by GARY CLIFTON
helbina,” Margot said in the darkness, “Hold onto me, child.”
But Shelbina had already reached for Margot’s hand as she opened her mouth to speak; having gleaned the words from her mother’s mind before they could become sounds. Huddled together below deck of the battered tramp steamer, Leopoldo, they were in ankle-deep, fetid water, among several pygmy slaves. The pygmies suffered through humid squalor, and all were bound by chains. Margot and Shelbina were dangerously weakened by a lack of food. But they would not partake in the flesh of innocents, and those dark hearted ilk onboard the Leopoldo were also responsible for getting Margot and Shelbina to their latest destination.
“Mother, those drums, they seem to be everywhere…on both sides of us.” Shelbina’s soft voice was uncertain.
“It’s the jungle welcoming us to our new home, darling.” Margot hoped her tone sounded more certain than her thoughts. She had no real idea of the nature of the ominous, endless sounds drifting through the walls of green jungle on either side of the river.
The tumultuous journey had done nothing for their aching stomachs. The old craft struggled upstream against the surging current of the Congo River. Ancient, even for 1871, and dangerously low on wood to fire the boiler, the worn out boat had barely made it to Boma. Following a rough two week passage from Gibraltar, the hundred foot Leopoldo had laid over for two days there, while the pygmies loaded in enough timber to fuel the remaining distance.
The pygmy slaves in the hold, twelve men and two women, seized by Belgium raiders in earlier intrusions, were naked, dirty and hungry. Margot and Shelbina, aboard the ship as willing passengers, were still only fed scraps sparingly by the Belgian master of the leaky old rig. The captain, Hugo De Smet, had made certain that Margot, darkly beautiful, voluptuous, and irritably intriguing, had remained scantily dressed for their viewing enjoyment. But beyond groping and caressing, when Margot asked for bread, none of the four white men had attempted to sexually attack either she or Shelbina. Margot had made certain of that. She had not been powerful enough in her weakened state, however, to stop them from raping the two pixie women.
Margot was no stranger to adversity, violence, or cruel and demanding men. She’d been a 25 year old indentured peasant woman on a vast Romanian estate in the Mountains of Transylvania when the Baron had lured her and Shelbina into his quarters hundreds of years earlier. Once bitten, Margot and Shelbina continued to live at the Barony for the next forty years. They had quickly become the Baron’s favorites. Margot eventually earned the title “Princess”. Both mother and daughter would remain physically as they were for eternity – if they weren’t destroyed by the very forces that they were running from now.
For after leaving Transylvania, Margot and Shelbina were repeatedly confronted by the same recurring dilemma. Their lack of aging required they move on and reinvent themselves elsewhere. By the late 1860’s, building on the medical knowledge she’d gained under the Baron’s tutelage, Margot was a village physician in the lowland community of Brasschaat, near the burgeoning port of Antwerp. Leopold, the King of Belgium, jealous of European colonization of the African continent, had earlier sent plunderers to the vast, forested jungles of the Congo. Populated by pygmies and other, taller Africans, all natives were genetically related to the vast Bantu culture, which spread over most of Africa.
One day, when Margot and her daughter had traveled into Antwerp, they saw the pitiful, nearly starved pygmy slaves in the harbor area; chained and being forced to load ships. No Pygmy’s height equaled Margot’s shoulder. After ages of intellectual development and enlightenment, she spoke out publicly against the atrocity.
Word of Margot’s dissent reached King Leopold. When he sent a troop of soldiers to bring Margot and Shelbina before him, Margot’s extraordinary powers of perception saved them, but only barely. With just the clothes on their backs, they made their way to the Port of Antwerp, where they remained hidden in the abandoned hulk of a partially sunken ship for several days. Margot was pleased to see little her daughter tame, pet, and befriend the legions of rats which swarmed their lair. But, alas, hunger forced them to eat a few of Shelbina’s new friends.
It was a sailor who spotted Shelbina and Margot. Captain De Smet, with several of his filthy crew members, came to claim their prize of two lost, beautiful females.
“Come with us, wench!” a crewman commanded, with wicked lust in his eyes. “And leave the girl, we’ve no use for her!”
Captain De Smet interjected. “No, bring the girl. I don’t want to have to beat such a pretty face to get what I want, but I’m sure if I lay a hand on that little one, her momma will be beggin’ to please me.” The disgusting creature smiled at this, as if he’d said something clever. But Margot had over two centuries experience in captivating men with those dark, brooding eyes. Within the first few minutes, she used her well-honed power to look directly into the fat, evil man’s mind and seize almost total control. De Smet never finished his first night’s intention. And Margot and Shelbina, although traveling in deplorable conditions, had not been chained.
“I’m a special representative of King Leopold,” he admitted to Margot through the haze she had inflicted on him. “I’ve made several trips to and from the Congo in this old ship. We’ll be embarkin’ to the Congo tomorrow, cruising via Gibraltar from the mouth of the Mediterranean to the mouth of the Congo River....”
Though De Smet became a mind prisoner of Margot, he was not a full captive. She deduced that a lifetime of liquor, foul living, and pure evil had numbed his senses. Desperate to escape Leopold’s wrath, her lovely nude skin adding to her power of persuasion, she convinced De Smet he needed to carry a trained physician and her daughter into the wilds of Africa.
He not only agreed, but was initially powerless to deny her request for clothing and food. As she had weakened without the blood and meat she needed, his eagerness to please her had waned. She studied the men’s watery, lustful eyes and made sure that her daughter was not touched by De Smet or his crew, but she had little power left over for much else. Margot, a proven master of biding her time, waited patiently, grabbing scraps of bread from the hands of the crew who always touched and probed her in the most intimate places. But she knew now she and Shelbina would survive once more.
Four weeks later, as the Leopoldo plugged its way up river, Margot smiled at her daughter, who’d taught herself Bantu and Swahili from the Pygmies during the voyage. Shelbina, at least a match for her mother in the mastery of many languages, as well as inheriting an even stronger mind control power, learned a great deal more from the simple prisoners. King Leopold intended to seize the vast Congo, an area many times the size of the actual country of Belgium, and continue to exploit rubber, sugar, and slaves to be sold on the worldwide market. The Pygmies had been chosen as slaves because they were considered of lesser status than other inhabitants. But they were extremely industrious, and had a wealth of information for Margot and Shelbina. They were quick to inform that the final destination of this journey had been explored by Doctor David Livingstone as Leopold’s emissary. After Livingstone had disappeared for several years, a New York newspaper reporter, Henry Stanley, searched the jungle, infested with lowland gorillas and many other animals, and located Livingstone. Margot recalled the quote she had had read in the Belgian papers: “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?” It had been the result of Stanley’s meeting with the lost Livingstone 1100 miles upriver from their current location. ‘Curious’, Margot thought.
That night, while the others slept fitfully in their chains, Shelbina whispered another strange story to her mother. Most of the Pygmies and other Bantus in the area had fallen ill to a virulent disease which the only white doctor in the area had called the “Yaws”. The death rate had decimated the area and many other deaths were predicted. The Belgian doctor who’d made the Yaws diagnosis had ultimately died of the disease.
“And mama,” Shelbina squeezed closer. “The Pygmies have turned to a pagan god…a half human, half silver back gorilla witch doctor named Skagnar. He’s cruel and evil and they’re terrified of him and those in his cult who beat those drums day and night.”
“Baby, humans and Gorillas can’t mate. That would be abnormal.”
“Mama, we’ve been dead for centuries. Is that normal?”
In the dark, dank quarters, Margot pondered the situation. Perhaps there was no normal, only circumstances. Shelbina and she had only barely escaped Belgium. Now they were on the cusp of slavery by an evil minion of a greedy king. She recognized the Yaws ailment, a common disorder in damp, primitive, rainforest cultures. Called non venereal syphilis by European doctors, the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes and biting flies or through contact with an open sore or cut. Skin color had no effect on the spread of the illness. Perhaps her medical skill would be of use? Especially since she and her daughter were immune to such diseases.
In the next morning’s dawn haze, the Leopoldo docked at the teeming port of Stanleyville, known by the native population as Kisangani. Further water travel was blocked by Stanley Falls, fifty miles upriver.
The Pygmy prisoners were kept chained below, out of sight of Bantus and Pygmies who seemed squeezed into the streets like flies on open food. De Smet laddered down, greeted Margot and Shelbina, and made a feeble attempt at caressing both. Margot trapped his eyes, however, and he was hers in seconds. And at that, the two white women, rare in the area, were on foot in rags in an unknown land in the stifling, equatorial heat of the Congo.
On the first morning after Margot and Shelbina had wriggled free, De Smet and his four crewman made ready for a trek into the surrounding jungle. Margot had heard a crew member mention “rubber” and assumed the trip was to establish more theft of Congo resources. When they went below deck to retrieve their slaves, all five were gone. Someone had picked the locks binding their chains. Shelbina, hearing the commotion, smiled wryly at her mother. The sailors might have to carry their own loot.
Margot and Shelbina quickly acquired and adapted to local garb to replace their tattered clothing. In a month, Margot had also mastered Bantu, Swahili, a dozen other local dialects, and had set up shop in the crowded village as the new European physician. Shelbina sat patiently at a shaky little table, logging in the sick and infirm. Patients, lined up for blocks, most with the dreaded Yaws. Margot, with a combination of medical knowledge, education of patients on the causes of the sickness, soap and water, and a touch of the supernatural, soon saw the illness and death rates decline sharply.
Several patients, bearing crude wooden medals around their necks with a rough engraving of a man/ape creature, whispered to Margot that they thought she was their new savior, instead of the ape-god, Skagnar. Margot disregarded the talk. She had no designs on being a god. Margot and Shelbina were very content. An added plus was that many patients paid them with freshly killed wild game, satisfying fully an urge they’d learned to partly supress for many, many years.
Within a week, four male Pygmies, faces painted in horrible, vivid red and yellow pigment, paid Doctor Margot a visit. They brandished long spears and spoke Bantu. “We warn you not to crowd the spiritual space of Skagnar. In fact, there is no room for the two of you at all in these parts. You may leave alive, or stay and die...”
Margot and Shelbina, well equipped to control the minds of men of any race, convinced the emissaries that they meant no harm and had no intention of encroaching on Skagnar’s influence. In the real world, at another time in history, the men would have gone away, minds bent to fit Margot’s need, and explained to Skagnar.
But the next day, accompanied by twenty, heavily armed Pygmy warriors, Skagnar, borne by eight straining Pygmies on a litter-carriage, arrived at the front door of their clinic. The lines of patients, terrified of the god creature, evaporated into the jungles, but not before the warriors slaughtered several with the huge clubs. Skagnar’s terror was absolute.
Margot, dressed in a woven native smock, walked out to meet Skagnar. Even she, who’d had several lifetimes of exposure to horror and wretched creatures, was taken slightly aback by his appearance. Naked, with ape-like facial features, he stepped off the litter, his manhood fully exposed. Infused with enough human genes to stand upright, although slightly bent at the waist, he was seven feet tall and appeared to weigh 400 pounds. Margot could not fathom how such a mutated creature came to be.
His voice was more guttural growl than speech as he barked in Bantu: “Witch woman, you will leave my kingdom this instant or you will be my slave…and then you and your demon seed will die.” He gestured at Shelbina, cowering behind her mother.
Margot had fled from the villagers in Romania and had evacuated Antwerp in the face of hostility. Her flight had not exactly been from fear for her or Shelbina. She had, over the centuries, become a formidable killing machine with a body scar or two to show for her experiences. She had not wanted to rip villagers to shreds or to annihilate half of King Leopold’s guards in Antwerp. Discretion was often the better part of violence. And thus they now lived in the Congo.
Margot reached out and touched Skagnar’s fur covered cheek, beneath protruding ape-brows. He smelled of decaying flesh. She recognized the cause as Yaws. Skagnar the god was dying. She spoke in Swahili. “I can help you with your illness, majesty.”
“Skagnar needs no help from witches.”
“Um…witch isn’t quite correct......highness.” She managed a fix on his deep, brown, half animal eyes. His resistance was greater than any she ever known, but she could see he yielded ever so slightly, then a tiny bit more. At her side, she sensed Shelbina step from behind her and knew the child was also concentrating on his eyes.
He stepped back slightly. “Yes, Skagnar sick…but me think witch woman is responsible.” The Pygmy warriors who surrounded then grumbled among themselves, showing agitation, unrest. Margot could see from skin lesions, all had the same Yaws disease.
Margot pulled a small pottery jar from her smock and handed it to Skagnar. “Sit in the river for a short while.” She had no way to describe a measure of time. “Then sit in the sun and when you dry, rub this medicine on your sores.”
Skagnar, the wild, vicious eyes radiating death, looked down at her curiously. He reached out for the jar, turned back to his litter without comment, and in minutes he was gone, with his entourage of armed guards trotting along in the dust behind.
Shelbina looked up at her mother, eyes wide with wonder. Margot sensed they had not heard the last of the ape-king. Two nights later, their grass and brush shanty burned to the ground. Then, the next night, as they slept on the ground near the burned debris, a black leopard menaced them, actually seizing Shelbina by the ankle. But Margot, despite her soft, feminine veneer, was a formidable opponent. In seconds, with Shelbina’s help, the monster lay dead on the ground, half decapitated. That night, they feasted on satisfying, raw leopard steak.
For the next week, a reign of terror by Skagnar’s minions swept the area. A thousand natives, mostly Pygmies, were slaughtered in their tree forested villages. Patients crept to their clinic; not for treatment, but to implore them to leave. Margot saw no other choice but to respond.
At daybreak, she and Shelbina packed what gear they had and walked into the impenetrable jungle looking for the ape-god. Within a day, they found him in a cave-lair not far off the shore of the Congo River. Even Margot, who been a slave, who’d killed other humans when necessary, who’d seen enough horror for a hundred lifetimes, was stunned at the wretched female prisoners shackled naked to trees. Although they were obviously used for sex, Shelbina tugged her mother’s robe and pointed to a young Bantu woman in a giant cooking pot, head suspended by a rope above the water, being boiled alive. No longer able to scream, the young victim was still breathing in anguish.
“Mama, a patient lady at the clinic the other day told me this is how Skagnar holds power. The guards get to use the woman before they eat them.”
Guards, having seen Margot and Shelbina, summoned Skagnar. The disgusting specimen swaggered up; naked, dirty, and with the lust for Margot evident in his eyes. “You, witch woman, will hang from that pole,” he pointed. “And the little one from the other.” He directed the guards to seize both.
“How is your rash, excellency,” Margot said quickly, trying to focus on his eyes.
“Much better, witch woman,” he roared.
Margot smiled. “It was no witchcraft, despite what you may think. In fact, the mean ingredient was taken directly from the tips of your guard’s spears. It’s poison, Skagnar. You’ll be dead in a day. Perhaps less.” Margot could not help but laugh.
“Bitch!” Skagnar screamed. He lunged at her, his body full of hard bones and wiry, impossibly strong muscles.
Margot, the age old survivor of many confrontations, with superhuman physical strength which surpassed her acute mental ability, reacted. The guards too far away to offer aid to their leader, saw only a flash of fang and swiping limbs that somehow seemed longer, sharper, stronger than they had moments before. Shelbina, on the other hand, saw every intimate detail of the retaliation, including her mother’s kiss of death. When it was over, Skagnar lay dead in the dust, drained of blood, surrounded by the bodies of several Pygmy guards who had not managed to flee into the brush.
Margot looked for her daughter and saw Shelbina, licking the splattered blood and gore from her hands. “Oh mama, now I’m hungry too. Can we can have a special dinner tonight? These pygmy guards? And do you suppose we could season them with that red vine that they get their poison from?”
“Of course, baby. It sounds delicious...” Margot was still panting, letting the blood, only half human but still offering unmeasurably more nourishment than the animals she’d recently been reduced to, rush through her and fulfill her.
In days, hundreds of patients were lined up at a new lean-to Margot and Shelbina had erected. With the new blood, Margot had mystical quality about her that the people had not noticed before. But she refused to let the people refer to her as a deity, so instead, they call her Queen. Queen Margot.
The crude statute of Margot and Shelbina, carved from a tree stump, gradually deteriorated in the next 170 years. And to this day, the legend exists in the area of how Queen Margot and Princess Shelbina ridded the world of the evil ape-god man, Skagnar.
Gary Clifton, forty years a cop, has over sixty short fiction pieces published or pending with online sites including Bewildering Stories, Flashes in the Dark, Spinetingler, and Black Heart Mag. He's been shot at, shot, stabbed, sued and is currently retired to a dusty north Texas ranch. Gary has an MS from Abilene Christian University. Gary’s stories have appeared in the following issues of HelloHorror: Blood Passion appears in the January 2013 issue, Measure Once, Cut Twice appears in the April 2013 issue, Mother’s Nature appears in the August 2013 issue, Mind's Eye appears in the October 2013 issue, Sinning in the Rain appears in the December 2013 issue, and Special Handling Required appears in the April 2014 issue. All but one of Gary’s stories appearing thus far have been part of the Margot LePlatt series. Read more of Gary's work at his new blog, Bareknuckle Thoughts.
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