Zara of the Jungle Story by L’Espion https://lespion1944.deviantart.com/ Chapter 1 Prisoner of the Ngoro Prologue Central Africa 1916 “How much farther, Mtomba?” “Not too far, bwana. We should reach the village before nightfall.” “Very good,” the Reverend John Alstead replied. “I will be glad to get off this river.” “And anxious to reach our mission as well,” his wife Alma added. “But I will be glad to get Judy out of this canoe as well so that we can begin a normal life.” She looked down at the tiny bundle in the wicker basket. Alstead smiled, thinking that their life in the mission would be far from normal. They were deep in the heart of so-called darkest Africa and on a river that as far as Alstead knew had never been travelled by Europeans. The mission was not without its dangers, but the chance to bring the word of God to a people who were little more than unbridled savages was worth the risk, even if that risk extended to his wife and infant daughter. “Ha!” A shout of alarm from Mtomba snapped him out of his reverie. He looked toward the spot in the river where their guide was pointing and saw a large dark mass moving toward the canoe. “Water elephant!” Mtomba shouted. A hippopotamus. Alstead knew that such creatures were normally not dangerous to canoes, but the animals were nothing if not unpredictable and this one was coming straight for them. He was on the verge of panic as he remembered that Alma could not swim and Judy certainly couldn’t, and then the hippo submerged before it hit the canoe. Alstead breathed a sigh of relief and then cried out in terror as the hippo came up under the middle of the canoe. With a flick of its head the canoe and its occupants were hurled high in the air. Alstead had one thought only and that was to save his wife and daughter. He came down some distance from the canoe, and surfacing he could hear Alma thrashing around and screaming her daughter’s name. He had no idea where his daughter was, but he managed to make his way to Alma, just as she went down. He caught hold of her hair, and then swimming as best he could, thrashed his way toward the riverbank, dragging her with him. He reached the bank exhausted and pulled Alma out of the water. Mtomba and the other man who had been in the canoe had managed to make it as well. “Judy!” Alma screamed again. Alstead looked to where the canoe had been and saw that it was upside down, but that a few feet away a small basket was floating rapidly downstream. Exhausted, he was about to plunge back into the river when Mtomba grabbed his shoulder. “No, bwana!” the guide said. “Look!” Alstead followed his gaze. The hippo was nowhere in sight, but from the opposite bank several crocodiles had slid into the water. They swam like arrows straight toward the canoe and the basket. He would never reach either of them in time. All he could do was watch the tiny basket as it swirled to a bend in the river and then out of sight. Kokuma carried her tiny limp bundle wearily toward the river. She had defied the customs of her people and now had lost not just her place in the tribe, but the child she had carried. Now she had nothing at all; no place to call home, and nothing to remind her of the illicit love affair that had ended her place as the witch-woman of the Ngamba. It was the punishment of the gods and she deserved no less for her transgression. She reached the river and set her baby down. It was not the custom of her people to place the dead in the river, but her disgrace would not allow her to leave it for the gods in the time-honoured tradition of her people. She picked up a couple of boulders to weight the bundle and then heard the high-pitched wail of an infant. Confused, she looked behind her, thinking that perhaps one of the village women had followed her to this seldom frequented part of the river. Then she realized that the cry was coming from the river. Shading her eyes against the glare of the sun on the water she saw a small basket floating close to the shore. Stepping out of her sandals she walked into the water and grabbed the rim of the basket and pulled it to the riverbank. Looking in she saw something she would not have believed existed if it had been described to her. It was a white-skinned girl child whose head was crowned with a shock of red hair. As she lifted it from the basket it pawed at her milk-filled breasts and she moved it to a nipple. As it began to suckle she realized the gods had not deserted her after all. She would call the child Zara, or “Gift,” in her language, and raise it as her own. She picked up the body of her own dead child and placed it in the basket. And then as the basket floated away she turned back into the forest. March 1933, British Protectorate of Ndonka-Ndonka Kokuma shaded her hands as she looked up into the canopy of the immense forest surrounding her hut. “I should have called you monkey,” she murmured as she caught side of a white-limbed creature high in the crown of the tallest tree. Zara’s attraction to heights was something that never ceased to amaze her. The child had taken to the trees almost as soon as she was able to reach the lower branches and Kokuma had been quite unable to stop her. Now she consorted with the monkeys in the highest levels of the forest, actually emulating their sport by leaping from branch to branch. She had never expected that the infant she had plucked from the waters of the river would turn out the way she had. Zara still had the blazing red hair she had displayed as a baby. It was shoulder-length now, kept that way by Kokuma to keep it from becoming tangled in the branches of the trees her daughter travelled through. And her skin, now deeply tanned by the sun, was still whiter than that of any other person Kokuma had ever seen. She had heard rumors of a white-skinned people, but she had never seen one. Was it possible that Zara had come from them and not from the gods? It was something that Kokuma did not want to think about and she put it out of her mind. She cupped her hands to her mouth and gave a loud ululating cry. It was time for Zara to descend from her treetop lookout and have her evening meal and leave her monkey friends to their own devices. They would be sad to see her go. Not only did the monkeys seem to regard her as one of them, but Zara acted as a protector, sheltering them from the eagles that soared over the forest. To Kokuma that was perhaps even more amazing than her adopted daughter’s tree-climbing abilities. Zara descended rapidly, often dropping several yards before catching hold of another branch. In just seconds she was on the ground. Her sensitive nose told her that Kokuma had prepared chicken stew and after her extremely active day, her stomach growled in anticipation. Kokuma handed Zara her stew in a simple wooden bowl. The chicken was a “gift” from a villager she had helped. Despite the fact that she had been ostracized from the Ngamba, she had been allowed to build a small hut a few hundred yards from the village, and due to her skills as a healer she still experienced several visitors every moon; enough to keep her supplied with food and other essentials. Zara also collected fruit and nuts from the trees and so the two of them lived a simple life, albeit a rather lonely one. And that was something that bothered Kokuma. Zara was now a young woman, and already several years beyond the time when the people of her tribe married. However, her pale-skinned, red-haired daughter was regarded with deep suspicion and not a little superstition by members of the Ngamba. And yet, she knew that Zara spent a good deal of her time watching the young men of the tribe. It was a situation that was becoming more and more worrisome, but Kokuma could think of no solution to the problem. She put her thoughts behind her as she shared the meal with her adopted daughter. Perhaps one way or another things would sort themselves out. Village of the Ngamba, same day “We must be rid of her,” Didama said. “She is bad luck.” “The witch, Kokuma should never have been allowed to remain so close to the village,” Mamba agreed. “Now she has cursed us with her ghostly offspring.” “Yes, the red-haired ghost protects the birds and the monkeys. Our hunters are forced to hunt farther and farther away.” “And the witch steals away villagers that should rightly go to you.” “Something must be done, but what? No one in the village dares to move against the ghost.” “I have an idea,” Mamba replied. “As you know we meet with the Ngoro in half a moon for the Festival of Marriage. They might be persuaded to eliminate this problem for us.” Didama nodded. The Festival of Marriage was the most important celebration of the year. From time immemorial the Ngamba and the Ngoro had met every year for an exchange of young women to act as marriage partners for the men of each tribe. It was a time of much feasting and along with the exchange of brides there was also much trading of goods from one tribe to the other. “What is your plan?” he asked. “I will speak with the Elders of the Ngoro. It is said that they have met with other people with white skin and are not afraid of them. Perhaps if we make them the right offer they will be willing to deal with this problem for us.” Didama smiled. “That is well thought out. I have collected a number of rare medicines from the forest. I think that the Ngoro will find them most tempting.” Three weeks later Zara trotted along the forest floor. She was farther afield than usual following the meeting of the two tribes that had ended just two days ago. She had spied on such festivals before, but this one had really held her attention. The exchange of brides had been most interesting. She knew from talking to Kokuma that the young women of each tribe selected their marriage partners based on who they thought was the best match and she wondered if she might ever participate in such an event. In her imagination she pictured the parade of young men as they spoke of the number of head of cattle or other possessions they were willing to bring to their marriage, while at the same time she knew how unlikely such an event was. The males of the Ngamba feared her and they had good reason. Whenever they had ventured into the forest to hunt any of her beloved monkeys she had warned them off with an arrow. Eventually they avoided her area of the forest entirely. That was not a recipe for any future relationship. Just now she was responding to a call for help from her monkey friends. She could not exactly talk to them, but her association with them over the years had given her a connection that enabled her to understand their sounds of distress, and the monkey she could hear was in considerable distress. She burst out of the trees and into one of the infrequent open areas in the great forest. It was an area that had been cleared using fire a number of years ago. Jungle vegetation was rapidly reclaiming the area, but it was still open enough that for a second Zara came to a completely halt, sensing danger. However, nothing happened and the cries of the terrified monkey were louder than ever. She stepped forward and spotted her quarry just a dozen yards away. It was crouched on the ground and seemed to be jerking frantically at something that was holding its hand. Still wary, Zara searched the area, but saw no sign of danger. She quickly darted toward the trapped monkey and saw that its paw was jammed into a small wicker cage preventing it from escaping. Her senses tingled. Obviously the monkey had been placed where it was as bait, but she could still see no sign of danger, and she could not leave the terrified creature where it was. Drawing her knife she took another could of steps and reached the monkey. It was the work of a couple of seconds to cut through the wicker and release its hand. Without waiting to offer thanks the monkey was gone and Zara moved to follow, but as she stood up the ground around her erupted and suddenly she was engulfed in the folds of a heavy net. Its impact drove her to the ground, but she quickly recovered and as her knife was still in her hands she quickly cut through several of the strands. Even as she did so, however, she could hear shouts from the edge of the clearing and realized that those who had set the trap were on their way. She slashed frantically at the net, but the tough fibres took a few seconds to cut through and then several warriors were on her. They were all armed with spears and knives, but it was apparent that they had no intention of harming her. Instead they attempted to wrap the net even more tightly about her an effort that placed them within striking distance. Expecting an easy catch they were quite unprepared as Zara thrust her knife through one of the holes she had cut in the net, and drove her blade deep into the chest of one of the warriors. He screamed in pain and jerked back so suddenly that the blade was wrenched from her hand. He yanked the knife from the wound, an action that resulted in a stream of blood spurting from the wound. However, without her knife, Zara could do little more than struggle helplessly as a couple of the warriors attended to her. They pinned her to the ground while they reached through the gaps in the net and found her arms. She struggled furiously, and muscles capable of swinging her through the treetops made her difficult to manage. But eventually one of the warriors got a hand on her wrist and managed to get a rope around it. With the help of his companion they forced her hands behind her back and quickly tied her wrists. “She is a lioness,” one of the men commented as he further tightened the ropes on her wrists. “I hope she is worth the trouble.” “She is a hyena,” the man she had stabbed said. “She has almost killed me and should be punished.” He was holding a compress of grass to his wound and fortunately for him the wound was high enough in his chest that Zara’s blade had missed his heart. “That is for the elders to decide,” one of the other warriors answered. “We will take her to the village and if she is to be punished they will decide.” “I say we punish her now,” the injured man protested. “The elders will want her for themselves. I say we take her now.” “None of us have ever had a white woman,” one of them added. “That is because none of us has ever seen a white woman,” another explained. “But perhaps now is the time. After all, the elders will never know.” Zara had listened without comment to the discussion. It finally dawned on her that her captors were discussing mating with her. Although their accent was slightly different from Kokuma’s she understood them well enough. “What do you want with me?” she asked. “I have done nothing to you.” “Ah, she speaks,” the first speaker said. “I thought she was mute.” “And that means she can tell the elders if we have our way with her,” another pointed out. “We could cut her tongue out,” the wounded man suggested. “And how would we explain that?” the first speaker asked. “We will take her to the elders.” Her fate decided, Zara was hauled to her feet. With her hands tied behind her she was helpless as another rope was tied around her neck. “Let me go,” she screamed as panic suddenly set in. She strained at the ropes to no avail. She screamed again and heaved her body in an effort to break free, but could only struggle fruitlessly as another rope was added to her neck so that she could be controlled front and back. Then, still heaving her body and screaming, she was led off into captivity.