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NDAGA'S GIFT

Gregory M. Philson


For several months a student of Lew Kaye-Skinner has been polishing a little story, which appears now. Tangor the editor and ERB Canon expert offered some commentary, of course! All of us, especially this new author, hope you enjoy Ndaga's Gift.


Within the continent of Africa, a tribe trekked through deep jungles, searching for a new home. This tribe, led by their prince Kulonga, the son of Mbonga, was seeking refuge from the white devils that had forced them into servitude. They had gathered up all they possessed and marched between their warriors who protected their front and their rear. Kulonga, being brave and heir to his father's title of king, led the forward band of warriors.

After journeying for many moons, the tribe eventually found a site, and with the approval of the aged and wise Mbonga, the people began to clear away trees and build their huts. Around their huts, the villagers erected a wall of tree trunks and a gate, so that they could be protected from outsiders. Outside of the wall, the people surrounded their territory with fields of various crops. Before long the people of Mbonga had established a new home which they considered to be safe from the clutches of the white-faced beasts that had forced them to work.

During the transition of their move, Kulonga had shown himself to be a great and adept leader, and his people respected him just as much as they respected his father. Even Mbonga realized that Kulonga was an exceptional member of the tribe and eagerly waited the day when he, Mbonga, would leave the tribe to join their ancestors in the great beyond and his son would become their leader.

One day, the king took his son aside and said to him, "My son, the time for me is near. Our ancestors desire me to sit among them. You, Kulonga, shall inherit my role, and I am pleased to be succeeded by you. But, even with all that you have accomplished, you are still without a wife. I urge you to marry. In fact, there is a woman in our village named Ndaga; she will provide you with many children, and she will serve your every need. Go find a worthy pelt to present to her as a sign of your intentions to marry her."

Kulonga heard all that his father told him and out of obedience replied, "Yes, father, I know Ndaga, and I shall take her to be my wife. I will leave immediately with my younger brother Jmunda, and together he and I shall find and return with a great pelt." With that, the young suitor bowed to his father, left the hut, and prepared for the journey.

Shortly after the meeting between father and son, the brothers Kulonga and Jmunda left the safety of their village and disappeared into the blackness of the jungle, so that they might find a gift fitting for this marriage. For a day they wandered, searching for the coat of a beast that would honor Kulonga's future wife. At sunset of the first day, the brothers climbed a tree and rested.

Jmunda who was very young, possessed many questions for his older brother, and no sooner had the pair found refuge, when the youngest began making inquiries of his brother. "Kulonga, I do not understand why you and I are out here. What is it that father wants us to accomplish?"

Kulonga settled on a branch and considered his brother's question. "Young Jmunda, we are here because father has asked me to partake in a right of passage. I must find a gift to present to Ndaga, to show her that I am a worthy husband. I could do this alone, but this jungle is alien to our people and we are not familiar with the creatures that prowl through the foliage, so I brought you with me, so that you may learn more about this rite." With that being said, Kulonga rested his back against the broad trunk of the tree and prepared himself for a night of rest. Jmunda, however, was not yet ready for sleep.

"Brother,"

"What do you want now?"

"What gift shall we give to Ndaga?"

"We shall not give her anything. I will present her with a pelt taken from a great beast. You will be with me to learn." Kulonga ended his sentence and waited for his brother to respond. Within a few moments Kulonga heard the response he was waiting for, a quiet "Oh." escaped the lips of Jmunda, and was followed by the sounds of the young boy settling in for the night. Kulonga, however, did not allow himself to fall asleep. Instead he lay against the tree thinking of the youth he had brought with him. Jmunda was a young boy, twelve seasons he had been alive. He wasn't even old enough to be considered a man, but Kulonga knew his younger brother's skill with the arrow and spear, and he also knew that Jmunda would one day be a great warrior. And yet, Kulonga could not rid himself of worrying for the young charge in his company. "What if something happened to the boy? What if something happened to me, could he defend himself alone in the jungle?" These thoughts plagued Kulonga's mind, as he drifted off to sleep, high in the safety of the tree.

But below them a vicious terror manifested from the blackness of night. The people of Mbonga called the animal "tanak" or "dark stalker." The black lion had killed Mbonga's people before. Many brave warriors and innocent villagers had gone to meet their ancestors at the bite of this monster. For this very reason, the tribe feared the beast and considered it to be a demon.

The tanak saw the two warriors sleeping peacefully within the branches of the tree, and wanting to feed his lustful appetite, the demon contemplated a way to bring the prey out of their perch. Realizing that the tree's limbs were too high for climbing and seeing no tree low enough or close enough to climb and bridge over to the human's nest, the tanak grew angry and with rage. Fueled by pure hate for the prey, it let out a loud cry that echoed through the jungle, disturbing all manner of creatures within the foliage.

Being right above the shout, the brothers awoke violently. Jmunda, who had chosen a thin branch for rest, came to consciousness so quickly that he lost his balance and slipped off of his bed, tumbling helplessly to the jungle floor where he broke his legs upon impact, thus rendering him helpless against his attacker. The wounded youth looked up to see the terrible tanak slowly walking towards him. Jmunda called for help; but Kulonga was already at work high in the tree looking for a means with which to kill the dark invader.

Kulonga very quickly realized that when Jmunda fell he had disturbed the branch holding the weapons. Now the ground, just under the tree was littered with their arrows, bows, knives, and spears. Fearing the end of his brother, Kulonga braved the dangerous fall from his perch to the ground. With ease and without injury, Kulonga landed on the ground and grabbed for his spear. With incredibly fast movements, he hurled the weapon at the dark monster. But by the time the spear tip made contact with its target Jmunda had already succumbed to his hideous fate, perishing within the jaws of the beast. Jmunda was dead, and it was because Kulonga had not killed the tanak quickly enough.

After the death of his brother, Kulonga did what was expected of him. First, he gathered a great pile of wood and built a pyre in which to burn the corpse of his kin. Once the dancing flames rose from the timber, Kulonga knelt and prayed to the ancients, asking them to accept Jmunda among their number. Then, as an offering to the ancients, he set to work on a second fire. In this blaze, he placed the body of the panther. His intent was to honor the spirits with a feast of the animal that had terrorized the two brothers. Within his heart, Kulonga desired to save the pelt and to present it to Ndaga. But the tradition of his people dictated that the animal was unclean because it had killed from his tribe. Thus, the animal must be sacrificed as a whole to the spirits.

For an entire day, Kulonga sat between the two fires of death, contemplating his next action. Should he return to the village a failure? For it was not safe to travel through the jungles alone. Or should he continue on his quest, ensuring that his brother's death not be in vain? After much meditation and the fires of his offering had died down, Kulonga rose quietly, gathered his supplies, and journeyed away from that site to find another tree safe for sleeping. With little effort, he found one and ascended into the outstretched limbs and settled into the slumber that beckoned him.

The next morning Kulonga awoke and immediately set back to his quest. He felt uneasy about the jungle and wanted to finish his task, so that he would be able to return home quickly. A sense of guilt loomed over the warrior's thoughts as he traveled.

During his journey, Kulonga spied something moving in the trees ahead of him. With the instincts of a seasoned hunter, Kulonga fell into a squatting position and fitted an arrow to his bow. Whatever was ahead of him, was moving slowly and right towards him. The warrior lifted his bow and aimed at his prey. Just as he was preparing to release the bowstring, Kulonga realized that his prey was no manner of jungle creature, but instead a man; a man Kulonga quickly recognized.

"TRAITOR!" The warrior screamed as he charged from his hiding place. The other man looked up suddenly and realizing who was chasing him, began running in the opposite direction. But his efforts were in vain, because within moments the warrior was on top of him, beating the man with his fists. "Bunum, you traitor I will kill you." Kulonga screamed as he beat his opponent. Bunum pleaded for mercy begging Kulonga to stop his assault.

Finally, the warrior prince ceased his attack, and drew his knife. "I will kill you for the injuries you have caused our people."

Bunum quivered with fear, and begged his former prince to spare his life. "Please, Prince Kulonga, spare me. I had no desire to betray our people to the white devils. I did not want to lead them to our village, but the whites captured my wife, and my sons, they threatened to rape my daughter. I had no choice but to lead them to Mbonga's people. Please don't kill me. Justice has already been done. My wife is dead. She took her own life and the life of our daughter after the white-faced men planted their seed in their bellies. My sons are dead. Please, be merciful." Tears gushed down Bunum's face as he told his story.

Had the situation been different, Kulonga would have ignored the man's pleading and killed him instantly. But for some reason, Kulonga could relate to the pain this man was experiencing. The death of Jmunda hurt Kulonga with the same pain that Bunum felt, and Kulonga understood what lengths one must go to, in order to protect one's family.

The warrior stood up, and sheathed his knife. Then, he extended his hand to Bunum, and helped him up.

"Thank you, thank you." Bunum exclaimed.

"Even though you brought the white demons into our village, I spare you. You did a terrible thing. However, I am sympathetic to your pain of loss. Therefore, run. Run towards the setting sun. Our people have found shelter elsewhere and if you go towards them you will surely be found. If they catch you alive they will perform the sacred dance of the dead and you will be feasted on. Now go!" With that Kulonga kicked Bunum and sent the man on his way. Then Kulonga returned to his own task, quickly forgetting the man whom he had saved.

Soon Kulonga discovered a track made by the great ivory beast, and so he silently made his way west upon the track, hopping to find some manner of creature worthy to present to Ndaga.

While creeping along the track Kulonga saw what was to become his prize. An ape was just down the track from him. Stalking this prey for a few steps, he lifted his spear and, with a prayer to the great spirits, launched his weapon. The shaft barely grazed the animal, and in a rage the ape let out a terrible shout, turned, and charged the warrior. Kulonga reached for his bow and quickly fitted an arrow to the string. This time he prayed to the spirit of Jmunda to guide his missile. Kulonga released the string and sent his arrow straight into the chest of the rampaging ape. Victory was his! Kulonga grabbed for his knife and prepared to carve the hide. But then he realized that the call of the ape had summoned many more of its kind. He turned and fled from his rightful prize, hoping to escape death at the hands of the apes. Kulonga ran as far and as fast as he could, along the path he had used to find the ape, returning in the direction from which he had ventured.

After much running, Kulonga needed rest and nourishment. Discovering that he had entered a clearing, the famished warrior spotted a boar, murderous tusks protruding out of its snout. Though the boar looked fierce, Kulonga reasoned that the hide of this animal would be pleasing to his bride. The warrior pulled a poison-tipped arrow from his quiver and launched it at the boar. The missile pierced the boar's flesh. The animal squealed with rage and violently charged at Kulonga. "What terrible luck I have!" thought Kulonga, as he vaulted over his rushing opponent. He then fitted a second arrow, and quickly released the deadly projectile. Pierced and bleeding, the infuriated monster turned and began a second charge. Kulonga promptly leapt into the nearest tree. From his overhead view, Kulonga watched his foe die of his wounds and poison.

Dropping to the ground, Kulonga built a fire and carved meat from the dead boar, feeding his growing hunger. While eating, the warrior felt that he was being watched. Looking around and seeing no one, the suitor grew fearful. He was a seasoned warrior, hunter, and leader, he knew danger when he felt it, and at that moment he felt danger.

"Probably another tanak." thought Kulonga, "I should leave this corpse for whatever wretched beast might be following me. I desire not to test my skills with a another murderous demon."

With a sigh of disappointment, Kulonga rose from his feast. "The ancient spirits must be angry with me." He had not found a prize for his future bride. Kulonga knew in his heart that his marriage to Ndaga was not going to happen.

Kulonga traveled until the great fire in the sky began to extinguish. At the same time, Kulonga could not escape the feeling that those eyes were still upon him. At dusk Kulonga settled for comfort within the protection of another tree. All through the night evil dreams of the ancient spirits haunted the slumbering warrior. At dawn Kulonga awoke from the longest night he had ever known. A cold sweat and dreadful fear captured his body when he realized his quiver and bow were missing. Kulonga quickly searched the area for his possessions, finding no trace of where they were, or what had taken them.

"The spirits must desire my death, to take my weapons! Surely I am being punished for my sins!"

Kulonga summoned all of his remaining courage. It was only a short walk, to the protection of his own village. Nothing more could possibly harm him, and certainly the spirits wouldn't bother him inside his village. And yet he still walked with a sense of urgency, still sensing eyes upon him. As he neared the walls of his village, that sense of fear grew in Kulonga's mind.

At last the warrior came upon the edge of his village's fields; home was just a few steps ahead.

Kulonga's first step into the open fields ended abruptly as he felt the grip of the ancients suddenly clamp around his neck. He strained to let out a cry for help, but the plea was trapped in his throat. A great force yanked him off his feet and backward into the jungle he had almost been able to escape. As he struggled for his life, Kulonga's eyes fell upon his village.

What had he done to anger the spirits? Was he being punished for allowing Jmunda's death, or for helping Bunum escape the vengeance of Mbonga's people, or was his greatest crime the act of abandoning his quest to bring Ndaga a prize?

Kulonga knew that he would never enter his village again and that his people would never hear of the fate that had befallen Jmunda and him. Kulonga gave in and stopped resisting the choke of the ancients…