Squeezed between almost vertical rises of rock, Nkem tried to suck her belly in as she heard the King-beast grunt, sniff wetly against the ground. This was no hiding place, she knew. It wasn’t even much of a breathing space.
But she needed to think.
She had hoped to corner and trap the King but maybe that had been a mistake. The territory was unfamiliar and it was dark besides. She didn’t know where to hide and she hadn’t imagined that the King-beast would have such an excellent sense of smell. In fact her imaginings had served her badly. She hadn’t imagined she would be facing a creature of such mangled and elongated proportions. She hadn’t imagined she would be facing a creature at all. The stories had always spoken of a cursed King, but she didn’t think that the curse would look anything like this.
Yet, here she was. And she had a job to do.
It must know where she was. She had noticed the way it moved, face almost down to the ground as it had sought her out, snuffling against the earth like a wild boar. Now it would find it’s way to her hiding place and reach in with it’s glistening, curved talons and grab at her…
She knew what she needed to do.
Get into the light.
Nkem pictured the warriors dancing at the New Yam festival, how they puffed out their chests and then let out a murderous cry as they exhaled, unleashing the strength they had drawn into themselves. She had seen a man smash through a tree trunk using that technique. He had been from one of the smaller villages outside the Wall, hoping that his display of strength would earn him a place in the Chief’s army.
She held until the pressure in her head got too much and her vision seemed to dissolve into strange patterns before she exhaled, feeling her limbs tingle with adrenaline. It felt good in a way, but something wasn’t right. She was still too scared. The fear would slow her down. She tried again.
This time, she ignored the prickle of something other in the back of her mind. She had a spear in her hands and a long knife at her belt and that would be enough. She kept hold of the breath and as the waves of fatigue came, as she felt a gasp threaten to break through, she would imagine herself getting larger and larger, forcing her strength through the very rocks themselves.
She leapt from her hiding place, with a cry from deep within her gut. She would punch through whatever stood in her way, whatever it was. She didn’t care. With her spear held true in front of her, she felt it ram into something hard and keep on piercing until she felt herself collide head on with its target before being flung away.
Nkem tumbled through the air, rolling, sliding, skidding backwards along the pitted floor. She got to her feet and started to run towards the entrance, now just a glimmer of light several yards in front of her. She heard the King-beast roar as it ran after her in its oddly childlike way, fists and feet crashing against the floor, splintering the very ground, sending clods of earth into the air.
She kept running, feeling her throat rubbed raw as she greedily gulped for air with every desperate step. The ground tilted beneath her feet, becoming increasingly steep so she was not so much running but almost crawling, grabbing rocks and old roots to steady herself. The King-beast was in a fury, for it kept coming after her, even though she could hear it trip over its feet, losing its footing, the hand and footholds giving way under its weight.
Nkem ran out of the entrance, almost breaking her nose against the trunk of an iroko sapling. The mighty creature was still close behind her – it continued to roar so loudly she thought her eardrums would burst. A last spurt of strength saw her well clear of the cave entrance and the King-beast’s thunderous steps began to deaden. She kept on going, crashing through the bush until its cries were a distant roar.
She felt herself slowing down to a heavy footed jog and then finally to a halt. Collapsing onto the ground, Nkem felt as though there were live flames issuing from her skin.