The Dark Continent is part 5 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.
The Great Game, Part 5 — The Dark Continent
by James Vachowski
Light a lamp, child, and be quick about it. The day is fading, and my eyes are not what they once were. Ah, that’s the rub. This room closes in when night falls. Oftimes I find myself back in the dense brush of the Kalahari. Were you to speak a smattering of Bantu, odds are fair I would mark you by size as a pygmy Bushman.
What? A Bushman, child! Do you mean to tell me you have no knowledge of the fiercest warriors on this Earth? The scourge of the Dark Continent? Those diminutive spearmen have dispatched tens of thousands of Her Majesty’s riflemen to their end, and it is no embellishment to say that I was nearly one of that number.
Your professors might say Africa was a secondary theater during the War, but it became a most primary concern for my soldiers once tiny spears came whistling over our heads. It was a covert mission you see, one of the utmost importance, and so the General would assign it to none but myself. We were en route from the port of Dar es Salaam to rendezvous with a reconnaissance team atop Mount Kilimanjaro, in the heart of the Kaiser’s territory in East Africa. It was a dangerous task, made more so by the thousand-mile trek through the wilds of Zanzibar.
We were barely a week’s march into the brush when the fiends encircled us and attacked! Tiny spears rained from the treetops, blowgun darts felled men like killer bees. Our brigade was halved in a matter of seconds by this treacherous ambush. My men took up defensive positions, bless them, but it was only for show. Thousands of pygmies stepped out from behind tree trunks and sawgrass bushes. Clad only in leather loincloths, with ritual scars etched across their chests, their intent was clear as they bared their filed teeth. Their battle leader approached, and I had no choice but to lay down my arms in surrender.
The Bushmen were clearly indentured mercenaries of the Kaiser, so I doffed my pith helmet and demanded parlay, hoping to channel the spirit of the great explorer Livingstone. I doubted that the dark warrior fully understood the meaning of my flowery greeting, but I assume that he received my peaceful intent, just by the fact that I was still alive. With a shrill whistle, the leader summoned a spotted giraffe, who prostrated himself to receive passengers. He and I climbed aboard, and we cantered across the bush at treetop level, occasionally ducking to miss stray branches.
Hours later, with the sun still perched high above, we arrived in the Bushman’s village. It was nothing more than a few haphazardly constructed straw huts surrounded by a circle of thorns, but the village came to life as we made our entrance. Dusky women clutching babies to their breasts edged forward to gawk at my fair skin. The giraffe slid to a halt in front of the largest hut, graciously laying for us to dismount.
The chieftain emerged from his hut in due time; whether he was intentionally making us wait or simply needed extra time to arrange his finery, I know not. He was a giant among the Bushmen, standing three and a half feet in stature, wearing a loincloth spun from pure gold fibers. A beaded crown topped his nappy head, but his face was concealed behind a carved wooden mask. A gigantic cowrie shell stood in place of his lips. By magic, its edges moved with the weight of his words as he spoke.
“Welcome to our home,” he said, in a clipped form of pidgin English, “and yours as well, at least for a short time. You shall serve as our dinner of course. Bring your men ‘round forthwith. They are to be decapitated, disemboweled, and stewed.”
Forgive an old man a pun, child, but the thought of having my men slaughtered in such a fashion was quite distasteful. My mind raced as I struggled to bargain for their lives. In an effort to buy time, I fell to my knees and kowtowed before the chieftain. “My Lord,” I said, “Such a feast might be fine, but my men are exhausted from the War and our long journey. I fear that the stringy meat on our bones might not be pleasing to your royal palate.”
A shadow of worry crossed the chieftain’s mask. “Yes…” the fiend hissed, “that would not do at all.”
Seizing this window of opportunity, I went on. “Might I suggest an alternative, your highness? Perhaps my men would better serve your village as slaves. They could bear fresh water daily from Lake Victoria.” The thought of my troops baking under the red sun and suffering a slow, exhausting demise was not much better than the image of them being eaten, but at least it would postpone their deaths for weeks, if not months.
The cowrie shell twisted into a wrinkled smile. “Yes…” the chief hissed again, “that would be of great benefit to my tribe. Water is hard to come by in my kingdom, and your soldiers might prove very useful to us.”
He had been sold on the idea of luxury, so I seized upon the power of negotiation. “It is settled, then. As a representative of my men, I will submit to a challenge. If I fail your test, we will surrender ourselves completely as your servants.”
The carved wooden eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why should I test you, white man? Your army is still surrounded. I could give the order and have them all killed in a matter of seconds.”
I smiled at that, sensing my position of advantage. “Ah, my Lord, but if you kill us, then who would bear water to your village?”
The oversized mask nodded up and down. “’True…”
I went on. “So I have your word then, sir? If I pass your challenge, we shall have our freedom.”
A long pause before he answered. “Yes…” the cowrie lips hissed, “you shall. I propose a riddle.”
The tribe gathered around us let out a collective gasp, and I felt my blood run cold. It was said that the African riddles were older than the continent itself, and no white man’s mind could fathom their depth. But before I could refuse the challenge or protest the unfairness, the tiny sorcerer spat forth his puzzle:
“Who has more courage than a Bushman?”
My face flushed as I stalled for time. It was a trick question, with no right answer. To state that any other being was more courageous would surely be viewed as an insult, and I would be killed immediately for insulting the chieftain’s honor. A squad of warriors nearby sensed this, and bared their filed teeth in anticipation. “Surely there is none, sir” I cried. “A Bushman is the fiercest, bravest warrior. He is true of heart, and none can best him in battle.”
The chieftain grinned an evil grin. “Your words are just, but do not answer my riddle.” He summoned with his arm, and a pair of warriors stepped forward. Their intent was clear by the sharp spears that they shook over their heads. I swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to scream. It seemed I was headed for the stewpot, my men for short lives of servitude.
I steeled myself as they approached, vowing not to die without a fight, but my mind was still caught up in disbelief. “Two Bushmen” I whispered quietly, shaking my head at my fate. But suddenly, the ashy soldiers stopped. They turned towards their dear leader, as if for confirmation. I glanced up in confusion and did the same.
The chieftain’s cowrie shell lips wrinkled into a sly smile. “More flattery, white man….but it is true. The only thing that could be braver than a Bushman warrior would be two Bushmen. Your words have earned your freedom, and safe passage through my realm.”
The women of the tribe ululated in a chorus, and a few celebrated by throwing their children into the air. They would be denied their cannibalistic feast, but did not appear distressed at the prospect of continued hunger. As I fought the urge to grin, I bowed low once more before the fierce warrior king, thanking Providence for his mercy in the darkest of the world’s wastelands.
My men were brought forth within minutes. The tribe produced a feast of roast bushmeat and steamed cassowary eggs, then went about preparing mounts for the rest of our journey. The soldiers wept at the news that we were to be spared, and the clamor they made was a joyful one. We spent the night in merriment, bonfires burning late in complete ignorance of the jackals prowling outside the thorn ring, or of the Huns marching outside the continent.
Ah, child, to see Kilimanjaro again. The peak was still capped with snow when we arrived at the observation post several days ahead of schedule. We were loaded down with gold bars and raw diamonds that we had literally scooped up from the red clay during our ride. Valuable treasures, to be certain, but they were naught compared to the priceless look on the reconnaissance mens’ faces when we arrived with our caravan of zebras!
About the Author
Hi, my name is James and for everyone out there who’s been considerate enough to advise me not to quit my day job, don’t worry– I haven’t. I currently work as a security manager for an independent traveling circus, where I strive to ensure that your next ride on the Cyclone is in full compliance with most, if not all, applicable state safety regulations.
When I’m not living my dream of seeing the great people of this great country from the parking lots of local shopping malls and Moose lodges, I write fiction.
About the Narrator
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.