Mushengo

Babalwa pushed her fingers into the pile of clothing that lay on her bed. She grabbed fabric, scrunched tight and then threw the unsuspecting garment into a large canvas bag. Her hand reached out again and repeated the process. Back and forth she went, grabbing at a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants, balling the clothes up and then smashing them into the bag. The clothing didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. Babalwa liked her clothes, but she had been holding her rage back for what felt like an eternity and now that she was finally able to let go, to feel everything she was feeling without risk of hurting anyone, Babalwa could not make herself stop. The bag was half full already, a wrinkled sea of colours no more organised than the jumbled pile beside it. This was no way to pack a bag. She was going to run out of space. She knew this. She was going to have to start over.

But it made no difference. Her hand flew out again. She found fabric and clenched tight, but instead of the familiar feel of soft compliance, Babalwa felt little dots of resistance digging into her fingers and all along the fleshy cushioning of her palm. She paused. She swallowed hard and then, ever so slowly, Babalwa opened her fist. Bright orange fabric cascaded from her open hand. It was adorned with thousands of tiny beads. Black and yellow, they danced in thick lines and bold circles along the length and breadth of the skirt. Babalwa fought back tears. Most of her wardrobe was of a more modern style, but she had chosen traditional dress for her graduation. She had been so happy wearing the Umbhaco. She had felt so proud.

But that was before the final results had come through. Before she saw the class rankings. She had not ranked first. She had not even ranked second. Babalwa had come third. And third was not good enough. Third would not take her to Mushengo.

Babalwa laid the skirt down and began flattening it out. Her body shuddered as the first tears trickled silently down her cheeks.

How had it gone so wrong?

It had been her and Trish trading places for first and second. Always the two of them egging each other on to be better, go further. Always them planning and dreaming and stretching toward Mushengo. They were the best. They had always been the best. None of the other students had ever come close.

But now, when it had mattered most, Richard (Richard of all people!) had taken first place and the Royal internship that came with it. Second got an internship too, but not third. There was no prize for coming in third.

Babalwa rubbed her eyes and looked across to Trish’s bed. A pastel bedspread dotted with soft pink roses, and curving wreaths of lavender lay smooth and quiet against the mattress. Posters and photos still lined the walls and trinkets full of memories waited on the bedside table. Trish had not started packing yet. She was probably waiting for Babalwa to leave and Babalwa couldn’t blame her for it. If their places had been traded, if Babalwa had been the one going and Trish the one to stay behind, would she have been able to face her roommate?

A sob heaved through Babalwa and shattered against her lips.

It was supposed to be the both of them! Today was supposed to be happy!

And Babalwa should be happy. She had a Masters in Draconic Sciences! She should be proud. Her parents were proud. But Babalwa hadn’t spent the last six years of study pushing herself so that she could return to her home village. She wasn’t meant to tend to pocket dragons, to mere house pets. Her future was in the Royal Stables. Her future was Battle Dragons and working beasts!

Her future had collapsed under the smirk of an entitled boy.

Babalwa closed her eyes. Her final practical played vividly in her mind. She had been given a young Giwe dragon. The golden scales, interspersed with deep, black rosetta’s, had shuddered at her touch. Her task was to give the dragon a check-up and to remove a large thorn that had embedded itself in the youngling’s soft underbelly. Babalwa had been so intent on securing the swishing tail and removing the danger of the lethal, barbed tip, that she had forgotten to consider the Dragon’s front end. Young Giwe dragons had a strong, playful streak and it took months of training to rid them of their propensity to nip. When Babalwa had realised her mistake, she had acted swiftly to muzzle the beast, but not before teeth had sunk into flesh. It was a minor wound, but still deep enough to cause lingering pain whenever Babalwa moved her arm, a sharp reminder of a mistake that had cost her fifteen points. It wasn’t enough to unseat Richard, his final thesis had been near perfect, but it was enough to put Trish ahead.

Babalwa cursed herself for even having the thought. It had been Richard who had stolen her spot. Not Trish. She couldn’t let herself think badly of Trish.

As if summoned, Trish burst into the room. Her body swung around the door frame. Leather soles squeaked against well polished floor boards. She swung her arms wide and grabbed Babalwa into a fierce, gorilla armed hug.

“BUBBLES!”

Babalwa hadn’t had a chance to ready herself for the attack. Her arms were squished tight and straight against her sides, he face pressed awkwardly into Trish’s shoulder. And Trish was bouncing and wriggling and laughing.

“Trish, what…” Babalwa tried to choke out the question, but Trish’s voice thundered over hers.

“We did it Bubbles! We did it!”

Babalwa shook her head. “No Trish. Not me. Just you.” Babalwa tried to extract herself from the death grip, but Trish was strong. How did she have any right to be this strong? Trish laughed. She grabbed Babalwa by the shoulders and pushed her so that a small pocket of space opened between them. Trish’s eyes were sparkling. She looked deeply at Babalwa.

“We’re going. The both of us. Richard’s been expelled!”

Then Trish was pulling Babalwa into another embrace. Babalwa’s cheek smashed into Trish’s chest and she felt herself being rocked violently from side to side. Babalwa pushed herself away from Trish and this time, Trish let her go. Straightening herself up, she tried to sort through the jumbled mess in her brain.

“Expelled?”

“Yes! The moron cheated! He used his daddy’s money and paid someone else to write it! And as much as he’s had good marks, they were never quite that good. It was suspicious enough that the university decided to investigate it. And investigate it they did!”

Trish gesticulated wildly as she talked, but now she put her arms by her side. She grinned at her friend. “This is it, Bubbles. We’re living the dream. Are you ready to become a Royal. Friggen. Dragon keeper?!”

Babalwa couldn’t help the shriek that spilled from her lips. She couldn’t help the bounce that formed in her legs. She threw herself toward Trish and the girls embraced again. This time they both hugged and they both squealed. Because this time they were both going. Mushengo was waiting.

#

The caravan arrived in Mushengo early in the afternoon, plenty of time, Babawla had thought, to get cleaned up and start at the Royal stables. But their escort had insisted that they rest up. The trek to the capital was four days of flat grasslands, dirt roads and not much else. They were most certainly tired and in dire need of a long bath and a warm meal. Work, their escort had said, could wait another day. Babalwa disagreed. She felt like she had spent the last six years waiting. She couldn’t wait any longer. It was the same for Trish. They tried to relax, to soak their dust coated bodies in the expansive bathhouse, but soon, both women were scrubbing vigorously just to have an excuse to move. And what Babawla was sure must have been one of the best meals she had ever tasted was simply sustenance, Her mind too full to concern itself with something as mundane as flavour. When night came and Babalwa let her travel-weary muscles rest atop the sheets, her eyes refused to close. She and Trish willed the night away putting words to the dreams that floated just out of reach.

“I want to see a Dlovu in full battle armour!”

“I can’t wait to meet the Elder Keeper Nonhle!”

Eventually the room quieted and sleep came. In the morning, they rose with the sun.

#

“This is the tack room for all the basic housekeeping tools. If you need something for a job, you will most likely find it in here.”

Babalwa let her eyes roam the massive room. It was filled with everything, from the most basic items, like feed buckets and shovels, right down to the most expansive claw-clipper collection she had ever seen. It was going to take a while to learn where everything in this store room belonged. It was going to take her a while to learn where anything in the entire stables belonged. Babalwa had known it would be big, but the sheer size of the grounds overwhelmed her. There were over one hundred individual stalls, thirty massive arenas for training and as if that weren’t enough, a massive, man-built cliff face towered far above them. It served as a rookery for breeding pairs and a refuge for retired dragons.

A dragon keeper by the name of Akhona had been showing them around for the past three hours. Her mannerisms were short and clipped and she left very little room for casual conversation. As much as the tour had been fascinating, Babalwa was eager to part ways with Akhona. She was ready to begin the real work.

She turned from her inspection of the clippers and heard Trish ask, “Will we be meeting the Elder Keeper soon?”

“Elder Nonhle does not concern herself with apprentices. For the duration your internship you will be reporting to and working under me. Now…”

Akhona grabbed two shovels from a nearby wall. “Stalls thirteen through twenty need to be mucked out. Find me at Arena Three when you’re done.”

#

Hours later and ankle deep in muck, Trish started laughing.

“What’s so funny about being drenched in dragon poop?” Babalwa wrinkled her nose. Trish grinned.

“It’s the dream, Bubs! Six years of gruelling study, finally being put to good use!”

Trish made a face at the state of her hair and then she started laughing once more. Babalwa couldn’t help but join in.

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Of Shadows and Storm

Eshente stepped through the night. Her footfalls beat a soft cadence against the backdrop of chirruping bugs and in the distance she could hear the soft grumble of a storm building. Clouds had been gathering overhead for some time and no moonlight shone through. It was mostly dark. Only a few households were still awake and even then, the light that spilled across the sidewalk was soft and pale; filtering through closed curtains before it could escape into the night. Eshe could hear sounds from within the buildings, but they were quiet sounds. The last of the dinner plates being dried and packed away. The soft chink of wine glasses. The sultry chuckle of a lover and the grumbling snore of someone already deep in sleep.

Eshe pulled up the hood of her cloak and plunged her hands into her pockets. It wasn’t cold. The night was pleasant enough for this late in the season, but Eshe should not have been out this late. Eshe should not have been alone.

A flap of leathery wings and a high pitched screech had Eshe jumping on the spot. She looked up, her breath hitching from the sudden fright. A massive, black mass moved in the palm fronds above her.

Eshe took a steadying breath.

Just a fruit bat.

The fruit bats were enormous and loud and slightly terrifying when they dropped from their perches before spreading their wings and swooping low, but ultimately, they were nothing to worry about.

Eshe let out her breath, shook her nerves free and started along the sidewalk once more.

She had not even made it five steps when a hand clamped over her mouth and an arm grabbed her waist. Eshe screamed, but the sound was lost against calloused fingers. She tried to pull away, but her attacker only held on tighter. Eshe was pressed into her assailant’s body. A body that was much larger than Eshe’s. Eshe screamed again. A hopeless act. She pulled her knees up to her chest. The sudden shift of weight threw the attacker off guard, but not enough. Eshe dropped to the ground. She felt the grip release, but she was too slow getting up. Too slow to scream for help. Hands grabbed for Eshe and she was ripped backward once more.Back into a wall of muscle. Back to the hand over her mouth. Eshe tried to fight, but her arms were pinned and her attacker wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. They held Eshe high now, her feet just skimming the ground and they were walking backward, taking Eshe to whatever hellish end they had chosen.
Eshe could not break free.

Tears blossomed.

I’ll be at the palace, Cherise. There is no safer place. Don’t bother Unam. I’m sure he has far more important work than following me around.

Had it been only that morning that Eshe had spoken those words to her maid? A lie. She had not meant for the words to be a lie, but the princess had been different today. Every other summons to the palace had been for only an hour or two. Gossip over tea. A stroll in the gardens.
Those trips had been boring for Unam. Playing chaperone for the noble ladies was a waste. Eshe had only been trying to spare him the agony of small talk and tea cakes.

And now look at what had happened. If Eshe didn’t… if she…

Unam would never forgive himself. Cherise would think it her fault for not insisting enough.

A huge sob wracked Eshe’s body. She threw her arms about again, but the attempt was feeble. She knew she couldn’t win.

A hot breath squirmed against Eshe’s neck. Her attacker leaned in close. The voice was low. Barely more than a whisper. Eshe pulled her head away as best she could.

“Shh. The less you struggle, the easier this will be. I’m sorry.”

Eshe grimaced. What kind of an attacker apologised to their victims?

The kind that wants you docile.

Eshe whimpered again. They were off the main street and down some dark alley. No light filtered onto this sidewalk. No sounds of life echoed from beyond the walls. Eshe felt her captor stop. A brief thud of what must have been the back of their foot against a door and then the alley was fading from view as Eshe was dragged into a darkened room.

“Shh,” her attacker said again, but this time she was lowering Eshe to the ground. Their journey, it seemed, had come to an end. Eshe’s butt pressed into cold stone, but still the grip did not slacken.

“I’m sorry, again, that it had to happen like this, but we need to talk and I couldn’t have anyone knowing that we met.”

A pause. A sigh. “Please don’t scream.”

The hand lifted from Eshe’s mouth and the attacker stepped back, leaving Eshe sitting on the floor. Eshe scrambled to her feet and brought her hands up in loose fists. She had barely any combat training. Mother was horrified that Eshe had any at all and now, standing in this room, already defeated she understood that her father’s little compromise had been just that. Little. She hadn’t been prepared for this. Any of it.

You shouldn’t have to be Esh! – Her mother’s voice.

Eshe swallowed her fear and faced her abductor, but the room was dark and she spoke only to shadows.

“What do you want with me?” Her voice shook as much as her hands.

There was a small click and then light rushed into the room. Eshe threw a hand over her eyes and squinted at the sudden brightness. She heard more than saw the body shifting closer again.

“To talk,” was all the woman said. And she was a woman. A fact Eshe hadn’t been able to discern in the struggle or in the whispered words. Eshe blinked her eyes a few times as they slowly adjusted to the light and then she gasped.

“You’re… you’re one of Princess Dekali’s personal guard!”

Eshe stepped back. Had she done something wrong? Had she lost the princess’ favour this easily? The guard must have seen the look of panic that flooded Eshe’s face because she stepped forward and said. “I am not here on behalf of the princess.”

“Then why…”

Eshe watched the guard wearily. One hand snaking toward a door handle that was much too far away. The other still hovering near her face where it was guaranteed to be useless. This woman was a giant. Impossible to forget. She was all lean muscle and sharp angles. Ash white hair cropped short to her skull and eyes that were a fierce, ice blue. McGallen. Princess Dekali had called her McGallen and Eshe had to admit that she had found it hard to stay focused on the conversation when McGallen was in the room. Her eyes had kept roaming toward the statuesque guard.

“Because I need your help,” McGallen finally said. She was watching Eshe intently, but she had made no further move.

Eshe swallowed. “With what?” Her eyes darted around the room, but what she was looking for, she could not say.

“A matter that I hope is of mutual interest.”

McGallen paused, took a deep breath and then launched into an explanation.

“I was watching you today, at the cages.”

Eshe felt an involuntary blush creep into her cheeks. She had been watching McGallen too, but that had been before McGallen had kidnapped her! Eshe schooled her emotions. McGallen continued to talk.

“I noted your… discomfort. You did not like what you saw.”

“I…” Eshe tried to think of some way to excuse herself, but McGallen spoke over her. “I will remind you that I am not here on behalf of the princess.” McGallen took a step closer. Her expression softened. A sadness crept across her features. “I share in your discomfort.”

“Oh.”

Eshe dropped her defensive pose and looked at the guard. Really looked. She was tensed. Afraid. What must it be to admit to a noble woman, to anyone, that she did not approve of the Princess’ hobbies? It was Eshe’s turn to step forward.

McGallen closed her eyes for just a heartbeat. When she opened them, the sadness had been replaced by steel.

“The princess relishes in the suffering of those creatures. I do not. She thinks it sport to bait and tease them. As one of her personal guard…

I see these acts far more frequently than I can stomach them.”

Eshe swallowed hard. She shook her head. “I’m sorry McGallen. I have no power to stop it. You should know that.”

McGallen took a few more steps, closing the gap between them. “But you can. With help. With us. You can make the difference.”

Us. There were more of them. “But why do you need me?” Eshe asked.

“Because you’re a noble. You have connections.”

McGallen glowed. “With your help,” she said. “We can save the dragons from the Princess.”