Mukondi Djata slipped out of her leather sleeping tent with a spear and machete in hand. A gold sliver of sunlight crept up from behind the eastern plains to stain the twilight sky red and warm the sleeping women's camp. Despite this heat growing outside, streams of dread colder than spring water coursed within Mukondi's veins. Her spear's iron point ran longer than her feet, and she would need every inch of it for the test of womanhood that she would begin this morning.
The rest of the Djata clan's camp stayed asleep in silence. Not even the most excitable of the little girls scampered between the tents before their older sisters, mothers, and aunts woke up yet. The crimson arrow-shaped head of Sambu the Allosaurus, the Djatas' symbolic animal, emblazoned each tent. When she noted the emblem's jagged teeth, Mukondi gulped down a mouthful of air. The last thing she needed now was yet another reminder of the First Hunt which lay just ahead for her.
The throaty and hoarse blare of a hollowed animal horn shattered the silence. "Mukondi? Are you coming?" It was her mother Dyese calling.
Mukondi jogged to the fat baobab tree which towered in the heart of the camp. Two other women, her mother and her elder cousin Azandu, awaited below the tree's shade. Having reached her own womanhood six rainy seasons ago, Azandu looked exactly as Mukondi and every other Djata girl wished to look: tall and lithe, with firm muscles under skin as dark as a moonless midnight. Rings of fangs and claws from Azandu's kills hung from her neck, something Mukondi also wished she could earn in years to come. As for Dyese, the hide shawl she draped over her shoulders marked her rank as the Djata clan's matriarchal chieftain.
Dyese smiled as she patted Mukondi on the shoulder. "You can do it, my precious," she said. "Oyosi Herself sees to it that you will." She tilted her wizened face up to the sky where Oyosi Djata, the clan's great ancestress, rested.
Mukondi pulled her mother's hand off. "You told Nzinge that very same thing, didn't you?"
"Don't mention her again!" Azandu banged her spear's butt against the ground. "You are smarter and wiser than your big sister ever was, Mukondi. You'll succeed where she failed, trust me."
A quivering Mukondi folded her arms together. "How can you feel so sure of that?"
Azandu groaned. "Look, do you want to be dropped off at a men's village and grow crops in one place for the rest of your life? Or do you want to become a woman?"
"I am no man!" Mukondi pounded a fist onto her breasts.
"Then don't whine like one. Now, while scouting last night, I spotted Sambu drinking from the river to the south." Azandu pointed towards the southern horizon. "He might still prowl over there." She laid her own hand on Mukondi's shoulder. "When you meet him, you know what to do."
"Aim for the breast or brain," Mukondi recited. She sucked in a mouthful of air to swell her chest upward and smiled.
"One more thing before you leave, daughter." Dyese pulled out from her hide belt the animal horn she had blown earlier and handed it to Mukondi. "It goes back to my mother's mother. Blow it, and you shall lure Sambu towards you."
"Isn't that cheating?" Mukondi asked.
"Not at all, but use it sparingly," Azandu said. "Blow it too many times together and Sambu will figure out what you're up to."
Mukondi slipped the horn under her own belt and bowed her head to Dyese. "I owe you so much for the gift, mother."
Dyese wrapped her arms around her daughter in a gentle embrace. "You owe nothing at all. Now go forth on your First Hunt, Mukondi. You leave our camp a girl, but you shall come back a woman, with Sambu's teeth in your hands. May Oyosi bless you."
Mukondi hugged her mother back with all her strength while more tears dripped from her eyes. This could have been the last time in their whole lives that they would see each other. Mukondi rested her head against Dyese's breasts while her mother in turn stroked her dreadlocks.
"If I do not come back alive, I shall always remain in your memories, mother," Mukondi said.
After Dyese withdrew her warm arms from her daughter, the chill returned to sting Mukondi's blood. Nonetheless she jogged away from the camp, looking back only once.
Yellow grass tickled Mukondi's knees as she glided across the savanna. Perspiration glossed her limbs and face like polished ebony, for the sun burned with swelling fury while rising further up into the sky. Only a few scattered acacia, baobab, and palm trees cast any shade for respite against the heat. Unseen insects buzzed on forever while the bellows, moans, and rumbles of giant plant-eating dinosaurs swept across the plains.
The screech of Sambu pierced through this peaceful chorus. Mukondi froze in mid-stride with flesh crawling under her skin again. No doubt the beast that took Nzinge's life away lurked close by, keeping every bit of its strength in the two rains since her loss. Mukondi's eyes leaked tears as memories of her elder sister, always her playmate and protector, haunted her mind.
Yet Azandu must have spoken the truth when she said Mukondi outmatched Nzinge in intelligence. Nzinge did have a tendency to pick fights with animals more dangerous than she could handle after all, like that one time she attacked Nyati the Stegosaurus just to steal some eggs. She also didn't tend to think for longer than an eye's blink before she acted on anything. Mukondi had never witnessed her sister's First Hunt, but she was sure Nzinge had made some kind of fatal mistake. Otherwise the elder sister would have never lost her own life to Sambu's claws and appetite.
The sun climbed near its highest point in the sky. The savanna's horizons blurred into haze from the broiling, and Mukondi's throat dried like a waterhole in a drought. Thankfully the trees and bushes grew denser as she advanced southward, giving her more shade, until her feet squished into the dark mud of a riverbank. After scanning around for crocodiles and murmuring a grateful prayer to Oyosi, Mukondi plunged her cupped hands into the river and splashed it onto herself. She moaned with pleasure as the cool water cascaded down her face and washed the perspiration off her skin.
A muffled, inhuman purr sounded as a gust of warm air steamed onto her back. The stench of rotting flesh mixed with the natural mustiness. A shivering Mukondi snatched her spear and clenched her hands onto it.
From the shadows of a nearby brush patch glowed a pair of fiery yellow eyes over a mouth of glinting ivory knives. Mukondi staggered back and pointed the spear at the hidden face.
"Who are you?" she asked, but she already knew the answer.
With an ear-piercing screech, Sambu the Allosaurus burst out of his cover and charged on his two bird-like legs, shaking the mud with every stomp. He gaped his fanged jaws open while spreading his three-clawed wings apart. Mukondi crouched and drew her spear back, preparing to thrust it into the flesh-eater's breast. The moment she lunged, Sambu sprang into the air and kicked her into the river with eagle feet.
Despite the pain torturing her wounded chest, Mukondi zipped through the water back onto the bank and stabbed Sambu on the shoulder. He shrieked, throwing his head upward, and swiped his tapering tail into Mukondi's ankles. She fell back-first onto the mud. Sambu dropped his jaws down at her breasts, but she blocked him by ramming her spear's shaft into the maw. The beast bit down onto the spear, yanked it out of Mukondi's hands, and, with a great swing of his head, hurled it against a doum palm tree. The weapon splintered in half, with the head plummeting into the river.
Mukondi cursed under her breath and stabbed her foot into Sambu's underside. While he brandished his body around and shrieked in an agonized frenzy, she dove into the water, shot herself to the other side, and raced southward across the savanna. She halted to rest only when the river escaped her field of vision.
Mukondi panted her mouth dry. Every muscle in her body burned, most of all her legs and the bleeding scars on her front side. However, her greatest loss was her spear. How in the world could she kill a monster as massive as Sambu without her spear? With tears returning to her eyes, Mukondi roared out a curse for her misfortune. Perhaps she would never become a woman now. She may not have died as Nzinge had, but she could only return to camp without Sambu's teeth in hand. Her mother, as much as they loved each other, would never accept her coming home empty-handed. Tribal tradition demanded as such.
Perhaps Mukondi was doomed to a life of exile from the Djatas, staying in a village of men and grow crops all in one place for the rest of her life. Never again would she roam the land with her friends and kin like a real woman should. Instead she would be surrounded by strange men who would not hesitate to take advantage of a young woman's presence among them whether she liked it or not. Of course, even that horrible fate assumed that neither Sambu nor any of the other predators of the savanna caught her first before she even saw another human being.
Surely there had to be another way to slay the monster who had claimed Nzinge's life. If confronting him face to face with a spear had not worked, what would?
A gust of wind rattled the leaves of a nearby tree. Monkeys scurried up and down the tree's boughs, no doubt safe from the flesh-eaters that would prowl the ground. Mukondi wished she could join them so that she would no longer have to worry about Sambu as long as she hid in the branches. But then perhaps she could still jump onto him if he dared come near...
Unsheathing her machete and admiring her reflection on its blade, Mukondi lit her face up with a smile.
The sky faded from blue to indigo as the sun sank into the craggy ridge to the west. With the day's heat dying down, cool evening breezes swept across the savanna, rattling the trees' branches and brushing droplets of water off Mukondi's skin. She perched herself among the crooked branches of an acacia tree with her machete in hand.
Before the tree's roots rested a rotting leg of carrion which she had found and relocated. The stench may have swamped her sense of smell, and flies may have swarmed all over the dead meat, but Mukondi did not mind. After all, even the fiercest flesh-eaters like Sambu could not resist the chance for an easy meal. At least it would appear easy to him at first.
First, however, Mukondi needed to bring him towards her position.
She pulled out the horn her mother had given her and blew a gust through it. The deafening blare bounced between the savanna trees and sent birds fluttering off their branches. Now that Mukondi thought of it, the horn's noise resembled a large animal's holler of death, just what Mukondi needed to catch Sambu's attention. Sure enough, the carnivore's familiar screech replied to Mukondi's call from the distance. She puffed into the horn a couple more times before putting it away, and Sambu's cry came back louder and clearer.
Mukondi climbed further up the acacia's branches and immersed herself within their foliage to hide. The rustling of bushes and the crackling of grass joined the steady thumping of giant feet. Or was that her own heart drumming with anticipation? Mukondi's limbs twitched and the cold returned to her veins, but for once her grin did not fade from her fear. If anything, it spread wider.
Yellow eyes flamed from the shade of distant trees, and then Sambu emerged back into the twilight. The stream of blood trickling down his shoulder from a spear-wound showed that he must have been the very same Allosaurus who had ambushed Mukondi earlier. As he strode towards the tree where Mukondi's bait lay, he sniffed all around while his eyes darted about, growling as a human might grumble. Mukondi's heartbeat sped up and the perspiration returned to her brow.
Sambu stopped to smell the carrion and licked it. After scanning his surroundings again, he plunged his snout into the meat and sliced off bloody strips with his teeth. He devoured his meal so ravenously that half of it disappeared within a few eye blinks. Mukondi's muscles tensed up. If she did not act now, Sambu would finish and leave before she could complete her plan.
After whispering another prayer to Oyosi, she leapt down from the boughs, screaming the Djata clan's battle cry.
She landed onto Sambu's feathery neck. The beast screeched with surprise and thrashed his head sideways. Clutching onto his mane with one hand, Mukondi banged her machete against Sambu's thick hide. The blade barely dented it. Sambu reared up and shook himself so that Mukondi lost her grip and crashed onto the savanna floor.
Mukondi jumped back onto her feet the moment she hit the ground. Sambu lunged his open mouth at her again, but she bolted sideward and let him snap the air. Twirling around, she slashed through Sambu's left eye with her weapon. The monster recoiled on his feet, wailing and rocking his injured head. Mukondi stretched her right arm backward, clenching a fist onto the machete, and then hurled it into Sambu's breast.
"For Nzinge!" she yelled.
The weapon sank deep enough into him that only its hilt stuck out with a fountain of blood.
Sambu's shriek broke up into a spasm of gags and rattling as his flank thudded onto the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. His tail curled and twitched a bit before finally flopping down with the rest of his body. Sambu the Allosaurus, top predator of the savage savanna, was dead.
For a moment Mukondi merely stood still, panting and scratching her hair in disbelief. She had just accomplished what her older sister could not two rainy seasons before, and she had not even needed her spear to do it. With pride swelling like a tide within her, she pulled her machete out of Sambu and started hacking his teeth out of his mouth. One she had a handful of fangs, she raised the weapon into the air and roared out the Djata battle cry again.
Mukondi had left her camp a nervous girl that morning. Tonight she would return to her clan, and most importantly her own family, a woman.