Chapter One: In the beginning
The sky was bright blue and clear with not a cloud in sight from one expansive horizon to the other. The sun was halfway across the firmament and the mix of warm sun and gentle breeze had a soothing effect on the skin. Sounds of bleating goats carried on the wind, drifting over from amongst the hills, which gently moulded into one another like perfect domes stretching away into the distance, each module a tint of gray or green interspersed with scrubs, boulders and trees.
The domestic animals sounds were added to by the numerous birdcalls of the wild, the constant echoing coo of the wood pigeon; the larking chirp of the warblers and weavers. Insects completed the orchestra with an underlying buzz of excitement. The insistent chorus paused when the sound of a flute being played stretched its melody across the landscape. The first domesticated animal ambled into the glade and paused to tug at the new grass, tearing the roots from the ground in the destructive manner of the goat. The rest of the herd appeared and whenever a particularly savory patch was discovered by one of the animals, the other members of the group rushed over to nestle themselves into the spoils, nudging and pushing to get at the succulent fodder. The resonances of nature were overlaid with a tuneful musical melody fading with the chasing eddies of the wind from a blown flute. The tune stopped and in its place a voice pitched with youthfulness called to the senior lead goat.
“Come on Zeni, move on. Keep on moving. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
A youth came into view. He was tall with a muscular torso and strong limbed. His skin stretched tightly over his strapping frame, with well defined muscles moving freely
as the young man moved. His head was shaven closely although the re-growth of tight peppercorn-like hair had already begun to amass.
Over his shoulder, he carried an animal skin bundle containing a calabash of water, a small package of fresh food wrapped in the dark broad green leaf of the banana tree and a knobkerrie*, which was sticking out of the top. In his hands was the formerly played musical instrument, which he put back to his lips, to play another tune.
As the boy strolled along, the herd of goats moved with him, safe in their numbers and under the perceived protection of the herds’ boy. A little distance ahead of the procession, a small bush stirred, caused not by the movement of the wind but by a number of little bodies at its base, four boys were huddled in a conspiratorial pack.
“Ha, there’s Zusa. Look he doesn’t even know that we are here,” whispered one of the boys, his eyes alight with excitement. “I cannot believe he hasn’t seen us yet!”
“Shush,” hissed the leader of the group. He was not the leader by vote but just by the fact that he was the biggest out of the set, a full head taller than the rest of the gang and proportionally as wide.“Be quiet, we don’t want the enemy to know we are here,” he urged.
The group looked at each other questioningly at the mentioning of the word enemy; they exchanged puzzled glances, and looked back at the speaker who just ignored them, and they wisely decided to let the strange comment go. It would simply not be worth the effort taking into consideration the agitated state of the larger boy.
Earlier on during the day, the group of boys had been playing on the nearby riverbank but after a while the boredom of splashing through the shallows had struck home and they had decided on a new, more exciting game.
They had hoarded clumps of river clay, twice the size of their closed fists, which were piled at their feet. As a means of distraction, these lumps could be compressed onto the ends of their knobkerrie’s shaft and all it took was a simple flick of the wrist, and the semi-hardened clay would be propelled in the direction of the cast. It was an exciting game to play by any measure, and the anticipation was heightened by the understanding that a direct hit by one of these missiles on an unprotected part of the body could result in considerable discomfort and pain.
Just as they were about to start their boisterous game, the sound of Zusa’s flute floated past the place where they had assembled and instead of the group deciding to take each other on in battle they had changed their plans. Their attention shifted at the direct insistence of the older boy.
“It will be fun I promise” he said in support of his argument. The unsuspecting target continued to approach the huddled group in hiding, totally unaware of the menace ahead, followed calmly by the goat herd.
The lead goat ambled on, tugging at grass roots as he passed, delightfully ignorant of the silent gathering ahead. It was only after a few more steps that his natural instincts eventually sensed that something was amiss and he froze in alarm. His legs stiff, he held his head still with only his ears twitching and twirling in an attempt to determine the seriousness and direction of the threat.
Zusa turned at this time to call the animal again and noticed that the whole herd had followed the fearful stance of the herd leader and that they had all paused apprehensively.
Zusa dropped the flute to his feet, the wooden musical instrument clattering against a stone and in a puff of dust, the fine power sticking to the wet mouth piece as a darkened patch. He slowly reached across his shoulder for his fighting stick, not wanting to spook the unknown threat into an early action before he could ready himself. His heart raced at the sudden tension and sweat burst across his forehead. Controlling his breath, he allowed his eyes to move from side to side, trusting his peripheral vision to sense any motion and attempting to locate the source of the danger.
Suddenly there was a whirl and buzz in the air, like a swarm of bees, as the ambush party flicked their clay projectiles at their quarry.
“Attack!” the group of boys screamed at the top of their lungs as they rose as one and rushed towards their target, their battle cries increasing in intensity. Their missiles were a blur in the dazzling sky with three of the shots going wide of their intended target. Zusa reacted in terror at the attack, his eyes not believing what was happening before him. He jumped back in alarm, his mind reeling and confused at the shock of what was going on. One of the clay balls caught the unfortunate herd boy on the side of his head, felling him with the impact and he dropped to the ground, his lanky body lying flat in the dust.
“Charge, we have got him!” the attacking groups leader shouted as the gang ran forward. Their surprise advance scattered the docile heard in all directions, with their once gentle bleats changing into squeals of panic and fear. “Yaaaaa!” the raiders cried as they ran up to where the prone form of Zusa lay on the ground. Three of the boys pulled up short as they saw Zusa begin to stir and watched as the injured boy made a vain attempt to get to his feet. The group’s leader, Pimi, continued to run in from his position rear of his attacking force and just as Zusa managed to sit up, he kicked the dazed boy in the chest causing Zusa to fall to the ground again, clutching his side in protection, a scream of pain escaping from his mouth.
“Pimi!” shouted one of the other boys. “What are doing? You are really going to hurt him!”
“Shut up,” Pimi snarled in response, spittle flying from his mouth with the naked aggression. “He is the enemy! We stalked him, attacked and we have beaten him. What’s wrong with you? You can’t just give up!”
There was a wild, angered look on his face, his eyes open wide and his saliva drying as white flecks on his lips, but the unadulterated look of triumph was still clear for those around his to see.
His three colleagues took an involuntary step backwards at the cruel passion of the shouted statement, their eyes darting between the large bulk of Pimi and the prone form of Zusa stretched out on the dry ground.
"We, we, we did not want to hurt him, Pimi, we were just playing a game," one of the others pleaded in a stutter. "Look, he is bleeding."
A bright welt of blood had stained the side of Zusa's face, vivid scarlet at the wound, turning to a dark purple as it ran onto his dust-covered face.
"What is wrong with you all? Why are you standing back?" Pimi shouted. "We got him!" He walked toward his audience, ignoring his victim on the ground, his arms outstretched in question.
Given respite, while Pimi argued with his men-in-arms, the prone lad managed to regain a resemblance of his senses and gradually an understanding of the situation he found himself in. His mouth was dry from fright and the sudden increase in adrenaline pumping through his body. The fine dust which filled the air around him irritated his nostrils and caught in the back of his throat. He sneezed and his head ached with the effort.
Looking around he realised that the sound he had made had been ignored by his attackers. Shaking his head, he tried to get to his feet; pulling himself semi-erect, he felt dizzy and stumbled once again to his knees. Pausing for a few more moments, he made another attempt and this time he was able to stand and remain upright, although wobbly, he looked around. He was confused and the pain of his open head wound compounded the effect, his mind spun as he grappled to understand the situation. His belongings had been scattered in the short melee, the gourd of water was smashed into the ground, its liquid drained into the parched soil, and his food had been crushed under foot.
Crucially, he noticed that his fighting stick had been knocked over to one side of the clearing they were in but it was just beyond his immediate grasp.
Whilst the exchange of words between the gang members went on, Zusa's senses gradually restored. On face value, he realised that Pimi, a local bully from their younger days, had banded together with a small group of boys from the surrounding kraals and that they had laid a trap for him. He truly accepted the danger he was in and he drew a number of long, deep breaths in an attempt to gain control of the fear that gripped his heart. Obviously, from the reaction of the rest of the group, what had started out as a few hours of fun had taken a drastic turn as Pimi had used the opportunity to gain a little revenge on Zusa.
The retribution was based on a distant feud between their families. The grudge going back as far as their fathers younger days, who had competed for the attention of a woman. Zusa's father had eventually won her over and married her. A strange thing for a young boy to be angry about especially, my mother, as the fathers had but the youthful argument aside many years ago. Zusa thought to himself.
With the verbal exchange heating up, Pimi knew that he had lost the element of surprise and that his "army" was wavering in its support for him. Even as he looked at them, he could see their courage evaporating. He knew he did not have long to maintain the initiative over Zusa and putting the thought of his rebellious men aside, he looked around. His mind was set for the settling of old scores, although its root cause had been handed down from father to son, based on something which had occurred before he was born. The feeling of revenge was sweet and the power and control he had over the situation filled his mind to distraction.
From the corner of his eye, he sensed a movement and his heart skipped a beat; turning on his heels he saw Zusa launch himself at his discarded knobkerrie which was about ten paces away and behind the position where he had been knocked to the ground.
With a few quick strides, Zusa threw himself forward into a roll, which resulted in him finding his fighting stick at his feet, without having to stoop for it, he managed to pick up the weapon in an easy flowing motion and rolled away again, just as Pimi threw his own stick at the spot where Zusa would have been if he had decided to stop before his second acrobatic manoeuvre.
Getting to his feet Zusa turned to faced Pimi who had used the few seconds available to him to counter the move by striding forward in an attempt to retrieve his
thrown stick. His large frame, lacking any grace or athletic prowess, wobbled as he moved.
Realising what Pimi was going to do, Zusa moved as quickly as he could in an attempt to cut his attacker off from the discarded weapon but his adversary arrived two paces ahead of him and Pimi managed to pick it up and, with a renewed look of accomplishment on his face, he waved the fighting stick in the air in triumph. As they faced each other there was a lull in their movements and both boys used the time to take stock of the situation. The physical difference between the two rivals was clearly apparent.
Zusa was tall and lean with a well-defined muscle structure, whereas Pimi although almost as tall, was slightly larger in build. His shoulder slumped inwards and a layer of fat made him appear more heavy set and much bigger.
The waiting game over, the opponents crouched slightly and began to circle each other in a clockwise direction. The dust was stirred into the air to knee height; their arms outstretched with their knobkerries held vertically, the rounded heads just over the level of their shoulders.
Pimi attacked first and lunged forward aiming his stick at Zusa's head. Having to duck out of the way, Zusa inadvertently stepped into the radius of danger and Pimi swung his knobkerrie in a reverse direction and managed to catch Zusa on the right side his rib cage with a wet smacking sound, bruising the bone structure and causing an immediate darkening to the skin. The injured boy fell away and back out of the circle of danger and a sharp shout of pain escaped from his mouth. Zusa pressed his injured side briefly with his free hand but realising that he was far from being safe he fell back into a defensive stance, regaining eye contact with his foe. Harsh breaths were expelled from their mouths as the tension and fear mounted at the jousting.
A sly smile reached Pimi's lips and his eyes glinted as he noticed Zusa favouring his right side. His bravado was strengthened by the apparent discomfort of his enemy.
Pausing for a moment, Pimi straightened fully up, looked left and right then changed the direction of the rotation. Zusa immediately realised with the change in motion he was going to be attacked on the weaker side, where he had been injured in the opening gambit. His concern for the outcome was growing by the second.
The next attack came just as he had expected. However, for Pimi to get to Zusa's injured side he had to use a slower swing followed by a straight feint for the head, which led to a reversed downward strike re-aimed at Zusa's bruised ribs.
Sensing this, Zusa managed to block the strike, sliding his fighting stick the length of Pimi's weapon and catching his assailant's knuckles with a crack making Pimi drop it, and pull his hand to his chest in pure agony accompanied with a loud cry of pain. In a quick follow-up, Zusa kicked the fallen instrument further away, leaving the bully unarmed and defenceless.
Pimi stared in disbelief at how quickly the situation had changed. His initial thought of a quick win faded and his bravery evaporated just as the water spilt from Zusa's broken water bottle was disappearing in the heat of the day. What had started out as an easy target and where he had had the upper hand, had now swung completely around and his opponent was now in full control of the situation. His colleagues, who had gathered at a distance to observe the fight, looked on in disbelief at the sudden turn in events, scared for their own safety.
"Zusa, Shamwari, my friend," Pimi said. "You know we were only playing around with you." His voice a high pitched whine and his sentence ended in a croak as his mouth dried in fear. “It was a game that’s all!”
Zusa didn’t reply straight way, he just looked at his foe. His mind filled with turmoil and disbelief.
"What?" Zusa said, in an even toned voice, full of incredulity at the easy statement and the obvious attempt by Pimi to try and talk his way out of the situation. Zusa spoke again "Oh, now I understand." He paused as if in thought. "Do you mean like last summer when you left me tied to a tree for the whole day to let the fire ants pinch at my skin until I bled, hey? Or was it like the time you pushed me into the Takwane River and I was swept downstream and only managed to save myself by grabbing on to an overhanging tree trunk?" He looked straight back at his foe holding the gaze until Pimi looked away and said, “It looks like this is not the way you expected your game to turn out isn’t it?” he paused. “I am tired of being your source of entertainment Pimi and it has to end here and now!”
Pimi nervously shuffled his feet, his eyes darting from left to right, looking for an avenue of escape. The tension between the two had reached a peak; both boys knew that now was the time to settle this for the last time.
The silence hung between the two for a few heartbeats, when in interruption, the plaintiff cry of a goat rose above the ambient noise. The sad bleat repeated, but this time it carried a sense of desperation as it increased in pitch and length. Its lonely sound was followed by a blood-curdling howl- a wild hollow scream ¬tapering off into a rasping gasp. It was a sound of the wild - a sound which brought the hairs on one's body to stand erect in fright.
"Mbada!" shouted one of the three bystanders, his voice full of terror at the sudden and very real danger.
"Mbada!" the other two and Pimi screamed in chorus and in unified panic. As one they broke into a sprint and scattered in all directions in search of safety.
The goat cried again, this time more feebly as if sensing its own demise. A clatter of hooves announced that the rest of the herd had also scattered at the harsh sound, disturbing stones and pebbles, which marked their desperate escape.
Leopard. Zusa immediately knew and the panic that had gripped the other young men seized his own heart. His first instinct was also to run, however, his next was, my father's goats. I am responsible for their safety, I can’t run away. Sweat burst across his forehead, diluting the blood oozing from the head wound and he reached up to wipe it away, the act stretching his stomach muscles which flared, reminding him of his other injury. It’s no good me waiting here, He thought to himself, they are my charge and I have to do something to protect them. He steeled himself for what he knew he had to do.
Without any more uncertainty, Zusa took a firm hold of his knobkerrie, turned away from the direction in which Pimi and his fellow gang members had fled and moved towards two large boulders about twenty paces away from where the chilling sounds were emanating. The natural gully toward the rocks formed a grass¬covered pathway. This belt of fresh fodder must have been the temptation which had caused the troubled goat to move away from the safety of the herd and while Zusa had been distracted with his fight with Pimi.
Moving towards the gap, Zusa again wiped the dripping blood from his head wound away from his eyes, leaving his hand stained red. His mouth was dry from the rush of adrenaline caused by the need to defend him¬self a short while ago and the more urgent need to defend his charge, the goats herd, against a far more dangerous, aggressive and unpredictable enemy.
The wild scream sounded again, trailing off into the familiar hollow growl of the leopard, the most dangerous to man of all the wild cats.
The leopard's natural prey was the numerous baboon found amongst the rocky outcrops of the area. Therefore they were most skilled at attacking the human form.
After stalking their quarry, leopards would spring, digging their front claws and wide fang-lined jaws into the animal's head whilst their back clawed feet tore at the stomach of the prey eviscerating the abdominal cavity, tearing the entrails from the body in bloody and irreparable strands. Normally the cranium would be cracked open by the powerful jaws whilst the scalp was torn from the skull, a painful but quick death.
The opening between the rocks opened into a cul-de-sac: the two boulders at the entrance stretched above Zusa's head while a number of huge stones, which had fallen at angles across each other, blocked the far end of the enclosure. At the base of this natural structure, a small refuge had been formed and it was where the young goat had been able to scramble once it realised its life was in peril. At the entrance to the safe haven the leopard was stretched out on its belly, down on one shoulder, its forearm stretched into the mouth of the cave trying to snare the trapped kid goat with its sharp claws.
Zusa bent over on the move, picked up a large rounded stone and, without any hesitation, threw it with all his might at the prone feline.
Although his target was intent on its prey the leopard sensed the movement behind itself or it may have heard the grunt that escaped Zusa's lips with the effort of the throw, and it was already retracting itself from the hollow as the stone landed with a thud on its right back paw. With a scream of anger and pain the animal spun on its axis to face the new danger.
It went down on its haunches, front legs outstretched, its hind legs coiled like springs. The leopard stared back with a hiss, its mouth wide open, rich red in colour, and lined with sharp fangs, its pale yellow eyes unblinking and penetrating. The animal unleashed itself at Zusa, who in turn skidded to a defensive halt.
Instead of jumping directly at the boy, the leopard sprang to one side and sprinted up and against the enclosing wall of the rocky area.
This brought the cat to the height of Zusa's shoulder as it curved around his position and, at the last moment, leapt at his form in the age-old natural rhythm of the kill. Zusa moved to the opposite side from where the animal was attacking, wildly swinging his fighting stick.
Halfway through the jump the leopard reached out and dragged its left paw across Zusa's shoulder tearing at the skin, its claws digging deeper, causing ruts in the flesh and muscles which instantly filled with blood. As if in a co-ordinated dance move, the knobkerrie continued in its arc
and connected solidly with the flying animal's shoulder with a crunch of splintering bone. The leopard screamed and instead of landing with the normal grace of a cat it landed in a tumbling heap, its front leg giving away causing it to somersault, throwing up dust, which irritated its eyes and filled its mouth with the fine powder.
In a bout of pain Zusa fell to one knee. His weapon dropped to the ground at his feet as he gripped his severely injured shoulder with his right hand, blood springing from between his fingers, his lungs gasping at the pain and exertion.
He realised that he was in a far more serious situation than he had been a short time ago with Pimi. As soon as the leopard had turned back on him he knew he was in a fight for his life. The thought of a painful death deadened his senses and he knew that he might not live past the encounter. Thoughts of his parents, that he might never see them again, briefly brought to his eyes tears of frustration and sorrow. Annoyed with himself at the sense of self-pity, he steeled himself for what might be the last round with the wild cat.
Panting heavily the leopard managed to recover from its tumble and withdrew a few paces back whilst facing the young man and finally it crouched in a defensive stance.
After a few moments the animal slowly rose to its feet favouring its injured front shoulder and rear paw. Taking an unsteady step forward, its head unmoving, slunk below the height of its hunched shoulders, its eyes unblinking, staring, assessing its target.
The throbbing of his wound had caused Zusa to lose his concentration and hence his contact with the beast and with a start, he realised that he was also unarmed. He looked around and found his weapon just within arm's reach from where he was kneeling. Beyond that was the crouched form of the leopard. He forced his hand away from his wound and gripped the staff of the fallen knobkerrie. He found his bloodstained fingers too slippery to maintain a firm grip on the weapons shaft. He released the weapon again, rubbed his hand in the talcum powder-like dust to absorb the fluid and then re-gripped the fighting stick more firmly. All the while he maintained eye-to-eye contact with the leopard knowing that to lose this connection at this stage would make the animal attack, feeling that it had overawed its enemy. Don’t just wait here to die, attack. He thought to himself. Gritting his teeth Zusa leapt forward with a loud shout.
The wild cat, taken by surprise, turned slightly as if to flee but changed its mind as it realised that there was no escape; the surrounding boulders hemming it in. It moved back into its poised position. Rising up on its haunches it reached out flaying with its one good paw. Zusa broke through this blocking defence and with another swing brought the rounded head of the fighting stick against the animal's skull.
The leopard fell into a heap at Zusa's feet, its golden furred head crushed to the bone.
Swaying, Zusa looked around dazed. Slowly he let the fighting stick fall from his hand. Moving his head made him dizzy and his vision blurred. It's getting dark, he thought. But it can't be. It is still midday! With his head spinning, he collapsed to his knees, wobbling for a few seconds before he fell onto his face next to the kill. The scent of the wild animal's fur, the fresh blood and the dry dust filled his nostrils because his sense of smell became heightened as his other natural senses of sight and sound faded with the lost of blood.
The background noises of the wild bush were echoing in his ears and in the distance he could just hear loud voices raised in alarm. Who were they? Were they coming to his rescue?
His eyesight began to grey over and his last clear vision was that of the stricken goat emerging from its safe haven. After a tentative look around it began tugging at the bright grass, which had been the temptation that got it into trouble in the first place. There was a last urgent sound of bare feet padding on the ground behind him and a pair of strong hands lifted him, leaving the imprint of his body in the sandy soil; its impression stained with his blood.
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