Excerpt from “The Shadow Hunter”

In The Shadow Hunter, a young Neanderthal is brought to the future. The novel is told from his point of view. In this excerpt from chapter one, we meet the main character and his tribe.

The shaman of my tribe, a man of power, straddles the shoulder of the fallen bison, one leg slung on either shaggy side. The hair on the shaman’s legs is as dark and coarse as the hair on the bison’s side.

I stand at the outer edge of the circle of hunters that surrounds the fallen beast. I am young; I have only ten winters. I stand between my mother and my uncle; my father died last winter. He had been trampled when the tribe was hunting the elk; though my mother had nursed him for many days, he had died of his injuries.

Today is a good day. With rocks and spears and shouting, the tribe had found a few bison grazing in a small meadow tucked between two hills. The snow has melted here and the grass is green. At one end, the meadow flowed into a large valley; at the other, it dropped off abruptly in a cliff. With shouts and spears and thrown stones, the tribe had frightened the animals into stampeding and had driven this old bull over the edge. The bison had broken a leg in its fall, and my uncle and the shaman had finished it off with spears.

Now the shaman raises his knife. The black stone blade glitters in the sun. With a steady hand, he plunges the knife into the throat of the bison. The blood that spills over his hands steams in the cold air and the shaman calls out in a voice of power. He says that the hunt was good, that the tribe will waste nothing of the bison’s body and bone. He calls out to the spirit of the beast.

The mist that rises from the flowing blood swirls in a cloud above the shaman’s head. The cloud darkens and forms a shape — a shadowy bison stands in the bloody grass.

The gray shadow of a bison raises his head and stamps his shadow feet and becomes more real, more solid. He glares at the shaman with eyes that glisten like the stone of the blade. The bull tosses his head and steps forward, threatening the hunters who surround him. My mother puts a hand on my shoulder, a reassuring touch.

The shaman reaches out to the spirit, laying a hand on his shadowy back. The shaman speaks in the Old Tongue, the language used to talk to the spirits. “You are a good spirit,” he says. “You will be one with my people. You will nourish us and make us strong. We must have your spirit, your strength.”

Does the shaman grow larger in the afternoon sun? Does he grow as the spirit dwindles? I cannot say. The misty spirit changes and flows as the shaman speaks. “You will make us strong,” the shaman says, and the wind puffs through the body of the bison, tattering it. The spirit is gone.

So it always is, after a hunt. The spirit of the hunted beast makes the people strong.

My people butcher the bison, carefully cutting away the shaggy hide, cutting up the meat. The sun is setting by the time we are done. We make camp by the edge of the meadow. My mother starts the fire — she is the best in the tribe at using the fire drill and starting an ember burning. My sister and my young cousins and I search among the bushes and trees at the foot of the cliff to find wood to burn.

Tomorrow, we will carry the rest of the meat back to the cave where we take shelter in the winter. We have traveled far from the cave this day, searching for game to hunt. It has been a long, cold winter and our stores of food are exhausted.

It is dangerous to spend the night in the open — hungry beasts roam at night. But it is equally dangerous to travel at night. We will need fire to protect us. Tonight, the shaman and my uncle will keep the fire burning, using the flames to chase back hyenas and other beasts who try to take our kill.

We cook the flesh of the bison over the fire and eat well, huddled around the flames. When the moon rises over the meadow, I sleep at my mother’s side. And I dream in the moonlight.

In my dream, a shaggy, gray-muzzled she-bear leans over me. Her great head blocks out the moon. She speaks to me in the Old Tongue. “Follow me, little one,” she says. Her mouth is open and I can see her teeth, gleaming bright in the moonlight. Her breath smells of earth; she has been tearing apart a rotten log to get at the grubs in the decaying wood.

She sits back on her haunches and I see her paws and the great curving claws that can smash a log with an easy blow. “Follow me,” she says again. “You are no more than a bite, but I have need of you.”

In my dream, I sit up and back away from her. Frightened, I shake my head and say, “No. You do not need me. The shaman is the one who speaks to the spirits. Not me, Great One.”

Her dark eyes glitter in the moonlight. “It is you I need,” she says.