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Among Kings

Chapter One

The Congo – 1880

 

The iridescent full moon reflecting on the Congo River faded against the brilliant morning sun rising in the east. Beneath the dense jungle canopy, fast hands slapped tight animal skins in a distinctive cadence. The high-pitched ta-ta-ta-ta interspersed with low bass notes. The drum beats rose above the hypnotizing hum of buzzing insects. The rising cries of kingfishers, guinea fowl, grey parrots, and turacos created a pleasing morning chorus.

Drum song and birdsong awakened the village. Families stepped from thatched huts into sunlight streaming through the shadows of giant trees. The red ground and jungle undergrowth, still wet with dew, gave the air a dank, heavy smell.

The unfolding beauty of dawn was in the river, jungle, sun, and sky.

Eden awakened.

The sound of beating drums startled young Shamba, jarring him awake. He jumped from his mat and leaped to the opening of his hut. He’d waited weeks for those drums. The drums invited the men from surrounding villages to a celebration hosted by Makoko, a brave hunter and respected Kuba elder.

For the past year, Shamba had endured intense physical training and preparation, learning the ways of his tribe. Tonight would be everything his warrior training had prepared him for. Tonight, Shamba would become a man. A Kuba warrior.

Shamba ran a hand along the intricate pattern of raised bumps and dots on his dark chest. The wounds had healed, leaving behind coveted scars. The odouti, the scar master, had thrown broken cowrie shells into a pot of water to determine this particular pattern. He then took a sharp coconut shell to Shamba’s skin. The process had been painful and tedious, but the final result was stunning.

Shamba had yet to grow strong chest muscles like his father’s. The elders assured him as the son of Makoko, he would become a fine warrior. He had demonstrated his strength and skill in wrestling matches, spear throwing, bow hunting, and running races. Tonight, his father would confirm his identity and place in the tribe. The spirits of his ancestors would honor the sacred warrior marks on his arm.

Shamba spent the day isolated, alone with his thoughts and visions, fasting in preparation. All he wore was a small loincloth with a leather belt and sheathed knife. As evening neared, he heard sounds of men arriving, gathering and greeting one another. They passed large gourds filled with palm wine. The village musicians began singing ancestral songs in high voices. The music rose louder as more men arrived.

Finally, two warriors came for Shamba. They led him to a blazing fire surrounded by dozens of men. The muscled warriors stood there dressed in the ceremonial clothing of raffia cloth, leopard skins, fetish necklaces, spears, curved knives, and war axes. Several witch doctors wore elaborate headdresses of long feathers and colored glass beads.

Shamba’s father and the village chief stepped in front of Shamba. His father held a spear with a long metal tip. The chief carried an ornately carved ceremonial knife. The chief then spoke to Shamba about the duties and responsibilities of a Kuba warrior. Someday, he would take a wife and confer upon his sons the traditions of the tribe.

The chief gripped Shamba’s shoulder. “The mark of your Kuba ancestors,” he said, dragging the knife across Shamba’s shoulder.

Shamba clenched his teeth as crimson blood flowed from the three-inch slice. He refused to flinch, as still as the village totem. The chief took a handful of charcoal powder and pressed it into the wound.

Again, the chief set the knife against Shamba’s shoulder. “The mark of your village!”

He dug the blade dug deep. Shamba felt heat flash through his body. With effort, he absorbed the pain into his body. His feet didn’t move. He steeled himself for the third and final mark. Then he could relax and feast on the young goat roasting nearby.

After the chief packed more charcoal into the second cut, he stepped aside to Shamba’s surprise. His father came forward and pressed his head against Shamba’s in the same way he did on the day of his birth.

“Shamba,” Makoko said. “Go now, my son. Kill the leopard. When you return, I will give you the final mark of a Kuba warrior.”

This last instruction had been a long-held secret among Kuba warriors. Every young boy, to become a man, had to hunt a leopard. Boys practiced by killing birds, warthogs, boars, monkeys — even driving a spear through the heads of smaller crocodiles sleeping among the reeds at the river’s edge.

Killing a leopard required uncommon skill and accuracy. Though beautiful, leopards were the enemy of the tribe. Always lurking and preying upon unsuspecting villagers. To receive the final warrior mark, the best young Kuba hunters returned before the morning light.

Makoko thrust his spear at Shamba. Shamba took it and ran. A moment’s pause would be seen as weakness, or worse, disrespect. He tore out of the village to the sound of cheering men and pounding drums. Into the shadows of the night, his feet took him fast down familiar paths.

Shamba knew precisely where he wanted to go: a shallow moon-streaked stream where he and his friends often went to watch female leopards bring their young to drink. Shamba ran past large palms, and giant ferns as the sounds of celebration faded in the distance. He felt strong and swift. Energized by visions of his first leopard kill, his shoulder felt no pain. Bounding over rocks and roots, his feet carried him deeper and deeper into the jungle.

Shamba held his spear fast as he raced past a cluster of towering mahogany trees when he caught a glimpse of two sets of darting eyes from the bush. He stopped short, breathing shallowly, hoping not to be seen. Two bearded men in sweat-stained khakis with rifles stepped onto the hardened path. Mzungus. White men. A tall, dark figure holding a bow and a war ax followed. This was M’lumba N’kusa, one of the many chiefs among the feared Zappo Zaps. Nsapu Nsapu, the leader of the Zappo Zaps, ruled in the Ben’Eki kingdom in the eastern Kasai region of Congo. Given the name “Zappo Zap” by a white explorer, Nsapu Nsapu directed notorious slave-raiding attacks on villages. Tonight, M’lumba would lead the charge.

M’lumba’s tattooed face and the sharp points of razor-filed teeth gave him a repulsive look. He waved his ax and motioned with a firm hand signal. From the cover of the night, hundreds of warriors stepped on the path and into a small clearing. They gathered around their leader and the white men.

N’kusa pointed toward the drumsong coming from the Kuba camp, then singled out a warrior and pointed toward Shamba. The command was clear: Kill the boy. Shamba saw the signal and darted away. N’kusa then waved his men onward as the mercenaries hung back, lit cigarettes, and waited.

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