the ceiling of the chamber.
The whistling wearing on, another rose to join the first. Then another and another. Murdu blinked. Then again. They were still there. More and more wisps rising, each looking like a shiny stone in the sun. Only there was no sun here.
The whistling had started to sound comforting. Like the reassuring rumblings of the adult Noru. Murdu stared up, starting to count the wisps as more rose to the cave ceiling.
Ten, then fifteen, then twenty… Wisps of light rising to span the ceiling like stars. Decorating it with light, and singing their whistling song down to Murdu.
Another rose into Murdu’s sight. Its light looked tender. And it seemed to start clicking.
Umuni lifted his head from Murdu’s chest.
It was the clicking. He could hear it too. Like their mother comforting them off to sleep.
Twenty eight… nine… Thirty.
And then, the thirty wisps, like guiding stars, shifted away. They drifted aside, headed for one of the crevices in the deepest part of the cave.
Filled with new strength, Murdu followed them. Followed the whistling that felt like a reassurance and a command, all at once.
A small tunnel that led down, hidden by an outcrop of rock. But, just beyond the drop down, lit by the swirling wisps, Murdu could see it turned to lead up. And the swirling wisps were rising up it, lighting the way.
A new forest to live in. A new tribe of Noru to join. Just like in his dream.
Murdu was sure the thirty stars were leading him toward that hope. Felt the call to follow and go there. Take Umuni there. And raise him to be strong and sing the songs of their people.
The commands of his elders, the tender reassurance of his mother, the bolstering lessons of his uncles… All he’d been taught on his way to being a man, all the love of his people, seemed there with Murdu right then, as he climbed up the rocky tunnel, Umuni having just enough strength to hang on around his neck. The way, for the first time in many days, lit for him by rising stars.
One of those treacherous holes, that Noru running above could fall down, was Murdu’s exit. He climbed through it, the wisps around him disappearing in the bright light of day. And felt the wind on his face. The light blinding his eyes.
Little Umuni raised his head, his blinking eyes glistening in his fuzzy face. They reflected the light of day.
Mama, he whispered, as the last of the wisps drifted into nothing in the daylight.
This story was written for the Odd October anthology. For the 30 days to Halloween, we’ll leave you guessing as to how all these stories are linked! For a month of great stories, all leading up to the big reveal, go check it out on the Odd Directions subreddit linked in the secondary menu!
In 2013, cavers came across the fossils of a newly discovered species of hominid. They were found in a deep chamber (now named the Dinaledi Chamber) of the Rising Star Cave System, located in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa. Three other individuals were found in another chamber, the Lesedi Chamber, not far from there, but accessed via a different route entirely.
The Noru, as I have named them, or Homo naledi, were a small species of hominid. Their fossil remains are dated to between 335,000–236,000 years ago. That would mean that they lived around the same time we, Homo sapiens, first emerged as an evolution from our ancestor species, Homo heidelbergensis.
But though they walked this planet around the same time we did, Homo naledi didn’t look like us. They were smaller than even our ancestor species, and had characteristics that are a fascinating mix of more modern hominids like us, and much more ancient pre-hominids like the part-arboreal (tree-dwelling) australopithecines, who, from what we currently know, lived about 4-2 million years ago.
That Homo naledi could live, with a notably smaller brain than we have, until so recently, raises both a question as to their ancestry, and how important brain size really is for evolutionary advantage. Though there was a small hominid living in an island of Indonesia until about 50 thousand years ago (around when modern humans got there), there are so far no similarly small hominids found in Africa from anywhere near this time.
What adds to the mystery is where these fossils were found. The Dinaledi Chamber has a rock ceiling, with one very narrow chute leading down into it. No other entrance has so far been found into it, and if there was one, it didn’t open into the ceiling. To get to the fossils today, a team of paleoanthropologists of small and slim stature were recruited, as they had to brave the “Superman Crawl”, then climb up the “Dragon’s Back” at the rear of the second chamber, before squeezing down the very narrow vertical chute into the Dinaledi Chamber.
This is where, in 2013, the fossils were found. And it begs the question: how did naledi’s bones get there? There are a lot of bones. There’s no indication that they were washed there by water, or dragged there by some cave lion. The prevailing theory, as you’ll find if you go down this rabbit hole, is that naledi brought their dead there deliberately as part of a funerary ritual.
That naledi had rituals isn’t hard to believe. 5-4 million years ago, the pre-hominid Ardipithecus ramidus (with a brain size near half that of naledi’s, who stood about 20cm shorter) had a mouth likely physically capable of rudimentary speech. Fossil remains as far back as Australopithecus (slightly smaller brains than naledi, similar height, about 4-2 million years ago) reveal healed injuries such as debilitating leg bone fractures, and advanced age-related skeletal deterioration, that indicate that infirm members of the group were cared for and nursed by able members of the group long enough to heal or for their condition to get very bad.
Likewise around this time, there was enough society and culture for these ancient near-hominids to collect tools and food in central storage places; there is some evidence for hunting and butchering, likely a group task; suggestions in dental morphology that there was a lower incidence of male to male aggression than in other primates; and, for evidence of potential built structures, the stone circle found at Olduvai Gorge dates to 1.9 million years ago.
It is very hard to tell culture from only artefacts, impressions, and fossils left behind. But between 2 million years ago and 300 thousand years ago, our own species evolved, and what we are today was begun. Other hominids living 300 thousand years ago had done a lot of evolving from those ancient pre-hominids. And those ancient pre-hominids already showed signs of culture, society, and language. You don’t look after a sick member of your group if you have zero means of communication, zero care for them, no society, no understanding of the ability to heal, and no ability to learn from others who could tell you they’d heal or how to nurse them.
But what is hard to believe is that naledi dragged their dead into the Dinaledi Chamber, through that tight first passage into the second chamber, up the Dragon’s Back climb, and then down through the vertical cute into the Dinaledi Chamber. That’s an arduous task for disposing of ones’ dead, and not a nice one, considering they’d be doing it blind and the dead body would get pretty banged up.
So, either there was a much easier access route (that didn’t lead in through the solid ceiling of the chamber), and/or the Homo naledi fossils ended up there for a different reason.
Adding to the mystery of it, we do not know where the Rising Star Cave got its name from. Naledi means “star” in Sotho, and Dinaledi means “stars”. But those were named after the cave, and we don’t know why the cave has been called the “Rising Star” cave system.
For the Rhondizi, they are based on Paranthropus robustus. This group lived about 2-1 million years ago, as far as we know, and are most commonly accepted as being a sort of “cousin species” to our ancestors. P. robustus had massive teeth (“megadontia”), broad cheekbones, and a bony ridge down the middle of their skulls (a sagittal crest, sort of like if you feel the bony line on the top of a dog’s head). These bony prominences, as well as their broad cheekbones, served as muscle attachments for some very mighty chewing muscles. Essentially, they were perfectly adapted to having one hell of a bite force.
Likely, this species would have died out by 300 thousand years ago, however. And, though they could bite like a German Shepherd, they didn’t seem to have been that big. They were contemporaneous with (though they outlived) Homo habilis (“Handy Man”), and were about the same height – a height that wouldn’t put them as taller than Homo naledi.
Yet, as evidenced by the developments we continue to make in paleoanthropological research, this doesn’t mean there wasn’t a tall, bizarre, strong, and vicious decedent of P. robustus wandering the Earth at around the same time we emerged onto a planet already inhabited by a large handful of other hominids. We identified the Denisovans, contemporaries our ancestors we appear to have bred with, in 2010 as a result of damaged DNA extracted from a Siberian finger bone. Australopithecus sediba was only described in 2010, and Homo floresiensis only discovered in 2003. What we know about the ancient past will only continue to change in the future.
What remains for me the largest mystery, is how in the world I ended up a creature, sitting here on the internet, having studied some of this in university, searched up the rest of it online, and now writing creatively about it on my computer. 5 million years since Ardipithecus made their semi-bipedal walk on this Earth is evidently a really long time. Long enough for primates to go from potentially the speech capacity of a one year old, to what I’m doing today.