Thought y'all needed a little Sword and Soul today, so here's one of my short story from the Ki Khanga Anthology, edited by Yours Truly and Balogun Ojetade.
He knew long before the drums warned him. The nauseous pang in his belly was his sign as it had been since his initiation rites. Each Namaqua had his or her special tell, their own physical alarm warning them of a Breach. As Old Hunter, his was the most sensitive. He rose from his cot in darkness, the sun yet to climb the misty eastern horizon. As he stood the drums sounded, their rapid cadence vibrating against the bottom of his bare feet. The lodge came alive with urgent voices, rattling wood and shrill whistles as each warrior dressed, armed themselves and called their mounts. There was a Breach of the Cleave, and the Namaqua would seal it.
He strapped on his leather armor then retrieved his ax from its plain wooden case. As he lifted the long handled weapon to his shoulder the door to his room opened. His daughters entered.
“Are you ready, baba?” Nabunya asked. She smiled nervously, displaying the dimples for which she was named. Her bow rested across her back, a quiver of arrows strapped tight to her left leg. She worried about him too much, especially when they were summoned. The years had been kind to him and the spirits of those gone before surrounded him, but he could not deny time. Every fight could be his last, but it was the same for the younger hunters as well.
“Of course he is,” Citalala answered for him. She stared at her sister as if her question was uncalled for. His oldest daughter leaned on her lance, scolding her younger sister with her eyes. He kept his head low so they could not see him grin. Citalala admired him. She thought he would live forever. He wished she was right.
Old Hunter walked passed his daughters into the large living area. The room was sparse; a central fireplace occupied the room with a low table and three low stools. The only other piece of furniture was a low altar holding an incense holder. Five weapons hung on the wall behind the incense holder; two swords, a bow, a long spear, and an ax similar to his own. Old Hunter’s daughters knelt before the altar as Old Hunter inserted five incense sticks into the holder the lit each one with a candle. He joined his daughters before the altar then the three lowered their foreheads to the wooden floor.
“We pay respect to those that have gone before us, those that now rest in the Creator’s bosom. Join us as we ride to protect those blind to that which threatens them. Guide our blows as we strike. Give us your blessing and your strength.”
They stood in unison. Old Hunter hugged each of his daughters then led them outside. The others gathered before the house armed and ready. They bowed; Old Hunter and his daughters nodded in unison. Old Hunter walked among them, inspecting each of their weapons. There could be no weakness among them, for creatures from the Cleave gave no quarter. Madness knew nothing of surrender; evil claimed no respite. Each warrior lowered his or her head in respect as Old Hunter came before them, handling weapons that had many owners before the ones that now held them, weapons that owed their strength not to the metal and wood that made them, but to the spirits of the wielders within them.
Citalala touched his shoulder. “They are coming.”
The dumas appeared quickly over the horizon, covering the distance in moments. The lean felines separated quickly, each going instinctively to its rider then lying calmly like an obedient pet. They were far from it. The dumas shared a bond with the Namaqua, a bond that hinged on the death of creatures from the Cleave. When the Namaqua gave homage that another beast was vanquished, the duma fed.
The largest duma strode to Old Hunter. It brushed against him before sitting and allowing itself to be saddled. Old Hunter strapped the saddle in place as he’d done hundreds of times, wondering as always if this would be his last hunt. He wondered who would inherit his axe, a weapon passed on to him at the death of his father, who received it from his father. The thoughts did not linger long. Focus was required to deal with any minion from beyond the grey peaks forming the border of the Cleave.
The dumas ran to that border, undeterred by their human riders. There was no beast faster than a duma, not even the creatures of the Cleave could match them in speed. Old Hunter lay flat against his duma’s back, gripping the leather strap encircling the cat’s neck. There was no need to guide it; the dumas had the scent before they reached the Namaqua. Old Hunter searched the rapidly approaching horizon to see what type creature the Cleave had unleashed. When he finally saw it his eyes went wide. He hit the duma hard on the side, the signal for it to stop. It howled in protest but slowed until it trotted. Old Hunter struck it again and it stopped, turning its head quickly to snap at his hand.
The others guided their reluctant dumas to him. Old Hunter sat up, his eyes still locked on the distance.
“Can you see it?”
The others nodded.
Citalala dismounted and came to him. “It’s very tall.”
Old Hunter nodded. “Nabunya, take the archers and form a perimeter. You will fire on it until the others can move in closer.”
Nabunya nodded. “Yes, baba.” She rode off to rally the other archers around her.
“You will stay behind?” Citalala’s words were more statement than question.
“No,” Old Hunter answered. “The final blow must be struck.”
Citalala raised her thick lance. “I will do it.”
Old Hunter looked at the lance with sadness. Mumbeja, his wife, once wielded it with a skill unsurpassed. When she died it was passed on to Citalala, but not without some difficulty. Citalala was not ready for such a powerful weapon when it was first given to her and the sprits possessing it rejected her. It was passed on to her cousin, Hareena, who wielded it proudly until only a few seasons ago. When it was presented to Citalala the second time the spirits did not protest. She had proven her worth with it many times since.
“It is my duty,” he said. “You will ride beside me.”
They rode towards the beast. It stood at least 100 spears, its skin black and slick like a beetle’s carapace. Large spikes protruded backwards from the sides of its thick neck then ran along the crest of the back before trailing down its spin to its trashing tail. Its proportions were man-like; it walked on two legs, its muscled arms punctuated with large clawed hands. As they neared it seemed to be running away from them. Old Hunter hoped this was all this would be, a cautious following of a beast that had lost its way.
The creature turned toward them and his hopes disappeared. It roared, brandishing a mouth of dagger-like teeth as is shook its primate like head from side to side. The archers quickly slowed to take their positions while Old Hunter and the others kept riding closer. Old Hunter concentrated on the beast’s movements, watching its gestures and stance. A realization took hold and he brought his signal flute to his lips. Three sharp whistles brought the dumas to a halt. There was nothing aggressive about the beast. It seemed to be defending itself, turning toward them only to keep from being attack from behind. He surmised that if they kept their distance and advanced slowly, this beast would find its own way back over the mountains and back into the Cleave.
Citalala apparently did not agree with him. She rode on alone, her duma quickly closing the gap. Her rash action forced his hand.
He blew two sharp chirps and the archers loaded and fired. The arrows reached the beast before his daughter, most bouncing off its tough hide while a few barely lodged in it. Old Hunter kicked his duma but the beast refused to move. He leaned close to its ear.
“I know this is foolish, old one, but I cannot let my daughter die. Either you will take me or I will go alone.”
The duma growled then sprang forward. Old Hunter stayed close to its body watching as Citalala drew closer and the beast staggered back, swatting away the arrows like swarming summer flies. Then it saw Citalala and her duma. It swung its claws at them and the duma dodge, Citalala ducking as the hand passed over them. Then it swung the same hand back, knocking Citalala and the duma into the air. They landed apart, both sprawling into the low grass and neither moving.
Old Hunter sat up on the duma and snatched the ax from his back.
“Spirits guide me,” he whispered. He heaved the long handled weapon with both hands. It spun end over end, the blade finally biting into the beast’s shoulder.
“Take me, spirits,” he yelled. He held out his hands and the spirits of his fathers answered. Old Hunter rose from the duma and streaked to his ax. His hands wrapped around the handles as his feet touched the creature’s shoulder. He yanked his ax free just as the beast began to turn his head. Old Hunter spun the ax to its flat side and struck the beast’s jaw hard before leaping free. He rolled and came up to his feet, holding his ax before him and thanking the spirits within for their strength. The beast stumbled away, grasping at its jaw. Then it turned and ran.
Old Hunter ran to Citalala. She was up on her hands and knees shaking her head. Her duma limped to her, its left hind leg lifted from the ground as it walked.
Old Hunter knelt beside his daughter.
“It was a foolish thing you did,” he scolded.
“Yes, baba, a foolish thing,” she answered. She extended her hand towards her lance and it slid across the grass to her.
“Your spirits still favor you despite that,” Old Hunter said. “Stay here and tend your duma. We must drive this beast back home. It seems it no more wants to be here than we want it to.”
The others seemed to finally see what Old Hunter had sensed. They rode after the fleeing beast, driving it to the mountains with shouts and waving weapons. Suddenly the beast crouched and leaped, soaring over the grassland as if in flight then landing at the base of the grey peaks. It scrambled up the sheer granite slopes emitting a series of sharp, urgent barks. It was answered by a bellow that shook Old Hunter’s innards. Boulders tumbled from the clouds like rain, some striking the beast so hard it lost its grip. But before it could fall a massive hand emerged from above, a clawed appendage similar to the beast but many times larger. It caught the beast, which wrapped its arms around that of the much larger creature. The arm lifted, taking the beast into the clouds.
A huge face appeared in the clouds. It opened its maw and bellowed again with a force that made the riders scramble back. Old Hunter stood, his sweating hands working his ax hilt. Citalala stood beside him.
“What do we do baba?” she asked.
Old Hunter gave her a grim smile. “We pray that our deaths will be swift.”
The face hung over them for what seem like an eternity, then it slowly withdrew into the mists. It bellowed one last time, its departure marked by ground shaking steps and more boulders tumbling down the mountainside. The dumas and Namaqua gathered around Old Hunter and his daughter their faces displaying their dread.
“The Goddess has spared us this day,” he said. “Let us hope She remains generous.”
The others nodded and their fears seemed to dissipate. Old Hunter mounted his duma then lifted Citalala on as well. The old duma walked slowly, staying by its wounded companion. Old Hunter glanced over his shoulder to the mountains. Never had he seen such a large beast.
“Will it come again?” Citalala asked.
“We will pray that it doesn’t,” he said.
He smiled at his daughter. “It seems you still have much to learn.”
Citalala dropped her head. “It seems I do baba.”
Nabunya and her duma joined them.
“The ancestors were expecting us,” she joked.
“They will have our company soon enough,” Old Hunter replied. “But not today.”
Citalala climbed onto her sister’s duma and they rode back to the village. Old Hunter looked back over his shoulder to the grey clouds obscuring the mountain peaks. One day they would not be strong enough. But for now, they were enough.
I hope you enjoyed Old Hunter. If you would like to read more tales of Ki Khanga, order the Ki Khanga Anthology today from MVmedia. It's available in paperback, mobi ebook and epub ebook.