Next up is the first chapter for my second novel, Zulu. This was actually the first novel I wrote, but I published it second after pretty extensive rewrites in my late-twenties. While watching the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn, I found myself wishing I could read about the Anglo-Zulu War from the Zulu perspective. The more I learned about the Zulu, the more impressed I was with their history, their culture, and their achievements. This was an iron age kingdom with a cattle-based economy on the cusp of a Golden Age that held off the British Empire for six aching months before they were crushed.
Here’s the First Chapter:
It began with a creak, then the clinking of metal on metal, sounds strange and unfamiliar to the sourveld grasses that hemmed in the Valley of the Three Homesteads. The herd boys looked at one another with wide eyes; none of them could identify the intrusion into their world, and that frightened them.
It was Ingonyama —not the oldest of the assembled cousins but the strongest— who took action. He reached out and tapped his brother Mbeki on the side of the head, gesturing to the crest of the ridge above them. The sounds came from that direction, and they could not go unchallenged before the cattle were allowed to disperse among the shade trees to chew their cud and wait out the worst of the afternoon’s heat.
“Stay here,” Ingonyama told the others.
One by one his cousins muttered, “It is heard,” the traditional response to a command. Each of them would have liked to have gone with the two kaJama brothers, but Ingonyama was their induna, and his word was law out in the fields.
Mbeki and Ingonyama worked their way up the side of the hill. The younger son of Jama betrayed his apprehension by swinging his sticks in sharp strikes at any blade of grass that grew above its fellows.
He thinks too much, Ingonyama thought. That’s his problem. There’s no sense worrying until there’s something to worry about. He flashed his brother a lopsided smile to reassure him.
“What do you think it is?” Mbeki asked.
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
Mbeki frowned at his older brother’s nonchalance. Mbeki did not like mysteries, and the weight in his stomach told him there was something to fear in the next valley over.
They climbed higher still, and Ingonyama did his best to portray an unflappable confidence for both Mbeki and their cousins watching below. No one could tell how tense he was, for he squared his shoulders and walked with his chin held high. The sun beat down upon him, and he stretched out his arms to relish its warmth. It was not until his eyes crested the ridge that he betrayed his own fear: He dropped down onto his belly, dragging his brother with him.
“What is it?” Mbeki hissed. He was a head shorter than Ingonyama, and he had not seen what had driven the easy smile from his brother’s face.
“Just crawl. You’ll see for yourself.”
“Just crawl!” Ingonyama hissed. To stand would silhouette them against the sky to the strangers working their way down the face of the opposite hill; even as a child Ingonyama had sense enough not to give up the element of surprise to his enemies.
When they had slithered through the grass far enough to see without being seen, both boys lay still and pondered the monsters in the distance. Mbeki was first struck by their clothes: As herd boys, the two of them both went about naked except for a small gourd that protected their privates from the cruel barbs of the tall grass; even their father and uncles did not wear much more than a loincloth outside of winter, when they might throw a blanket around their shoulders. That was the way of the Zulu, but the men marching slowly towards them were dressed in thick wool from the nape of their necks all the way down to their ankles.
Mbeki was at a loss. He had never seen anything like the distant figures before. They had cloth on their arms, although Mbeki did not have a word for sleeves. A man on a horse wore knee-high boots: In kwaZulu footwear had been outlawed since the days of King Shaka, so that all boys would grow into men who could run across any terrain on tough, calloused feet.
“Who are they?” Mbeki asked. Never in his young life had he seen a white man, but his sharp eyes could pick out dozens of pink faces shining with sweat as they trudged forward at the speed of their slowest wagon. It was the pace of a funeral march, and Mbeki felt the presence of death lurching towards him.
“They must be Boers!” Ingonyama grunted.
Mbeki winced. Their Uncle Punga was the valley’s storyteller, and few of his tall tales were laced with more horror than those of what the pale marauders had done to the people of the Kingdom of Heaven. Thirty years ago the boys’ grandfather had died at Blood River along with three thousand other warriors who charged the invaders’ laagered wagons. Boers stole cattle and overthrew kings. Out in the fields the herd boys ruled their world with songs and sticks, but neither would be of use against the guns of white men. They needed an adult.
“Where’s Baba?” Mbeki asked. Their father was the man to deal with this. Jama could handle anything.
“I don’t know. He’s smithing today. He could be anywhere.” Their father worked his iron in the woods, far from the eyes of the herd boys. “Uncle Punga might know where he is…” Ingonyama suggested without much enthusiasm. His eyes never left the shouldered muskets.
Mbeki grimaced, thinking over the possibilities: Uncle Punga was not the man to deal with a crisis, but their Uncle Khandla was out of the valley on regimental business. There was not another warrior in the Valley of the Three Homesteads, and trying to keep Uncle Punga out of it would see them get a whipping at the end of the day. “Yebho,” he gave his reluctant agreement.
The decision made, the two wormed their way backwards. When they were well below the ridge-line they turned and ran down the hill to the waiting herd boys below. Mbeki’s mouth got the better of him, and from a hundred paces out he began to shout, “Boers! Boers are coming!”
Ingonyama shot his brother a stern look, worried now that their cousins would panic. Before the murmurs could grow too loud he took charge, ordering each of the boys to take some of the herd off into different dongas throughout the valley, hiding their families’ wealth from the intruders in the shadowed depths of dried stream beds.
“And what will you do?” Hlubi asked. He was Punga’s eldest son, and he often challenged Ingonyama’s authority.
“Mbeki and I will go get your father,” Ingonyama said.
“I should go too,” Hlubi said. “He’s my Baba.” Hlubi’s younger brothers also wanted to find their father, but Ingonyama had no patience for their demands.
“It doesn’t take all of us. We have to divide the cattle. Hlubi? You’re in charge while I’m away.” That was enough to win his elder cousin’s agreement, and the rest of the herd boys soon fell into line, taking their cows and heading off in different directions. The sounds were growing clearer now, and the rumble of wagon wheels and the lowing of oxen under snapping trek whips drove the two kaJama brothers into a jog trot towards their uncle’s homestead, the grass flying beneath them.
Punga was outside the thorn palisade of his kraal, singing to keep a rhythm while he chopped his firewood into manageable pieces. One of his daughters was stacking the finished wood, and he smiled at her. The smile froze on his face when he saw two of his nephews making their way towards him. It was just after noon —far too soon to drive the herd home for the night. Something was wrong.
Mbeki and Ingonyama ran up to their uncle, pointing behind them and telling their story through their gasps. Punga’s sweat went cold on his body despite the day’s heat, but he did his best to hide his fear from the children.
“What do we do?” Mbeki asked as he finished his report.
“We find your father,” Punga said. “Jama will know what to do.”
Ingonyama and Mbeki traded a knowing look. “Do you know where he’s smithing today?” Ingonyama asked.
“He’ll be taking a snuff break by now. It’s too hot to be working over a fire.” Punga’s eyes swept the hillsides towards Jama’s homestead, looking at the copses and spinneys where his brother-in-law worked. “Let’s go.”
The three ran through fields of sweetveld, the sweat running down their chests. Punga’s paunch —a sign of too much soft living and too little recent campaigning— bounced in rhythm to the practiced swing of his legs. He carried his axe in one hand, and the boys had their sticks. It was a pitiful arsenal compared to the Boers’ guns, but that would be Jama’s problem. Jama would know what to do.
The boys’ father squatted over the embers of a dying fire. Though the trees and brambles were thick enough to screen him from the fields, through their branches he could see his sons and Punga from a long way off. He frowned as he took a pinch of snuff from his horn and sneezed. “What’s all this about?” He wondered. He had not seen Punga run like that since his brother-in-law sewed on the head ring of a married man. He stood up stiffly, rubbing his hip with one hand and waving with the other. “I see you, Punga!”
“Jama!” Punga huffed as he saw his brother-in-law through the brambles. “The boys saw Boers!”
Jama’s reached down and snatched up his assegai from the pile of equipment scattered around his hearth. Whatever was happening, he wanted his spear with him. “Where?”
The three pointed south, back over their shoulders to where he knew the herd was grazing. He sprinted out towards them, the scar tissue on his hip turning an angry red. “How far away are they?” Jama asked. The three turned and ran with him towards the coming white men.
“They’re in the next valley over,” Punga said.
“How many of them are there?” Jama asked. If there were two or three riders, they might be able to scare them off. If a dozen of them had banded together for a cattle raid Jama would send Ingonyama to the kaMajeke brothers and their cousins who lived two valleys further to the north.
“Almost a hundred,” Punga replied. Jama’s lurched to a halt so suddenly that Punga and his sons continued on for a dozen long strides before realizing he had stopped.
“How many?” There had only been a hundred Boers at Blood River, and twelve thousand Zulus had been unable to defeat them. It had almost been the end of the kingdom.
“Almost a hundred,” Punga said again, looking to his nephews for confirmation. The boys nodded in unison.
“How many horses? I mean obviously one for each man, but how many extra per man?” Jama’s eyes swept the horizon looking for the dust cloud of such an invasion. If the Boers had a number of extra horses they could move fast, getting deep into kwaZulu before King Mpande could muster an impi to oppose them. What have we done to provoke them this time? He wondered.
“There’s only one horse,” Mbeki said, confused.
Jama rounded on his youngest son, his expression stormy. “One horse? What sort of story is this? The Boers ride those damned ponies everywhere. That’s how they do anything! What are these Boers doing? Walking?” It struck Jama as ridiculous that a Boer would separate from his horse for anything other than food and sleep.
“Yebho, Baba,” Ingonyama said, hurt that Jama did not believe them. “They are all walking together in a rectangle, neat as warriors about to parade before the king. They have one Boer on a horse out in front and wagons behind. They’re even all dressed alike in red jackets with funny black leggings and white headdresses, and—”
“Those are British, not Boers! You three give me chest pains!” Jama laughed, a smile of relief spreading across his face before it flickered and died. “What are redcoats doing on our side of the Thekula River?” He did not wait for Punga to reply; instead, he began to run again, this time at the more controlled pace of the jog trot.
From the top of the southern-most ridge Jama could see the company of British regulars advancing slowly in the terrible heat, made worse by their woolen uniforms. They marched in step with their heavy Enfield muskets resting on their shoulders. He could pick out the Africa veterans among them, because they had known to dye their white helmets a dun colour with old tea leaves. On the brown veldt their red jackets were not nearly as eye-catching as those impossibly white helmets.
Jama crawled over the crest of the ridge with Punga and the boys following his example. Moving like a snake through the tall grass, Jama worked his way down the opposite slope without disturbing the tops of the slowly waving sourveld. With hand signals he ordered Punga and the boys to break off to either side. When they were in position in front of the column’s path all he could do was crouch as the cadence of the British boots drew closer.
He waited, hidden by the tall grass and confident in his plans. There was no war with the British. If he was firm from the very beginning he would have control of the situation. He listened to the squeak of wagon wheels and the lowing of the oxen, hearing the assorted clinking and clattering of the soldiers’ canteens, belt buckles, and other paraphernalia. It all seemed so awkward, noisy, and slow to Jama. When they were not singing, Zulu warriors moved across the land like ghosts. How did these white men ever conquer forty lands, each greater than kwaZulu? Jama wondered. He had great respect for the redcoats’ ability to kill, but that did not mean he understood it.
When the horse was only a few spear-lengths ahead of him he rose up as if he had sprung from the earth itself. “Why do you come to the Valley of the Three Homesteads?” The officer’s horse reared and then backed up a step as Punga and the boys also stood, forming a semicircle in the path of the intruders.
The officer spoke something in his barbaric tongue. Jama did not move. He stood calm, staring down the man as he would a misbehaving cow. The officer would flinch first. Jama was a master at holding eye contact.
Mbeki watched his father stand before the horseman without fear. The officer was pale, and he held his head as if he had a smell under his sharp and narrow nose. Just for a moment Mbeki wondered if the man’s thin mustache was actually filth, but he decided the officer’s uniform was too clean for his face to be dirty.
Jama may not have had a small army at his back like the officer, but he did not feel at a disadvantage. Jama had the black head ring of a married man circling his crown, and the necklace of interlocking willow wood that wrapped twice around his neck was his nation’s highest mark of bravery. If these decorations were not impressive enough, Jama also wore the brass armbands of a royal favourite, announcing to anyone who understood them that this man was special.
The officer did not understand their significance, and he sniffed again. He spoke the same words, loudly and slowly, this time waving his arm as if to brush Jama away. Jama smiled the lopsided grin Ingonyama had inherited and continued to bar the horse’s way. The officer could not lock eyes with Jama any longer. He turned and called something back to his soldiers. A black man was pulled out of one of the wagons and brought forward.
“I see you, Nkosi,” The man began tentatively, calling Jama a lord. “I am Phalo.” He wore a red calico cloth around his head, marking him so that the British could tell which black men were in their service.
“Are you a Zulu, Phalo?” Jama asked. He did not return the polite, ‘I see you.’
“Cha.” The negative answer was what Jama had expected.
“Then you are a monkey.” The word monkey was the same as the word for stranger, but when a Zulu called a black man from outside the kingdom a stranger it was not a polite thing. Phalo opened his mouth to argue, but Jama just smiled and ordered, “Say it with me now. You are a—”
“Monkey,” The man gulped, subdued. Jama knew that Phalo or his parents had left kwaZulu to seek an easier living among the white men of British-controlled Natal. Phalo’s kind had abandoned their pride to find cheap brides, plentiful cattle, and the other scraps they could gather from the table of the British and the Boers.
“Now tell your officer that I am Jama kaZuya of the Hunters Regiment, and that my land is not crossed without my permission.” Just as he had stared down the officer Jama now locked eyes with Phalo, but the interpreter looked at the ground in shame immediately.
“My master says—”
“He’s your master, is he? Sold yourself for a piece of red cloth?”
Phalo tugged at the headband as he continued. “My master says he comes here on the order of the Great White Queen, ruler of all Africa. He says that King Mpande makes trouble in the West, and that the Great White Queen does not like it. He is going to the kraal of kwaNodwengu to give King Mpande the message…”
Phalo asked the officer to repeat part of his gibberish. “That this is the Year of our Lord Eighteen Sixty-Six, not the days of King Shaka, and that today Africa belongs to the Great White Queen…” His voice trailed off as he saw Jama set his jaw. The officer shifted in his saddle, and Phalo remembered the rest of the message without further prompting. “My master demands—”
“Demands?” Jama interrupted again, and watched Phalo tremble. Am I so intimidating? He suppressed a laugh, knowing he must appear hard as stone. Personally, he found it all very amusing that the British thought they ruled the whole world.
Phalo gulped again, but continued as if he had not been interrupted. “He demands two cows to feed his men, a place to make camp near your homestead for the night, and a guide to kwaNodwengu. He will pay you in golden sovereigns for these things.” Jama forgot his earlier levity and stood there, smoldering.
The British must have brought food with them, so the demand for livestock was a well-studied insult, and staying in his valley over night would subject Jama to still more pompous behaviour. Then the officer wanted Jama’s family to do without one of its men for however long it took the slow-moving column to reach the Royal Court? In exchange for these outrages he was offered bits of metal whose only use to him would be as baubles to string onto a necklace for one of his wives, but which one?
No, the whole thing was unacceptable, and Phalo’s shudders of ill-concealed terror at Jama’s expression began to upset the officer’s horse. At last Jama said, “Cha.” He set his jaw again. He would say nothing other than this blunt refusal. Anything else might be interpreted as weakness.
“What?” Phalo asked with such a tremor in his voice that Jama looked up to make sure the sky was not falling.
Jama kept his voice gentle, worried now that poor Phalo’s heart might burst at the sound of a raised voice. “Translate what I said, Monkey.” Phalo gave his master Jama’s reply.
The British officer looked down on the two Zulu warriors and the herd boys with contempt. The whole continent irritated him. His career up to this point had been spent in India, a land that knew the power of the British Empire. Here he was negotiating with barefooted herdsmen? He had been ordered out on this embassy in force to intimidate King Mpande into making concessions in the West, and the officer decided he might as well begin by showing his strength to this upstart.
Jama watched the officer ride his horse back towards his men, who wheeled from column of march into line abreast with a precision born from long practice. It was Jama’s turn to be afraid now, for the British infantry began to load their muskets.
“My Master says he will deliver his message to the king, and you will give him all that he has asked for.”
Jama’s eyes never left the soldiers hands as their ramrods went down the muzzles of their heavy Enfields. “Tell your master this: The far side of the hill behind me is my family’s land. He will not cross my fields without my permission, or my king will hear of it. If he heads further west he can find a free place to make camp for the night. There are many thorn bushes and deep dongas to slow his wagons, but if he starts now he can be around my pastures before nightfall. If he’s hungry, he has an entire company of soldiers to go shoot his dinner, or wagons full of black men to open up the tins and mealie bags he has brought with him. If he wants a guide, he should have hired one on the border, just as the rest of the king’s petitioners and supplicants do.
“This is kwaZulu, and I am a friend of my king, Nkosi Nkulu Mpande kaSenzangakhona. I am a smith. I make assegais. I am going back to my homestead now, where I will teach my sons the differences between a hunting spear and a war spear. That’s something they will need to know the next time they see redcoats in kwaZulu uninvited. Go well, Phalo.” With that Jama turned his back on the loading muskets and began to walk up the hill.
Phalo stammered the polite, “Stay well, Jama,” before turning and speaking urgently to his master.
A bead of sweat rolled down Jama’s face that had nothing to do with the heat, and he put one foot in front of the next with great concentration. Behind him he heard a hundred flinted dogheads pull back to full cock. The British officer gave a curt command.
It had gotten away from him somehow, and now the officer was about to do something beyond stupidity. Wars started this way, but that would mean nothing to Jama if he was a corpse. He worked it out in his head: A hundred muskets, each throwing a bullet as heavy as my thumb at a speed covering three hundred paces in the time it takes to draw a breath… This could be my last moment. This could be my last moment. This could be my last moment. The mental mantra was repeated with each footfall, but still the officer did not give the command to fire.
Mbeki watched as the officer’s face went crimson with impotent fury. He decided that if he ever owned a white man he would make him angry all the time just so he would turn that colour. Realizing Jama was leaving, Punga gathered up the two boys with his arms and hurried to join Jama’s dignified withdrawal.
“Don’t run,” Jama hissed under his breath. “If that officer thinks we’re afraid, he might shoot us down despite the good advice Phalo is giving him against killing a man wearing brass armbands.”
“But Baba, we’re not afraid,” Ingonyama said.
“Yes we are.” Jama looked down at his eldest and realized his son did not understand. “Do you know the size of the hole one of those bullets can put through you?” Ingonyama shook his head, and Jama held up a clenched fist by way of demonstration. “That’s how my father met his end, boy. It’s a terrible way to die. We aren’t always going to be able to stare down the giant, Ingonyama. One day he is going to crush us.” Ingonyama blinked, unable to imagine his father afraid of anything.
It was only when they were all over the crest of the ridge and out of sight of the terrible guns that Jama at last collapsed into the grass, weak and trembling.
If you have read this far, I hope you enjoyed it! Here’s a link to the Amazon.com listing. The rest is available in e-book or trade paperback formats.