Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle: Killers Kraal Part 3 (of 4)

SHE AWOKE with sunlight in her eyes. It came through a mesh of boughs and palm leaves which had been woven into a flimsy shelter without sides. No bounds restricted her first tentative movements, and she sat up. A man stood looking down at her, but the seived sunlight stabbed at her eyes like knife points. She could see nothing clearly, and felt dizzy. There was the sound of voices and movement all around her; and, as her vision cleared, her eyes came to focus on the man.
He was a squat, flat-featured warrior, certainly not a Kobi. His spine was as straight as the spear he held in his hand. He wore a headdress of egrets' feathers and beaded bands crossed his deep chest to support a kind of kilt and a belt with a knife with a long, curved blade thrust into it. Muscles rippled under his black skin as he lifted his hand in salute, and she thought that his eyes held a worried look.
"I know you, Sheena!" he said in a voice that gave a queer, purring sound to the Bantu words.
She did not answer at once, but looked around the camp. At a glance she saw that she was in the same glade where they had camped the night before. Twenty, or more, black, oval shields lay on the grass, long spears thrust into the ground beside them. In the shadows there was the glint of light on copper bangles where their owners—all squat, heavily muscled warriors—squatted and talked in voices over their morning meal. Rick and Ekoti sat by the tree, hemmed in by a half-dozen warriors with spears held at the ready. Her eyes came to rest on Rick, lingered on his face until he looked up and grinned, and then came back to the man before her. The worried look had become more pronounced during her long silence, and he said:
"I am Sibitane, induna of the Black Shields. And I ask pardon for the violence that has been done to you. The man who struck the blow will strike no more."
"Who is your chief?" she asked coldly.
The induna's expression became puzzled.
"Yamo Galagi," he told her.
"What does he want with me?"
Sibitane's puzzlement deepened, and he answered with a question: "Have you not heard my master's drum, Mateyenda?"
"Truly, I have heard it."
"Then it must be known to you, Daughter of Ebid Ela, that Yamo Galagi is re-born, and that the day of his election to the seat of his fathers is at hand. Also, it must be known to you that all hear and obey his drum. All the young men of the Abamas gather at Massumba. Soon their numbers will be as many—"
"This I know," the Jungle Queen interposed with a faint smile. "But I do not know this man who calls himself Yamo Galagi re-born. And I do not believe that the dead are re-born. I think that your master is a great liar, Captain of the Black Shields!"
Sibitane gasped, and shock and horror were stamped on his flat features. He edged back from the Jungle Queen as if he expected to see her blasted On the spot. But as nothing happened he made a slow recovery, gulped and said:
"Aie, it must be that you wish to test my loyalty. Yes, yes, I see that it must be so!" he reassured himself. "The Mateyenda knows that none but those in whose veins the blood-royal flows dare beat Yamo Galagi's drum, or surely their hands would shrivel and become like a dead monkey's hands. But the spirit of Yamo Galagi has taken possession of my master's body. He makes the drum talk and no harm has come to him, as you will soon see, Mateyenda"
Sheena's smile was dangerous. "So," she said, "you have come to take me to Massumba. Perhaps it is in your mind to bind me also, Sibitane?"
"No, no!" protested the induna, and looked shocked again. "It is my master's will that you be treated with all the honor due to the Mateyenda of Lunda."
"To send his servants to attack my camp is a strange way to show honor, Sibitane?"
Inward distress showed on the induna's face. "The fault is mine, Mateyenda. I thought to take you without a fight. But that fool—"
"Why did you come as an enemy in the night?" Sheena demanded.
He spread his hands in a despairing gesture. "Mateyemda," he said, "I am a simple captain of an impi. The Great Ones speak, I obey. I cannot tell what was in my master's mind. I only know that he sent men into your country to bring you to Massumba. But you slew three of them, and when he heard of it he was very angry. Then he sent me." He shook his head. "I hope that you will not make trouble for me because of what that fool—"
And just then the rumble of Yamo Galagi's great drum came quivering over the tree tops. It had been silent for two days, and at its first booming notes the Jungle Queen's poise became tense. Her head was lifted and turned toward the mountains, her hands were tightly clenched at her side and her blue eyes took fire as her pulse beat quickened to the challenge of the drum. It would not be easy to deal with this man who called himself the Galagi re-born. It was a powerful hand that had reached out from those mountains to pluck her out of her own jungles, and it was a cunning brain that had so cleverly combined the traditions of her people and their deep-rooted superstitions. By merely beating a drum he had broken Ekoti's authority, and had given it to the witchdoctors who would now prey upon the fears of her people, like the spiritual buzzards they were! Worse, she herself was now entangled in his subtle web of lies. She must go to Massumba; because as the Abamas saw it, she was the Mateyenda and it was her right and her duty to affirm or deny this new-born Galagi's claim to the kingship of, all the Abama clans.
And what did he want of her? Did he see in her, the foster-daughter of Ebid Ela who had once possessed the king-making power, a useful tool? Oh yes doubtless he thought that he could bend her to his will. Ah, but he would soon learn that between them it was war to the knife and the knife to the hilt!
A sharp command from Sibitane broke in on her racing thoughts. One the Kalunda warriors ran to a small drum which stood near her shelter. As the voice of the big drum died in quivering echos, the induna spoke to the drummer in a dialect unknown to Sheena. And then the hollow voice of the slotted log repeated his words under the measured beat of the drummer's sticks.
When silence came to the glade again Sibitane said: "My master grows impatient, Mateyenda. If it pleases you I will give the order to march."
Sheena's eyes came to rest on Rick and were clouded with thought. "I am eager to look upon the face of your master," she said, after a long pause, "but I do not think that it will please him if a white man sees so many warriors gathered at Massumba. What the young Bwana does not see he cannot tell the Portuguesa."
The induna's eyes jumped, and his hand tightened on the shaft of his spear. "True!" he breathed.
Sheena gave him a dazzling smile. "I have forgotten what happened last night, Sibitane" she said.
A look of infinite relief came to the induna's face. "Mateyenda," he said warmly, "I am your true and faithful servant!"
Again Sheena's eyes came to rest on Rick, and she said: "The Abama chief has been bitten by a snake, and it will be good for him to return to his own village. Make a litter for him, Sibitane, and let six of your warriors go with him. The white Bwana knows nothing, so let him go with Ekoti. But it may be," she added, and a gleam of humor changed her eyes, "that the Bwana will not want to go. If you do not want trouble, seize him quickly and bind him."
"I hear and obey!" Sibitane turned and shouted guttural orders at the men guarding Rick and Ekoti. There was a moment of hesitation then, as one man, they dropped their spears and flung themselves upon Rick.
The attack was so swift and unexpected that Rick was flat on his back and pinned down before he had a chance to strike a blow. Ekoti let out a bellow of surprise and rage and made a grab at a spear one of the guards had dropped. But a sharp word from Sheena checked him, and he flopped back against the tree, his face almost comical in its expression of complete bewilderment. In a matter of minutes Rick was utterly helpless, bound hand and foot. Sheena glided over and stood looking down into his angry eyes.
"You have nothing to fear," she told him. "There is much that you cannot understand. I do this, because I know that you would follow me to your death. So, do not be angry."
"You—you—" His rage choked him, and his face became charged with blood as he strained at his bonds. Then words came crackling from between his white lips. They were strange, harsh-sounding words, but his blazing eyes and vehemence made her feel the sting of them. She knew that she had hurt him deeply, slashed his pride, and was suddenly ashamed. She did not want him to think so badly of her; and, thinking to sooth him, she favored him with the sweetest of her smiles and said softly:
"Perchance we will meet again at the Abama village soon." But her words did not have the desired effect, indeed it only served to increase his rage.
"We'll meet again," he gasped. "And when we do you'll pay for this, and it won't be in peanuts you—you she-devil!"
"She-devil!" she echoed. She felt her own anger rising to match his. "Did I ask you to come back?" she cried passionately. "No, I did not. But I see how it is with you. I am she-devil because you cannot have your way with me. Now, I tell you, if you wait for me at the Abama village, in very truth it will be a she-devil who'll come to meet you there!" And with that she turned and ran swiftly across the glade to where Sibitane was marshalling his men. She went flashing past the induna. He stared after her for a time, then shouted an order and, a moment later, the impi moved out of the glade in compact formation on the heels of the Jungle Queen.
The jungle was windless, sunless and vociferous, its stridence compounded of the rasping of minute insects, the low moan of the meat-hunters and the queer monkey-whinings which came out of the steaming green. This stretch of jungle was the strongest Sheena ever had seen. It would have taken the impi many days to cut a path through it, but for the fact that a herd of elephants was moving in the same general direction. The herd was headed for the mountains where the young bamboo shoots were now succulent and green, and their going was irresistible, the path they trampled through the tangled mass of bamboos and spikey vines as broad and as firm underfoot as a village road.
On the second day of the trek they came out into a scorching glare that was dazzling after the semi-dark of the forest, searing after its coolness. The country they traversed now was flat, but with walls of shattered rock picturing the chaos as it was left after the rending of some bygone upheaval. The land did not heave and roll itself up into foothills as they approached the Buffalo Mountain, for in this weird upland country the mountains grew out of the veldt like gigantic anthills. Soon they were marching through native fields, neglected and irregular gardens with the flowering vine of the calabash trailing everywhere.
Impatient of delay, Sibitane swung his impi wide of a meager-looking village—the only one they had seen so far—but the people came running out with offerings of milk and food. There was much shouting and laughter. And yapping dogs and naked children eager for another glimpse of the strange golden-haired woman and her ape still raced on their flanks long after the village was hiddon by the cloud of dust rising from under the feet of the fast-moving impi.
They were marching in the shadow of the cone-shaped mountains before sundown, and Massumba loomed black against the skyline. One of the cones looked as if it had been sheared off close to the base to form the foundation of the old, Lunda stronghold which huddled on top of it. The caravan road swept around it, but it was overgrown with grass and vines and no longer resounded to the tramp of marching feet. Yet the citadel seemed to be watching for the caravans richly laden with tribute and the spoils of successful war, not knowing that they were no more. The crumbling walls looked grim, life-less—or living only in the mind of the false Yamo Galagi who dreamed of power and glory amid vine-covered ruins.
A spiral path, which slaves had crudely torn from the mass of sandstone, with rocks dropping away in huge, broken steps led steeply up to the walled plateau. At one point there was a refuse dump, and here the rock ledges were white with the guana of carrion birds, and lank, half-starved dogs snarled and fought over the offal of an unclean people and their animals.
And Sheena thought that if there was a place in Africa where stench reached its highest magnitude, the distinction must belong to Massumba, the once proud capital of Lunda.
A broken-down gate gave into a narrow lane between square, thatched houses. People came to stare in the doorways, shouting and pointing. The tumult grew and died in passing, and as they went Sibitane's Impi melted into the cross lanes, each man making his way to his own house. Sheena and the induna were alone when they came out into an open square.
Houses enclosed it, and their flat, contiguous roofs supported crumbling ramparts of sun-baked mud and wattle. At one time the whole extensive area had been covered by a roof, but fire had destroyed; for the stumps of charred pillars made an aisle across to a broad, flight of steps which led up to a wide terrace of stone and a squat, square tower. This Sheena guessed was the high seat of the Galagi, and, as seen from across the compound as the light changed with the angle of the sun and shadowed out its sharp, square lines, its windows locked like eye-sockets, its square doorway like a black maw, and the whole became strongly suggestive of a human skull.
In silence Sibitane led her across the compound and up the steep flight of steps. The cavernous mouth yawned before them, and they stepped into the half-light of the tower's interior. A few paces beyond the entrance Sibitane stopped outside a doorway curtained by a mat of woven grass.
"Wait," he said in a hushed voice, and then, bending almost double, ducked through the curtain. Time passed while from within came the low mutter of voices. At long last Sibitane's arm swept aside the curtain, and Sheena stepped into a chamber fragrant with the scent of burning incense.
A shaft of sunlight streamed in through a high, round window and, bathed in its golden glare, the Galagi sat cross-legged on a kind of dais under the symbol of African royalty—a big umbrella of stripped cloth fringed with red and yellow tassels.

E WORE a tight-fitting cap of leopard skin, with a long stem attached to it which sprouted a spray of white feathers like the papyrus reed. His robes, encrusted with bead-work, were voluminous, completely covering his person, but his heavy jowls, loose mouth, and the pudgy hand he raised to check her closer approach suggested a bulky man of middle age. At his feet sat a woman, a very old woman. Her withered features showed darkly under the veil of gauzy white which covered her from head to foot, and her eyes seemed to burn through it as she leaned forward to peer into the Jungle Queen's face. The Galagi was the first to speak:
"By the gods, Sibitane, you did not lie!" he exclaimed in a high-pitched, sibilant voice. And the greedy vitality of his stare made Sheena feel as if something were crawling all over her. His loose mouth twisted into a repulsive smile as he went on: "Mateyenda, when I was first told of your beauty I could not believe the eyes of my servants. Now I cannot believe my own!"
His leer whetted Sheena's hostility. Her smile was frankly contemptuous. "When I first heard that the Galagi was re-born," she retorted, "I did not believe my ears. And now my eyes are witness to the greatness of the lie."
His teeth came together with a sharp click, and his heavy-lidded eyes opened wide to fasten on her face in a cold glare. "Speak such words once again," he said with soft menace, "and I will have the tongue torn from your mouth!"
The Jungle Queen's laugh was soft, taunting. She said: "Soon all the Abama clans will be gathered here, and I wonder what they will do when they call upon their Mateyenda for council—and find that she has no tongue to council them with."
"They will do nothing!" his voice rose to a bellow. "My drum will counsel them, and they will obey!" But his bluster was a little uncertain, his eyes uneasy. And Sheena, seeing the fear in him, was quick to take advantage of it.
"If you dare to harm me," she said calmly, "the war-cry of the Abamas will shout down your drum. It will shake this ruin, and bring the walls down upon your head. Do you think that I would have come here alone, if I did not know this?"
The question, brought a scowl to his face, but before he could answer a black, claw-like hand came from under the bundle of gauze at his feet to touch his knee. He bent his head, and the pair consulted in whispers for some time. Then the old woman spoke, and the sound of her voice was like the crackling of dry leaves underfoot.
"Why do you provoke my son's anger, Mateyenda?" she asked "Why do you deny his birth right?"
The Jungle Queen stood calm and serene, balancing an answer in her mind; then: "Because I see nothing but evil and war in his heart. He would make slaves of the Abamas to rebuild these old walls. He would be a great king, but neither his heart nor his mind is strong enough to rule wisely."
The Galagi's mouth was ugly, his eyes blazing. But before he could give vent to the rage that was in him the old woman's hand touched his knee again, and she said sharply:
"Peace, my son! Leave us—you too, Sibitane."
The son got to his feet, and Sheena saw that his bigness was not the bigness of fat but of strength. He stood glaring at her for a moment, a tic jerking at one corner of his mouth, then without a word he left the chamber by a dcor behind the dais. Sibitane salaamed with cupped hands first to the old woman, then to Sheena, and quickly effaced himself.
As they vanished from sight the old woman uttered a cackling laugh. "Men are fools," she said, "always pawing the dust and bellowing like young bulls when there are women about!" She removed the veil from her head, reveiling, a death's head with skin like ripples of mud in a dry stream bed. Only her eyes seemed to be alive—strange black eyes, bright with intelligence. Looking into them Sheena felt that somewhere she had seen this old hag before.
"Come closer, Mateyenda," the other invited. "We can talk without anger." Then as Sheena came to sit beside her on the dais the old woman lifted a knotted stick which was close at hand and struck the floor with it.
"The earth and I—we are very old!" she said. And Sheena's eyes opened wide with astonishment. The old woman chuckled, well pleased with the effect of her words, then:
“You wonder how I know the favorite saying of Ebid Ela, Mateyenda? Well, it was our mother's before we were born. Oh yes, we were sisters, Ebid Ela and I. Our mother was Mateyenda in the old days, and she lived in this tower and she had many children. But of all who were with us then, dancing up and down in the moonlight or the sunlight, I alone remain. The others long since lie sleeping. Truly, I am Neda, once chief wife of Yamo Galagi, and my son is his son. What do you say now, Foster-daughter-of-Ebid Ela?"
Sheena's smile was frankly unbelieving. She said: "Any Kalunda mother might claim the same for her son."
"True!" the old woman admitted with a toothless grimace that was only remotely related to a smile. "But would such a Woman know the secret burial place of Yamo Galagi? Would her son dare to beat my husband's drum? Would he know the fetish-code which even Ebid Ela did not teach you? Who, I say, but the chief wife of Yamo Galagi would know these things?"
Sheena was silent. There was much food for thought here. Who, indeed would know these things but one born of the royal house of Lunda? The old woman's claims could not be silenced by a simple denial. Not while Galagi's drum shouted them into the ears of all the Abamas. But why had the drum been silent for so long?
"If this thing be so," she asked, "why did you not make it known to the Abamas long since?"
Old Neda spat on the floor, and her eyes came alight with a sudden flame of anger. "Ask that of the Portuguesa!" she hissed. "My son was a mere stripling when his father fell at Sao Salvador. But they feared the blood in his veins, and they hunted us down like wild dogs. For a long time they could not catch us but in the end they captured him and sent him to the coast to work in the mines. I lived in a hut near that place. I was not an old woman then, but when they let my son go I was as you see me now."
"But Galagi had many sons," Sheena said dubiously.
"Ah, true! But they were bad times then. Brother slew brother in the struggle for their father's seat. As I have said, of the royal house of Lunda only my son and I are left. We have heen so long away that we come back to our own country as strangers. Few there are who know us for what we are. But when all the Abamas are gathered here my son will show his face to them, the Galagi's drum will speak for him, and they will know him as the Yamo Galagi re-born. Now, I ask you again, why do you deny my son's right? Is there no pity in your heart for the sister of Ebid Ela?"
Again,the Jungle Queen was silent for a long time. Her clear mind had already grasped the fact that the so called Galagi was a mere tool in his mother's grasping hands, so like vultures' tallons. She saw all the covetous dreams, and all the hate and lust for vengence hidden behind Neda's cunning appeal to her woman's instincts, and she was undeceived. She said coldly:
"I will not deny your son's birth, and when the Abama clans are gathered I will not counsel them to join his impis. I will not do so because I think you will make slave-hunters of them. Also, I know that the Portuguesa will soon hear of your plans. They will send soldiers—"
The old woman's stick struck the floor sharply, and she thrust her face close to Sheena's and hissed: "How will the Portuguesa know? Who will tell—ah, the young white Bwana—he is a spy for the Portuguesa!"
"No!" The Jungle Queen jumped to her feet, swiftly apprehensive. Then realizing that she had betrayed herself, she tried to hide her concern for Rick behind a depreciative smile. But it was transparent, and the old hag demanded:
"What is he then? What is he to you?"
"He is nothing," Sheena shrugged. "I have sent him away—"
"Ah, you think nothing of him then? Ho, ho, but when my son's men attacked him you slew three of them? How is this ?"
"He is a hunter," Sheena countered, quickly. "We gave him permission to hunt ivory in our country. Besides, the Abamas are at peace and will not allow strangers to make war in their country."
"So-o-o!" Her strange eyes seemed to punch into Sheena's brain, and on clean through the back of her skull. And then a gleam of satisfaction came into them, and her cackling laughter filled the chamber.
"You lie, Foster-daughter-of-Ebid Ela!" she said, as soon as she had caught her breath. "I see the young Bwana's image in your heart—ho, ho, it is a good thing to know!" Then she struck the floor with her stick, shouting for Sibitane at the same time. When the induna came in and salaamed, she folded her hands on her stick, rested her chin on them, and considered Sheena with a malevolent glint in her eyes.
"The Mateyenda has traveled far, Sibitane," she said at length, "and she wants to sleep. Conduct her to her chamber." Then as Sheena turned to follow the induna she added: "You will have company to your liking soon, Mateyenda."
As the grass curtain fell rustling behind them the Galagi came from behind the dias. He threw a look full of hate at the still moving curtains and said:
"A knife in the heart, or a little calabar bean in her food would rid us of all this trouble quickly, my mother."
Neda's stick tapped the stone floor impatiently. "She has power over the Abamas, my son. They will obey her and—"
"Obey her!" He spat on the ground, and then struck his chest with his fist. "I am the Galagi. It is I they should obey!"
"True! And you will be a great man soon, my son," she told him soothingly. "But you are a small man now, a king without slaves, and with but one impi to do his bidding. The Abamas were your father's strength and shield, and they will be yours if you are patient and listen to me. We need this white Mateyenda's power to win over the Abama clans, and when that is done they will salute you as their king."
His eyes came aglow, and he seemed to swell visibly. In his mind's eye he saw all the Abama warriors marshalled in the great square—Black Shields and White Shields, white and black plumes tossing in the wind; saw the sun flash on a forest of spears, and heard their thunderous shout of acclaim, the old royal salute. "Bayete! Bayete!" swell and roll across the veldt. For a time he stood transported, and then his face lost its rapt expression and settled into a scowl.
"But she will not do it!" he growled. "She says—"
"No matter what she says," the mother interposed with her dry laugh, "she will do it! Her white skin will betray her. Oh yes, I learned much about white people on the coast. They are like the monkeys, they take only one mate. Let her see the young Bwana. Let her feel the strength of his arms about her, and she will be like wet clay in our hands."
"You are very wise, my mother. And it may be as you say," he conceded dubiously. "But while she lives the power will be hers, and she is young."
"Did I not say that her white skin would betray her? Have you forgotten the taboo of Ebid Ela, my son? In her heart she carries a seed that will grow until it destroys her. She will give up everything for this white Bwana. Beat your drum, my son. Bring him here. Soon she will want to go away with him, and then we will whisper in the ears of the witchdoctors and—"
"Aie, aie!" The light of understanding dawned in his eyes. "Truly, you are wise! It might be well to let them run away together, then we would have no fear of the witch doctors—"
"Fool!" hissed old Neda. "Let them go and they will run to the Portuguesa and tell all they know! I am old, my son, only the wish to lift you to your father's seat has kept me alive. Be guided by me and all will be well. But enough now. All this talk has wearied me. I would rest now, and there is much to be thought of."
"There is not much time," he said frowning. "It wants but three days to the change of moon."
"That is time enough. Beat your drum, my son."

To Be Concluded...

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