She reached out fearfully for the bangle and held it again to the light, fascinated. She felt the creature drawing her, as the stone one had, and slowly, very slowly, she slipped it onto her right arm. She could hear again the hiss of the black-mouthed snake as it had stood up to her, and see the silver lining of his eyes.
Her head was swimming. Trance-like, she stroked the thing, feeling every scale that had been lovingly shaped into the body rough against her fingertips. As if in a dream, she turned back to the hiding place and reached into it again. It went back further than she had thought, and on its floor lay the staff she somehow had known would be there.
She pulled it out reverently, and gazed in awe at the beaten copper that covered it, a thin sheet nailed with tiny tacks into the wood. It was headed again with the Mamba, winding its way up the copper and craning from the top, magnificent in its arrogance.
She breathed, and it was almost a sigh. The cave was moving around her, and she felt the same rush that had come when she had eaten the salad.
Vague visions swam before her, and then she was floating, flying high above a dark-skinned maiden beneath her dressed in skins. She spread her wings and soared, every tiny blade of grass in focus; she thrilled to the glory of the rushing air in her feathers, and climbed higher, and then dropped again, lower, to just above the girl's head. She saw the mamba then, standing up from its coils, the mouth open, open... bewitched, she flew closer, and the eyes cast their spell and pulled her in, in...
She moaned, and the sound was a cymbal-crash in her ears. She opened her eyes; she was lying on the floor of the cave and above was the narrow opening. Someone was there, squatting in the sunlight, staring in at her. The haze came together and the pieces fitted, like a scattered mosaic flying into position. The man was grinning at her, and she realised it was the gardener from the flats.
How strange, to find him here...
His eyes travelled over her in the twilight, then stopped in shock. She was wearing the bracelet of the Rhaba, and in the other hand she held the staff.
He drew back from her, bitter, then abruptly dragged her to her feet, his fingers digging into her elbow. "Up," he commanded.
He shoved from below as she climbed up the baobab's walls. She scrambled into the light, screwing up her eyes. He followed her out of the cave, staying close, his hand gripping her arm as he propelled her forward. There he stopped and had a rapid conversation with the other terrorist. He pointed angrily to the bangle on her arm, and the staff she still clutched, and the other man seemed afeared by it, looking at her strangely. Her captor took the staff away and threw it at his friend, who caught it with his free hand, and then they began to move again, Mandhla still pushing her ahead of him.
He was heading down, across the rocks, and for a moment had to let go of her as she jumped to the next foothold. Immediately she touched down she moved sideways, trying to run, but he was onto her like a cat and her whole body jarred as he hauled her back. He twisted her arm up between her shoulder blades and whispered into the back of her neck.
"I can kill you slowly or I can kill you swiftly, or I may not kill you at all. I have not yet decided. Don't hurry me. And above all, do not make my friend nervous. His finger may twitch on the trigger."
He shoved her and she fell onto the level of the grey stone, grazing the soft padding of her palms. She winced at the sting. He reached down, the Rhogun slung casually over his right arm, and twined his left hand in her plaits. He jerked her to her feet and forced her to look up at him.
"You wear the sign of our Rhaba," he said, "but your skin is the wrong colour. I don't know how you came to this cavern, but it is sacred to us, and what you wear is sacred. Be thankful; it has delayed your fate a while."
The other man said something to him in their own language and he stopped, thinking, staring in the direction she had left her 'bike. He made up his mind suddenly, and turned again towards the baobab. He pushed her again, half-dragging her with him, and she realised they were heading back to the tree cavern.
He thrust her up the broken branch, coming closely behind her, and she jumped once more onto the soft white sand below, where he joined her seconds later. He took off the light backpack he wore and dropped it onto the sandy floor ...
He looked at her musingly. "Miss Rawlings... oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. Mrs. Kennedy..." The sarcasm was tangible. "Mrs. Kennedy, you present me with a problem. For some reason my god and the god of my ancestors has chosen to protect you from me. However, you are also under the protection of the Eagle... and I see you wear a bead with the symbol of the Christ. The three do not fit together, and I am confused."
"I am under the protection of neither eagle nor serpent, but of Jesus Christ," she said defiantly. "Your god is false, as is the eagle. There is only one God, and he is a God of mercy and compassion, and of wrath against his enemies, of which you are one!"
"Ah. Definitely a Christian, then. In that case, you do not serve Muali."
"No, I do not." She suddenly realised the words worsened her situation. ...