The Leopard’s Daughter
In an ancient Africa of verdant Sahara plains, warrior princess Jeneba Karamoke has grown up scorned by her people because her father was a leopard man. When she rescues a party of fellow warriors from cannibalistic monster half-men, she hopes it will finally win acceptance for her. But no … in order to prove she isn’t lying about the vanished hero Tomo Silla’s part in their capture by the half-men she must make Tomo face the tribe. Can she find him, and then survive more monsters, foreign tribes, and a curse laid on a fabled city to bring him back alive?
The wind reeked of carrion. Jeneba Karamoke’s nose wrinkled in distaste. This wooded lakeshore might provide more water, firewood, and protection against the dangers of the night than the open grass of the Sahara plains, but how could an experienced warrior and camp scout like Tomo Silla think anyone would be able to eat or sleep in such a stench? Why did he expect Mseluku Karamoke, his commander and king, to do so?
Or did he even notice the smell, she wondered belatedly, uncomfortably. None of her other brother and sister warriors appeared to. Moving through fading light that emphasized the rich red-brown of their skins and the colors of their lion and leopard-skin war tsaras, they joked and sang while hobbling horses and building fires.
Across the clearing Mseluku stared through the trees toward the lake as he chatted with Tomo, pointing at rounded shapes in the water. “Hippos. You haven’t scouted out a camp on one of their trails, I hope, Tomo.”
Uneasiness flashed across the handsome warrior’s face…turning to a sheepish grin as Mseluku laughed and Tomo realized that the king had been joking.
And still not a word about carrion.
So Jeneba said nothing, either, just hobbled her horse and leaned her spears and long oval shield against a tree. It would be foolish to remind people of her keener-than-human senses. No one knew what perversity had made the beautiful Sia Nyiba Karamoke disdain all human suitors to take a leopard-man for a lover, but Jeneba had fought for seventeen years to overcome the curse of her mother s mating. She struggled to appear like everyone else—she ran a finger along the raised ridge of the tribal scar stretching from her left nostril halfway across the cheek toward her ear—to make her people forget that though the uba, blood, of the king’s sister’s daughter was noble and pure Dasa, her father had given her the tetena, spirit, of an animal.
Fighting yesterday beside fellow Dasa of Imbu against the Keoru, she had felt closer to success than ever before. With the earth warm beneath her bare feet and the sun heating arms and shoulders bared by the drape of her lion-skin war tsara, she and her fellow Dasa had moved with practiced precision…hurling their spears at the Keoru line, raising shields to deflect spears aimed at them. Each maneuver accompanied by the clicking of the beads strung on the ropes of their hair. How magnificent everyone had looked…tall and lean and dark above the yellow-brown Keoru. And in the evening, dancing in celebration with the spears Joueta Tatauba s warriors threw down on retreat, warriors of both Imbu and Kiba embraced each other, embraced Jeneba, calling her “sister”.
For the first time in her life they seemed to accept her as truly one of them, not just tolerate her because she was the king s niece but without a brother to inherit the king’s Stool and make her the Queen Mother. No, she would not negate that.
Jeneba joined the party gathering firewood.
The others chattered while they collected dried wood, recalling the battle, too. Jeneba listened in silent pleasure, enjoying being part of the group, nodding in agreement with their assessment of Nykoro and Mseluku s cleverness. What a masterful insult it had been for the two leaders to stand before Joueta’s army with a matching one of their own and courteously offer to wait while Joueta sent for enough reinforcements to give himself a fair fight against the Dasa.
Behind her, in camp, she heard Mseluku s bard Kinetu singing.
We are fierce warriors, lords of the Sahara plains.
The Creator Mala-Lesa smiles down on us,
Both her moon by night
And his sun by day.
Our buffalo totem, powerful, clever, smiles on us.
We fear nothing,
Not men nor wizards,
Not demons nor ghosts nor monsters,
We hunt where we will.
We fatten our cattle on the sweet Sahara grasses.
We march into battle and emerge victorious.
Hoooh! Dasa! Hoooh!”
“Hoooh! Dasa!” Jeneba echoed.
A throaty voice spoke from above her. “Greetings, sister.”
Startled, Jeneba glanced up before she could stop herself, so that by the time she saw the leopard sprawled along the tree limb overhead, there was no way to ignore the beast. She could only hope that the warriors gathering wood nearby heard nothing. Jeneba bent to reach for another piece of wood. “I’m not your sister.”
“Ah?” the leopard said lazily. Jeneba glanced up to find it regarding her with amusement. Its tawny eyes blinked with cat slowness. “But I smell leopard in you, and see that you have leopard-tawny eyes. You also understand me, which no one fully human can.”
Jeneba set her jaw. “I am Dasa and a noble of the city of Kiba, no kin to a leopard.” Turning away, she started back for camp with her wood.
The leopard sighed. “How unfortunate, for if you were my sister, I could warn you about this place.”
The smell of carrion seemed suddenly stronger. Jeneba s neck prickled. She whirled back toward the leopard. “What warning?”
But the leopard had gone.
Something else moved in the woods, however. Jeneba heard stealthy steps. Dropping her wood, she raced for the camp…for her spear and shield.
Warriors stared in astonishment as she raced past them.
“Spears!” she cried, and had no time to explain further. As her fingers closed around the shaft of a spear, a gust of wind brought a chorus of whoops madder than those of hyena, and a carrion reek so strong that Jeneba choked. The horses reared screaming, fighting their hobbles.
She whirled to find the woods erupting with men who looked as though they had been split lengthwise. Short as Keoru but thicker, naked except for loincloths and grey paint covering their skin, each hopped on one leg and swung a club in his single hand.
Wachiru! Cold rushed through Jeneba and even as she stared in disbelief—Wachiru attacking in a group?—she understood why she had seen nothing in the woods. The half-men kept their invisible off-side toward the camp as they approached. All they could not hide was the stench of their man-eating breath.
She answered their cries with a yell of her own, and stabbed at the nearest attacker. He parried the spear with his club, then pivoting away, vanished. Jeneba lunged through the spot where he had stood, but her spear passed without meeting resistance. The wachiru reappeared off to her left, his club already aimed at her head.
Jeneba ducked barely in time. The club caught her hair in passing, clicking off the beads. Fear burst in her with icy fire. Shifting the spear to her left hand, she snatched her knife from the sheath beneath her tsara with her right and lunged slashing. This time she found the wachiru. The copper blade opened his belly. He doubled screaming, bloody loops of gut ballooning between his hands. Jeneba retreated until she stood with her back against a tree, spear and knife ready for another assault from any side.
Around her wachiru clubbed warriors to the ground. Screaming horses threw themselves or snapped their hobbles and bolted into the woods. Other wachiru dragged unconscious members of the wood gathering party into camp. Several warriors managed to reach their weapons, however, Mseluku among them, and they stabbed at every wachiru they saw.
Seeing their opponents was the problem.
Jeneba shouted a warning at Mseluku, who had three half-men closing on him off-side-first. She sprang away from her tree at them. No monster would eat her uncle!
Something moved at the edge of her vision, but before she could dodge the club she sensed coming, pain burst through her. Mala-Lesa recreated the night sky in her skull in a single fiery upheaval and Jeneba fell into a bottomless black hole…through the earth, through lawariwa, the underworld of recent ancestral shades, through lewarikile, the dimmer kingdom of older shades, and into the lowest depths of luwarilenge, where the oldest shades must finally go, a place without light, warmth, feeling, or even memory.
Or did it have sound after all? Shades gibbered shrilly at each other. Then she saw light, a dancing red glow, and felt a lumpy surface beneath her. Her hand finally convinced her that, astonishingly, she remained alive and on earth. It still grasped her knife.
She opened her eyes painfully to find herself at the base of the tree she had used to guard her back. Although drums pounded in her head and great stones seemed to weight it, she could look up enough to see torches set in the ground and wachiru men, women, and children hopping back and forth across the campsite. Children, naked, and women, bare to the waist like their men, chattered excitedly as they bound the legs and arms of warriors. The few they left loose lay with the unmistakable slackness of death. That explained why Jeneba still lived. Dead victims must be eaten quickly. The wachiru wanted some meat for another day, too.
She shuddered at the thought of herself spitted and roasting.
The wachiru had not reached this end of the camp yet, judging by her still-free hands. Was anyone watching her? Jeneba saw no one. Touching her heart four times for luck and praying to Mala-Lesa and to Lubama, Mala-Lesa’s youngest son, the evening star she could knew must be shining in the west, Jeneba wiggled backward. Drums pounded in her head.
Sota, Sota, great god of thunder, I beg you, still your noise, she prayed. But no one appeared to notice either noise or motion. She kept moving, edging back around the thick tree. Only an arm’s length more to go.
A female voice cried in alarm. Jeneba lunged to her feet, but discovered in that sickening moment that she was too dizzy to run. She caught at the tree for support, her mind racing in panic, searching for an escape.
Tree? She looked up. Wachiru could not climb. Perhaps they would not think of her doing so.
Jamming her knife back in its sheath, Jeneba scrambled for the overhead branches.
The buffalo gave her his strength. Her hands found holds that let her drag herself up. And Mala-Lesa smiled. While Jeneba crouched in a fork clutching the buffalo-horn talisman around her neck, her heart thundering like a war drum, the wachiru milled around the bottom of the tree. They sniffed the ground and air, but never looked up. After a fruitless search of the woods floor, the half-men returned to binding their captives. Finishing that, they slung the warriors over their shoulders and started off through the woods.
Teeth gritted in sorrow and anger, Jeneba counted the casualties passing below her. The bard Kinetu hung over a half-woman’s shoulder, blood dripping down her back from his smashed skull. Half a dozen other brother and sister warriors appeared dead, too. The side of Jeneba’s skull throbbed in reminder of how easily she could be among them. Mseluku lived, though. He groaned as his captors bounded past Jeneba’s tree.
She bared her teeth. “Buffalo, give me your strength and wiles,” she whispered, caressing her talisman. “Kutu, great god of fire, weapons, and war, guide me to vengeance. Grant me the pleasure of introducing these half-men to your brother Ello, death.”
The last half-man passed Jeneba’s tree. She counted to the sacred number four, four times, then cautiously slid to the ground, never letting her eyes leave the bobbing light of the torches disappearing through the woods.
She spun, snatching at her knife…but turned the slash aside and grinned in relief at the man behind her. “Tomo!” She hardly knew him but here he seemed like an old friend. “Thank Mala someone else escaped, too. Come on; let s go before they re too far ahead.”
Tomo sucked in his breath. His hand clamped around her wrist, holding her back. “Two of us alone can t rescue Mseluku and the others. Find the horses at first light and we’ll ride to Imbu for help.”
“Leave our people for two days?” She stared at him in outrage. “Why aren’t two enough? We’re Dasa.”
The words pierced like a spear. Jeneba recoiled, snapping her wrist free. “My blood is Dasa, too,” she hissed, “and I won’t leave my uncle or any of our people for wachiru to eat!”
Tomo shook his head. “The live ones are safe. The wachiru will eat the dead first.”
If he thought that, why did she smell the acid reek of fear on him? The beads in her hair rattled as she flung her head. “Then will you face Nykoro with me and assure him that the husband of his sister will still be alive when we return here? If you’re really confident, why not ride to Kiba — that adds only two more days — and tell that to my grandmother and mother and aunts?”
He frowned. “Do you really want to rescue our people, or the glory for doing so? Heroic effort alone doesn t prove bravery or cause the bards to sing praise-songs to you. Perhaps you can escape the demons and spirits roaming the night, dark being your father’s element, but you can’t defeat that many wachiru. You’ll only become an object lesson in false pride, the warrior who cost her king and brother warriors their lives.”
Something in Jeneba snarled, screaming at her to spring on him with her knife. Horrified, she spun and fled, bolting after the distant sparks of the wachiru torches. Shame flooded her. Maybe Tomo was right. Perhaps she was acting in self-interest, and would therefore surely fail. If Tomo Silla, a hero of Kiba who had faced countless Keoru and Burdamu in single combat, was afraid, there must be good reason. Thinking of the host of demons and spirits who owned the night, fire and cold ran down the skin on her spine.
The fear blunted her anger and hurt. Her mind steadied as nerves pulled taut, stretching awareness into the night around her…to the shafts of moonlight that turned the woods into a great palace hall supported by slanting pale pillars, to buffalo and zebra and eland drinking at the lake shore, to night birds calling from the trees and lion roaring and hyena whooping out in the plains. The carrion odor carried back from the wachiru ahead.
She sucked in her cheeks. A warrior must fight with honor. It meant more than victory itself. But what about Mseluku’s life? Surely saving a maternal uncle served duty and honor most of all.
Footsteps ran behind her. Jeneba’s heart caught. Was it a nogama, ready to slash her with its clawed palms…a ghost demanding food offerings to sustain its existence? Heart drumming against her ribs, she risked a glance backward…and let out her breath in relief. Tomo Silla again.
Anger replaced fear. “Have you lost your way to Imbu?”
The whites of his eyes glinted in the moonlight slanting through the trees. “Sister, don’tspeak with such disrespect to a hero who has contemplated your words and concluded that you’re right; being Dasa, we can rescue our people without an army.”
In the warmth flooding her, she regretted her anger. Sister. Our people. “Please forgive my words, Tomo.” Despite his fear, he would still run through the night with her and face the wachiru? That was heroism indeed. “I spoke in thoughtless haste.”
He grunted acceptance and they fell silent as they ran together behind the wachiru party, watching both the torches and the shadows around them for anything not plant or animal.
What did Tomo see? For her the moonlight turned the woods to a twilight colored in shades of grey. Greater darkness looked greenish and sparkled with tiny bursts of light.
Jeneba could have wished for less carrion smell, the better to detect approaching demons. Still, without that stench, she, too, might dead or captive. Somewhere in the woods a leopard screamed and the sound brought an unbidden thought: if she had only a human nose, she might never have noticed the carrion smell until too late. Mere human hearing would not have detected the wachiru footsteps, either, nor could human sight, so night-blind, let her find her way and search the shadows for demons. Irritably, she hunted for something else to think about.
“Tomo, why do you think the wachiru attacked this way? Always before one man traveling through forest has met one half-man who challenges him to wrestle. I ve never heard of them attacking in a group.”
Tomo hesitated. “Things…change. The seers tell us that many things are changing, that the plains are drying up, that the grass will vanish and the buffalo and wild sheep and our cattle disappear with it. They say that sand will swallow the great cities like Kiba, Imbu, and Kouddoun. The wachiru must be changing, too.”
Cold slid down Jeneba s spine.
Ahead, the line of half-men broke. Jeneba caught her breath. Their village! Slipping from shadow to shadow, she and Tomo worked their way as close as possible and climbed a tree to study the village.
It consisted of a circle of low mud huts with conical grass roofs. No walls or dogs protected it. Entering should be easy, then…except that the captives had been taken to the open common in the center and hung by their wrists or ankles from racks there. She and Tomo would have to walk into the very middle of the village to reach them.
“We can keep in the shadows,” she whispered, “but how do we tell if a wachiru is watching us with his off-side toward us?”
A leopard screamed off toward open grassland, answered by a howl neither animal nor human. Tomo caught his breath. “This is madness. No one would bother saving you if you hung from a wachiru meat rack.”
Jeneba sucked in her cheeks. Maybe not, but… “Wasn’t it madness when you rode into combat with the Burdamu outlaw chief Utembesaba Akaha, carrying only a hobble rope for a weapon, to show your contempt for him? These are our people; we have a duty to them.”
He said nothing for a moment, then nodded. “We ll wait until the wachiru are asleep, then slip in and cut everyone loose.”
She settled back in a tree fork to wait.
It was hard. She had to watch the dead warriors disappear into wachiru maws, eaten raw after being butchered with their own knives. Only rigorous self-discipline kept her silent while the half-men finished their hideous meal and celebrated with shrill singing and a leaping, whirling dance accompanied by drumming on the rack uprights with the bones of their victims.
Finally the half-men disappeared into their huts and the village fell silent. She and Tomo swung down from their perch to stand at the tree’s bottom flexing stiff, numbed limbs, waiting for feeling and function to return.
“You have the night vision,” Tomo whispered. “Go first. I’ll guard your back.”
Jeneba nodded. Knife in one hand, the other gathering her tsara snugly around her hips to keep it from snagging on something that might betray her to the wachiru, she slid from the deep shadows beneath the tree and across a pool of moonlight into the shadows again beside a wachiru hut.
The stench of carrion nearly overwhelmed her.
Holding her breath, she listened intently for sounds that would indicate some wachiru still remained awake. There were only the noises of the woodland and night. She glanced back toward Tomo.
He stood at the edge of the tree’s shadow, waving her on.
Jeneba faced the common. The nearest warrior hung only strides away…but in the open with no cover for Jeneba to use, faced by every hut in a village flooded with moonlight.
She sucked in her cheeks. “Mala, Creator, please close your eye. I need darkness.”
But Mala ignored the whispered prayer. Her eye remained open, a moon full and bright.
So be it. Jeneba located Mseluku across the common from her. He must be freed first. Glancing backward toward Tomo one last time, she touched her heart four times and sprinted out through the circle of racks. Her bare feet made no sound in the dust.
“Jeneba!” someone hissed in surprise.
She paused only long enough to press her fingers across her lips before racing on to where Mseluku hung with his feet barely touching the ground. Jeneba smelled fresh blood where he had been working his wrists against the bonds holding them to the overhead bar of the rack. His eyes widened at the sight of her, but he made no sound, only strained to give her room to slip her knife between his wrists and the bar.
“When I cut you loose, run for the woods,” she breathed in his ear.
She sawed at a strap. The tough, well-tanned leather cut with agonizing reluctance. Human skin from some previous wachiru victim? One wrist came free. She started on the other.
A shout of alarm tore apart the night air.
She sawed frantically and as the strap gave, whirled, bolting for the space between the nearest huts. “Follow me, uncle; we’ll come back for the others later.”
Wachiru came rolling out through the low doorways, one into her path. She kicked him under the chin and jumped his limp body. A second half-man appeared out of invisibility, and a third, who caught her tsara. Slashing their arms, she tore free. Then she was between the huts and into the woods.
She looked back for Mseluku, but to her horror, saw him nowhere. A handful of howling wachiru followed her instead, covering the ground in incredibly long hops.
With the blood turned fiery cold in her veins, Jeneba stretched into the long-strided run the warriors practiced every day along with wrestling and spear-throwing, a run that often left her brother and sister warriors behind. Not tonight. Her pursuers gained.
She strained to make her stride longer.
Suddenly pain shot up her leg and she crashed forward over a root. Somehow Jeneba kept her wits enough to curl and use her momentum to somersault back onto her feet with almost no break in stride. She forgot to hang on to her knife, however. It sailed out of her hand and off into the brush.
“Mala, give me the buffalo’s strength and speed,” she shouted. Only that could save her now. The wachiru had gained so much she heard the rasp of their breathing.
Movement flashed on the edge of her vision. Jeneba dodged away. The wachiru followed her evasion, however, and a thunderous heartbeat later pain ripped through her scalp. The wachiru had caught her by the hair. Shrieking, she found herself jerked backward, off her feet.
The wachiru turned back toward the village without slowing, dragging Jeneba behind him. Brush tore at her arms, stones and roots bruised and scraped her dragging legs. At every leap, her hair felt as though it were being jerked out by the roots. Still screaming, she clawed at the wrist and fingers wound in the long, bead-strung cords, but his skin felt as impervious as bridle leather. He appeared unconscious of her nails. His speed made it impossible to bring her feet under her, either.
Ahead, his brother and sister wachiru whooped and gibbered. Visions of being strung up to await dismemberment, never to see Kiba or her mother again, never even to have the proper burial rites, flooded Jeneba with terror. Perhaps if she pled, begged, he would let go of her, she thought in panic. Was there some bargain she could make? Or some way to break loose from the half-man? There must be! If only she could regain her feet!
Feet. The word echoed in her head. Feet. She forced terror aside and thought fast. Gritting her teeth against the agony in her scalp, she twisted to take a sight on the muscular leg moving ahead of her. Reaching out, she locked both hands around the ankle.
He crashed full length to the ground. Before he or any of the others would react, Jeneba tore free from his loosed grip and fled back into the woods. Whoops of triumph changed to furious howls. The entire group bounded after her.
The breath scorched Jeneba s throat, seared her lungs. She ignored it, ignored the yells behind. Her entire attention focused ahead, and on driving her legs faster, faster.
Until a scream stopped her short and jerked her around, an animal scream, answered by cries of dismay. She spun to see a leopard crouched in the path behind her, with fangs bared and tail lashing. The wachiru retreated toward their village.
Jeneba sagged gasping against a tree.
The leopard turned to face her, yawning. “That’s twice I ve saved you, sister.”
“I’m not—” Jeneba stopped. “Twice?”
“The first time when the wachiru attacked.”
“You didn’t—” But in all fairness, she had to admit that of course he had…not giving her specifics of the danger, perhaps, but certainly alerting her to its presence. “I thank you, leopard.” She gulped air. “Why did you?”
His tail twitched. “Balance. You risk your life to save those who do not accept you as fully one of them, so Mala-Lesa commands that I intervene for a sister who will not acknowledge her kinship to me.”
“Then I thank Mala-Lesa, too.” Jeneba slid down the tree to sit on a large root. “I hope Tomo escaped.”
“If you were my sister,” the leopard said, “I could tell you about Tomo Silla.”
Sudden cold washed through Jeneba. “What about Tomo?”
The tawny eyes flashed. “You say you aren t my sister.”
“I—” She almost choked on the words, but forced them out, reminding herself that she needed his knowledge. “I am your sister.”
The leopard sniffed. “Words. Very well, though. Tomo Silla was never in danger. He remained by the tree and when he gave the alarm, he escaped into the woods before anyone ever saw him.”
“That’s a lie!”
The leopard s tail lashed. “As you wish.” He turned away.
She scrambled to her feet after him. “Why would Tomo warn the wachiru?”
The leopard peered back over his shoulder. “He couldn’t let you free the warriors. They were the price for his life.”
Price? Remembering her own panicked thought about trying to bargain with the wachiru to release her, understanding came with the force of a blow in the stomach. “Tomo met a wachiru when he was scouting for the campsite and lost the wrestling match.”
“Yes,” the leopard said. “But he offered an exchange for his life.”
She hissed. Remembering how she felt when the wachiru was dragging her back to the village, she could understand what kind of terror drove him to the bargain, but outrage still boiled up in her. “He gave them us!” No wonder she had smelled fear on him when she insisted on going to the rescue. “Where is he now?”
“Waiting in a tree for morning.”
Waiting to set out for Kiba and report how everyone else had been tragically lost, no doubt. She bared her teeth. As soon as they were home, she would challenge him to combat.
Jeneba retraced the path of her previous flight until she found her knife, then headed for the village again.
The leopard followed. “Do you still believe you can rescue your people?”
“I have to try.”
At the edge of the village she hesitated, sucking in her cheeks in dismay. The half-men now had guards around their captives.
The leopard blinked. “If you were truly my sister, I could tell you how to save them.”
She whirled. “How, brother?”
His eyes glowed. “Would you call me that if you didn’t need me?”
Guilt spread heat up her face. “Probably not.”
The leopard sighed. “You’re honest anyway. I give you this much, then. The knife is no use. The warriors must be won as they were lost. You may prevail if you can find that in you Leopard’s
which your father gave and use a thing born of Mala-Lesa, who sees wachiru when men cannot.”
With a final lash of his tail, he vanished into the woods, leaving Jeneba staring in dismay. The leopard advised in riddles!
Part of the answer was obvious. Winning the warriors as they had been lost meant by wrestling. She grimaced. Win at wrestling, when Tomo, stronger and more experienced than she, had lost? That in her that her father had given must mean her spirit, but how could she find any more of it? What, too, was this thing born of Mala-Lesa? Since the High God had created the entire world, that could be anything. How could she use it in wrestling, anyway?
Shrieks of wachiru glee mixed with human protests jerked her attention back to the village. She instantly forgot the leopard riddles. The half-men had discovered Mseluku s escape and tracked him down. They were dragging him toward where they butchered the dead warriors earlier. A wachiru man waited with one of the captured knives.
The cry echoed through her head but she was not aware of screaming it, or of moving, until she found herself charging across the common toward the group holding Mseluku. As reason reasserted itself, she stumbled and froze. Around her, shock paralyzed the wachiru, too, but that would not last long. Even now their mouths opened to cry in warning and their hands spread into claws. The half-man with the knife raised it over Mseluku’s chest.
The knife was useless, the leopard had said. Jeneba dropped hers, then spoke loudly in Burda, the trade language. “It is the custom for wachiru to challenge men to wrestle. Now a man comes to challenge the wachiru.”
“No,” Mseluku gasped in their own language Dase.
Wachiru eyes glittered in the moonlight. “To wrestle?” The speaker s voice rang deep and hollow, as though coming from a cave.
Jeneba locked her knees to keep them from trembling. “Yes…but I don’t care about the healing herbs and plants you normally show to men who win. This time they must be the prize.” She gestured at Mseluku and the warriors.
A hiss of surprise, human and wachiru, ran around the common. Wachiru heads shook.
The deep-voiced one said, “No.”
Jeneba lifted her chin and forced her voice louder, despite a drought-dry mouth. “You have no right to them. Tomo Silla dishonorably exchanged them for his own life after you out-wrestled him.” She ignored the Dase hisses of disbelief to watch the wachiru spokesman. “Pick your best wrestler to answer my challenge.”
The spokesman turned away and vanished. She still heard his voice, though, gibbering at the other wachiru. They answered shrilly.
Between his captors, Mseluku said, “Daughter of my sister, this is madness. You can’t win. You’ll be eaten like the rest of us. Run. Go for help.”
Part of her longed to, but she set her jaw and stood firm. She could win, the leopard said. If she answered his riddle. What could the answer be!
The spokesman reappeared. “We accept. I will wrestle you.”
Jeneba swallowed. “We meet at dawn, then.”
His eye gleamed. “We wrestle now.”
Now? Her heart lurched. “But I’ve been traveling all day, and have just run very hard. I’m not rested.”
“Now!” the wachiru repeated.
“Animal-spirit fool,” a warrior sister spat.
Mseluku said grimly, “Niece, unlike men of noble blood, wachiru aren’t compelled by honor to wait until their opponents are prepared before fighting.”
She swallowed again. “May I at least speak to my gods first?”
After a moment, the wachiru nodded.
Her mind raced. If she could not answer the leopard’s riddle, then she would have to fight another way, which meant, first, keeping away from the wachiru. She still felt the grip on her hair as that other lifted her off her feet. Her toe brushed the knife. She glanced down at it. Perhaps it could be of use after all.
Crouching, she picked it up with one hand and reached for her hair with the other. While the warriors stared aghast, she chopped off the long, oiled, beaded ropes until nothing remained on her scalp but fuzz too short for anyone to grab. Then she untied her tsara at the shoulder and dropped it. Her copper, ivory, and wooden arm bands joined it on the ground. She debated over keeping her talisman but finally decided there must be nothing for the wachiru to use as a handhold. It joined everything else folded up in her tsara. Finally, Jeneba rubbed the shorn ropes of hair all over, covering her skin with the heavy oil dressing.
After cleaning her palms in the dust, she stood. “I’m ready.”
The wachiru bared his teeth, showing fangs.
The other half-men backed toward the racks, pulling Mseluku with them and leaving the center clear of all but moonlight, Jeneba, and her opponent.
Crouching, Jeneba warily circled the wachiru, moving toward the side with his arm. He side-hopped a few steps, too, then spun and vanished. Jeneba froze, holding her breath and peering around her. Where had he gone? Her hands felt sweaty and it was an effort not to wipe them on her thighs.
“Behind you,” Mseluku called.
An arm closed around her throat. The days of wrestling practice repaid themselves. Almost without thinking Jeneba tucked her chin into the crook of the elbow and grabbing the wrist with one hand and the elbow with the other, pushed up on the elbow, slipping out under the arm. Rather than release him, however, she held on, moving around him dragging the arm with her until it twisted behind him. She was reaching to hook his ankle with her foot when the wachiru suddenly leaped high in the air, whirling free and vanishing again.
Jeneba glanced toward Mseluku, but a wachiru beside him brandished a club. “Keep silent.”
Her stomach dropped. Without help tracking the half-man, she was lost. If only she could answer the riddle.
Wait. She held her breath, straining to hear over the gibbering of wachiru. Was that breathing and a footfall behind her? She spun toward the sound.
The half-man lunged out of the moonlight. Jeneba met him head-on, locking arms with him, leaning her shoulder into his. They pushed at each other, side-shifting, straining as each tried to push the other off-balance. Jeneba shifted her weight suddenly toward his off-side, but as he stumbled, the half-man broke free and pivoted, vanishing yet again.
But she heard the hop of his foot. Could that be the answer, using her hearing to track him? But the leopard seemed to indicate she must find something more than what she had used all her life.
Her ears followed his bounding progress behind her. Turning, she realized, however, that sound still gave her no indication how and when the half-man might move next. She needed more than hearing.
A shadow flickered over her. An upward glance found the wachiru arcing over her, silhouetted against the moon. For a moment, though he was landing on her, she could only stare, understanding flashing in her head. Of course. Shadow! A thing born of Mala the moon and Lesa the sun, for those bodies of light certainly saw wachiru when men could not!
She flung herself sideways barely in time to avoid being knocked flat.
The half-man snarled at missing her, but he landed like a cat and rebounded straight at her. They went down on the ground together, each straining to find a hold on the other. He hung on like a snake, either sliding away from her or kicking loose with his powerful leg. On the other hand, her oiled skin gave him no grip on her, either.
He tried to flip her. She used the momentum to come up on her feet and bring him with her, up and over, then hard on his back. She slammed down on him, but he rolled, squirming free. And vanished. Except not entirely. A pool of shadow remained, shortening as he stood. Her hearing traced the thump of his foot and the rasp of his breathing, just audible above her own panting, but she watched the shifting pool where moonlight did not reach.
He tried circling her, time and again. She pivoted, following each of his bounds, evading the tentative moves toward her.
The wachiru voices went silent.
Her opponent spoke near her. “Running is not winning.”
She sidestepped another rush. True. Only pinning won. She might have just one chance at him, though. After that he would be warned she somehow saw him. Keeping her distance, Jeneba
plotted strategy, then braced herself and watched the shadow, praying silently to Mala.
The shadow moved, broadening subtly in a way that told her the half-man was crouching to spin and spring. She moved as he began the turn, leaping forward and catching him around the neck from his off-side. He turned his chin into her elbow as she had done, but before he could grab her arm, she caught his wrist with her other hand and leaned backward.
His spring, already begun, helped her lift him off his feet. The momentum kept them moving. The wachiru cried out, but Jeneba flung them on until her back arched in a bow with her and the half-man s heads touching the ground behind her.
No sooner had they touched, than she rolled, turning him face-down on the ground. Her arm slid free of his neck to join her other hand cranking on his arm. Her knees landed on the nape of his neck and in the middle of his back.
Beyond them, wachiru gibbered again and Dasan voices shrieked in triumph. Jeneba barely heard them. Under her, the half-man bucked with a strength that demanded all her concentration to fight. She had his arm twisted up behind him, but the muscles in it bulged and rippled until the paint on his skin cracked and flaked, and with agonizing slowness, the wrist started to slip through her grip. She gritted her teeth, hanging on with all her will.
“Mala, Creator, High God,” she gasped. “If you would have me save my people, give me the strength of the buffalo.”
The wrist writhed, slipping still more, the arm slowly and inexorably straightening despite Jeneba twisting hard with both her hands.
Sister, the voice of the leopard whispered in her head.
She shook it away.
Her grip slipped still more.
You must find in you that which your father gave.
The wachiru writhed under her. Jeneba gritted her teeth as her fingers began to tremble in fatigue. She could hang on, she told herself. She must. She could…not…let…go!
All right! She would use anything that could help her right now, even her father. Think, then. What came with the leopard spirit? Night sight, hearing, a keen nose? What else? Strength? Leopards dragged full-grown antelope up trees. She certainly needed some of that power right now.
She dug in her nails. Her chest heaved and sweat streamed down her body, yet the arm continued to slip away from her.
Desperately, she tried to imagine herself as a leopard with a fresh kill. How would it feel inside that spotted skin…moving on all fours, muscles sliding smoothly, tasting the warmth of the fur and blood of the throat between her jaws.
And suddenly it was no longer imagination. She felt it. Jeneba snarled in exultation as power surged through her. She felt molten in her grace, limitless in strength, sinuous and lithe, body moving in perfect obedience. She rode the writhing back with new and confident balance.
Grinning, she crooked her fingers. Nails feeling like claws dug into the half-man’s leathery hide. Slipping stopped. Jeneba applied new pressure, twisting the arm, forcing it farther and farther. Until the shoulder joint grated and popped with the strain.
The wachiru screamed, “I yield!”
Jeneba purred in his ear, “Order your people to cut mine loose and return all the weapons you took.”
The half-man gibbered. Frowning wachiru moved to obey.
Panting, Jeneba released the half-man and looked around for Mseluku.
He was pushing dazed warriors toward the edge of the village. “On your way, quickly. It s over. Let’s go.”
Over? Jeneba grimly scooped up her bundled tsara. Not quite over. Not until she dealt with Tomo Silla.