Read CHAPTER TWO of The White Shield , free online book, by Bertram Mitford, on ReadCentral.com.

TREASON IN THE AIR.

Strong as we felt in the might of our name and nation, we were too well skilled in the game of war to allow ourselves to be lulled into a blind security. Day after day, night after night, we kept a sharp look-out, expecting the forces of the Bakoni and their allies to fall upon us in overwhelming numbers. But they did not; which went to show that something of the terror of our name had travelled to the Chief of the Blue Cattle; nor, indeed, did I doubt but that messengers would follow shortly after us with gifts, and desiring to konza to Umzilikazi, even as had done all other nations within our reach.

At length we drew near to Ekupumuleni, and our hearts were light, for the thoughts of all of us were full of the richness of the country which lay awaiting our possession; and as we returned to the home of our wandering nation, the dryness of the land struck us as quite cheerless not that it was so really, but only by comparison with the green, well-watered region we had just left.

Having sent messengers on to announce our arrival, we entered the great kraal, singing lustily the praises of the King. Umzilikazi was seated in his wonted place, at the upper end of the great open circle, and as we flung our weapons to the ground and, tossing our right hands aloft, roared the Bayete, I could see that pleased expression I knew so well steal over his face.

“Greeting, son of Ntelani,” he said, as bending low, I drew near. “Seat thyself, and tell me what thou hast seen and done.”

This I did, and the Great Great One took snuff and listened. Then he ordered those women and boys whom he had taken as bearers to be brought before him.

Crouching low to the earth they came, those poor slaves, their eyes starting from their heads in fear. They had never seen anything like this the splendour of our huge kraal and its shapeliness and strength; so different to their own town, which, though far larger, was utterly without shape or design the stature and strength, and fierce bearing of our warriors, who had mustered in crowds to witness our return, and above all, the proud majesty of our King, and the roaring volume of praises which went up from every throat to hail his appearance. They bent low to the very earth, trembling with fear.

“It is good, it is good,” said the King, eyeing them between pinches of snuff. “These are right well-made specimens, albeit somewhat light of skin. I ordered thee to take no captives, Untuswa, yet the impi needed bearers for its goods, and thou hast chosen the pick and flower of the girls. Ah! ah! Untuswa; thou hast ever an eye for all that is best in that way.”

Yeh-bo Nkulu ’nkulu!” I cried, delighted that I had pleased the King.

“I will choose the best, Untuswa. After that thou canst take the two that will suit thee; the remainder I will otherwise dispose of.”

Then the King dismissed us, ordering cattle to be slain for us to feast on, and we departed from his presence uttering shouts of bonga.

When I gained my hut I found Nangeza, my principal wife, awaiting me with ill-concealed impatience.

“Welcome, Untuswa,” she said. “And so upon the news you bring it depends whether we move onward or no?”

“Who am I, to seek to interpret the mind of the King?” I answered darkly, for Nangeza was ever trying to wring out of me what went on in the secret councils of the izinduna, and even in my private conferences with the Great Great One himself. This was all very well while I was unringed and a thoughtless boy, but now things were different. The less women had to say to such matters the better; but although I could see this now, Nangeza never could be brought to do so. She would show an evil temper at such times, and hint that she had been the making of me that I had been ready enough to take counsel of her in times past, but that now I was somebody I thought I could do without her. Then she would bid me beware, saying that, even as she had made me, it might still be within her power to unmake me. Now of this sort of talk, Nkose, I began to have more than enough. Nangeza might be the inkosikazi she deserved that but she should not be the chief, too.

[Inkosikazi means Chieftainess. The principal wife of a man of rank.]

She was now a tall, fine, commanding woman, and as fearless and ready of wit as she had been when a girl, yet with the lapse of time she had become too commanding had developed an expression of hardness which does not become a woman. She had slaves to wait on her, and had little or no hard work to do herself. Moreover, by this time, I had two other wives, those two girls whom I had promised to lobola for when they had surprised me and Nangeza together; and I had kept my word. They were soft-hearted, merry, laughing girls, who never dreamed that the second fighting induna of the King’s army ought to take his commands from women; wherefore it not unfrequently befell that I preferred their huts to that of Nangeza, my inkosikazi.

A woman of Nangeza’s disposition could not be other than a jealous woman. She hated my other two wives. She had borne me one child, a daughter, whereas the other two had each borne me a son, and she feared lest I should name one of these as my successor, and as chief son, thus conferring precedence over any she might hereafter bear me. You white people, Nkose, think that we Zulus keep our women in the lowest subjection. Well, we do not allow them to rule us, yet now and again we find one who tries hard to do so, and gives a great amount of trouble before we can convince her that it is not to be done; and Nangeza was one of these. And of her I was even then beginning to have more than enough.

Now she sullenly acquiesced in my reticence, for I would not unfold one word of the King’s counsels. But she gave me a very dark look and turned away muttering. Yet during my absence events of the gravest moment had been transpiring.

In the evening Umzilikazi sent for me. I found him alone in his hut, and as I sat opposite him it seemed as though I were once more the inceku and shield-bearer, and that the dread ordeal which had terminated in the winning of my head-ring and the King’s Assegai had been all a dream.

“What think you, Untuswa?” said the King at first. “Is it for good or for ill that we leave Ekupumuleni, `The Place of Rest,’ and depart for this new land?”

“It is for good, Great Great One. The land is better one than this. There is more room in it for a new nation to become mighty and rich.”

“Yet there are some who would remain here, some who shake a doleful head over the prospect of going farther.”

“Those who shake their heads against the will of the King may happen to shake them off, O Elephant.”

“Ha! Thou sayest well, son of Ntelani. They may happen to shake them off ah! ah! they may.”

Now Umzilikazi spoke in that soft and pleasant voice of his, and I thought that trouble was gathering for somebody. Then as his keen eyes, half-closed, were fixed upon mine, piercing through and through my brain, I did not sit at ease, for I had been absent many moons, and certain powerful enemies of mine had not. Then he went on, still speaking in that soft and terrible voice.

“There are those who have reason to love Ekupumuleni, for it is not too far from the land of their birth. Good. Ekupumuleni shall indeed be their resting-place their resting-place forever.”

Now I knew that ill awaited somebody, and strangely, too, at that moment, I remembered Nangeza’s dark looks and words. Yet how could the shadow of coming ill affect me? I aspired to be nothing but a fighting leader! My mind was the mind of the King. I cared nothing for intriguing or plotting. I only asked to lead my shields against the enemies of the King. The occupation I favoured most was that of fighting.

Then Umzilikazi went on to talk about this new land, and of the chief and people who owned the blue cattle.

“There will be spoil for all, for all who deserve it,” he said; “and these slaves you have brought back please me well. Whau, Untuswa! How is it that a man like you, and a fighting captain, has but three wives only three?” he asked, laughing at me.

“I care not for such, Great Great One. I desire only to wield the King’s Assegai in battle,” I said.

“That is well. In a few days we shall see. Go now, Untuswa.”

I saluted and left the King. As I passed the gate of the isigodhlo, or royal enclosure, which gate was only wide enough to admit one man at a time, I met my father, Ntelani, entering. Not a word had the King let fall on the matter of my father, and this meeting, which was a surprise to both of us, seemed an evil omen; for now that I wore the head-ring, and had become great, and commanded the King’s troops, my father was more jealous than ever, and hated me more. We exchanged greetings, and then in the darkness I made my way to old Masuka’s hut.

I pushed the wicker door open and crept in. The old witch-doctor was awake, and, seated by his fire, looked more like a big black spider than a man, such a skin-and-bone old skeleton had he become.

“I have seen you, Untuswa,” he said, looking up.

“Greeting, father,” I replied.

Au!” he said, handing me snuff. “And have you brought back cow and calf from the land of the Blue Cattle, Untuswa? The cow, whose milk keeps the life in my old frame, is dead a lion killed her.”

“No cattle did I bring from the land of the Bakoni, father, though it will not be a long time before we go and take all of it,” I replied; “but there is a red cow in milk among my herd. Tomorrow she and her calf shall be driven in among your beasts, my father.”

The old man looked pleased. He loved cattle, and although by now he was one of the wealthiest among us, yet he never lost an opportunity of adding to his herds; but if any man gave him a cow he did not ask for more; unlike our own izanusi, who were wont to go on asking and asking until they had obtained ten or twelve beasts. Now I, each time that I was enriched by increase in my herd, or took spoil from an enemy, never failed to send a head or two to old Masuka; but from me our own izanusi got nothing wherefore they hated me. But the old Mosutu had been the means of saving my life and making me great; wherefore I grudged him not such gifts from time to time.

When the King had caused Isilwana, the head isanusi, to be killed, for failing to cure a man who was wounded by the poisoned arrows of the mountain tribes, he had desired to put Masuka in his place; but the old man begged permission to refuse, saying that his muti [Medicine, or charm] would be of no avail if worked with others. So Umzilikazi, not sorry to set up a rivalry between the witch-doctors, had allowed him to go his own way; and since the rain-making, the old Mosutu had stood higher in the King’s favour than ever.

“That is well, my son,” he replied, “but delay not to send the cow with morning light, for by nightfall it may be that she will never be sent.”

Hau!” I cried. “What mean you, my father?”

“You are brave, Untuswa, and I have made you great. It is a pity that such should die young.”

“What mean you, my father?” I cried again, seeing a deadly meaning in his words.

He gazed at me for a moment, then bending forward spoke low in the Sesutu tongue, which by this time he had taught me; and as I listened my horror became greater and greater, for it seemed as though a wide and black pit of darkness yawned at my feet, and I must either spring over it or into it. Verily, the enemies at work within a man’s kraal are more to be feared than any outside. I must warn the King this very night. Yet, was it too late?

“Even now I hear steps which seek thee, son of Ntelani,” he ended. “Yet go to meet them. I know not if thou wilt return.”

Obedient to the old man’s injunction, I rose, and now I, too, heard steps in the silence of the night. With a heavy foreboding of trouble, I crept through the door of the hut, and stood upright.

“The King desires speech of thee, son of Ntelani,” said a voice, as a man came in sight. I recognised him as one of the izinceku or household attendants, and I thought there was something of malice and mischief in his tone. But I lost no time in gaining the isigodhlo.

Now, the royal house was of great size, nearly twice that of the largest of any other. I approached, singing in a low voice the King’s praises, to give notice that I was coming; then, disarming, I entered. The Great Great One was alone. A fire burning in the centre lighted up the interior brightly, and in its blaze I could see upon the royal countenance a look I did not like. But still less did I like what immediately followed.

“Thou dog and whelp of a dog!” hissed the King, as, with the rapidity of lightning, he dropped aside his skin robe and hurled a casting assegai at me. It grazed my head with a vicious “zip!” and buried itself in the side of the house, where it stuck quivering.

I did not move. Not a word did I speak, yet I felt that death and myself were closely shoulder to shoulder once more.

“Well, dog! Hast thou no word to say?” went on Umzilikazi, his hand gripping another casting spear.

“Yes, I have a `word,’ Great Great One. My life is ever in the hand of the King. But now I know of no reason why it should be taken,” I answered boldly.

“No reason? Au! Can a nation serve two Kings, Untuswa, my dog?” he mocked.

“Now have the dreams of the Elephant been bad now have the ears of the Great Great One been filled with dark and false things. Moreover, I know well that it was not really in thy mind to slay me, Father; else had yon spear been buried in something very different to the grass wall of the house,” I ended, with my usual boldness, which was so great as sometimes to astonish myself nearly as much as it did those who witnessed it. But it was in the minds of men that I should never now be slain by order of the Great Great One, because I held the King’s Assegai. Yet upon this I did not put overmuch trust.

“You have a ready tongue, Untuswa, and a ready wit,” said Umzilikazi, no longer wrathfully. “The word is true, and well said, for I could hardly miss a man at that distance, even though there are some who think it is time to find a new King.”

These last words were spoken low. I had heard enough from old Masuka not to require to ask their meaning. Yet I spoke in surprise and disgust, at the thought that such a thing should be possible.

“What is your thought on the matter, Untuswa?” said the King softly, eyeing me with his head on one side.

Au! that is not a question to ask of me, Great Great One; for was I not on my way hither to point out those who think thus?” I said.

He started eagerly.

“Can you do this, Untuswa? Can you point them out?”

“I can, Great Great One. Shall I silently call together the slayers? The pool beyond Ncwelo’s kraal is not far, and the moon will not take long to sink now. In the morning its water shall be red.”

“Ha! The pool beyond Ncwelo’s?” muttered the King. “Wait. Call not together the slayers, for I will see these evil-doers with my own eyes, will hear their treachery with my own ears. You and I will go forth together, Untuswa; then on the morrow they shall behold their last sunrise.”

“How many men shall I bring for safeguard, Father?” I said. “Ten, perhaps, or more?”

“No men shalt thou bring, Untuswa. Thou and I will go forth together and witness the doings of these wizards, these abatagati, who meet at night.”

I looked anxious, for this was a serious adventure. The risks were enormous. Of the exact number of conspirators we were in ignorance, but we, being only two, would be sure to find ourselves at a great disadvantage in the event of discovery. Again, if any harm befell the King, should not I be held responsible for it? So I said

“May I not go alone and bring back word, Black Elephant?”

I fancied Umzilikazi looked suspicious.

“Not so, Untuswa,” he said. “I will satisfy my own eyes, my own ears, and then Hearken now. Take thy weapons, for it is time to start. Walk in front of me until we are without the gates. If we meet any man, harm him not. But any man who recognises the King, with the first words of royal greeting which pass his lips, slay him instantly and without a word, be he whom he may. I would not be known to have moved in this matter.”

Umzilikazi took a broad-bladed spear in his hand and a black shield, of smaller size than those used in war. It happened that I was armed in like manner, except that I had a large knobstick as well. Thus equipped, we started upon our adventure.