Twenty warriors sprinted across the sparse savannah following a barely visible path.They ran single file through the knee-high grass, the dry season sun heavy on their broad brown shoulders. Leading them was a man whose speed rivaled the great antelopes of the grasslands and the endurance of the wild dogs that pursued them. Though he set the pace he was not their true leader. That man followed the other, his thick, muscular frame in contrast to the pacesetter’s athletic grace. His position in the file did not matter to the others. He was their inqwele, their leader since they were boys a man that earned his status and their respect during the countless stick fights of their youth. Any doubt of his right was dispelled on their first cattle raid as men. His skill with sticks paled to his prowess with shield and assegai, confirming what his brothers knew all along.
The lead runner led them over a stone studded ridge to their first stop since morning. A waterhole simmered before them, cradled between two hills in a natural basin for the rainwater that trickled down the mounds during the rainy season. He ran to the waterhole edge, oblivious to the dangers of mambas lurking in the shallows. He dropped to his knees and dipped his water gourd into the murky liquid. The inqwele knelt beside him and did the same.
“How much further, Shange?” Dingane asked.
“If we keep the pace, a day, maybe two,” Shange answered.
“We’ll keep the pace.” Dingane sealed his gourd. “You know that.”
Shange looked at Dingane and smirked. “You think I mean the pace so far? That was just a warm-up. The real running begins when we leave this waterhole.”
Dingane grimaced. “You toy with us as always, brother. We’ll keep the pace. We always do.”
They drank, filled their water gourds and continued the run. The land lost its levelness to low rises and shallow troughs, which in turn matured into steep hills and deep ravines. By dusk the Old Men loomed before them, the hulking mounts forming the border between Sesuland and Jamburuland.
The intanga camped at the base of the summits, their fires flickering like fireflies in the night. The fires were organized by rank with each man sharing a place with his peers. At the fire closest to the center sat Dingane and Shange. Shange took out his dagga pipe and stuffed the bowl with the narcotic herb. Dingane watched him in admiration. Shange was like the Old Men, hard and enduring. It was by luck Dingane led the intanga. He’d matured physically sooner than Shange. When they fought for control of the intanga Dingane’s raw strength overwhelmed Shange’s endurance and skill. Their last stick fight had been a grand spectacle, attended by warriors from throughout Sesuland and even the inkosi himself. After his victory the inkosi awarded Dingane a leopard tooth. It was his first talisman but far from his last. A necklace of leopard teeth encircled his neck now. A year passed and Shange transformed to the man that sat opposite him puffing pungent smoke into the flames. Though he never challenged Dingane again, Dingane suspected the result of such a challenge would not go in his favor.
“Are you sure they will come?” Shange asked. He extended his arm, offering the pipe to Dingane.
“They’ll come because he will make them.” Dingane took the pipe and sucked hard. The dagga took effect and his fatigue melted away.
“He knows I’m coming. He wouldn’t miss an opportunity to claim these.” Dingane lifted his necklace from his broad neck.
“It’s a waste of your time,” Shange commented. “You have nothing to gain if you kill him except his cattle.”
“That’s enough for now.” Dingane took another drag from the pipe.
Shange’s eyes widened. “Are you building a loloba?”
Dingane frowned. “I have no time for such nonsense.”
Shange touched his head ring. He married his second wife two rains ago. His first wife, Nomvula, bore him two sons and his second wife was pregnant with her first. Shange was a good Sesu. He was a warrior, a father and loyal to inkosi Dabulamanzi. Dingane could only claim one of those attributes.
“I have other plans.”
Shange shook his head. “You will never be inkosi. Dabulamanzi is young and has many sons. The elders favor him as do the ancestors. I suggest you take you cattle to Zwelithini and ask for Thandeka before you spoil her virtue.”
“Thandeka’s virtue in none of your concern,” Dingane snapped. “Inkosi blood runs in my family. Despite his age and his sons the opportunity may arise. When it does I’ll be ready.”
Shange shrugged. “I will not argue with you, inqwele. What is our strategy for tomorrow?”
“What strategy do we need?” Dingane folded his arms across his chest. “We are not herd boys. Everyone knows his place. We will kill the Swazu and steal their cattle.”
“Never underestimate any warriors,” Shange warned. “You forget the Xhasa.”
Dinganesucked his teeth. Shange always mentioned the Xhasa when he thought Dingane wasbeing arrogant.
“Tantashi and Bekuza will take twenty warriors and scout ahead to locate the Swazu cattle. You and I will split the remaining warriors. I’ll advance long theridges to the right of the pasture; you will take our brothers through the Nozi pass. There are three pastures bordering Swazuland and only one is large enough for Tumo’s herd. If he’s there I’ll take my warriors into that pasture.”
Shange smiled. “Now we have a plan.”
Dingane glared at Shange. “You are my second. You should trust me sometimes.”
“It doesn’t matter if I trust you all the time or not,” Shange countered. “What is important is that I do what you ask. I always do.”
“Yes you do,” Dingane agreed. He took the dagga pipe from Shange and took another deep pull. He let the soothing smoke fill his lungs and head, damping his anger. An inqwele could not pick his second; every man earned his place. Shange earned the right to be his second just as Dingane earned his right to be first.
“We should sleep,” Shange advised. He took the pipe from Dingane. “Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
Dingane smirked. “For once we agree.”
Tantashi and Bekuza set out as the sun broke the horizon. The others took their time preparing for the run. Dingane chose the warriors that would accompany him,leaving the others for Shange. They set out mid-morning at a leisurely pace to save their energy for the day’s action. By afternoon they were a third of the way to the pastureland. The scouts met them as they rested beside a narrow stream spilling the surrounding hills. Dingane was filling his water gourd with the cold sweet liquid when Shange and Tantashi approached him.
“So what do the Swazu have in store for us,” he asked without looking up.
“”They wait in the large pasture,” Tantashi replied. “ They have built a umuzi for their cattle and the huts are dry. They have been in camp for some time.”
Dingane stood as he closed his gourd. “So they will be leaving soon.”
“I don’t’ think so,” Shange said. “Tantashi, tell him the rest.”
“There were woman and children, too,” he responded.
“So this is not a seasonal grazing,” Dingane concluded. “This is a settlement.”
Shange nodded. “The Swazu are claiming the pasture. We must go back and tell the inkosi.”
“No,”Dingane snapped. “We go on as planned.”
“You could be starting a war,” Shange warned.
“I came to take Swazu cattle,” Dingane said. “If I just happen to stumble upon a Swazu settlement that’s an invasion it just a lucky coincidence.”
Shange frowned. If there was a sound argument against what they were about to do he would have raised it. His silence was all Dingane needed.
“There may be more warriors,” Shange said.
“Then we’ll kill more warriors,” Dingane replied. “Tantashi, I want you to work your way around and block the road to Swazuland.”
Shange’s eyebrows rose. “We’re taking captives?”
Dingane smirked. “To honor our inkosi.”
Shangefinally smiled. “I like this plan.”
The Sesu ran until nightfall. They camped just beyond sight of the pasture and the Swazu patrols. While Shange and the others slept soundly Dingane paced. He was always restless before a raid, but now nervousness crept into his legs. He had faith in his intanga but shadows of the Xhasa lurked in his memories. He almost died that day because he underestimated the Xhasa numbers and ferocity. It was his only defeat, an incident he’d never forget and a debacle Shange always reminded him He finally slept albeit briefly. Shange shook him awake.
“Come, inqwele. It is time to wash our spears.”
Dingane rose and checked his weapons. Hi carried his shield and three throwing spears in his left hand, his assegai in his right. His war club and axe dangled from his leather waist belt. The warriors pared off instinctively, each inspecting the others weapons. Shange and Dingane inspected each other.
“Keep your shield this time,” Shange said.
Dingane grinned. “I’ll try.”
They split ranks and sprinted to the pastureland. There would be no communication;the next time they would see each other would be among the Swazu. Their success was dependent on the pace. The Sesu knew the precision of their steps and the distance they must cover. No obstacle could be allowed to slow them. Every inch of the route had to be scouted and memorized. There could be no error.
The high pastures were familiar to Dingane and every Sesu. They were the lifeline during the dry season, a place where the clouds shed their bounty while the surrounding lowlands lay parched. Dingane and the others covered the hilly landscape, struggling over steep rises and making up time on flat reliefs while keeping a good distance from the pastures. Dingane counted their footfalls,keeping mental tally until he reached the total given to him by Tantashi. Miles away on the opposite side of the fields Shange did the same. Dingane raised his assegai and faced the pasture.
Booming drums strikes filled brush and Dingane grinned. Shange and his men strode through the grasses as planned. They attacked first, drawing the bulk of Swazu warriors to them. Dingane and his cohorts charged through the foliage moments later. The Swazu village lay between them and Shange, a cluster of beehive huts surrounded by a thick woven fence. The cattle umuzi lay a short distance to the south, occupying a patch of land sloping toward a wide stream. On a normal raid the cattle would be their target. Instead Dingane led his men into the village.His objective was to kill the Swazu warriors and collect his prize.
“Sesu kimiba!” he shouted. He threw his shield to the ground and jumped the fence.His axe was in his hand before his calloused feet touched the grass. The Sesu darted through the village, avoiding the women and children fleeing their path. Dingane strained to look ahead, a distraction that almost cost him his life.
He saw the Swazu warrior at the last moment. The man crouched behind his shield,his assegai aimed at Dingane’s gut. Dingane twisted left, evading the spear as he swung his axe. He caught the shield and ripped it away. Continuing to run,he rammed his shoulder into the man, barreling over him like an angry bull. He stumbled for a moment then regained his stride. A cry from behind him told him another Sesu had dealt with the trampled Swazu.
Dingane was the first to emerge from the village. Shange and his men had formed a shield circle, their iklwas jabbing at the closing Swazu. One large warrior stood behind the others, his thick arms gesticulating as he yelled encouragement.
“Kill the Sesu dogs!” Tumo, the large man, shouted. “This is Swazuland now. This is my land!”
“A dead man owns only his grave,” Dingane yelled back.
The Swazu turned with Tumo to face Dingane and his warriors. The others pressed their attack on Shange’s men. Shange broke the ring first, charging the man before him. Their shields smacked together and the others followed. The battle for the pasture commenced.
Dingane and Tumo charged each other with no pretense. Dingane hacked at Tumo’s shield with his isizenze; Tumo stabbed at Dingane’s thigh but Dingane blocked it with his assegai, sparks flying as the metal blades met. Tumo kicked Dingane’s shin then shoved him off balance. Dingane tripped over a body and fell on his back. He rolled instantly, barely escaping the sharp end of Tumo’s shield. Tumo’s spear found Dingane’s hip; Dingane knocked the blade away with his axe before it dug too deep. He jerked his axe back, catching the edge of Tumo’s shield and opening him to a spear thrust. Dingane grunted as he pushed his spear at Tumo’s stomach, but to his shock the skin did not break. Dingane dodged in confusion as Tumo’s spear flicked at him like a serpent. Tumo should be gravely wounded. Instead the only sign of Dingane’s thrust was a dark bruise.
“You are surprised, Sesu?” Tumo snarled. “Metal cannot kill pierce my skin. You have lived long enough to know my secret. You won’t live much longer.”
Dingane’s shock was brief. He threw his assegai and axe aside then pulled his orinka free.
“Then you’ll die a different way,” he said.
Tumo yelled and lunged. Dingane dodged again then threw up hi left arm to block Tumo’s shield. Pain exploded in his forearm and he grimaced. He grabbed the shield and yanked it down, exposing Tumo’s head. Dingane swung his orinka and Tumo jerked his head away. He struck Tumo’s shoulder instead and was rewarded with a loud crack. Tumo winced and his arm sagged. The Swazu let the shaft fall from this wounded arm. The smile was gone from his face, his eyes focused on Dingane as he struggled to move his left arm. Dingane kept his concentration.Tum was wounded, which made him desperate and dangerous. His skin would not break, but his bones could be broken.
Tumo grunted, twisting his body and swinging his broken arm at Dingane. The Sesu threw up his arm instinctively and blocked the flailing limb. Pain burst in his left side and burn across his ribs. Dingane held back a cry and hit Tumo across the jaw. The Swazu staggered back, dropping his assegai. Dingane gritted his teeth and pursued Tumo, blood running from his wound onto his leg. Tumo grabbed Dingane’s wrist, stopping the orinka’s descent. His victory was temporary. Dingane’s left first struck Tumo’s face again and again like a viper until Tumo’s grip on his left wrist loosened. He snatched his hand free then cracked Tumo’s forehead with the war club. Tumo’s pupil rolled upward and he collapsed. Dingane loomed over the dying Swazu, striking him one last time with both hands. Blood oozed under his unbroken skin, a dark splotch spreading across his head and face. Dingane took a moment to savor his victory and then focused on the battle. The death of a champion normally meant concession. The opposing warriors would give way,awarding the cattle to the victors. The Swazu however, were no longer fighting for pride; they fought for their families. Shange cut through the ranks with his lethal spear and shield like a grim harvester. The remaining Swazu were outnumbered but they fought until they were all dead. Dingane nodded, looking respectfully on the corpses of the fallen warriors. He gave no such respect to Tumo.
The Sesu gathered around Dingane, Shange leading the way. He glanced at Dingane’s wound then back to his face.
“Sesu kazi!” he shouted, raising his assegai and shield high.
Dingane and the others raised their weapons. “Sesu kazi!”
The victory cry came from the direction of the valley. The sound of wailing accompanied it; the Swazu woman children crested the horizon surround by Tantashi and the other warriors. Tantashi raised his assegai and the others responded.
Dingane’s wound throbbed. The blood congealed around the wound but the pain increased.
“Search the huts,’ he ordered. “Take what is valuable then burn them.”
“You need a healer,” Shange said.
“Later,”Dingane barked. “Take your warriors and gather the cattle.”
Shange looked upon Tumo’s broken body. “What about him?”
“He’s my burden.”
Shange looked at his wound again. “Are you sure?”
Dingane went to his knees and lifted Tumo’s limp body onto his shoulders. He was weaker than he realized; he staggered then steadied. He strode through the mourning Swazu and triumphant Sesu, continuing unto he reached the stream bisecting the road. He dropped Tumo’s body and stripped him of his talisman and gris-gris then lay his shield over his bod and placed his assegai by his side. He stepped away and frowned. It was more than he deserved, but the spirits had to be appeased lest they haunt him and his brothers.
Smoke rose over the village as Dingane returned. Shange’s men had destroyed the umuzi and herded the cattle to the pasture. The Swazu bundled their remaining items onto their backs and heads, their wide fearful eyes darting about. Njabulo,their nganga, ran up to Dingane scowling.
“Are you in a hurry to join the ancestors?”
He squeezed Dingane’s wound and he grimaced.
“Sit,” Njabulo ordered.
Dingane did was he was told and Njabulo went to work. He cleaned the wound then packed it with a healing poultice. He took a long strip of cotton cloth and wrapped it around Dingane’s waist to hold the poultice in place.
Shange appeared at his side again.
“We are ready.”
Dingane nodded. “It was a good day.”
“We were lucky,” Shange countered. “The village is smaller than we guessed. Any larger and they could have repelled our attack.”
“Don’t question fortune,” Dingane answered. “We have cattle and captives. We will be honored and Dabulamanzi will be pleased.”
Shange folded his arms. “And what of Dingane? Is he pleased?”
Dinganefrowned. “I have much more to do.”
Dingane’s umuzi covered a small hill south of the main city of Selike. The intanga reached the modest site two weeks after their raid, their progress slowed by cattle and captives. They divided the cattle by rank, the lowest among them receiving the least, Dingane receiving the most. Dabulamanzi’s portion was culled first. The captives were not shared.
“You are taking them all to the inkosi?”
Shange asked the question as he sat in a circle with Dingane, Tantashi, Bekuza and Zidewu. They were his closest friends and confidants who dispensed his orders among their younger brothers. They also led the ibuthus under Shange’s control.
“I have no need for captives,” Dingane replied. “My cattle are well tended.”
“What about the rest of us?” Bekuza stood, towering over them like a baobab. He was larger than Dingane but slow as a sloth.
“My umuzi is growing. I could use more help.”
“Then get that skinny wife of yours to have more children,” Zidewu quipped. The others chuckled.
“I also need hands to plant my yam fields,” Bekuza added. “We all do.”
Everyone fixed their eyes on Bekuza. No one was more shocked that Dingane. He stood to face his friend.
“It’s not the Sesu way,” he said.
“The inkosi has commanded all of us to do so,” Bekuza answered.
“It’s not the Sesu way,” Dingane grumbled.
“Be careful, brother,” Shange warned.
“You are my brothers, aren’t you?” Dingane stood and Bekuza sat immediately. “If I cannot trust you who can I trust?”
His eyes passed over each of them.
“Dabulamanzi leads us the wrong way. He wants us to build farms and raise crops. Where is the honor in this?”
“He wants us to be self sufficient like the Mawena,” Shange said. “You remember the Mawena, don’t you? If we own our own farms we are less dependent on them.”
“Then let us make the Mawena our servants,” Dingane retorted.
The circle fell into uncomfortable silence. Mawenaland, the sprawling nation beyond the eastern hills, stood proudly as a challenge to every Sesu inkosi for hundreds of rains. Its vast stone cities were like living jewels; its farms fat with the bounty of the earth. Mawenaland’s army protected its borders with skilled vigilance, easily crushing any forays into their domain. Then there was Abo. Dingane visited the Mawenaland capital once as a bodyguard to Dabulamanzi. Never has he seen so many people in once city with such wealth. The white washed buildings reached toward the clouds like mountains. The inhabitants were just as lofty, looking down on the awestruck Sesu like a simba looking on a jackal.Only Dabulamanzi seemed unfazed by Abo’s spell. He sat on a golden stool with Oba Noncemba as an equal though it was obvious to Dingane who held sway between them.
“Our inkosi sits at the feet of the Bushmen,” Dingane accused. “He wishes to emulate them, digging into the ground like women then lounging under acacias like old men. I say the Mawena should serve us, as should the Swazu, the Jamburu and the Xhasa.”
“There is truth to your words,” Zidewu agreed. “I would love to crush Mawena bones under my feet. Such a day may come.”
“Your grandchildren will grow old and die before that fool will attack Mawenaland,” Dingane spat.
“Yet that is how it will be,” Shange said. “Dabulamanzi is our inkosi. He was selected by the elders and, most of all, most of all, accepted by the ancestors. He is closest to Ukulunkulu.”
Dingane frowned at Shange. “You are always the voice of reason,” he said. “You should try to be the voice of courage.”
Shange’s eyes narrowed, the first sign of emotion he’s seen in his second days. He would go along with the argument now. To continue otherwise would increase the insult.
“So we stand behind you. How would you claim the inkosi’s stool?” Shange inquired.
“I would perform acts that would gain the attention of the elders and sway the blessings of the ancestors. The elders would state my case before the Sesu; the ancestors would bring my name before the Eye.”
“It will not be so simple,” Shange countered. “There will be much to do to sway both elders and spirits.”
“I have already begun.” Dingane pointed to the Swazu captives. “They are the beginning. They will be divided among the elders, the largest number given to Dabulamanzi.”
Everyone nodded in agreement except Shange.
“There is another option,” he said. “Take those loyal to you and establish your own umuzi. It is the Sesu way. The inkosi will protest but he will respect your decision. Two lions cannot share a pride.”
Dingane flexed his hands. Shange was annoying him with his compromises.
“That is exactly what I don’t want,” he said. “Separating the Sesu weakens us. We must stay together to exert our full strength.”
“You are a great warrior, Dingane,” Zidewu said. “I’m sure you can perform many feats the elders would respect. But what of the spirits? They are not easily swayed.”
“That’s a question Mulugo will answer,” Dingane said.
A collective grumble escaped the lips of everyone except Dingane. Mulugo was their brother but he was not one for physical challenges. He always conceded in a stick fight before stick and shield were barely raised. When Dabulamanzi issue the first call to war Mulugo did not answer. He immediately apprenticed himself to the medicine priests. It was the right thing for a timid man like him to do, but it still angered his brothers.
Shange gathered his weapons and stood. “I’m done with this. I have no desire to hear those plans. I leave that up to you.”
“Are you with me, Shange?” Dingane asked.
“You are my brother. I’ll follow into fire.”
Dingane watched Shange disappear into the darkness. He couldn’t control Shange; he never could. Even in defeat he always found a way to challenge him. Fortunately his insolence did not affect the others.
“What of the rest of you? Are you with me?”
They all nodded. Madikane stood, his lean, unscarred body a sign of his youth and inexperience. The Swazu raid was his first taste of battle. He’d done well, in fact he’d done better than Dingane expected for one so young. He would bear watching.
Dabulamanzi is an old man,” Madikane said. “Sesu spears grow dull under his rule. It’s time for new blood. It’s time for Dingane!”
The others beat their shields on the ground in agreement. Dingane smiled, letting his eyes linger on Madikane. There may come a time the young Sesu would be an enemy but for now he was an obvious ally.
Morning came early to the umuzi, the servants rousing the captives for the march to inkosi’s umuzi. Dingane and his warriors enjoyed a leisurely breakfast then rounded up the cattle. They put the strongest of the captives to work herding the bovine, the warriors walking on either side. They kept a brisk pace for Dingane wished to reach Selike in the afternoon. The city would be at its fullest, the farmers resting from early field chores as the wives shopped for the evening meal. A few of the captives attempted to show their displeasure by crooning a song in their own tongue. Dingane ordered them beaten and the song died in their battered throats.
They rested mid-morning then set out again at a warrior’s pace. By noon the smell and sounds of Selike reached them. Dabulamanzi’s umuzi rose slowly over the horizon, his massive house crowning the steep hill. The inkosi’s cattle grazedon the slopes, one thousand prized beasts displaying the black and white pattern unique to his clan. The huts of his wives circled the base of the hill,the largest belonging to his Great Wife (what’s her name?). The huts diminished in size as they migrated away from the Great Wife’s abode, a sign of the other wives’ status. The huts of Dabulamanzi and his servants spread from the umuzifence into the surrounding pasture, columns of smoke rising from the punctured roofs.
Dingane led his intanga into view. No sooner did they come into view did shrill ululations respond. Dingane watched the Sesu emerge from their huts and the women and children immediately joined in the welcoming call. The warriors grabbed their shields and assegais then gathered around the inkosi’s fence. Dingane could barely see the inkosi emerge from his hut surrounded by elders and priests. He grinned; his arrival was expected. The inkosi and his entourage strolled down the hill to greet him, their slowness an insult in response to Dingane’s unannounced arrival. Dabulamanzi’s servants place his stool before the umuzi entrance. The elders took their place on either side of him with the medicine priests standing behind him. His bodyguards stood closest to him,their bodies shielded from toe to neck by their white cowhide shields.
Dingane signaled and his brothers paraded the cattle and captives before the inkosi. Dingane, Shange and Tantashi continued to approach. About fifty paces from the inkosi Shange and Tantashi lay down their weapons and went to their hands and knees. Dingane remained standing.
“Brother,what are you doing?” Tantashi whispered.
“Waiting,” Dingane replied.
“Now is not the time for defiance,” Shange said. “You taint our victory with insolence.”
Again Shange’s wisdom annoyed him. He squatted to his knees then hesitated. Shange cleared his throat then Dingane placed his palms on the stiff grass. Together they waited for what seemed like an eternity before hearing the deep rumble of the inkosi’s voice.
“Come forth, warriors,” he barked.
The trio crawled to the feet to the inkosi and the elders. Dingane touched his forehead to the ground, gritting his teeth in embarrassment. He should be above such humiliating gestures, but Shange’s words rose in his mind and he let them calm him before he raised his head to meet Dabulamanzi’s gaze.
If the inkosi derived any pleasure from Dingane’s submission it did not show on his face. The Sesu inkosi displayed the wide, broad shouldered stature common among the Sesu, his muscular frame slightly softened by the excesses of privilege.His wide hands rested on his knees, appendages legendary in their strength.
“Rise ,my sons,” he commanded. Dabulamanzi’s gentle command discomforted Dingane. To him it was a sign of the inkosi’s weakness, a trumpet of his true self. It was the reason the Sesu sought allies instead of vassals.
“Onc eagain you bring honor to us,” the inkosi spoke. “Swazu cattle shall fee us wel las we celebrate your victory.”
Dingane grinned. The first insult had been cast. The honor would have been for the inkosi to accept the cattle into his prize herd. Instead they would be slaughtered and eaten like goats. There was no movement among the elders, which signaled their agreement.
“As it pleases the inkosi,” Dingane answered.
Dabulamanzi studied the captives. “Are the Swazu warriors so lazy that they must bring their slaves to do their work?”
Dingane fought to keep from grinning. “What you see before you are not slaves, inkosi. These are the families of the Swazu. They are the blood of Tumo daWamaze. The Swazu attempted to claim the high pasture for theirs. They will try no more.”
An astonished rumble cascaded among the elders. The medicine-priests exchanged worried glances, all except Mulugo who looked upon his intanga brother with interest. Dabulamanzi was stoic, his posture and countenance unchanged. If it weren’t for his thick fingers digging into his knees Dingane would have though this words had no effect on the inkosi.
“My victory would not have come without your blessing and the favor of the ancestors,”Dingane continued. He turned to the throng and raised his iklwa and shield.
“Such is the strength of the Bull of the Sesu!”
The people cheered for the inkosi but in Dingane’s mind the praise was for him. He faced the inkosi again, unable to hide his smirk.
“Tonight you will fit in my umuzi and feast with my warriors,” Dabulamanzi said.“Because of you the Jamburu will think twice before claiming neutral grasslands.”
Dabulamanzi stood and Dingane prostrated before him. He led the slow procession back to his umuzi. Dingane stood and he and his intanga were the last to follow. The day was filled with continuous celebration. That night the Jamburu herd was slaughtered and served. Dingane’s intanga sat opposite Dabulamanzi’s guard enjoying the sweet meat. There was tension between the groups until Shange stood and told the story of Dingane’s latest triumph. Dingane’s gaze drifted between his brothers and the inkosi. Dabalumanzi never took his eyes from Dingane, even when approached by the elders and others. He was no doubt planning to get rid of him, but it did not seem as though all the elders were in agreement. A group of priests seem just as interested. Mulugo broke from them. He pushed through the feasting warriors then stood before Dingane.
“Agreat celebration for a great victory,” he said.
“If only all my brothers had been present,” Dingane replied.
Mulugo ignored his insult. “My presence was not missed. All my brothers know I’m not a fighter. You would have wrapped my body long ago. I have saved you the trouble.Besides, a brother is still a brother. He just serves in a different way.”
Now this was interesting, Dingane thought. He stabbed the steaming meat before him and offered a slice to Mulugo. The priest gripped it between his teeth then sliced off a portion with a similar knife.
“Your victory makes my masters nervous and suspicious,” he said. “They fear you have consulted others to win the ancestors’ favor. I told them not to worry. I said you told me of your intentions and that I sought the ancestors blessing in the name of the inkosi.”
“And they believed you?”
“Only because they wanted to.”
Dingane folded his arms. “You risk yourself.”
Mulugo shrugged. ‘They think more of me now. It’s you who must act fast. The inkosi consults them as we speak. As soon as he finds a way to rid himself of you he will act.”
“I’m ready,” Dingane announced.
“No you’re not, but you can be.”
This was what Dingane hoped for. “What must I do?”
Shange’sperformance was ending. Mulugo cut his eyes at him and frowned.
“I will come to you later,” he said.
Dingane smiled. “I will be waiting.”
Once Mulugo departed Dingane was done with Dabulamanzi’s tribute. He sat respectfully, nodding at the inkosi and the elders as he ached to be away from it all. Mulugo’s words filled his head and distracted his attention. He was grateful as the last piece of meat was consumed and the inkosi rose to his feet. He left without another word, the elders, priests, and warriors following him single file into his umuzi. Dingane jumped to his feet immediately after the last warrior entered the fence. He set a warrior’s pace back to his umuzi,his brothers scrambling to catch up. Shange was the first, easily jogging to his side.
“Mulugo’s words must have been inspiring,” he said.
“He’s still our brother despite his new masters. He has information that will help us.”
“Help us, or help you?”
Dingane glared at Shange. “Speak your mind.”
“I don’t like this, Dingane. You move too fast. We are not ready.”
“When will the time be right, Shange? When?”
“When we have more clans behind us.”
“And when will that be?”
“Today’s celebration will sway more our way. It will take time to find out whom.”
Dingane slowed and patted Shange’s shoulder. “Dabulamanzi is not wasting time. He’s gathering his allies, physical and spiritual, so we must not waste time either.We will see what Mulugo brings before we decide what to do.”
Mulugo arrived at Dingane’s umuzi just as the intanga gathered to disperse to their huts. Dingane ordered his servants to build a fire and the intanga gathered reluctantly around the blaze. Mulugo stepped into the muted light. His face was drawn, his breathing heavy. Dingane suspected his fatigue came from more that his haste to reach the umuzi.
“Hear me, brothers,’ he said, his voice surprisingly deep and commanding. “Dingane has brought us a victory that interests the spirits, yet it is not enough to serve our ambitions. If Dabulamanzi shows his face on our hill today we would fall like grass to an elephant’s foot.”
Dingane did not like Mulugo’s reference. He shifted about, drawing Mulugo’s attention. The medicine priest continued.
“The inkosi has many secrets. Some only inside his heart but others placed on his head when he took the stool. Tonight I will share one of those secrets in hope that its resolution will sway the spirits in our favor.”
Mulugo’s head tilted forward and he swayed as if about to fall. A number of his brothers rushed to his aid but Dingane held up his hand.
“Do not touch him,” he ordered. “The spirits are upon him.”
Mulugo steadied and slowly raised his head. Though they looked into the face of their brother, Dingane knew Mulugo did not stand before him. The eyes that looked back at him were ancient orbs that had seen thousands of rains. An eerie smile came to Mulugo’s face.
“Ahhh, you are strong,”he said in a voice that was not his. “You have the blood, but you need much more.”
He sat cross-legged before Dingane as he had at the celebration, his grin wider.
“Who are you?” Dingane asked.
“It does not matter,” he replied. “What matters is what I reveal. One deed can sway the ancestors,one task unfulfilled by all Sesu inkosis since the first rains fell on our people.”
Dingane leaned close to his possessed friend. “What must I do?”
“Remove the Sesu’s Shame,” the spirit answered.
Dingane blinked in confusion. “The Sesu Shame?”
The spirit threw Mulugo’s head back, emitting a cackling laugh. “The Sesu have not always been strong. Once we were a small tribe, mere jackals among lions. One of those lions was the Jamburu.
“Manelesi, the third Sesu inkosi, amassed an enormous herd of cattle, a wealth known not only for its size but for its uniqueness. Each bovine was pure white with a single black dot between its eyes. Manelesi claimed each beast was the soul of a warrior he slew, proving that he was the master of life and death. The knowledge of this valuable herd spread across the grasses to the ears of the Jamburu. Their inkosi quickly called their warriors together and attacked the Sesu, determined to claim the herd and bring shame to Manelesi.”
Mulugo’s eyes became distant. A slight smile came to his face.
“How we fought that day!” The Jamburu came thick like the rains and we cut them down like the harvest. But still they came. They pushed us away from the cattle and herded them away. We pursued them, our throats raw with anger and our bodies bloody ,but the Jamburu escaped with our prize.
The smile faded. Mulugo’s possessed eyes locked on Dingane and the intanga leader’s discomfort caused him to blink.
“We lost a generation of warriors that day. Entire intanga’s were wiped out. The inkosi could not raise a complete impi. For years we cowered, waiting for the Jamburu to return and make us a stain in the grass. But they didn’t. Our cattle were enough. We were nothing to them.”
“Times have changed,”Dingane said.
“Have they?” The doubtin Mulugo’s face irked Dingane. He knew his brother was at the mercy of thespirit sitting on his head but the expression still annoyed him.
“The Jamburu respect us now,” Dingane explained. “So do the Swazu, the Xhoso, and the Shamfa. The Mawena seek alliance with us. Thus is the strength of the Sesu.”
“Yet the Shame remains,” Mulugo countered.
“I cannot win a battle that has already been fought! But you can heal the wound in the Sesu soul. You can bring the White Herd back.”
“The Herd still exists?”
“Deep within Jamburuland they live, surrounded my steep mountains and vigilant warriors. The warrior that brings back the White Herd will lift the shame that chokes Sesuland and blocks us from greatness. He also will find great favor among the ancestors.”
Shange appeared beside Dingane, his skepticism apparent.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Ah, Shange speaks at last! I can tell you what I am not. I am not the inkosi who lost the cattle as you suspect. Your inqwele asked a question and I answered. Will you follow him if he chooses to go on this quest?”
“I always do.”
“Then it is settled,”Dingane announced. “We go to Jamburuland. We will claim the White Herd andbring it home.”
Shange’s look was anything but agreeable.
“So we risk our lives because of the ramblings of a spirit?”
Mulugo took on a cold expression. “You are braver than I thought, or more foolish.”
“Enough.” Dingane stoodbefore his brothers, his eyes vacillating between Shange and the possessedMulugo.
“I believe this spirit speaks the truth,” he said. “I also believe my brothers know their destiny lies beyond our current status. If we find the Herd we restore the soul of the Sesu. Nothing and no one can stand before us. Our homeland will be endless, our cattle will as numerous as grass. Every people within our sight will be our slaves. But most of all, Sesuland will be ours.”
There was a murmur ofapproval among them. Shange’s face remained neutral. Madikane jumped to hisfeet, shield and iklwa in his hands.
“We are ready, inqwele!”
The others came to their feet, sparked by Madikane’s enthusiasm. Shange was last to stand.
“Go to your homes,”Dingane said. “Tend to your personal needs. We will leave for Jamburulandwithin the week.”
He looked immediately at Shange. Shange said nothing but his expression reflected his disapproval .Dingane let him brood; he was tired of Shange’s moodiness and would have no more of it.
A hacking cough drew his attention back to Mulugo. The priest lay on his side holding his stomach and his head.
“That wasn’t pleasant,”he croaked.
Dingane helped Mulugoto his feet.
“Thank you, brother.”
Mulugo shook his head.“Don’t thank me yet. Save that for when we return.”
Dingane stepped back. “We?”
“There may be obstacles you encounter that cannot be handled with an assegai or orinka. Besides, you don’t know the way.”
“Neither do you.”
“The spirit does. Hewill lead us through me.”
“Thenyou will stay with me.”
Mulugo smiled. “I will wait here for a while. You have one more conversation left.”
“Wha tare you talking about?”
Mulugo waved him off. “Go. I’ll come to later. I wish to speak to Shange.”
Dingane shrugged and went to his hut. Mulugo’s words were revealed as soon as he entered.
“Welcome home, inqwele.”
Thandeka stood as he entered. The sight of her chased away the tension of the day. She took his weapons and dropped them at the edge of the hut.
“You did not come to see men so I came to see you,” she purred.
Dingane took her in his arms. “Today has been very eventful.”
“Yes, but you still should have come. I was angry with you.” She pressed her breasts against his chest.
A curious look came to Dingane’s face. “Did you come alone?”
Thandeka kissed his cheek. “Of course not. My bodyguards wait beyond the umuzi.”
Dingane was close to losing himself. A woman’s virtue was sacred. There was a way they both could satisfy their desire, but Dingane could not trust himself,especially with Thandeka’s guards so far away.
“You must go,” he said. “I cannot guarantee your virtue if you stay much longer.”
“My virtue is not an issue with in the presence of the future inkosi,” Thandeka replied.
“You talk nonsense,” Dingane said, barely able to hide his pleasure with her words.
“I believe it will be so, and so does my father.”
Thandeka made a bold and treasonous statement. Her father, Zwelithini, was a senior induna and a powerful elder. He was also considered a staunch Dabulamanzi supporter.
“Does he know you are her?” he asked.
Thandeka grinned. “He sent me.”
She unhooked her beaded skirt and let it fall to the ground. It was all Dingane could take. He rushed her, lifting her off the ground as their lip met hungrily. Thandeka lifted her legs and wrapped them around his waist as Dingane lowered her to his mat. By the time Thandeka’s back met the mat her virtue was sure to be a memory.
The week sprinted by amid a flurry of preparation. Ngangas worked endlessly on the wounded to prepare them for the epic trek. Iklwas, swords and axes were sharpened; shields were mended or replaced. Mulugo and the other medicine priests worked tirelessly as well, concocting medicines for both secular and spiritual ailments. Dingane and Shange oversaw the preparations evenly. Theevening before their departure they sat before small fire in Dingane’s hut, the sound of their singing brothers seeping between the thatch.
“What is our strength?” Dingane asked his friend.
“Better than expected,” Shange replied. “Mulugo’s healing skills have improved. We are three hundred strong. The others are still too weak to march.”
“Zwelithini’swarriors will make up the difference,” Dingane commented. Shange frowned.
“His warriors are not are brothers,” he said.
“True,”Dingane admitted. “Due to my situation with Thandeka I could not refuse them.”
“Does he know our intentions?”
“He knows we plan a foray into Jamburuland, but so does everyone else. That’s all he or Thandeka need to know.”
Shange shook his head. “But what…”
Please Shange, enough of this!” Dingane blurted. He glared at his second in command.“ Tomorrow we embark on the most important trek of our lives. Tonight I need to at least think that you are with me.”
Shange took out his dagga pipe, filled it and lit it. He took a deep drag and extended it to Dingane.
“You are my brother. I am always with you.”
They exchanged smiles as Dingane took the pipe. He hoped the dagga would give him the confidence Shange’s words could not.
Their quiet moment was short lived. Mulugo appeared in the firelight, a solemn look to his face. He seemed older that before, the lines on his face deeper, his eyes sunken.
“We must gather for the ancestors blessings,” he said. “Our brothers have built a bonfire and are waiting.”
Mulugo lead them to the center the umuzi where a bonfire blazed. Their brothers formed a ring of shields and assegais around the blaze. They parted when the trio reached the ring. Mulugo placed his hand firmly on Shange’s shoulder.
“Wait with our brothers,” he said.
Shange looked relieved as he took his place among the others.
Dingane followed Mulugo to the bonfire. The heat pressed against his cheeks; it seemed to seep inside him and reach into his spirit.
“You can feel them, can’t you?”
Mulugo turned to face him and Dingane could tell his brother was gone. The spirit had returned.
“Your brother is too weak,” the spirit said, answering Dingane’s unspoken question.
“I know the way and I know the obstacles you will face. Without me you will fail.”
“Who are you?” Dingane demanded to know.
The spirit smiled with a mouth that was not his. He laughed, grinned then leaped into the bonfire.
Searing light engulfed Dingane and the warmth inside him became an inferno. He screamed, or at least he thought he did for he could not hear his voice. He was fuel, consumed like wood in a spiritual conflagration. How he was still conscious though such excruciating pain he could not understand for the pain would not let him hold his thoughts long.
The torment dissipated. Dingane lay on his back staring into the star studded sky.The night air hung humid around him, the stink of burned flesh clogged his nostrils. He lay still, refusing to stand in fear of what he might see. Shange’s face appeared before him contorted in a rare expression o fastonishment. He reached out his hand and Dingane took it. Shange pulled him upto a sitting position.
“What happened?” he croaked. His throat burned.
“The fire,” Shange said. “It swallowed you and Mulugo.”
“Mulugo?”Dingane clamored to his feet as he looked about for the medicine priest. Mulugostood where the bonfire once burned. He strolled from the ashes and wood ,approaching Dingane and Shange with a confident swagger.
Dingane pushed past Shange to confront the spirit possessing his brother. It was then he noticed he was naked, his garments apparently consumed by the fire.
“What did you do to me?” he shouted.
The spirit smiled. “You were tested.”
Dingane’s clinched his fingers into fists.
“Why was I not informed of this test?”
“Because you would have prepared yourself.” The spirit became emotionless. “We need to be sure you are the one for this task.”
Dingane’s fury broke through. He shoved Mulugo to the ground.
“I could have died!”
Mulugo climbed to his feet. “If you had you would not have been worthy.”
Dingane’s anger seeped away, replaced by relief and pride. He’d been tested and he succeeded.
“Now what?” he asked.
Mulugosmirked. “We will see.”
End of Part One