Khama is a boy destined to lead the South African Amakonko tribe; inheriting the leadership from his father, he has to create an army of specially-trained warriors to seize leadership from a spiteful and devious uncle. With his army and his startling aptitude for military genius he will eventually grow to conquer mightier neighboring tribes. The story is inspired by the legendary Shaka Zulu.
THE procession was early. It was still grey all over, and the birds hadn’t roused. The leaves were dripping with dew and a thick grey mist hang in the air. Only the ceaseless hum of the sprawled hills disturbed the still night. Everything else was quite still.
The old man at the head of the procession knew his way about the bush country. He had often travelled this path into the hills and knew the landscape well. Behind him came a group of about a dozen men, each holding a spear ready and a club in the event of danger along the way. A little distance behind came a smaller group. The two sacrifices, a lad of about fifteen and an equally young maiden walked in their midst, flanked on either side by watchful young men. They made their way slowly into the hills, silhouetted against the backdrop of the scraggy lightening country.
They rose out of the plains and ascended the foggy hills. It was bitter cold, but then cold, like the elders said, chastened the body of a young man. Warmth was the enemy of a fine Amakonko warrior.
The top of the hill on which they were standing was flat and table-like, covered with thin moor and sparsely scattered with low scrub. It was the highest point, and from this level the rest of the country spread out in picturesque clearness into the distant horizon, creviced plains split by steep-scarped narrow valleys that rolled into the thorny edge of the earth. This was a holy mountain; the dwelling place of the sun god, Mlimungu. Every warrior had to remove his sandals and rid his conscience of all evil thoughts, lest the deity smite them down with his mighty sword.
All the tribesmen were overcome with awe atop this hill in the presence of this fearsome god. And it had been this way since the birth of the mountains.
A low hum rose from amidst the procession as they edged towards the centre of the clearing. It developed into a slow soulful chant, the verses repetitive, like a dirge. It carried into the air over the silent bush country, weaving into the droning hum of a million insects.
In the centre of the clearing was a heap of stones that were arranged to form a flat table. Atop the table were arranged bundles of firewood in neat rows side by side.
The procession spread out around this altar, still keeping up the chant, which now rose to a higher note.
At a softly uttered signal the young men who were guarding the sacrifices hustled them forward. They promptly bound their wrists and ankles with leather thongs, holding them fast even as they trembled with anticipation. Spotless white lengths of cloth were brought and the two were stripped of their soiled wrappers and dressed up in them. Then they were lifted and lain side by side atop the altar, facing each other, their heads facing the direction in which the sun would shortly rise.
There were frightened looks in the eyes of the young sacrifices. Even atop the pile of wood they were yet to come to terms with what their fate was to be. They looked at each other with eyes communicating in silence, the one seeking to reassure the other that it would be alright; that they needn’t worry so long as they were together. This was regardless of the fact the two had only known each other the day before.
The Ingaabo-ya-Mlimu, chief priest of the tribe and intermediary with the god stepped forth, in his hand a small earthen pot. In the other hand he held a glowing coal in a broken piece of potshard. His grey-bearded face was grave, the grim look expressive of the equally grim task at hand. Only his thin lips moved as he chanted softly.
He walked around the altar twice, his head bowed, lips still mouthing the silent prayer. Then he raised the pot and adorned the heads of the sacrifices in oil and incense. He rubbed sandalwood and whale oil all over their bodies, his movements unhurried, meticulous, practiced.
After every inch of their bodies was covered he stepped back. From the folds of his goatskin wrapper he took out a little brown lump and raised it to his lips. He bit off a little piece and stood chewing, eyes squinted in concentration, savouring the tangy herb on his tongue. Slowly he walked around the altar, spitting some of the chewed residue at the pile as he uttered strange inducements at the unseen participants to the rite. When he came to the head of the altar he stood facing the east, a look of deep concentration now etched on his lined face. The chanting ceased.
As the men stood waiting a streak of blood red slowly stained the distant periphery from left to right. Gradually the magenta stain spread out, languid and haste less like a wisp of smoke unfurls on the evening breeze. As it lightened a hollow wind sounded from across the plains, as if some cavernous mouth in the stony hills was blowing softly.
Whereupon all the men prostrated themselves on the ground, burying their faces in the dirt. The howling wind gradually rose in magnitude and slowly a tremor started from underneath the altar and rumbled all over the flat hilltop.
Among the mountain creatures startled by the rumbling was the recluse, who paused from fording a sparkly stream and stood with his ear cocked, disturbed. Certain that it was another foray into his turf by the tribesmen he lowered the furry carcass he carried on his shoulder to the ground and made his way stealthily through the thorny scrub, his paces lengthened, hurrying to a high point from where he could observe the mountain. A look of intense hatred lurked in the depths of his piercing grey eyes, his bone-headed assegai extended before him like a lance.
The forces of the deity were so immense even the priest started trembling. The little pot he was holding fell from his grip and broke up on the stony ground, spilling its contents. An agonized expression spread over his twisted face as he fell to his knees, bony outstretched arms twitching, slobbery lips moving soundlessly. The prayer he was saying dried on his lips. Instead a thin sweat broke out all over his wiry body that was now convulsing as if in a fit.
When the rumbling finally ceased, the tribesmen one by one raised their heads. They rose to their feet cautiously and regarded the altar. There was a look of utter surprise in their eyes.
The sacrifices were gone.