Atelerix (novel excerpt) by Nate IV

“Before I forget,” said Mandla inserting the car-key into the ignition, “Phylum Inc just roped in a fresh crop of game developers. They are throwing ideas around. Since you’re here, I have this idea to first release a Graphic Novel to which the game will become the tie-in.”

“Disclaimer,” she said, “I write what I like, not because I’m good at writing.'”

“Well, I cannot write.”

“Hit me.”

“Maropeng. South African Cradle of Humankind. I don’t have a theme, so I give you carte blanche.”

Within thirty minutes of their ride to his place, she completed a draft in a form of a graphic novel about Maropeng Clans. She went for a stock script that Holywood would entertain.

~

[Working Title: Frontier Porcupine]

Set it in some realmic cusp. The oracle of the clan call it Cæsura. Ñoko. Our teen femme fatale. Her sickly huntress mother is exiled from the clan with nothing but a bow and an arrow. She raises her in the caves. Now they echo with her stern voice about poisonous fauna and flora, for sooner she became a tween Orphan. An earthquake? She thinks as the rumbling cave rattles her out of sleep one winter night. This event brings about Crop Circles of Litema Tsa Dinoko that many rivers, which require messengers of distant clans from the four winds to bring together tattooed patterns (a year long event) of their respective Crop Circles, piece them together and divine their message.

In the morning, across the river she discovers a sad baby Porcupine among countless carcasses of its kind. The elephants stamepede. She braids her hair using thorns from an Acacia thorn tree. We’re now a clan, she says, as an insect lands on the clear well, rippling the reflection of her craddling her newfound sibling, and her spiny royal headdress.

Whilst hunting she gives up chasing after a game, flustered. Her mother’s bow is twice her size, making hunting cumbersome. She closes her eyes, mutters an apology to her, and proceed to snap it in half. She only keeps the string. Though a canard to some, hunters would regale the village with a teenage girl from a clan unknown. They’d spot her dangling her leg at the edge of a promontory known to sway precariously near the cliffs with death-defying waterfall below. Others claimed to have spotted her from a distance, alone in the parts of the woods where even warriors dare not to venture into, playing Cat’s Cradle. Unbeknownst to them, that coarse twine was a multi-threaded ambidex bow.

Whilst negotiating the jungle Neytiri-esque, she picks a strange scent. With stealth she backs into a foliage, as her peacock-feather clad body (of Ankara pattern weaved painstakingly by her mother) turns into a camouflage, blending her into the colouful flora.  Ballet-like, her hands rise to remain poised above. It happens to be a boy a little older than her chasing a duka-deer.

She comes out of hiding, and with uncanny prowess turns her body sideways, like a bristled animal. A strange stand off, he thinks. All he sees before him is a barely weaned gazelle. I’m holding the strongest bow of the Maropeng Clans, and she looks poised to entertain me? Girls, tsk-tsk. With feline’s grace she launches into an aerial pirouette, and returns on one knee, as if to take a bow. That’s it, mocks the young warrior. The branch above him rustles, and the African python slumps into a heap on his feet. Its head and jaw was pierced through by an Acacia thorn. While still gathering his faculties, like a leopard she stalks him. She closes her eyes to highten her other senses. As she sniffs the air around him, it gets too close for his comfort. He’s conflicted whether to fight or take flight. Only the Equinox Games warrior are endowed with fearlessness.

Thinking she can’t talk, he prattles along on her heels wondering about her. Your speech is a sound of a waterfall, she says. He learns that she utters a sentence or two for the day. Any arising matter, if important, will be addressed curtly the next day. He learns also that her big brilliant eyes don’t move with its target. She’d spot a game, and remain stationary, looking pensive as if her body just went into hibernation. A sharp pivot of her torso, and a whiz of an Acacia thorn in the air, would bring down a bird which had long left her field of vision.

Around her he finds himself having to check his tone. I must put my foot and of my forefathers down, he’d mutter to himself. It was unbecoming of a future warrior, so come what may. He’d pick up his bow and arrow, and point it at her. Address me when I say so, for many moons hence I’ll be a Maropeng warrior! All the while she’d be enjoying the view of the fecund river delta below, her foot dangling playfully. She’d sense vibrations of his arrow becoming extremely taut. He’d shout at her to face him. With a Masai pride, the intent in her one-legged rise from the see-sawing promontory would cut his entitlement hissyfit short. Vrksasana-esque she’d gently place her other foot down, inch towards the edge of the promontory, and half-commit a Bakasana. The promontory would totter dangerously. Fear dwells in you, she’d say before taking a death defying plunge. He’d run heaving towards the edge, close one eye, pull his taut bow with all his might, and follow her freefall. With her arms outstretched, her slow backspin on her long way down wouldn’t complete its degree, for she’d disappear inside the mist of the waterfall.

That’s a signature aerial move he comes to know her by – begrudgingly and conflicted. Midair, just when it seemed she won’t be able flip all the way in time for landing, she’d suddenly hold her knees to her chest, launch into a second quick flip, latch onto the nearest branch, and land like a cheetah. He’d shout, I’m still a warrior! A kebab in the form of his taut arrow and three seagulls flapping limply would stick betwen the tufts of grass behind her. With her back turned to him, she’d merely glimpse over her shoulder like a lioness, and walk away. Sensing her hinted smirk, he’d clamber down the rocky shore where she left him, and catch her figure vanish inside the jungle, as if she owned it. He’d both hate and want her even more. His voice would echo indistinctly along the shore, I’m the warrior who fears no day of the horn!

Gradually, they forge an unbreakable bond, but he darens’t risk being spotted with her. Two warriors-to-be of his age happened upon them, and their whereabouts are unknown by the Maropeng Clan.

A year later, she happens upon a conversation of Maropeng women. She hears that the queen gives women the option to either go into exile, or groom their virgin daughters in the event should the horn go off (the horn hasn’t gone off for many moons now). Whoever avows exile has to drink from the queens horn for luck before leaving.  She has earned the name, Queen of Orphans, for they come far and wide to serve her.

In the middle of the night the village hears Ñoko’s far off keening. She had gathered what made her mother sick. The caves echo eerily, causing her Porcupine to run for cover. She heads to the valley of dead Porcupines the very night.

The first twilight gradually reveals Ñoko standing in the middle of Maropeng dancing grounds. The long quills between her fingers had combed the earth, leaving trails of whence she came. A white belt of Acacia thorns slants menacingly around her waist. She is dressed to kill. Literally. Her headdress bristles along her back, as she slowly heaves, readying her voice.

– Who is the matriarch of this clan!

– We didn’t hear the horn… who’d dare challenge me and my finest warriors whose arrows are feared among neighbouring clans?

The queen, along with the village, come out to see this spectacle. What a hardy fool this little outcast is, thought the villagers. All have bows across their chest like a satchel bag strap. The girl is not even decorated with a single Tema ya Dinoko on her bare arms. She would not last a single cock’s crow in the Equinox Games. Many young warriors return with tails between their legs, bows dragging behind.

Four arrows whiz past Ñoko’s ears. Without flinching, she weaves her Cat’s Cradle kung-fu-like at the flick of her wrists, and a phalanx of warriors slap their necks simulatenously, and slink to the ground. The second wave rushed towards her. Ñoko seemed to fix her belt, and spun in the air, and metes out a spiny salvo onto another mob rushing towards her. The remaining warriors’ feet grow cold. Maropeng Clan, all of them archers, murmurs with disbelief, none daring so much to touch their accoutrements.

With her back to the throne, she pulls out two quils from her headdress and closes her eyes. Alas, she senses a familiar presence between her and the queen. Her bae is the queen’s son. Confusion and resignation weigh her down. Fear has left you, she says to him and falls on her knees.

The queen puts out her arm, and a warrior scrambles to her four more arrows for her double stringed bow. Her son rushes to stand before Ñoko. With disbelief in her eyes, the queen lowers her bow. Âugrab, how dare you shield an outcast, my son! You’ve now deprived your father, the great warrior chief, of rest beyond the river of life! She commands the warriors to strip Ñoko of the headdress.

They bind her around the judgement totem-pole. Her head droops, and she breaths with difficulty. Âugrab’s shame is like a river, now spilling into many streams. His father’s legacy. The dissipating boldness. That contempt with which the warriors gaze him. The strangely pleasant fire in his chest for Ñoko.

While the council is deciding the severity of her punishment, from atop a mountain the village hugs, a horn goes off. The whole village panics. Immediately, the council’s tone changes. A decorated, but aged warrior stands on his feet, and pleaded.

– The Incursors are ruthless, my queen. We’re a clan of archers.

A huntress is an abomination to the Incursors. Each of their warriors is led by two salivating hynas. Another elder stood up to second the first.

– The outcast, the Porcu-princess, can lead us into battle. For once, with a singly resounding voice, we might be able to declare, bring back our girls!

Four arrows whistle in the air. The aged warriors’ bodies are dragged unceremoniously, and fed to the queen’s big eared wild dogs. All look away, as the dogs savagely tear at them. The queen is conflicted between winning the war, and face Ñoko thereafter, or giving to the demands of the Incursors. Ñoko would make a perfect tribute to them.

~

“I have to enrich it with Deep Ecology, add details on the Crop Circles thingy. I don’t know, I’ll complete it in a month.”

He stopped thumb-sketching when the traffic lights suffused the area around them, and the car interior with a green glare. “Take yout time.”

“Ooh-ooh, almost forgot, I have to go full throttle on the exotic sartorial front.”

As she transcribed vocally the work in progress, Mandla was busy sketching the exotic femme fatale (during traffic lights stops) based on her decription. He handed her his Linux Ubuntu tablet, asking her to colour the sketch.

The sketched Ñoko reminded Reeva of the mid-aerial pose of some title sequence on a movie she saw once. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it was Europa Corp. At the end of her outward stretched arms were sharp quills from the Cat’s Cradle webbing her fingers. The Muscogee and Samba war-bonnet of elaborate Peacock feathers and Porcupine quills composite filled two-thirds of the screen, dwarfing her petite frame. A bold ‘Atelerix’ was emblazoned overhead.

“Is Atelerix her official titular name? Just change the font to Ambages.” She sensed his surprised look. He asked if she’s been studying fonts along with Senza. Speaking dotingly, she ignored him. “Atelerix.”

Atelerix’ iridiscent plumage clad body bent over backward gracefully, hiding her face from view. She appeared to be momentarily scaling the primordial jungle like a Phoenix, before returning to wreck carnage below. Reeva subdued her breathing the more she took it all in, getting more drawn into what she was busy gestating. She kept for herself the sonograph verion without colour.

“Make it even more epic.” Mandla said. “Vary locations with their respective clans – desert-dwellers, the rocky-terrans, river villagers,  I’m not good with names – cultural frictions bode with unintended or intended affrontry. Immerse us in otherworldly customs. Up the ante on description with rich primitivism. Oh-ya, give her plumage a latent holographic effect as well,” he said, halting the car into another giant fiery orb, that ignited other orbs inside his rearview-mirror in tandem, “As in, she uses shafts of sunlight in the forests to her advantage. The sunrays bounce off the plumage, causing refraction of her position. What you’re left with is an after-image.” He snatched his Ubuntu Tablet from her and suffused the sketch with a severe lens flare that looked like a planetary alignment. “There’s your Xbox+Book cover for inspiration.”

“It looks like a poster for some Trance festival.”  Her thumbs twiddled silently at lightning speed, barely touching the screen, as her Slate Tablet pulsed with Sperm Whale clicks. Every period elicited trails of squeaky whistles of a dolphin, which reminded her of Senza’s pitched vinyl scratches. “Forget a month. Give me a week to finish — just don’t tell mom. She’d kill you. Literally.”

***

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