Author’s Note: Just wanted to share an excerpt of the short story I’ve been writing this week, because it’s been a long time since I’ve shared prose here on DA. This is not the fullest extent of what I’ve written in the story thus far; I’ve added a few more paragraphs since and am working with a mental outline of the whole plot.
Luyinda Ngozulu crouched on the overgrown bough of an ironwood tree. Her lithe black figure, clad with brief barkcloth strips, blended into the shadows cast by the tangled treetops; green feathers in her bushy hair further immersed her into the epiphytic foliage. A leopard-skin belt and sash bound her bow and quiver to her back and her butchering machete along her hip. Within Luyinda’s chest thumped the drums of anticipation, with perspiration cooling her brow against the steamy heat.
Below her, half-shrouded by undergrowth between the trees’ buttress roots, the bongo lay still on its flank. The reddish antelope’s entrails spilled out and reeked from a gash inflicted by some predator of the Yombi jungle—none other than Luyinda herself, who had washed the blood off her blade with dew. Other Bayombi huntresses would have hung rotting meat up on a vine, but leaving the bait on the ground like an unclaimed kill made it appear more natural and less suspicious. And beasts of prey like the steeltooth preferred their meat fresh to the taste.
To be sure, Luyinda did not know for certain that the steeltooth had taken her little brother. He could have still lived for all she knew. But Mayele had been absent for almost half the moon, far longer than she would expect for a healer like him to collect even the rarest herbs. Knowing his youthful brashness, and that the steeltooth’s roar had reached their village the night before she left, Luyinda could not take chances with it prowling near him. Regardless, a territorial monster like the steeltooth would always present a threat to their people. Better to eliminate or drive it away as soon as Luyinda could.
She waited. The crickets chirped and the cicadas whined. The birds squawked, the frogs croaked, and the monkeys hooted. Her heart drummed some more.
There was the soft rustle of undergrowth.
Luyinda’s drums kicked into a booming frenzy. She unslung her bow, unscrewed her quiver’s lid, and fetched an arrow with a steel point longer than her foot. Doubtless it could zip through the most pebbly hide and thickest bone. Before fitting the arrow to the bowstring, Luyinda clutched the ivory brooch over her brassiere and murmured a prayer to Nzambi Kondi, goddess of the hunt. And to the Ancestors for her survival.
Plants in the underbrush rattled their broad leaves towards the bongo carcass. The huntress strecthed her arm muscles as she drew the heavy arrow back with the bowstring. Even as icy streams coursed throughout her body, she clenched onto the bow’s grip to keep it still and the arrow’s point aligned on the disturbance. She prayed again under her breath.
The undergrowth parted, but what emerged was not the mighty steeltooth.
Instead there sprang out a trio of sickleclaws, feathered creatures no taller than Luyinda’s hips. They prodded the bongo with their snouts, sniffing it as their slit-pupiled eyes twitched about. Withdrawing her bow, Luyinda shrunk backward to hide herself among a drape of overhanging vines. She should had expected that flesh-eaters other than the steeltooth might be drawn to her bait, but three sickleclaws alone could not polish a whole bongo to the bone. They would leave enough for the steeljaw to clean up.
One of the sickleclaws, an alpha leader on account of its darker plumage, pecked at its underlings to keep them behind her, and then tugged off a scrap of bongo entrails for itself. After a pleasured purr, it threw its head up and barked at the canopy. This, in the sickleclaw language, was summoning the rest of the pack. Who but the gods knew how many more of these rascals would hop over to ravage the rest of Luyinda’s bait? Not on her watch, unless she could replace it with one of them!
She raised her bow again and loosed at the sickleclaws.
One squealed when the arrow shot through its skull, knocking it down for good. But it was not the alpha sickleclaw, but one of its two betas. The alpha cocked its head up to face Luyinda, hissing and barking threats with bared teeth and clawed wings spread out. Luyinda snarled her worst curses back while brandishing of her bow as if it were a club. She was not merely bluffing. Sickleclaws and humanity had competed for hunting grounds since time immemorial, so this flaming enmity must have been inscribed into their instincts.
Luyinda reached for a second arrow, but she had not even touched its fletching before the sickleclaw leader started bounding towards the ironwood tree. Flapping its wings brought the bird-like beast higher up into the air with each jump until it dug its claws into the trunk’s bark. Luyinda had no time before it would climb up to her.
So she leapt off her bough.
Luyinda grabbed a vine in mid-air and swung down to kick the surviving beta sickleclaw off its feet. While the beta crashed into some undergrowth behind it, the alpha sprang off the ironwood trunk with taloned limbs extended forward. Luyinda batted it away with the limb of her bow. The impact cracked the wood, but sent the sickleclaw skidding through the bushes on landing. Then the huntress pounced on it and tore out her machete to deliver the killing stab.
In mid-draw her arm got caught between jagged teeth. The beta sickleclaw tugged her away from its leader while slashing at her sides with the claws on its wings. But with a ram of her left fist that shattered its upper jaw, Luyinda freed herself and hopped for her bow.
The alpha sickleclaw splintered it into half with a stamp of its foot. With the other, it kicked Luyinda on the shoulder, cutting deep streaks into the skin. As Luyinda fell back, waving her machete to keep the sickleclaw at bay, it clicked with almost gleeful malevolence. Behind it barked the rest of its drooling pack.
Not even Luyinda’s bow, let alone the machete, could have kept all these plumed devils away. Better to let them have her bongo than have their claws send her to the Ancestors.
She staggered away into the brush. The alpha sickleclaw replied with one taunting shriek, but none of the pack pursued her thereafter. Still, as they starting ripping into the bongo’s flesh in a feeding frenzy, Luyinda sighed against her luck. She had lost both her bait and her bow. Her plan to avenge her brother, and save her people, against the steeltooth’s tyrannical might had failed. And she had herself to blame.
But she still had the arrows in her quiver. They had more slender shafts than javelins, but bigger points, so throwing them could still cause damage from a shorter distance. Even the machete could penetrate the thick bone above the steeltooth’s brain if Luyinda could get onto its head. All she would have to do—
A thunderous roar resounded through the jungle behind her. Afterward followed the shrieking of panicked sickleclaws, and the thrashing and trampling of foliage as they flocked through it. The shaking of trees in the understory barely masked the stomping of huge feet. With her jittering arms, Luyinda wrestled to take her quiver’s lid off.
She had yet to succeed before a puff of rancid breath scalded down her face.
Though it stood over twice as tall as a man, the steeltooth’s dark green and black scales hid most of its bulk within the jungle shadows. Yet its eyes blazed like molten iron when it lowered its human-sized head to sniff Luyinda. The namesake teeth glinting from its jaws ran long as her machete, as did the bladelike claws on its brawny two-fingered arms. Every note of its purring growl pulsed chills up Luyinda’s back until she froze like a sculpture.
And she wanted that. They said steelteeth could see even the slightest twitch of a person’s soul, but bodily stillness in the face of such savage power would doubtless confuse it. A puny human who defied the jungle tyrant’s pride might even weaken it to the point of vulnerability. And then, in the name of her people and her brother, she could conquer it.
The steeltooth craned its neck back blinking as if puzzled by the huntress’s resilient act. With her lips curling into a smile, she drifted her hand back to her quiver, clutching the lid and turning it clockwise and upward. Her heart still pumped, but the dread had melted in the heat of her determination.
After a snort of irritation, the steeltooth blasted another earshattering roar in Luyinda’s face.
The gust of hot air and drool blew her onto the ground, facing the monster’s maw descending upon her. Its tongue wiggled out to lick her until she slashed her machete across it. As the steeltooth bellowed out blood, Luyinda sprung and raced up a vine to over its head. This would go easier than expected. She would simply leap onto the big reeling head and stab into its—
It took one chomp and a yank for the steeltooth to tear the vine down. What a clever beast! Luyinda had no hope against this giant up close; she needed all the space she could put between them. So faster than a monkey did the huntress vault through the verdant web of the upper jungle, also surfing her feet along mossy branches that twisted in her way. Yet the steeltooth stormed after her with a velocity unexpected for its great size. Whenever Luyinda’s flight arced low within its reach, she could count on its jaws to snap inches below her.
Nonetheless the heavy brute’s stomping slowed in beat alongside its labored breath. Whatever advantage it had in stride could not counter a woman’s endurance for long. Once the steeltooth paused for rest, Luyinda dropped onto a distant branch to open and unload her quiver. At last she had made enough distance for her ranged attack. Holding the whole bundle of arrows in her fist, she stretched her arm taut and then chucked them at the steeltooth.
They whooshed through the air until they struck wood.
The steeltooth had hurled a projectile of its own, a huge log that smashed into Luyinda’s bough. A shower of splinters grazed the huntress’s skin in the midst of her fall. But she did not land on the softness of the foliage or leaf litter. Instead she fell some more.
Before and behind her rose the rugged walls of a basaltic canyon. Leatherwings soared in circles overhead while a churning white mess of a river rushed up to greet her.
The splash felt more like a bone-breaking smack across Luyinda’s whole body. She fought the current’s foaming fury to surface, only for it to bang her between boulders and throw her down waterfalls louder than the steeltooth itself. And then there were the schools of gaudy fish slipping and slapping against her.
A screeching leatherwing, bigger than Luyinda herself, dove for her headfirst. She dipped her head back into the rapids’ choking chaos, but the flying reptile still seized her upper arm with its curved beak and reeled her dangling over of the water. As the leatherwing flapped like a frantic hummingbird to overpower her weight, the huntress hammered her fist onto its nostrils until it released her.
The splash did not hurt so much this second time. The leatherwing had already faltered over the highest waterfall which cascaded into a vast calm lake. The moaning songs of wading thundertails, those long-necked titans that dwarfed all else in the Yombi, should have soothed Luyinda as she drifted away from the falls’ racket. Yet, after an afternoon of fighting sickleclaws, escaping a steeltooth, and being swept down rapids, every muscle in her body burned from exhaustion and her lungs had been squeezed of breath.
And she had lost all her arrows as well as her bow. Only the gods could know how far the river had carried her away. It had to be, what, half a moon’s walk through the jungle back to her village? That was as long as Mayele had been away—maybe he was not dead after all, but somewhere in this area! But even so, Luyinda had no way of telling where he might be in this unfamiliar part of the Yombi.
She paddled to the lake’s edge, avoiding prowling crocodiles and the hippos which lazed in the thundertails’ reflection. Her hands and knees pressed into cool, soft mud once the huntress crawled past the reedy shore. Skinned and battered by the day’s events, Luyinda collapsed onto her breast and slumped into a dizzy rest.
Wherever Mayele Ngozulu was, his older sister had failed him. And it was all her fault.
To be continued…