Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle: Killers Kraal part four (of 4)

Sorry about the long wait between installments, I've been doing a lot of things away from the computer (trips with my family, Chemistry Tests, English tests & essays, etc) hopefully now I can go back to updating everyday so you guys can get your pulp fix in an almost pulp free world.
Comments and Requests would be greatly appreciated.

THE CHAMBER into which Sibitane conducted Sheena was at the back the tower. Round air-holes, no bigger than her clenched fist, pierced the thick stone walls. The air was dead and musty. The last of the sunlight filtered through the matting-chinks which screened off an alcove where there was a skin-covered bed. Small rat voices squeaked. A snake hissed in the shadows, and then darted across the floor, a flash of black and orange in the sifted sunlight, and vanished into a gap between the crudely-fitted, stone blocks of the wall.
After Sibitane had gone the Jungle Queen stood in the center of the floor, her attitude tense, expectant. For some time she stood thus, and then the great drum boomed. Crashes of sound flooded into all the empty spaces. The old tower shook to the pulsing rhythm, so that dust and flaked mud fell from the roof above. Sheena stood with her hands tightly pressed to her ears while the drum hurled its message far into the deep silence of the jungle.
Then silence, and the faint tack-tack of a drum answering the call, or relaying the Galagi's commands, she could not tell. And it did not matter. She knew that the message would reach the Kalundas Sibitane had left with Rick and Ekoti. Also she knew that if the Kalunda party trekked night and day Rick would be at Massumba before the moon was full. And all this because, in an unguarded moment, the prying, shrewd eyes of the old hag Neda had divined a truth that she had tried to hide, even from herself.
Far into the night she paced the floor of her chamber like a caged lioness, At one moment she was telling herself that she was not answerable for whatever might happen to Rick. There wae no end to his folly, and this was the fruit of it. And in the next old Neda's voice echoed hollowly in her ears; "—spy for the Portuguesa!" And the fear that was in her came up into her throat and made her gulp for air.
At last, utterly worn out, she flung herself on the slatted bed, and slept until a bright-eyed Kalunda girl awakened her.
Sunlight was striking through the vent-holes of the tower room and lay on the floor like bright discs of copper. Sheena threw aside her skin coverings and stood up, sweeping the golden veil of her hair from her face. The Kalunda girl, a mere child, stared for a moment in breathless amazment, and then took to her heels in sudden panic as the Jungle Queen smiled and took a step toward her.
The girl had placed a gourd of milk and some bananas on a mat in the outer room. As Sheena sat on her heels Chim came begging for his share of the meal. She was drinking the milk when Sibitane appeared in the doorway and salaamed.
"If it pleases you," he said diffidently, "Neda, the Queen-Mother, will speak with you now, Mateyenda."
"It pleases me," said Sheena with a faint smile, and rose to follow him. In all these high-sounding titles, in all this outward show of respect, there was hollow mockery, she thought. And yet something strange and sad was brought to life. Something that was loathsome and evil too. Something belonging to the dead, like Neda.
She followed the induna along a dark passage which ended in a narrow flight of steps.
"They lead to the top of the tower," Sibitane told her, stepping aside to allow her to pass. "I will tell the Queen-Mother that you await her there."
Sheena went up, and the first thing she saw, as her head came above the level of the stone floor, was the great drum of Yamo Galagi. The tower-top was open to the glare of the sun. A low wall of stone enclosed the square space in the center of which stood the drum under a peaked, thatch roof supported by four poles. It captured the Jungle Queen's attention at first sight, and she glided across the flat roof to examine it more closely.
It was a hollow log, trimmed to an oval shape, its ends plugged with softer wood. The slot measured about the span of a hand at the wide end, and tapered to a mere slit at the narrow end. It was the difference in the thickness of lips of the cleft along the length of the drum which gave the drummer his two notes—the thick lip which was the man-voice and the thin lip which was the woman-voice. Except for size and the weird carvings that covered its cracked surfaces, It was not unlike the big wardrums she had seen in the Abama villages.
Idly she wondered what the witch doctors would think if she made it speak her nadan, her drum name, and then sent a message booming and crashing over the jungle. On a sudden impulse she put her hand into the slot, feeling for the drum sticks, but only to drop them back quickly at the sound of Neda's cackling laugh. She turned to see the old woman hobbling toward her, supported by Sibitane and her stick.
"Beware, Mateyenda!" Neda warned her. "Only those of the blood-royal may beat Galagi's drum, and there is not a drop of that under your white skin!"
There was a challenge in the old woman's eyes, and Sheena's expression became thoughtful. Did the old hag really believe that her hand would shrivel if she, a white woman, took up the sticks?
It might he so. Despite their frauds most witch doctors believed in their own magical powers. And then an idea flashed into her mind, and her eyes narrowed as she let her thought fondle it.
Sibitane retired to a respectful distance, and old Neda sat on the stool he had placed in the shade of the thatch for her.
“Beat the drum if you dare, Foster-daughter-of-Ebid Ela!" Neda challenged her.
"It is not in my mind to beat it," said Sheena absently.
"That is well for you!" the old woman said with her dry chuckle. "But I have come to speak of another thing. We have caught the Portuguesa spy. The drums say that he will be here on the morning of the full moon."
Sheena shrugged and said: "It is foolish to bring him here. He has many friends at the coast, and if harm comes to him they will soon know it. It is nothing to me, but you make much trouble for yourself, I think."
Neda kept her strange eyes fastened on the Jungle Queen's face, and went on as if she had not heard Sheena's words: "When I was young the enemies of my husband were brought up to this tower after the witch doctors had smelt them out. See-yonder?" She pointed with her stick. And Sheena, looking in the direction indicated, saw a long tree trunk, freshly trimmed, balanced on the stone parapet Its butt-end was lashed to rusty, iron staples sunk into the stone roof, and there was a long coil of rattan rope beside it.
"In the old days," Neda went on with her eyes still fastened on Sheena's face, "those who dared to disobey Yamo Galagi were lowered down to the wild dogs from a pole like that. I saw many die that way. But never one of them quickly, because the rope held them at half their own height above the rocks, and the dogs must leap up to tear at their flesh. Oh yes, at sunrise many still lived, but with little flesh on their legs."
The color had left the Jungle Queen's face. The old woman laughed and went on: "The young Bwana is very strong, Sibitane says. He will live for a long time, I think. Yes, he will die of old age—if the Mateyenda sees in my son a true Galagi."
Sheena experienced the faint sense of nausea that always comes with the sudden fulfillment of fear, however much expected. Her leg muscles tensed as her impulsive energy prompted her to spring and sink her knife into her tormentor's throat. But killing Neda would not save Rick's life, nor the Abamas from slavery. And there was another way. There was always a way.
"What do you say now, Mateyenda?" the old woman's voice broke in on her thoughts.
"When the moon is full we will speak of this thing again," Sheena answered with deceptive calm.
The old woman's eyes struck at her venonously, but she only nodded her head and said: "Good! Talk to the Bwana about it when he comes. We would be your friends. We do not deny your right, and if harm come to your white Bwana it will be by your own hand. Think of this, Mateyenda. There is no hope for him if you speak against my son."
Sheena's smile was enigmatical. "Never say of the ajap tree in fruit that it bears nothing but leaves," she murmured, and then turned away and went down the steps.
Down on the terrace Sheena paused to look over the veldt. One group of Abama warriors was already camped in the shadow of Massumba. There was no wind, and the smoke of their cooking-fires rose straight up in the air,spoiling the view of the caravan road. But through the haze she could see the flash of sunlight on metal, and that told her that another band would soon swell the numbers in the camp below the walls.
Frowning, she went to her chamber and sat on the bed to think out the details of the daring plan that had flashed into her mind up on the tower roof. As it came clearer, she contemplated it with a kind of shudder of the mind. She wondered what Rick would think of it, and instantly decided that she would tell him nothing. He would know soon enough, and have good reason to call her she-devil after moonrise tomorrow night.
It was late afternoon, and the ghost of a full moon hung over the veldt, when Sibitane came to tell Sheena that Rick and Ekoti had arrived at Massumba.
"If it please you, I will take you to them now, Mateyenda," he said in his diffident way.
She followed him out onto the terrace. At her first look around she saw that the big drum had been carried down from the tower, and now stood on a platform of logs a short distance back from the head of the steps where it would be in plain view of the Abamas when they assembled in the great square. A faint smile of satisfaction came to the Jungle Queen's lips as she followed the induna across the terrace to the opposite side of the tower. Two of the Black Shields leaned on their spears before an open doorway. Sibitane stepped aside, salaamed, and Sheena walked into a chamber exactly like her own.
Ekoti was hunkered over the remains of a meal, and Rick came through the curtained alcove as the Abama chief spoke her name. He greeted her with a quizzical smile and said:
"We were to meet at the Abama village but it would seem that you changed your mind."
"I did not change my mind," she told coldly. "And speak Swahili. These walls have ears."
His left eyebrow quirked up. "We're in some kind of trouble, eh?" But he did not seem to be very worried about it, and that annoyed her and she said sharply:
"If you stay in this country you will always make trouble for yourself—and your friends."
"Well, I can handle my own trouble," he retorted.
"Ah, you think so?" Her tone was caustic, and she went on: "That is good, and I must tell you about this trouble so that you can deal with it quickly." Then she sat on her heels and gave him a clear and concise account of all that had happened, omitting only the details of her last talk with Neda. It left him only partly aware of his danger, but she could not tell him more of herself than she deemed it good for him to know. When she had finished he looked up at the roof, whistled softly, and then fumbled in his pockets for his pipe and tobacco. Ekoti's face was set in a black scowl, and presently he gave tongue to the question uppermost in his mind:
"Will you do as this witch-woman says, Sheena? Will you make this dog of a Kalunda chief of all the Abamas?"
"I will not betray the Abamas," Sheena answered and gave Rick a keen took. But if he felt fear, it did not show on his face. He merely nodded his head in approval, and went on stuffing tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. She liked his calmness, and thought that his beard, black and curling now, improved his looks, gave him a graver aspect and emphasized his virility. She smiled and added as an afterthought: "And I will not betray my friend."
He glanced up quickly, frowned, then: "You did your best to keep me out of this mess. I'll have to take my chances from now on. I'll have a talk with the Galagi. Maybe I can convince him—"
"If you do so, you will make trouble for me," Sheena interposed hastily. "I ask you to talk with no one, and not to leave this room before moonrise. Promise that you will do this—for me."
His slow smile came and went "Lady,"' he said, "you'll never have to ask me for anything twice. But you have something on your mind. What is it?"
She threw a significant glance at the open door, and shook her head. Then she held out her hand and said: "Give me a little of your tobacco."
Perplexity was on his face as she transfered some of the tobacco from the pouch to the bag attached to her leaopard skin shorts. She ignored the question in his eyes and turned to the Abama chief.
"The swelling has gone from your leg," she observed.
Ekoti grinned, stretched out his leg and flexed powerful calf muscles. "There is great magic in Bwana's little bottles, Sheena," he said. "Always when our people are bitten by the sheep-killer they die. It would be a good thing if Bwana lived at my village for awhile and taught you his magic."
She darted a sidelong look in Rick's direction. So, she thought, he has won Ekoti over to his way of thinking. His face showed only impassive innocence, but, behind his beard, she knew that he was smiling smugly, very pleased with his cleverness. She ignored Ekoti's suggestion and said:
"At moonrise the Galagi will beat his drum, and show himself to the Abamas. Remember, until then, you have promised to talk with no one. I go now."
"One moment!" Rick stepped into her path quickly. "I don't know what is in your mind, Sheena," he went on gravely. "But whatever it is, it may not work out as you think. Back on the trail I called you she-devil, and before you go it is in my heart to say that I am sorry for it."
She gave him a long, steady look, then: "If you did know what was in my mind you would not be sorry, I think. You do not know me well yet, Rick Thorne." And with that and a faint smile she left him.
Back in her own chamber the Jungle Queen took the tobacco from the dacca bag, and with a wry mouth chewed it into a moist wad. Then she took some of the milk she had saved in the gourd and placed it close to the gap between the stones into which she had seen the orange-colored snake disappear. Then she moved back several feet and sat on her heels, to wait. Chim bounced from the bed to her side. He pulled her hair and ran to the door; but when she did not follow he jumped up and down, scolding her.
"Quiet, little one!" she told him. "I know you do not like this place. We will go soon. Quiet now!"
Chim grimaced at her, and went to sulk on the bed. Minutes passed, and then the snake came out of its hole and slid slowly toward the milk. Sheena pursed her lips and began to whistle softly—three, high pitched notes repeated again and again. Presently, the snake lifted its arrow-shaped head, its forked and quivering tongue darting in and out of its mouth. Soon it was swaying like a reed in the wind to the rhythm of the peculiar notes and Sheena cautiously approached it. Then with feline efficiency her hand shot out to grasp the serpent by the back of the neck, and as quick as a flash she spat tobacco-juice into its hissing mouth.
It was an old trick that Ebid Ela had taught her, and one which, when performed by a skilled witch doctor, never failed to fill his audience with awe; for the effect of the nicotine was almost instantaneous, the snake's muscles knotted into lumps and the creature became rigid. Whereupon the witch doctor declared that he had changed it into a stick. And then after a time, to the complete and utter amazment of the spectators, he would rub the snake between the palms of his hands, restoring it to a state of infuriated and deadly animation.
There was a cold light in the Jungle Queen's blue eyes as she carried the paralyzed snake to her bed and covered it with one of the skins. Truly she was a she-devil, she thought. But guile must be matched by guile, and evil fought with evil.
For the rest of the day she sat on the bed in moody silence. She did not speak when the Kalunda girl brought in her evening meal, and she did not touch the food.
Once she got up to squeeze a little more tobacco juice into the snake's mouth when it showed signs of recovering from its topor.
When Sibitane came for her she lifted the skin from the bed and threw it about her shoulders like a native kroos. No sign of the inward tension she felt showed on her face as she followed the induna out onto the terrace.
A big, cold moon had climbed out of the veldt. It flooded the great square with an abundance of light and winked on the spear heads of the Black Shields who stood shield to shield, rank above rank, on the stairway before the tower. Their spears made a bristling barrier holding back the excited Abamas crowded into the compound, and now pressing forward to get a better view of the king-making ceremony.
A great shout went up as Sheena glided across the terrace and came to a stand close to the drum. Soon Rick and Ekoti came out, escorted by Sibitane and a half-dozen Kalunda guards. The induna halted them on the opposite side of the terrace, and then stood, as straight and stiff as a spear-shaft, looking toward the main entrance of the tower.
Silence came as the Galagi stepped out into the moonlight, a splendid figure in his feathered headdress and beaded robes. He was closely followed by Neda, looking like a ghost in her gauzy, white veil. Her eyes sought and found Sheena, and she came bobbling over to the drum. Leaning on her stick she looked up into the Jungle Queen's face, and said in a sibilant whisper:
"The time has come, Mateyenda, for you to say whether the young Bwana lives or dies. Look upon him, Foster-daughter-of-Ebid Ela! Aie, aie, he is tall and handsome. Kill him and his face will haunt you forever!"
Looking down into the old hag's eyes, Sheena thought that she never had seen a face more evil, or ever had set herself against a spirit more unyielding. The strange eyes seemed to be possessed of a quality of resistance that made it useless to oppose, and for the first time doubt struck at her resolution. She shivered as if chilled by the night air, and under her skin cloak she appeared to rub her arms. Watching her closely, old Neda said with her dry chuckle:
"In the arms of the one who stands yonder you would not he cold, Mateyenda."
The Jungle Queen's eyes caught and reflected the moonlight in a cold, blue flame.
"You smell of death, old witch!" she flashed. "Stand back from me!" She made a quick movement as if to strike, and the old woman stepped back with amazing agility.
And just then the Galagi raised both hands above his head. His commanding figure held the attention of all, and when silence came he sent his voice far over the heads of the crowd in the square:

Y CHILDREN, I have called you to Massumba at this holy time so that you might look upon the face of your king. I am the Galagi, the son of the Elephant, the Earth-Shaker. The Son of Yamo Galagi who made you great in war and rich in cattle and slaves. His spirit is mine. His voice is in this drum. You have heard it, and the witch doctors have told you that these things are so. Yet among you there may be those who cannot believe their ears. But no man is so foolish as not to believe his own eyes. So tonight, in the presence of all, I will make the drum speak the fetish-code of the Galagi." He paused to give his words time to sink in, and then went on:
"It is well known that the Galagi put a curse upon his drum. Also it is well known that only he in whose body dwells the spirit of Yamo Galagi may beat this drum and live. If there be one among you who doubts this, let him come forward and beat the drum!"
A murmur like the wind in tall reeds arose from the massed Abamas. But no man moved or lifted his voice to answer the old challenge of the Lunda king. And then Sheena threw her cloak across the drum and glided to the Galagi's side. Her voice rang out, clear and distinct:
"Abama warriors, he speaks the truth! It is as he says, no one but one worthy to command you may beat this drum. I have travelled far to counsel you about this thing. Hear my council, then: If this man who stands before you beats the drum and no harm comes to him, salute him as your king. Now, let the Galagi beat his drum!"
Old Neda sidled up to her son. "Ho, ho!" she cackled. "Did I not say she would do it! This is your hour, my son. Beat the drum—beat it, I say!"
Sheena kept moving back in the direction of Rick and Ekoti. She paused, and her lips tightened, as the Galagi threw aside her cloak and reached into the drum for the sticks. In the next instant he let out a shriek, and staggered back staring at the back of his hand.
All eyes were fastened upon him, and in awe-struck silence all watched him sink to his knees, moaning in his fear. Sibitane, the guards, Rick and Ekoti—all stood like men suddenly turned to stone. And then Neda's scream rang out, shrill and piercing. The square was filled with a sudden commotion, and calamity was on the loose.
Sheena was close to Rick now, and like a flash of light she hurled herself at Sibitane. The unexpectenness of her attack sent the induna reeling back to collide with one of his men, and then Rick and Ekoti awoke from their trance. Rick felled one of the guards with a terrific punch. Ekoti smashed down another and, snatching the spear from the man's hand as he fell, gave tongue to the Abama war-cry and plunged it into the breast of a third. And now old Neda was pointing to the ground and shrieking:
"It was a snake—see, see! A trick! Kill her—kill!"
Sibitane and two of his men rushed upon Sheena.
She leaped backwards to avoid the thrust of their spears, tripped over the body of one of the fallen guards, and fell sprawling on her back. She saw Sibitane's spear flash up, and then Rick came charging to hit the induna in the stomach with his lowered head. He recovered quickly, and with the light of battle in his eyes, stood between her and the Kalundas' spears. Barehanded he beat off their first rush, giving her time to regain her feet. As she straightened up Ekoti came roaring into the fray, and the two Kalundas went down under his flashing spear thrusts.
In these moments of shock and confusion the success of the Jungle Queen's carefully worked out plan hung in the balance. None knew better than she the power of imagination working on superstitious fears. At any moment now, panic would scatter the Abamas, leaving Rick and Ekoti to the mercy of Neda and Sibitane's Black Shields.
For an instant she stood irresolute, and then went flashing across the terrace to the drum. An instant later its great voice boomed out her nadan. The effect upon the Abamas was like magic. They saw their golden Mateyenda, knew her danger, and heard the Galagi's drum speak her commands. They answered her call with the Abama war-cry, and then charged the steps. The Black Shields broke under the fury of their onslaught, and the Abamas came roaring up the stairway in a black wave, driving all before them. Neda and her son stood directly in the path of the now panic-stricken Black Shields, and when the tide of battle swept on across the terrace, it left their trampled and broken bodies in its wake.
Driven into a corner with their backs to the tower, the Black Shields threw down their spears and begged for mercy. Ekoti came striding back to where Sheena and Rick stood beside the big drum.
"What is your will with these Kalunda dogs, Sheena?" he asked.
"Let them live," said the Jungle Queen. "We came only to silence this drum, Ekoti. Let a fire he built under it, and then assemble your warriors in the square. I have words for them."
As he went to carry out her orders, her eyes became fixed on some distant object and she said softly:
"It is well for me that you came on this trek, Rick Thorne. But for you Sibitane's spear would have sent me to the Black Kloof." They moved off as two Abamas came to set fire to the drum, and he did not answer until they stood in the shadow of the tower. Then:
"I had some speech with Sibitane after you left us," he said carefully. "I think that, but for you, I would be food for the dogs before long."
Dismay widened the Jungle Queen's eyes, and put a slight stammer into her speech. "You promised—you—what more did he tell you?"
He folded his arms across his chest and looked up at the moon. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing at all." But the smile was there, provocative, challenging. She asked:
"You will go back to the coast now."
"That is not in my mind," he said complacently. "I will go back to the Abama village with Ekoti and his people."
She looked at him sharply, wondering how much Sibitane had told him. But his face was blank and told her nothing, and before she could pry deeper Ekoti came to tell her that the Abamas were now waiting to hear her words.
The Galagi's drum was burning brightly, crackling and spitting sparks. Sheena came to stand in the light of the flames, and in respectful silence the Abamas waited for her to make her will known.
"Abama warriors," she told them, "you have done well. A great evil grew here at Massumba, but you have rooted it up with your spears. Now, you will go back to your villages in peace. If you be wise, you will tell your women to drive the witch doctors who deceived you from your villages with sticks. Go now, my people, and may the gods who watch over the river-crossing make the homeward trek swift and easy for you. I have spoken!"
There was a moment of absolute quiet, and then the royal salute burst spontaneously from the Abamas:
"Bayete! Bayete!"
Spears flashed upward, and again the thunderous shout of acclaim shook the old wall of Massumba.
The elegant Jungle Queen stood bathed in the ruddy glow of the burning drum, her head lifted her blue eyes alight—a golden Goddess wrapped in a flame of pride.
And seeing her thus, Rick stared and wondered what it was that made him think that this superb creature, who had a thousand spears at her command, would ever stoop from her high place to follow a poor, white hunter to the coast.

No comments:

Post a Comment