Msizi clutched the leather straps, holding on for life as the great umkhombe thundered across the plain. Its powerful hooves broke dry and cracked soil, sending up billows of red dust in its wake.

Umkhombe were familiar in his homeland, quick to anger and always in a foul mood. Larger than a bull, their hefty bulk masked their swiftness and they could easily run down a man. His people, the Zhusa, believed the spirits of fierce warriors inhabited their bodies, and even hunters dared not arouse their anger.

But like so much beyond the Southlands, these umkhombe were different from any Msizi had known. Each was almost twice as large; and instead of three horns jutting from its snout there was one — a sickle curved protrusion of bone as long as a man’s arm and sharpened in the front like a blade. While the hide of all umkhombe was thick, this one must have been made of rock; at least three Zhusa spears lay buried in its gray skin.

Msizi felt a pang of loss at sight of the polished blades. Each had belonged to a Zhusa warrior. He had watched them try to take down the giant umkhombe, only to be trampled beneath it, their decorative shields of cattle skin shattering and mingling with their crushed remains. He still did not know how he managed to survive. He only remembered crying out to the spirits, and leaping at the umkhombe as it thundered past. The ancestors must have worked through him, for he landed atop the moving beast, his spear fatally piercing the breast of its rider — whose body still remained tied to his monstrous steed.

It was worthy of retelling at the next umghubha, where Zhusa warriors displayed their skills in dance and boastful songs. But it had left Msizi in a dangerous predicament. He had almost fallen to his death from the umkhombe after slaying its rider. It was the spirits’ own luck that saved him, entangling his arms and legs in the straps that encircled the beast. Now, however, he was unable to break free, a captive as it continued its mad charge. He wondered if the spirits found amusement as they watched him.

Looking to a Zhusa spear lodged within the umkhombe’s hide, Msizi reached for it. But despite how hard he strained, the weapon remained out of his grasp. As a sudden jostle almost dislodged him, he hurriedly returned to the safety of the straps. It was then that he noticed something glinting atop the beast — a knife, tucked into the waist of its slain rider.

Msizi reached out again, his hand closing on the hilt of the knife. Fighting to keep his balance, he pulled and tugged until the weapon came free. Dragging it from its scabbard he gazed in amazement. The blade was made of bone — remarkably like the sharpened horn of this monstrous umkhombe. Perhaps it might succeed where Zhusa spears could not.

Eyeing the beast’s body, he searched for a place to strike. Its thick, hairless hide covered nearly everything in deep folds, leaving only its underbelly vulnerable. But reaching there brought the risk of falling beneath its legs — which would surely trample him. There was, however, another spot. Behind the beast’s long ears, the skin was thinner, the hide a lighter shade of gray. That was the place, Msizi knew. And likely, he would have only one chance.

Wasting no time, he secured himself tightly in the straps and angled the weapon. With a muttered prayer he pulled his arm back, and with all his strength, drove the horned blade deep into the unprotected skin of his captor.

The umkhombe let out a terrible scream. It slung its great head from side to side, trying to dislodge the knife. Still Msizi did not stop, pushing the blade deeper, until hot blood covered his hand. There was another scream, this one high pitched, descending into a low moan. The world turned upside down as the umkhombe abruptly braked, losing its balance and falling over on its side — taking him with it.

The breath left Msizi’s body at the fall, rattling every part of him. He blinked several times to get his bearings, and found himself gazing up at a bright blue sky where the sun blazed down like a great orange eye. He lay atop the umkhombe as it thrashed about, its massive body wracked with convulsions.

Giving a thankful prayer, Msizi quickly disentangled himself, marveling at his fortune. Had his captor turned another way, he would have been crushed beneath its bulk. Surely this was a day the ancestors favored him. Breaking free, he rolled quickly from atop the umkhombe and scrambled to a crouch — glad to feel the earth beneath him. Rising on unsteady legs he checked his body for signs of injury, finding only scrapes and bruises. A cry of joy at being alive was set to escape his lips when a mournful moaning interrupted his celebration.

Msizi looked down to the umkhombe. Blood still poured from the blow he had inflicted, its body trembled in an odd way and its breath came in ragged gasps. Several times it tried to rise to its feet, only to fail and crash back to the ground. The great beast had been injured beyond healing. If it did not die from the wound, it would starve beneath this blazing sun, meeting a slow and painful end.

Remorse filled Msizi at the sight. Umkhombe were feared in his homeland, but also respected. Some even claimed that their fierce spirits showed the most honored warriors the way to the ancestors upon death. No one would think to place straps and reins about such a creature and bend it to their will. Yet these men — he glanced to the dead body of its rider — had done so, painting their hides with bright red symbols and wrapping their horns in sharpened silver metal. They had turned these noble beasts into slaves, who now fought and died in a war not of their making.

Kneeling down to reach the umkhombe’s square muzzle, Msizi gingerly pulled free the metal rod fitted between its jaws — along with the noseband attached to it. He placed a hand to its head and looked down into a hooded eye, ringed with thick folds of skin. There was a gentleness there that seemed to contrast its fierce demeanor.

“You have fought well warrior,” he whispered. ”And you have earned your rest.”

Rising to his feet Msizi reached for one of the spears embedded into the creature’s back. Pulling it free, he bent down again and traced a hand along the beast’s underbelly, searching for the telltale drumbeat of life. It trembled at his touch, thrashing even more violently, as if to say the fight had not yet been forced from it. Quickly backing out of harms’ way, Msizi lifted the spear high and whispered a respectful prayer. Then in one swift movement, he plunged it deep into that beating drum. The umkhombe did not cry out as the Zhusa blade slid through its heart, but its body gave one final tremble before going still.

Msizi let out a deep breath, surveying his grisly handiwork. His eyes fell upon the dead rider: his spear still jutted from the man’s chest, where a thin shirt of silver chainmail had been unable to protect him. Discarding the weapon he held, he walked over to retrieve his own spear, pulling it free from inert flesh and holding it aloft.

He looked along the dark wood of the weapons’ shaft. It had been cut from a tree in his land known for its strength, and carved with symbols of his family. The long triangular blade at its apex was made of steel fallen from the heavens and hammered with chants to the spirits, before being dipped into holy water to cool its fire. Msizi had been so impressed with the weapon he had named it Mandla, The Strong. All Zhusa named their spears upon receiving them, and in doing so placed a piece of their spirit within. They lived with their spears, kept them near as they slept, and would be buried with them upon death.

Reaching back down he used the dead man’s yellow striped tunic to wipe the crimson from his blade. Gazing into his face, he took in the clean shaven chin, flat nose and raised scars that dotted his forehead. The skin upon those unfamiliar features was not as ebon as his own, but nearly so. His scalp was shaved clean in the front, and covered in a white powder; while the back sported a short crop of tightly coiled hair caked in red resin. Hoops of silver circled about his neck down to his shoulders, like a cover of armor.

Msizi did not recognize the man’s dress or his people. He was as mysterious as these giant umkhombe, and much of this place so far from home. All that was certain was that he was a servant of the fire demon — those whom the people of these lands called the Witch Priest.

The Zhusa knew little of what lay beyond the Southlands. And it would seem most here knew little of them in turn. To many the “spear-bearers” — as they called the varied peoples of the Southlands — who ran into battle with great decorative shields and unbreakable spears, were just stories. When they had first arrived, many feared they too were allied with the fire demon. Whole villages had fled in terror, thinking this Witch Priest had sent a vast army of warriors from the south to descend upon them. But the Zhusa had not come to conquer.

A great drought crippled Msizi’s homeland, where the sun blazed hotter than any elder could recall, and cattle died of heat and thirst. Desperation had fueled tempers and driven many mad. Wars erupted between peoples, clans and even families, over water holes and once powerful rivers that had run dry. All seemed ready to descend into chaos until a blind holy woman had appeared before the gathered armies of the Southlands — Zhusa, Shuna, Xholu and more.

There, before they could battle, she told of a dream, of a great fiery demon that swept across the lush green land, consuming their prized cattle, leaving nothing but blackened earth and charred carcasses in its wake. This fire, she said, was a demon that now walked in the flesh of a mortal man. It was he that had dried their rivers and set them at each other’s throats. The people of these lands thought this Witch Priest was a man, but Msizi and his brothers knew better. They had journeyed all this way to make war against him, before the smoke of his fires grew so great it plunged all into darkness.

He gazed about the wide open plain. How far had he traveled? The umkhombe had run a great way. He was not even certain from what direction they had come.

Straining to listen, he heard no sounds of fighting — the screams and cries of men killing or dying. In frustration he glanced at the ground and muttered a curse — only to find what he sought. It was the umkhombe’s tracks, kicked up in its run on the plain. Smiling, he gave another thanks to the spirits, and began to follow the trail.

In short time he had broken into a run, chanting an old war song to keep his pace. The bushy golden lion’s mane he wore about his neck and shoulders waved about in his wake, matching the short kilt at his waist and the tufts of fur that covered his ankles. Otherwise his sinewy body was bare, glistening with sweat as it worked beneath the sun.

Running was part of the life of every Zhusa, and helped bring calm. Some of the men he had met here, allies against the Witch Priest, rode upon strange beasts — reminding him greatly of long legged mules. He and his brothers had sniffed derisively at them. Zhusa warriors used their own legs and were not carried about like old women.

In those brief moments of peace he let his thoughts wander to home. That last night, after he and the newly initiated warriors had danced themselves into frenzy and weariness, he had lain with Themba, rubbing joja oil on her swollen belly. He was likely a father now. Themba had thought she would bear him a son. But in truth, he wanted a daughter, someone he could look at to remember her beauty. His first child . . . and he had not been there. The thought brought a touch of sadness to him and his war chant faltered.

It was odd. Just a few seasons past, when he had completed his rites to become a Zhusa warrior, his brothers relished every chance to prove their worth in battle. They had gone on cattle raids and been angered and shamed that they had not gotten a kill. And then when the water wars had erupted, they had gleefully looked forward to finding honor. Now here, in this war against this Witch Priest, he and other young warriors had all they ever wanted. He had washed his blade in the blood of enough men to earn respect among even the most seasoned warriors. And he had seen countless battles.

Msizi grimaced. Indeed, he had seen them. And they had not been like the tales of valor sung at umghubha. He had seen men slit open, trying in vain to push the contents of their bellies back in place. He had seen others crying out like infants for their mothers as they lay dying. He had seen fear in the faces of men he thought made of stone. And he had felt it in himself, sometimes ripping him from sleep, shaking and drenched in his own sweat.

War did have honor, yes. And he hoped to have his tales sung long after he joined the ancestors. But war had something else, something dark that gripped even those that survived it, stealing your life away slowly. Men could not walk in the midst of this blood and death and not be touched by that darkness.

Worse still, that darkness was spreading. They were not winning this war.

It was a bitter truth. The power of this Witch Priest was like a bush fire swept along by a foul wind. His armies grew by the day, as easily swayed men and all manner of beasts emerged from the dark places of the world to march beneath his banner. Even the mighty spears of the Zhusa and their many allies might not be able to contain those flames.

Shaking himself, Msizi pushed away the despair that threatened to swallow him.

Chanting louder, he picked up his run. Whatever the cost, this war had to be fought. This was no mere raid for cattle, or some kin-feud of honor. The fate of his homeland, of Themba and the child he had never seen, all would be lost were they to fail. Besides, there was hope. The blind holy woman herself had spoke of it, the Umkhonto we Sizwe — the Spear of the People.

Msizi felt a thrill at the thought. What Zhusa child did not know the tale? In the long ago time a great evil had been loosed upon the Southlands. Demons from the mountains descended like locusts, devouring all before them. People wailed to the ancestors in anguish and even warriors trembled. But one was not afraid. When demons came to destroy his village, he alone stood with shield and spear. He struck at that dark horde with such fierceness and strength, those who bore witness said it was like watching lightening dance.

But the demons were too many. And when the warrior’s spear shattered, it seemed his end had come. But the ancestors, moved by his courage, cast a spear down from the heavens — the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the People. The demons shielded their eyes from its brilliance and howled in fury. But wielding the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the warrior vanquished them. He then rallied the peoples of the Southlands, uniting them against the demons, who were driven into the sea. The stories never gave the warrior’s name and once the demons were defeated he left the Southlands, taking the Umkhonto we Sizwe with him. Many had sought it since, but to no avail.

Now the blind old woman claimed the Umkhonto we Sizwe could be reclaimed, here, beyond the Southlands. Find the Spear of the People she had said, and it would be the greatest weapon against this Witch Priest. Thus far however, no warrior had met with success. None in these lands had even heard of the Umkhonto we Sizwe. Still, the blind seer had said it could be found, and that ray of hope was a much needed light in the midst of darkness.

Msizi continued his run, only stopping now and then to drink from a pouch taken from the umkhombe’s rider. It was bad luck to rob the dead, but it seemed senseless to squander water. If the slain man’s spirit objected and sought him harm, his ancestors would protect him. As he came to an area where large rocks jutted out of the ground, as if the gods had been playing a game of throwing stones, he smiled with confidence. These he remembered. He was traveling the right way. Something caught his eye and made his smile even wider, he broke from the trail to speed towards it.

His shield — made of thick dried cattle-hide stretched out upon an oval wooden frame nearly as tall as himself. Light enough to carry, it could stop a rain of arrows and blunt the thrust of a spear. He had been forced to discard it as he was carried along by the umkhombe. Picking it up, he lifted it high and beat his spear upon it, thanking the spirits for reuniting them. Once more, he was a Zhusa warrior ready for battle. Let any who dared cross him approach now!

As if hearing his wish, there was a sudden bellowing roar. Msizi turned quickly, gazing about. That sound had not been human, nor was it of any animal that roamed these plains. He feared that he knew it all too well.

It came again, this time even closer. Running towards the rocks he slung his shield across his back, fitting his spear into a buckler inside it. Arms free, he began climbing the stone, not stopping until he reached the top. Jumping onto another rock that jutted out like a pointing finger, he laid his belly flat and crept along its length until he reached its edge.

He found himself looking down at a flat expanse of parched earth. Somewhere in the distance smoke and dust filled the air. The battle. There, Zhusa warriors and their allies fought against the fire demon’s minions. It was from there that the umkhombe had carried him. Yet that was not what he had heard, nor what now held his attention.

Directly beneath him was a mass of people — men, women and children — thick ropes and straps encircling their necks and binding their hands. They ran barefoot upon the dusty soil. Those that did not move quickly enough felt the sting of the lash, as lengthy whips struck their backs. Their tormentors were recognizable enough — servants of the Witch Priest.

Several were hyena-men, creatures he had encountered before in these lands — human bodies covered in yellowish fur but with the heads of hyenas. They swelled the ranks of the Witch Priest’s armies; with more arriving each day. Alongside them were what people from the West called bikolo — muscular brutes that looked like men with horrid faces, sharp tusks jutting from their bestial mouths. And of course, who could not notice the Zimwi?

Two of the gargantuans marched in the midst of the throng, towering over all. It was their familiar, inhuman, bellowing that he had heard earlier. Zimwi lived within the dank lightless caves of the Southlands, emerging only at night to hunt. They were formidable foes, giant hulking monsters with reddish-gray skin near thick as an umkhombe, massive arms that could rip apart cattle and legs that could crush a grown man.

In his homeland Zimwi were nothing more than dimwitted beasts that stole livestock and snatched away people to sate their ravenous hunger. This Witch Priest however had pulled them under his sway. They left their caves in a trance, flocking to his banner, where he fitted them with weapons and armor to fight his battles. These two wore spiked iron masks, giving them an even fiercer look. One carried a spear in its thick, four-fingered hand, the weapon long enough to impale an ox. The other held two iron swords with thick jagged heads, each of which could halve a man.

Yet more surprising than the ominous host, were those who led them.

Ahead of the hyena-men, bikolo and Zimwi were women. They numbered perhaps a hundred. Each was adorned with weapons — spears, bows, swords and more — marking them as warriors.

Msizi stared down from his perch, awed at the sight. In the Southlands women were mothers, some were priestesses, others were revered elders and a few even ruled in their own right. But none were warriors. His entire life he had learned that being a warrior was the mark of a man. Yet outside of the Southlands, he was repeatedly reminded that the world was different. And of these women who marched beneath the banner of the Witch Priest — black with red flame — he had heard much.

People of the west had told the Zhusa of women called the Kposi, one-time guardians to the ruler of a powerful kingdom. But the warrior women had fallen under the sway of the Witch Priest, murdering the king they were sworn to protect. Renouncing their oaths, they pledged fealty to their new master who renamed them the Isat — his fire — and who now waged his unholy war.

Msizi and his brothers had scoffed at these stories. But they had once laughed at tales of hyena-men and bikolo, until bitterly learning their sharp blades were real enough. These Isat were yet another truth the Zhusa would soon learn in blood.

There was a sudden commotion and the warrior women stopped, calling out orders to the creatures that followed. A few stood and pointed with spears towards the smoke and dust in the distance, conferring among themselves. Then with a few quick cries they broke into a run, moving swiftly towards the battle. The two Zimwi and the greater bulk of the small army they commanded followed behind.

Msizi watched them go, moving faster than any Zhusa warrior he’d ever seen, faster than anyone — man or woman — should have been able. Very soon the Zhusa would meet these fierce women in battle. A sense of urgency welled up in him, and he suddenly wanted very much to stand with his brothers.

Preparing to crawl from the ledge and fly towards the battle, his thoughts were broken by a scream. So taken was he with the warrior women, he had almost forgotten about their prisoners. The screams came from an old man who lay on the ground, lifting a feeble arm to protect himself from a bikolo that whipped him mercilessly.

Those of the small army that had been left behind were now marching their captives in another direction, away from the battle towards the west. And there was little doubt where they were going.

Since arriving in these lands, the Zhusa had come across many burned out villages, deserted as if some force had come to snatch away the people. They later learned their suspicions were correct. The armies of the Witch Priest were indeed snatching away men, women and children, marching them to the coast where some claimed there was water as vast as the plains. There, great vessels sailed by fearful spirits arrived to take away these hapless captives. People whispered in frightful tones of these ghost ships, claiming that those they took never returned.

As Msizi watched the coffle of human bodies he cringed, knowing where their journey would end. He made out a young woman whose round belly protruded before her. She shrieked in pain as a whip sliced cruelly across her back and a sense of horror welled up in Msizi. Terrifying visions assailed his thoughts — Themba, and his newborn child, whipped along an endless line of chained Zhusa men and women. Was this the fate that awaited his people? Was this the fate that awaited all the Southlands if the armies of the Witch Priest held sway?

Msizi’s fear soon turned to anger, and he could already feel his hand clenching the spear at his back. He glanced up into the distance, towards the warrior women and the creatures they led. His brothers would have to forgive him, for he would be late to join them. Today there were other battles to fight. He had witnessed so much unneeded suffering in this land. And the taste of war had proven more bitter than he’d imagined. Perhaps now, in this moment, he could do some good. Crawling back from the ledge he came to his feet and scrambled back down the rock, his spear and shield now held before him.

Msizi’s name had been given at birth. The midwives who delivered him claimed his mother had almost died bringing him into the world. Then he had suddenly shifted, allowing her to pass him safely from her womb. The midwives had taken to calling him Msizi — the helper — and his mother had kept the name. Now he intended to live up to that blessing.

Making his way stealthily along the side of the rocky outgrowth, he rounded it until he caught sight of his enemies. He counted four hyena-men and two bikolo. Good odds he thought grimly — for someone looking to greet the ancestors. Still, they were not the true threat.

Walking at the head of the coffle was a lone warrior woman, giving orders to the rest. Both hyena-men and bikolo fed on human flesh if given the chance and her sisters had likely left her behind to make certain the valuable captives did not end up in their bellies. That meant he faced a seventh foe — one that he remained untested against. So be it. The spirits had brought him this far; they would protect him a while longer.

Msizi let out a Zhusa battle cry as he broke from his hiding place, bearing down on his enemies. The first startled bikolo to turn saw only a flash of steel before Mandla slashed its throat. Msizi wasted little time over the kill, running the second bikolo through.

The beast-man howled in pain, its jade eyes filling with rage. Before Msizi could pull Mandla free it reached out and grabbed his forearm, drawing him closer even as it impaled itself further. Ignoring the claws that bit into his skin, he gave another battle cry before butting his head firmly against the bikolo’s skull. The force of the blow would have rendered a normal man senseless, but it only stunned his foe.

Still, it was enough to weaken its grip, and that was all Msizi needed. He yanked his spear free and thrust it upward, sending it through the base of the bikolo’s chin, past its sharply bared teeth and reaching whatever mind it possessed. Finishing the maneuver he pulled the spear away, letting his dead enemy crumple.

And still there was no time to rest.

The slash of a crude, jagged, sword would have caught him unawares, had its wielder been able to conceal its stench or maniacal laughter. He stepped aside just in time, spinning about and swinging his shield forcefully. It crashed against the attacking hyena-man, knocking it to the ground. Before it could rise he was atop it, bringing down Mandla in a flurry of blows. The creature squealed and yelped in pain, snapping at him with yellow fangs before succumbing to its wounds.

As he turned to meet his other foes, he was startled by an unfamiliar cry. Seizing the opportunity, the bound captives had grabbed discarded weapons, rocks, even their own bindings, and turned the tables on their captors. A hyena-man lay at their feet while they rained down their fury and vengeance upon it.

The remaining hyena-men watched, fear and confusion written on their inhuman faces. Then as one, they turned and ran, fleeing the wrath of their former captives. Msizi grunted in disgust. What cowards these beasts were. He would have continued to revel in his small victory, but not all his enemies had yet been dispatched.

The warrior woman had not moved throughout the brief battle, even to aid her allies. She stood there, gazing at him, her face unreadable.

The woman stood near tall as he, her body showing muscles that he had only before seen on men. Her eyes were surrounded by fine blue dots that met in the center and continued down the bridge of her nose. Dark crimson cloth with intricate curving patterns wrapped tightly about her chest, extending to her torso. At her waist was a short skirt of similar hue that covered half of her thighs; interlaid with strips of green and gold as well as decorative white shells and bits of colorful stone. Thick bands of gold encircled her biceps, endless bracelets of silver, copper and polished bone covered her forearms. A short sword and knife hung at her waist while a great bow was slung across her back. She was stunning to behold. Yet nothing drew his attention as much as her skin.

The other warrior women’s dark tones had shown beneath the colorful paint on their bodies, but this one was different. Her small fleshy nose and lips were little different from other peoples in these lands; but her skin held no color — as if it had been scrubbed of its normal hue. It reminded him of cattle milk, and covered her completely. Even the tightly coiled hair that crowned her head, parted into rows that ran down to her shoulders, was unnatural — gold like a lion’s mane.

Msizi had seen such men and women before, what his people called isishawa — those born without color. No mother or midwife could predict such a child. Some in the Southlands thought them cursed, smothering them at birth or driving them from their villages. The Zhusa however believed isishawa were closer to the spirits, and they often served among the priesthood.

Whatever the truth of it, Msizi did not allow himself to be shaken by the warrior’s strange appearance. Cursed or blessed, she was still a servant of this Witch Priest — dangerous enough to hold hyena-men and bikolo under her sway. Raising his spear and bringing his shield to bear he glanced quickly to the gathered captives, who even now were hurriedly removing their bonds.

“Go!” he told them. “Flee while you can! I will hold this one off!”

They stared at him with blank expressions. He muttered a curse. None here spoke Zhusa any more than he spoke their tongue. He hoped however, some things were plain no matter their differences.

“Go now!” he urged again, lifting his spear and thrusting it at them threateningly. “Get away! Run!”

Many of them reared back, confounded by his actions but refusing to flee — like newborn calves unwilling to leave their mothers. Exasperated, Msizi scowled fiercely. Raising his spear again, he took a few threatening steps forward and yelled wildly. The sight of him must have worked, for the group scattered. Turning, they broke into a run, making their way across the plain. He watched them go, hoping that somewhere in this war ravaged land they would find some peace — or at least a place to hide from those who hunted them.

His gaze went back to the warrior woman. If she noticed that her captives were now free she did not seem to care. She remained in her casual stance, eyeing him with interest but saying nothing. For a moment he wondered if she would do anything at all.

And then she moved.

It happened so swiftly Msizi had little time to react. The woman pulled the great bow from her back and fitted it with an arrow, drawing back on the string. But she did not aim the weapon at him. Instead she turned, her eyes trained on figures in the distance, then let an arrow fly. It sped swiftly across the plain, before embedding itself into its target — one of the fleeing hyena-men.

Msizi gaped. Never had he seen a bow so large, or wielded with such skill. A second arrow caught the remaining hyena-man, felling the beast near its companion. It seemed that deserters were not tolerated in the Witch Priest’s armies.

Finishing her grisly work, the warrior woman returned her attention to him. She did not lift her bow against the fleeing captives, instead throwing the weapon to the ground. Her eyes traced him from head to foot and then stopped — lingering on his spear. A slight smile tugged at the side of her mouth, the first break in her stony demeanor. Then looking at him directly with a piercing gaze, she spoke.

“You fight well.”

Msizi’s eyes rounded, startled at her speech. The warrior woman spoke isiZhusa, the language of his people. And with such perfection one would have thought her born to it.

But he knew better. No woman like this could have come from the Southlands.

“My master has blessed me with many tongues,” she said, reading his face. “The warriors of the Zhusa could have that blessing, among others. You need only ask.”

Msizi stared at her in confusion, then realization dawned.

“You would have me serve that demon?” he spat.

“The Witch Priest is no demon.” the woman said. “He is here to free us from the tyranny of the spirits and gods. He has no war with the Zhusa. If you accept his will and become his allies, you and your people would prosper. With his blessings the Zhusa could become rulers of the Southlands, claiming dominion over the rivers, the greenest pastures and the fattest cattle.”

Visions of this possible world danced before him. He saw himself a powerful Nkosi. His eyes burned like an inferno, and he sat upon a great stool so high none stood taller than him. In his hand was Mandla, but grown larger with a blade that looked as if it were made of pure fire. A giant statue of a bull loomed behind him, carved of gold that shined as bright as the sun. Surrounding him were endless Zhusa warriors, with spears whose iron tips blazed with flames: the gift of the Witch Priest. They marched forth like a storm, thundering across the plains, causing the very ground to tremble. Lands he had never seen fell before them. Men and women either hid their faces in fear from him, or shouted out his name in reverence.

“No!” Msizi shook his head, clearing it of the visions. He glared at the warrior woman. Sorcery! Is this how this Witch Priest had enticed she and her sisters to swear fealty? To betray their own king? No, he would not be so easily swayed.

“Do not try your weak magics upon me,” he growled. “We Zhusa have seen visions of your master, and what he intends for us”

“Lies,” she replied calmly. “Lies told by servants of the spirits and the gods, weak fools who twist their words to trick and enslave you.”

“And your master sends Zimwi and hyena-men to free us? He raids villages for men and women as we do cattle — to free them?” He laughed bitterly. “The man who sets your house afire and then claims he acts only to save you, is either mad or a liar. Truly, which of us has been tricked and enslaved?”

His words must have struck something within her, for the warrior woman’s smile vanished as abruptly as it had come, her pale face going dark.

“Your choice then,” she snarled. “Let all the cursed Zhusa die. We will clear the lands of you like a farmer clears his field of vermin.”

Msizi frowned, holding his weapon and shield even more tightly. At least their false banter had ended. She glanced to his spear again.

“Give it to me,” she commanded.

Msizi regarded her with shock. Was she speaking of Mandla?

“I want it as a trophy,” she said. “It would look well on my wall when I return home. Give it to me and your death will be swift.”

Msizi glared at the woman, her brazen speech stirring up fresh anger. She threatened his people with slavery or death. Now she dared demand that he hand over that which he had earned, that which marked him as a man, as a warrior of the Zhusa? He raised Mandla higher, fixing her with contempt.

“Among my people children are told that if they want to hold a spear they must come and take it,” he said fiercely. “But be warned, one end is sharp.”

The warrior woman emitted a sharp laugh that held no humor. Fires rose within her dark pupils. Reaching to her waist she drew the short sword in one hand, the knife in the other.

“Good,” she said, her face ripe with anticipation. “I prefer it when they fight.” She uttered a word in some unknown tongue and the blade of the knife burst into flame, matching the fire in her eyes.

Msizi stared at the transformation. The fire demon’s touch had infected the woman like a sickness. This was what he had seen in his visions, what fate awaited the Zhusa were they to ally with him. He would pour himself into them, and they in turn would be his, enslaved to his will. The thought of that unholy fire behind the eyes of Themba, of his child, filled Msizi with renewed fury. Crying out to the ancestors he did not wait to be struck, and charged forward with Mandla held high.

The warrior woman met his attack, raising her sword to block his spear. And the sound of battle rang out across the empty plain. Msizi struck several times, thrusting Mandla as his feet danced upon the dry ground. But he could not reach his opponent, who parried with her sword while attacking with her knife. At least twice the flames on the shorter blade came close enough for him to feel its heat on his skin.

And she was fast.

Msizi had sparred with some of the greatest Zhusa warriors, and tested himself against worthy adversaries in this war. But none were like this. At times her body was a blur, shifting before his vision so quickly she seemed to vanish and reappear — making it impossible to anticipate her movements. All the while she laughed aloud, the fire in her eyes rising as she reveled in this game of death. Her bloodlust was like madness.

Msizi lifted his shield and crouched low, blocking a direct cut of the warrior woman’s sword that would have cleaved his face in two. He grunted as the force of the blow reverberated along his arm, running through his body. He feared his legs might give out, but they stood firm. The cursed woman must have had the strength of two men and did not seem to tire. Given the opportunity she would probably fight through the setting sun and beyond.

He however held no unnatural powers. Already he could feel his breathing become heavier and his limbs tremble with fatigue. If this continued his arms would give way from exhaustion. Time itself was the warrior woman’s advantage. He needed to end this battle while he still had strength to stand.

As she pressed her attack Msizi once more crouched low, protecting himself with his shield. This time however he appeared to stumble, seeming on the verge of falling. It was a ruse, an opening any opponent would gladly exploit — as she thankfully did. The warrior woman came closer, her eyes ablaze, eager to deliver the killing blow. As she did so Msizi gave a Zhusa battle cry, launching himself from the crouch with all his strength, Mandla thrusting up towards her exposed torso.

Still, the woman was swift. Even as the spear readied to impale her, she shifted slightly. It was a small move, but enough to avoid Mandla running her through. However, she did not go unscathed. The sharp edge of the spear caught her flank, tearing a wide gash through the crimson cloth that covered her and reaching the flesh beneath. Grunting in pain she spun about and moved back from him, clutching her side while holding her fire-knife threateningly.

Msizi remained in a battle stance, eyeing his foe warily. She was wounded, but still dangerous. The cut was deep. When she attempted to fight again it would burn so greatly she would not be able to lift her arm. And the bleeding would make her go weak. Time was now his advantage. He would wait her out before finishing this.

Bent and gasping in pain, the warrior woman grabbed hold of the torn fabric, ripping a piece free to reveal the wound beneath. Her colorless skin was marred by an open cut that ran from beneath her navel and across her ribs. Blood poured freely from it, soaking the rest of her clothing. Keeping her fiery gaze upon him, she began to chant unknown words in low tones. And as Msizi watched, the impossible happened.

Skin that had been torn apart began to mend, closing the gaping hole as one would a pouch. In moments the cut was sealed completely, leaving only a smear of blood that she wiped away with the torn tunic. Breaking into a wide grin she stood erect once more, weapons held before her. Then with a fierce cry, she came for him.

Msizi staggered back at her attack, stunned by what he had witnessed. How did one defeat a warrior that could heal from a wound, who did not tire and moved like the wind? A part of him feared he knew the answer to the question he asked. This was not a battle he could win. It never had been.

When he lifted his shield to block a thrust of her flaming knife she uttered a word that caused it to flare brightly. His shield was consumed in fire, the cattle hide burning and cracking from the intense heat. Forced to discard it, he was left with only his spear to meet a powerful over-hand stroke of her sword. When the metal blade met the shaft the wood groaned and gave way before emitting an audible crack — and Mandla shattered.

Splinters sprayed Msizi’s face as the spear was broken in two, falling away from his hands. His greatest possession, that which he had earned, which carried the name of his family and had been crafted by the power of his people, was gone — taken from him in an instant. The shock of the loss sent him momentarily numb, until searing pain rushed in to fill the void.

His insides were on fire. He wanted to cry out in agony, but he could only gasp. The warrior woman’s flaming knife lay embedded within him, just below his left breast, her hand still wrapped about its hilt. Looking up he met her cold, fiery gaze, relishing in his pain, before plunging the burning blade deeper. As a choking cry escaped him she pushed herself close until their faces touched. Her cheek brushed against his as she pressed her lips to his ears. He had not expected them to be quite so soft.

“You had a chance at immortality warrior. But now you will die like any other man, and I will have your spear. Go now to your feeble gods.” With that she pulled the flaming knife out of him and his body collapsed.

Msizi felt his legs give way as he fell, landing hard upon his back. He stared up at the blue sky, where the blazing sun stared back. He could not move. It was hard to draw breath. And his body was consumed with pain. There would be no more battles, no praise songs at the next umghubha. He would not see the Southlands again, his beloved Themba or the child they had created. Instead he would die in this unknown land, alone and without proper burial, where his spirit would wander, forever lost.

It was in the midst of this despair that he spied something from the corner of his vision, a blinding form bearing down upon him from across the plain. He turned his head slightly, squinting at the brilliant figure that approached. Only as it came closer could he make it out. It was the great umkhombe, the very one he had fought earlier this day. It thundered its way towards him, shining like a blazing star.

Msizi gaped, confused. He had seen this magnificent beast die at his very hands. He had stilled its heart with his spear. How could it be here now? Had it somehow survived? Did it now pursue him in vengeance? But as the umkhombe came closer it did not trample him. It slowed its pace to a walk, bringing its great muzzle before his face.

“He has come for you much as I have,” a voice said.

Msizi turned to find someone beside him. It was a man, tall and powerfully built with dark intense eyes. Everything about him — his face, his dress even his speech — marked him as a man of the Southlands. But it was no one he knew.

“I have waited so long,” the man said. “I had begun to fear you would not come.”

Msizi tried to speak but the pain was too great. Seeing his struggle the man put a hand to his shoulder and the pain was gone.

“Who are you?”

“You would not know my name if I gave it.” the man said. “But you may have heard my tale. Once, like you, I stood alone in battle against a great evil.”

Msizi shook his head in disbelief. “That is not possible. The man you claim to be died long ago.”

The man extended an arm. “You think you now dwell among the living?”

Msizi followed his gesture to the warrior woman. She stood near, a smile on her painted face. But she did not look at him or the man or even the umkhombe. Instead she stared down at something that lay unmoving in the grass. A shudder wracked his body as he recognized his own face.

His looked to the umkhombe, staring into its gentle eyes. Suddenly he understood. The umkhombe had not survived. And neither had he. This magnificent beast had not come to end him — it had come guide him home. He looked back to the man.

“You wielded the Umkhonto we Sizwe.” he breathed in awe. “We came to find it — ”

“No.” The man shook his head. “There is no such thing.”

“But the tales — ”

“Are wrong”, the man finished. “As tales often are. I did stand alone that day against a horde of demons. But no magic spear fell from the sky when my own shattered.”

“Then how did you defeat them?”

“I did not,” the man said plainly. “I died that day. Nearly all the village perished. Only a few managed to escape as I held the demons off.”

Msizi felt numb. The Spear of the People was not real? They had been sent on an errand of hope that did not exist? All this death for nothing? Anger and desolation welled up in him. Why would the ancestors allow this?

“Lies and deceptions,” he spat. “Is there nothing else in the world?”

“I said the tales were wrong. I did not say they were lies. When I died the ancestors were moved by my courage. They gave me a choice. I could have life again, return from death. Or I could be gifted the power to save my people. But to do so, I must become a spirit in the hands of the ancestors.” Seeing Msizi’s bewilderment he smiled slightly. “Perhaps you do know my name, after all. Among the Zhusa, it was Umkhonto we Sizwe.”

Msizi jaw went slack as he met the man’s powerful gaze and understood his meaning. Umkhonto we Sizwe was not a weapon, but a man. The tales had forgotten the truth, or hidden it well. All this time, they’d been searching for the wrong thing.

“The power granted by the ancestors is too great for the flesh. Only a mortal’s spirit can contain it. I became Umkhonto we Sizwe, and helped my people drive the demons away. When it was done, I returned to the spirit realm. I have come back now to make you the same offer.”

Msizi’s mind reeled at the man’s words.

“Me? But I am no chief, no great warrior . . . ”

The man shook his head. “So many have sought the power I wield, thinking their cattle-raids or boastful deeds in battle could earn it. Do you think the ancestors bestow their gifts so lightly? You stood alone against your foes, giving your life so that others might live. You have earned this right. All you must do now is choose.”

Meeting that intense gaze Msizi’s remaining protests faltered. A hundred thoughts sped through his mind. If he could live again, he would throw down shield and spear and speed home. He would hold to Themba and his child as if they were breath itself. Given a taste of life again, he would spend it on greater things than dreaming of battle.

But . . .

His gaze went to the distance, where the battle raged. Returning home would not shield him from the darkness. The power of the fire demon would grow stronger until the old seer’s warnings came true, and the Southland set aflame. What kind of life would he then have? What kind of life could he offer Themba and his child?

In that instant, Msizi knew his choice was made. He was a Zhusa warrior in life. And he would be so even beyond. Looking to the man he let the firmness of his face give answer.

“I knew you were the one,” the warrior said. “For the umkhombe do not make their bonds lightly.”

Turning, Msizi found the great beast still standing beside him. He reached a hand out to touch its dark muzzle, and in an instant found himself sitting atop it, looking down to where his body still lay, eyes closed in a final visage of peace. His gaze went to the warrior woman. She still did not see them, of course. They existed beyond her. Instead she busied herself with the haft of his spear, holding it aloft appreciatively. A pang of loss swept across him at the sight, until he realized he held something in his own hand. Looking down he found Mandla, whole and unbroken. Strapped to his other arm was his shield, its hide intact. The shattered spear the warrior woman held was only a shell, as empty as his body. His spirit, and that of the Zhusa, would not be hers to claim.

“Do you know your name?” the man asked, now standing to his full height.

Msizi nodded. “I am Umkhonto we Sizwe,” he declared, a sense of strength and purpose entering his voice. “I am the Spear of my People. I am a spirit in the hands of the ancestors. And I will lead the people to strike at the heart of this Witch Priest!”

The man nodded and Msizi knew his own eyes now burned with that same intensity. He glanced at the warrior woman.

“Leave her,” the man said. “This one has her own path to walk.”

Msizi did not argue. The power of the ancestors now flowed through him, and he saw things clearer than ever before. The woman’s past days and those to come flashed before his vision. Her journey would be a long one.

“Rejoice now,” he told her. “But there are powers greater than your Witch Priest in this world. And in the end, he will fall.”

Pulling his gaze from her, Msizi looked to find the man had gone — returned to the spirit realm now that his task was done. One day, he knew, he would have to do the same. Bending low, he whispered into the umkhombe’s ear.

“Come friend. Our battle has only begun. Take us before our enemies, and let them meet Msizi Umkhonto we Sizwe.”

The umkhombe snorted in reply and turned its massive body, breaking into a gallop across the plain towards the battle, moving so fast all sped by them in blur. As they rode on Msizi lifted his spear and shield high, singing a praise song for them both.

Let the ancestors know, their warriors come.

P. Djeli Clark resides in Brooklyn. A mild mannered doctoral candidate by day, he manages to escape his humdrum existence whenever possible through his writing. Fantasy remains his favorite genre, and his influences range from Robert Jordan to Steven Barnes. Djeli has stories due out in Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction and a forthcoming anthology, Griots, co-edited by authors Milton Davis and Charles Saunders.

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