The Thousand Men


The thousand men were silent, their eyes focused like lasers on the king Shaka in front of them. He paced back and forth, serious and thoughtful. The valley was silent. The birds and rabbits had run away after the thousand men had arrived in the valley. Occasionally one of the thousand men would rest his spear on his shield. The clatter of spears against sheilds was the only noise in that rocky valley on that cloudless day.

The king Shaka stopped pacing. He looked at the thousand men, his eyes on fire with the stubborn determination that had brought him and his kingdom so far. His mouth opened, and each of the thousand men looked and listened with anticipation for what he would say.

"BROTHERS!" he started, clearly full of rage and passion. "Today we face the Nguni. Our ANCIENT ENEMIES!" He paused for the briefest moment for breath, and then hurried into his next exhortation. "We will defeat our enemies TODAY!"

The thousand men shouted back with one voice. "HOO!" they all shouted at once, raising their spears.

Shaka continued. "Today is a day for our home. It is a day to protect our wives and our little ones. Today is a day for our kingdom and our empire!"

"HOO!" a thousand voices as one.

"We are the strongest and the swiftest and the GREATEST!"

"HOO!"

"The gods are with us, and no man can bring us down!"

"HOO! HOO! HHHOOOOOOO!" The men banged their spears and shields together in glorious exultation. Shaka raised both hands, his rage replaced by joy.

There was only a moment for joy, as the brief celebration was cut short by a new soldier standing near the king Shaka, who pointed at the crest of the valley above them. "Great king, the Nguni!" he said fearfully. There were sillhouettes standing there, and all of the thousand men could see their headdresses were the shape of Nguni headdresses. Their shields were the shape of Nguni shields. These were the Nguni soldiers who had been trying to drive the people of the thousand men from their lands these many years.

As quickly as Shaka's rage had gone, it came back. This was a day for battle, not for celebration. Shaka was ready and eager for the fight. He turned to the Nguni soldiers. "Come here and fight me like men, you dogggggs!" he shouted. Even as he was saying it, one of the more impetuous Nguni soldiers threw his spear downward towards the thousand men.  The aim was true enough, and the spear sailed straight through the windless air towards the unprepared men, still in the throes of celebration.

Shaka wasted no time. Even as the spear was sailing he ran towards its path. He took a great leap, the fire in his eyes burning even more intensely. His body stretched through the air, his right arm in front and his feet pointed behind, at first angled away from the ground, and then sailing parallel to the ground as if levitating. His jump took him farther than any of the thousand men had ever thought a person could jump. Some wondered for a moment whether he was really a god among them. His jump was perfectly timed and aimed, and at its zenith his hand grasped the Nguni spear just behind its point. He held it tight close to himself to prevent it from continuing on its deadly path towards his thousand men.

But to catch the spear, the great king Shaka had to jump towards the rockiest part of the valley. After his perfect catch, his body continued sailing towards the rocks. He made no attempt to change course but merely kept sailing on. He hit the jagged rocks hard, his right arm and his ribs taking the brunt of the force. He rolled over several times before coming to a stop. The thousand men couldn't look away from their battered king. Even the Nguni were unmoving as they waited to see what would happen to him. The battle itself, which would soon take many lives with wanton cruelty, was waiting patiently for a health report from one man.

The king Shaka rose from the jagged rocks. He ignored the Nguni and looked only at his thousand men. He beat on his chest with his fist, and then beat on the fresh wounds on his ribs. He squeezed blood out of them as if he could feel nothing. He looked again at the men. "This is what I will do to protect my thousand men!" he said. The men gaped their mouths open in awe of his powerful bodily sacrifice. "This is what you must do to protect our homes! BROTHERS, we FIGHT!"

He immediately turned and started running up towards the Nguni, blood dripping off of him and forming a trail that the thousand men followed with full trust and obedience. The Nguni were willing to meet him halfway, although they seemed less enthusiastic after they saw the extent of his energy and power and dedication. The great king Shaka started shouting directions to the thousand men.

"Spearmen LEFT! Archers RIGHT! On the high ridge there!" They immediately split into their groups. "Swordsmen CENTER WITH ME!" He had never broken his gait in the midst of all of these decisive commands.

Seshwayo was the only soldier who didn't fit into any of the groups the king Shaka had called for. He was not truly a soldier. He had brought a spear and shield but scarcely knew how to hold them. He was a shaman from a little village, a little tall and a little fat, happy to fight for his home but unsure how he could help the cause. The king Shaka had made sure to bring him so that he could bless the journey, bless the soldiers, bless the battle, and bless the sick. Seshwayo followed behind the great king with the swordsmen as usual, uneasy but eager to provide what aid he could.

Shaka was far ahead of most of the rest of the soldiers. The first of the Nguni approached him, clearly a young man seeking glory in what was probably his first battle. The Nguni raised his spear high and started to bring it down on the king Shaka. The Nguni soldier looked glad because Shaka was not lifting up his shield, as if he would not make any attempt to block the spear. Just as the Nguni got close enough to strike, he realized his mistake. The great king Shaka had held his long shield low to the ground, and just as the Nguni soldier got close enough, with a quick motion like a snake he used the tip of his shield to swipe the Nguni soldier's ankle and calf with enough force to push him off his balance and send him tumbling to the rocks below, where he remained motionless after his nasty fall. Again the great king Shaka had showed a shining example to them all.

The swordsmen were energized yet again by this display of prowess. They all wanted to put their whole lives and spirits into this battle just to show Shaka that they could be as good a warrior as he was. Seshwayo felt the same, and he looked at the other approaching Nguni and tried to decide which one he should attack first.

But Seshwayo didn't have a chance to attack anyone yet. Shaka turned around and looked straight at Seshwayo. He pointed to a cave about a hundred feet away, to the side of where most of his tribe's soldiers were gathered. "SESHWAYO!" he said simply, pointing to the cave. Seshwayo didn't need to be told twice. He ran as fast as he could, still holding his spear and shield, to go to the cave as Shaka had commanded. While he ran, he wondered why the great king had singled him out for this. Did he take pity on Seshwayo's inexperience and want him to take refuge here? Or did he want Seshwayo to check for an ambush? He didn't question the great king's judgment, he just ran where was told to run.

At first, the cave looked like any other cave. Dark, rocky, with an entrance about big enough for one man to get into. But as he ran toward it Seshwayo had a feeling that it wasn't any normal cave. Even in the midst of a bloody battle, he felt a calm come over him. He had the same magical feeling that he had felt as a boy when he received his first blessing from the shaman. It was the same feeling he had felt when he had first heard a bard tell about the secrets of the origin of the tribe and the universe. It was the same feeling he had felt when he had first looked into the eyes of his wife and same feeling he had felt when he had received the shaman authority from his master. It was the feeling of magic.

Seshwayo was out of breath by the time he got to the entrance. He was far enough from the battle now that he wouldn't be in serious danger. He walked in, savoring the cool air from the cave, and looked to see what its darkness held.

All he could see was a woman. Young, he thought. Maybe just a girl. She was sitting on a rock at the back of the cave. She kept her legs chastely pressed together, and her head shyly tilted downwards, but her big round eyes looked keenly at Seshwayo as he walked in.

Seshwayo's heart beat faster. What was a woman doing so close to a dangerous battlefield? How had she come to this cave in this valley, so far from any civilized place? Why was she wearing the traditional dress of Seshwayo's tribe? Who was taking care of this beautiful phantom and why had the great king Shaka told him to visit her cave during the crucial moment of the battle?

Seshwayo could faintly hear the sounds of the battle outside. Swords clashed, arrows flitted, and spears hit other spears, shields, and - flesh. But this little cave seemed to be part of a different world, separated in place and time from the vulgar mayhem of death and killing.

The woman continued to look at him, obliquely and modestly, but still keenly. Seshwayo looked at her too. The light was coming from behind him, and as it bounced around the jagged edges of the cave and onto the skin of this woman, it made her look like she was radiating all the light herself. Her skin looked as soft as air, and her hair looked as smooth as a gently flowing river. Her little mouth, serious at first, had turned upwards just a little in a hint of an affectionate smile.

"Woman," he said. "I come from a village among the trees and rivers of the yonder land. I am a shaman and I have spiritual authority in that village. I bless their work and I judge their government." Her smile expanded a little, though her head was still demurely tilted downwards. "Now, I am here to bless the battle between my tribe - " he paused looking at her dress, " - our tribe, and our ancient enemies. Do you, woman, have anything or know anything that can bring the help of our guardian spirits to this bloody day?"

She didn't say a word, but only walked slowly to the center of the cave. As she walked, her legs seemed to hardly move, but the subtle sway of her hips entranced Seshwayo. In the center of the cave, a tall, narrow rock formed something like a pedestal. On top of the pedestal, there was a dark sphere about the size of a man's fist. At first, Seshwayo thought it was obsidian. But when he looked more closely, it didn't look black so much as a sapphire blue. And when it looked again, it looked like it may not have had any color at all, but only a dark massiveness beyond the reach of the light and elements of this world.

The woman picked up the dark sphere with both hands, cradling it gently. "This treasure is a gift from our ancestors. The shaman who has the right authority can take it and use it to deliver our people." She looked up at Seshwayo. "You may be the man for this hour."

Seshwayo felt unsure of himself for a moment. "What do I do with it?" he asked. He had never seen or heard of any ball like this, and he earnestly wished for guidance about how he could use it to save his people.

The woman hesitated. "It is not my role to decide, or to lead," she said. "My role is to conserve and care for. To cherish, and... to love." The last part she said quietly, averting her eyes entirely.

Seshwayo couldn't resist, even in the moment of a bloody battle. He reached his arms forward, not for the dark sphere, but for the woman's shoulders. She was so soft it was like touching a cloud. He grasped her and gently pulled her close to him. He bent down slowly. Her eyes were closed. He kissed her, only for a moment. She didn't resist. He stopped, remembering his duty. He deliberately took the dark sphere from her hand, without asking permission. She smiled more fully now, and looked at him more directly. She seemed to have found some boldness, and she tried to instruct him: "You could try to use it by..."

"Silence, woman," Seshwayo said quickly. "It is the shaman's duty to find the way to call our ancestors and guardian spirits. Don't bring a curse by taking my rightful authority." His moment had come and there was no time to be indecisive. He turned away and walked speedily out of the cave and towards the battle, with the ball in his hand. The woman smiled at him as he left.

He walked to the center of the battle. He did not run and he never stopped. He did not heed the flying spears, the rushing arrows, the clanging swords around him. He stood in the center of the battle and closed his eyes. He held out the dark sphere in both hands in front of him. He said this prayer to his tribe's guardian spirits:

"O guardian spirits, heed my words today. Take this battle from our hands, and fight it for us. Take these deaths and sanctify them to our tribe's greater glory. Protect us, be with us. In this sphere let all your your power be contained and let loose. Be with us now, O spirits."

He opened his eyes. He held the sphere directly above his head. The longer he held it there, the heavier it seemed to get. It was as if it were filling up with the spirits of his tribe's ancestors and guardians. It shook a little too in his hand. At last, with all his strength he threw it onto the rocky ground at his feet.

CRASH! It shattered! There was a deafening silence - the shrapnel flew off in a million directions at once - 1 foot away, two feet away, 50 feet away, each little piece of the broken sphere moving as if on its own - a great wind blew through the battle! The wind was bracing to the tribe of the thousand men, but to their Nguni enemies, it was deadly. Each Nguni soldier who was hit by the wind fell down lifeless, never to rise again. The thousand men and the great king Shaka looked around the battlefield in disbelief.

A great cheer of joy! A thrill of hope and gladness for all the men who lived and saw their enemies defeated before them! The first to embrace Seshwayo was the great king Shaka. "My brother," he said. "You have saved us today." His rage was gone, replaced by a smile, but Seshwayo could still the fire in his eyes. A pleasant, warming fire now instead of a fire of fury.

Seshwayo was proud of the part he had played. "I am glad to do my duty as a shaman," he said to Shaka, and to all his brothers around him. "Our power and our lives are not are own," he added. "We only win when we can bring the power of ancestors and guardians with us."

The king Shaka paused. "You are right," he finally said, solemnly. "I am proud of you for doing your duty," he said simply.

"I wish it didn't have to be this way," Seshwayo said. "For us to win the battle but to lose so many of our brothers. We started today as a thousand men. We end today with little more than a hundred," he said, looking around.

Shaka laughed a little. Seshwayo was shocked to see him laugh. The great king Shaka explained. "My friend," he said, "our brothers have not gone from us. You should remember this since you are a shaman. When you feel the wind around you, the air in your breath, giving you life. Our departed brothers are there. Their spirits surround us. In the wind, they bring clouds to water our crops. They bring coolness on a hot day. They send our ships hither and yon. We are still a thousand men. A hundred standing, and many hundreds surrounding us in the air, watching us, waiting for when we need help again. And when that time comes, they can send a mighty wind to protect us from every enemy, no matter how fearsome."

Seshwayo knew that the great king was right. He bowed his head and offered a short, silent prayer of thanks. He would give thanks more properly at the propitiatory rituals he would conduct later that evening at camp. After his short prayer, he remembered something. He looked back at the cave where he had taken the dark sphere from the mysterious woman. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw her two bright eyes looking back at him from inside the darkness. He knew at that moment that his family and his tribe would have a future of prosperity and triumph and joy.

 

 

If you enjoyed this story, you may like to read a story about Norsemen defending their homeland: http://thedreamtigers.com/article/why-fight

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