A Dance Called AfricaBy: Isabella Bleszynski
BOOK 1 ‘THE JOHN ROSS’ TRILOGY
1799. Somewhere between the White Umfolozi and Mhlatuze Rivers, south-east Africa.
In the strange hush that comes before the storm, the kingdom of the eLangeni waited while the immortals played their deadly games of dice on high. Now here, now there, flash of thunderbolt, battle commencing.
A boy stood alone with his back pressed up against the stakes of the cattle enclosure. Blood oozed from a deep wound on his cheekbone. A flying stone had narrowly missed his eye and laid the flesh open to the bone.
Squinting against the pain, he cast a wary glance around the wind-swept patch of land. Ever since he’d come to live in the village of iNguga, a group of older boys had been making his life a misery. Life here was like a piece of stone, no warmth in this land of strangers.
His blistered lips throbbed. By forcing him to lick a red-hot spoon straight from a pot of maize porridge simmering by the fire, his tormentors had shown him the depths of their contempt.
‘Nyale!’ he muttered, wiping away smears of porridge. ‘One day, I will make a big surprise for them… and no one will escape me.’
At that moment the ten-year-old couldn’t decide who he hated most – his father, Chief ka Senzangakhona, who had brought this trouble down on their heads or the rabble of utivi scum to whom they had been forced to appeal for shelter.
Lightning forked silently away on the far horizons, serpents' tongues of incandescent fire, malevolence in their caress. All was still; only the Devil's children playing with their silent fireworks out there on the vast rim of the world.
A faint but insistent noise reached him, soft at first then gathering in strength. The boy cocked an ear, listening. It seemed to be coming from beyond the dragon-toothed mountains far to the south. Ki-si-ki-si it seemed to be whispering, like the hissing of deadly mambas slithering away from the coming storm or the rustling of a million leaves.
A vivid flash of lightning startled the cattle. They milled around, raising dust and clattering their curved horns together. Instinctively, the boy made soothing noises to calm the restless beasts.
It was so dark now, he could hardly see. A wind had risen and with it came the evocative smells of raw earth, moist and pungent. The rustlings and whisperings were coming closer. Now they were just beyond the flat-topped thorn trees a mile or so away. Nearer and nearer they came, blotting out the last of the glassy light.
Without warning, another stone caught him in the small of the back, breaking the skin and exposing raw flesh. He cried out in pain and shock. Blood trickled down and collected in the crease between his buttocks and the hand he put to it came away red and sticky.
The unexpected blow had made him bite his tongue. Leaning over, he spat a gobbet of blood-streaked mucus on to the ground. Shrieks and howls of glee told him that his tormentors were back, eager for more sport.
Somnamuzi, the leader of the pack, stepped out of the dusky light and strutted forward, arrogance in every step. As he looked at the younger boy, his eyes gleamed with malice. Jeering, he called out to his friends: ‘Ake ni-bone umtondo wake! Ufana nom sundu nje! Look at his penis – as small as an earth worm!’
The boy flinched as if physically struck, the member in question shrivelling up into his groin. A hot flush rose to his face.
Adolescent voices shrieked in joy. One of the conspirators strutted forward, boldness in every line of his skinny body. He put his hands on his hips and stuck out his buttocks, waggling and strutting in the grotesque parody of a woman openly flaunting herself. Before turning away, swaggering, he made an obscene gesture with his fingers, its meaning not lost on the younger boy.
A thin coil of red-hot anger rose from somewhere deep inside him. For his mother, Nandi, to be so insulted was something he would not, could not tolerate…
An enormous crack split the air, a great vibration of sound and fury. Its energy crackled all around him, metallic and acrid. The cattle in the enclosure reared up, bellowing in fear. Above the noise, he could hear the yells and taunts rising in pitch.
His eyes searched the brooding sky above his head as if looking for an answer. It was vast and grey-black, like the scarred skin of the great ndlovu, anger in its trumpeting and grumbling belly noises.
Whose power was up there? he wondered. Did it belong to sorcerers as some claimed, or was it just the wind and the thunder? A rolling crack made his ears ring. Flickers of lightning lit up the clearing in shades of silver and black.
‘The name Zulu means “the heavens’’ his mother had told him. ‘ It is where we, the People of the Heavens come from, and what makes us strong.’
The words echoed in his head, reminding him who he was and the people he came from. A low growl came from somewhere nearby. It was followed by a soft breath of air, as if someone had just passed close by. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.