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Other than Imaro and Dossouye, Pomphis is my favorite character. At the time Imaro first began taking shape in my imagination, Pomphis was there, too. The idea of an outsized warrior like Imaro teaming up with a pygmy intrigued me. By the way, back then the term “pygmy” was not considered a pejorative in describing the small people who live in the forests of Central Africa. These days, the preferred term is “Mbuti” or “Bambuti,” and that’s the reference I will continue to use.

Indirectly, I may have been influenced by Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in conceiving Imaro and Pomphis. But I did not pattern either of my characters’ personalities after that famous pair.

In the beginning of their respective sagas, Pomphis shared the stage with Imaro and Tanisha. Sometimes, he even stole the show. But I had always planned on writing about Pomphis’s misadventures in the time before he met Imaro. “The Blacksmith and the Bambuti,” which appeared in a small-press magazine called Escape in 1977, takes place during the Bambuti’s time as a mjimja, or jester, at the court of the Sha’a of Azania, one of the greatest kingdoms of Nyumbani’s East Coast.

Readers of the novel Imaro: The Trail of Bohu will be aware that “Pomphis” was not the Bambuti’s original name. At the Sha’a’s court, he was known by another name that was not exactly flattering. To avoid confusion, I referred to him as “Pomphis” in this story.

I might add that I had more fun writing this tale than any other to date.

Under ordinary circumstances, Walukaga the blacksmith would have been elated when the Royal Summoner presented him with a single black hornbill feather. Such a presentation meant that the recipient was invited to appear at the court of the Sha’a, the ruler of Azania. Rarely was such an honor bestowed upon a common artisan.

But Walukaga’s huge, calloused hand nearly crushed the fragile feather before he remembered that he would be required to present it at his royal audience.

The red-turbaned Summoner had taken a backward step when he saw Walukaga’s fingers flex. The relaxation of the dark hand reassured the functionary.

“I’m sorry, Walukaga,” the Summoner said. “But the Sha’a must have found a way to snare you. Otherwise, he would never have sent for you like this. By the way, I am instructed to inform you that the Sha’a expects your presence within the hour.”

“One hour?” the blacksmith bellowed. “But what about the hoe-blades I promised Keino Kamau?”

“Whose wrath would you rather face?” the Summoner asked. “Keino Kamau’s, or the Sha’a’s?”

Briefly, Walukaga contemplated those alternatives.

“Oh, all right,” he grumbled. “I’ll be there.”

The Summoner breathed a deep sigh of relief as he walked out of the shop’s door to return to the palace. Had the blacksmith refused to comply with the Sha’a’s bidding, the Summoner would then have been obliged to bring Walukaga by force – a prospect at once ludicrous and improbable, given the Summoner’s spindly frame and Walukaga’s burly bulk.

As he stalked like a white-robed stork through the streets of Mavindi, Azania’s capital, the Summoner sincerely regretted that in all probability, Walukaga would no longer be seen pounding hot iron at his forge. Still, the Summoner began to wonder who would eventually take the place of the taciturn craftsman.

Meanwhile, in the square structure that was his shop, Walukaga muttered curses to all the gods and demons he could think of as he snuffed out the fire in his forge and sent his apprentice home. A heavily muscled, ebony-skinned man of medium height and middle age, Walukaga was considered the best blacksmith in Mavindi – which meant he was also the best in all of Azania.

Among the common people of the city and its surrounding villages, he was popular because the implements he made worked well and lasted long. He made hoe-blades and picks for the farmers who tended the shambas; swords, spears and armor for warriors and hunters; axes to cut back the forests that encroached on the kingdom’s frontiers.

But Walukaga also shaped metal into wonderful likenesses of birds, animals, and people – all so lifelike that it seemed amazing that they did not breathe. The latter skill was the cause of his current predicament.

Walukaga exhaled heavily. Why must the Sha’a, the wealthiest monarch on the East Coast, be so greedy? Why had the Sha’a collected all the figurines Walukaga had made for the nobles and merchants of Mavindi? And why had the Sha’a previously sent a message proposing that Walukaga close his shop and come to work at the palace, making figurines exclusively for the royal collection?

Anyone else would have been thrilled at that prospect. But not Walukaga. A simple, practical man, he gained a great deal of satisfaction from the demonstrable value of a hoe or spear. Even the jointed toys he made for children brought the pleasure of play. The figurines were little more than a pastime for him, made on impulse during the time he spared from practical work. And that was all he cared for.

Thus, he had turned down the Sha’a’s offer.

The Sha’a had not appreciated Walukaga’s refusal. The monarch was puzzled and perturbed that Walukaga would forgo the chance for a life of luxury and ease in the palace. Yet for all his life-and-death authority, the Sha’a could not force the blacksmith to comply with his wishes. Like all artisans in Azania, Walukaga was free by law to ply his trade wherever he wished.

But the Sha’a was clever, ruthless and resourceful. Under his regime, Azania had gained ascendance over Zanj, its rival, neighboring kingdom. If the Sha’a was sufficiently confident to issue a Royal Summons, then he must have found a way to secure Walukaga’s services that even the Guild Judges would not be able to challenge.

Reluctantly, Walukaga removed his sweat-stained leather apron and began to pull his best clothes onto his heavy frame. He would honor the Royal Summons and hope for the best … while anticipating the worst.


Though the Sha’a chose to hold Walukaga’s audience in the shade of an outdoor pavilion erected in the garden of his palace, the pomp and splendor of his court was undiminished. Regal, imperious, aloof, the monarch sat on a throne carved from a single block of obsidian. A voluminous, azure-blue kanza swathed the royal form, and the cloud-white sleeves of his shati reached from his elbows to his wrists.

On his head, the traditional diadem of Azanian monarchs rested. It was a brocaded cloth headpiece that extended from his forehead to his chin. A dozen golden quills sprouted from the top of the headpiece. From its bottom and sides, the ndevu, a beard-like decoration made from the hair of the tails of gereza monkeys descended almost to his waist.

The face the headpiece surrounded was umber in hue, with dark eyes holding a steady, regal gaze and full lips turned downward in a frown of impatience. A man of advanced rains, the Sha’a disliked petty annoyances – such as Walukaga’s obduracy. He intended to settle this matter once and for all.

This purposeful attitude had communicated itself to the rest of the court. Nobles high in the ranks of the Sha’a’s council stood solemnly according to rank on both sides of the obsidian throne. Their kanzas were of every shade other than the royal blue, and unlike the Sha’a’s, the ndevus beneath their headgear reached only a short distance past their chins. Close to the throne stood six stalwart young men. These were the Sha’a’s designated heirs.

Seated on woven raffia mats at the Sha’a’s feet were his seven senior wives, and fifteen of his daughters. Jeweled ornaments winked like stars in their high-piled bushes of black hair, and a sheen of perfumed oil glistened on their bare brown shoulders. Silken gowns patterned with geometric designs cascaded from breast to ankles circled by coils of gold.

Other than the Sha’a himself, only the yellow-skinned ambassador from Kwan Yang sat in a chair. Kwan Yang was a country beyond the Bahari Mashiriki – the Eastern Ocean – with which Azania pursued a profitable trade. Thus, its envoy was given a privilege denied even to the Sha’a’s sons.

Dispersed at strategic intervals throughout the assemblage were spearmen of the Imperial Guard, accoutered in conical helmets, chain-mail armor, and capes made of leopard hide.

Clad in the white turban, shati and suruali of the common classes of Mavindi, Walukaga looked and felt out of place amid the magnificence of the Sha’a’s pavilion. The company of the wealthy and highborn was not for the likes of him. Sullenly, the blacksmith looked at the ground between his bare toes as he waited for the Sha’a to speak.

But before the monarch could another member of the court made his presence known. Of all the people thronged under the pavilion, this new arrival was the most arresting in appearance.

It was Pomphis, the mjimja or court jester. Other than a skirt and leglets fashioned of yellow grass, and a straw hat shaped like a flattened cone, the Bambuti was naked, revealing a stocky, well-proportioned physique. His skin was a bit lighter than that of most Azanians, and his impish face was distinguished by a broad, bulbous nose.

Pomphis made his entrance in an uncourtly manner. He repeatedly took five shuffling steps forward, then thrust out his grass-covered rump on the sixth. Before the mjimja progressed more than halfway to the throne of the Sha’a, nearly everyone under the pavilion was laughing uproariously.

Only the Sha’a and the blacksmith were not amused. Neither man was in any mood for merriment.

“Stop that, Pomphis!” the Sha’a shouted in annoyance. “This is no time for your antics.”

“As you wish, O Mighty Sha’a,” the mjimja said in a squeaky falsetto tone.

And at the end of a flawless series of forward somersaults, Pomphis seated himself cross-legged at the monarch’s feet.

“Now, Walukaga,” the Sha’a said after decorum had been restored. “I wish to make a wager with you. It will involve a major test of your skill. Are you willing to match your skill as a blacksmith against any conceivable odds?”

For all his impressive array of work-hardened muscles, Walukaga was a diffident man. But when his skill at his art was questioned, the blacksmith had the confidence of a lion.

“I am willing, O Mighty Sha’a,” he said.

“Excellent!” the Sha’a said enthusiastically, a smile forming above his ndevu. “Then you will have no objection to the following test: I want you to make for me a man of iron. And I am not talking about a mere figurine. I want you to make me a man who can walk, talk and fight. I want a man who has knowledge in his head and feeling in his heart. Make such a man, and I will never again ask you to come and work in the palace. But if, within five days, you have not succeeded in this task, your services will be mine, exclusively.”

The monarch’s gaze bore directly into that of Walukaga.

“Do you agree to this wager?”

Walukaga’s shoulders slumped, and his head hung disconsolately. He knew now that the Sha’a had easily outwitted him. The blacksmith was bested the moment he accepted the Sha’a’s challenge. Even so, a core of stolid stubbornness caused him to return the Sha’a’s penetrating stare.

“In five days, as Mulungu wills, O Mighty Sha’a,” the blacksmith said.

After Walukaga bowed respectfully, the Sha’a gave him permission to depart. Ordinarily, the Sha’a’s devious triumph would have served a cue for a witticism from the mjimja. For once, however, Pomphis remained silent. He gazed thoughtfully at the powerful figure stalking out of the shade of the pavilion.


For two days, Walukaga’s forge lay cold and silent. He had sent word to his apprentice that he need not come back to work. Indeed, it would be better if the younger man plan on learning his trade from someone else. The few people who sought out Walukaga came away with sad faces. For they despaired that Walukaga would do anything but sit on a stool and stare at his motionless bellows until the Royal Summoner visited him again.

Then came a visitor who would not be turned away.

Entering the doorway without announcing himself, Pomphis walked directly toward the brooding blacksmith.

Yambo, Master Blacksmith,” the Bambuti said. “I’m here to help you solve your problem.”

“Go away, toto,” Walukaga muttered, using the Azanian word for child. “I am not making toys anymore.”

Toto, indeed!” the Bambuti huffed. “I am no child. Do you not recognize me, you big buffalo?”

Walukaga looked more closely at his visitor and saw that it was, indeed, the mjimja. But Pomphis was now clad in the garments of an ordinary Azanian. Though the Bambuti was about the height of an average ten-year-old, the mature proportions of his physique belied his diminutive size. Even his voice sounded more like that of an adult now.

“Sorry,” Walukaga apologized. “You do not look the same without your … uh … costume.”

Pomphis laughed heartily.

“Oh, the Sha’a insists that I wear that get-up in court because he thinks that’s what the Bambuti are supposed to look like,” Pomphis said. “He could be right or wrong; I was taken from the forest when I was too young to remember.

“Back to the business at hand, though. The Sha’a has presented you with a problem that is insoluble, right?”


“Well, I’ve always believed there is no such thing as an insoluble problem, and I am going to help you find the solution to this one.”


“My, my,” Pomphis said, head cocked at an inquisitive angle. “Succinct, aren’t we? To answer your question, if the Sha’a is asking you to do the impossible, then you should ask no less of him.”

Walukaga stared in bewilderment.

“What do you mean?” he demanded.

“We’ll talk details later,” Pomphis responded.

The Bambuti looked around the blacksmith’s cluttered shop.

“Forgive my presumption,” Pomphis said, “But it looks as though your wives aren’t very particular about housekeeping.”

“I don’t have any wives,” said Walukaga.

“No wives?” Pomphis said with a stunned expression on his face. “Why, with all the farmers and herdsmen in the outlands bringing their daughters to the city to look for wealthy husbands, there must be five women for every man in Mavindi.”

“Guess somebody’s got my five,” Walukaga muttered.

He was an introverted man who slipped from taciturnity to absolute silence in the presence of a woman … especially one who coveted a share in the profits of his metal-working establishment.

“Hmm,” Pomphis said, shrewdly eyeing the blacksmith. “That’s a problem to be dealt with later. But now …”

“Wait,” Walukaga interjected. “Why are you offering me aid? What is it you want from me?”

“I see you’re becoming more inquisitive,” Pomphis said as he pulled up a stool and sat down. “That’s a quality I like.”


Sentimental beneath his gruff exterior, the blacksmith nodded in sympathy as Pomphis recounted how he had been captured as a child by Komeh slavers raiding at the edge of the great Ituri Kubwa forest. The Komeh sold the young Bambuti to the Sha’a as a curiosity, for only rarely did a Bambuti survive when removed from the forest. It was the idea of the Sha’a’s third-ranking wife to have Pomphis trained to be a mjimja. No other East Coast monarch, from Kilawa to Kitwana, could boast of having a Bambuti in such a role.

“So, Walukaga, I am only a slave – and a ridiculous one at that,” Pomphis said. “Had I been left in the Ituri Kubwa, I would have lived free among my people, hunting bongo and okapi. Here in Mavindi, I exist as a mere toy, a living plaything to amuse others. And so I live to amuse myself … usually at my masters’ expense.

“This time, you, my burly friend, are helping me at my game. Or have you not guessed that it was I who suggested to the Sha’a the most foolproof way of acquiring your services …”

“You …” Walukaga cried, jolted from his mood of empathetic understanding and catapulting from his stool.

Huge hands shot toward Pomphis’s throat. But the mjimja executed a deft back-flip, and landed well out of the big man’s reach.

“Careful, Master Blacksmith,” Pomphis cautioned as he fastidiously smoothed his shati. “You know the penalty for damaging the property of the Sha’a.”

Having little desire to be publicly impaled, Walukaga made no further move toward the Bambuti. But the anger in the blacksmith’s eyes would have given pause even to the barbarian warriors of the hinterland.

“Be calm, Walukaga,” Pomphis said. “The best part of the game isn’t getting you into this mess; it’s getting you out of it. Now, listen closely …”

Walukaga listened. There was little else he could do.


“O Mighty Sha’a, how can you tell if a gorilla is in your bed?” Pomphis asked.

“I do not know,” the Sha’a replied. “How can you?

“You can smell the bananas on its breath.”

An equal measure of groans and guffaws greeted Pomphis’s jest. The Sha’a simply shook his head and smiled.

“That was not one of the mjimja’s better witticisms,” a noble remarked to a silk merchant.

“True,” the merchant replied. “But at least it’s better than the giraffe jokes he was telling last week.”

Sagely, the noble nodded, while absently stroking the ndevu on his chin.

On this day, the retinue of the Sha’a was gathered in the Audience Chamber of the sprawling palace. Much more magnificent than the outdoor pavilion, the Audience Chamber featured a gigantic throne made from blocks of pink-veined marble inlaid with panels of ivory, silver and gold. For the Kwan Yang ambassador, there was a seat of polished granite.

The huge expanse of tiled floor was sufficient to accommodate a small army of the Sha’a’s guardsmen. To complete the chamber’s grandeur, a double row of elongated ebony sculptures led from its entrance to the foot of the Sha’a’s throne.

Pomphis was in the midst of explaining the outcome of a highly improbable mating between a gorilla and a gazelle when the trumpet of the Captain of the Door sounded a series of ear-splitting blasts signaled the arrival of an un-Summoned individual.

“Walukaga the blacksmith desires audience with the Sha’a,” the Captain of the Door bellowed.

“Then by all means, let him in,” said the Sha’a. Glancing at Pomphis, he added: “It seems the blacksmith’s obstinacy is overrated. After only three days, he comes to capitulate.”

“As the she-elephant said when propositioned by the mosquito – perhaps,” the Bambuti murmured.

Nervous perspiration beaded Walukaga’s brow as he walked down the aisle of statues and executed his obligatory bow at the foot of the throne. His lips moved as he struggled to remember exactly what Pomphis had told him to say.

“So, Walukaga, have you completed my iron man ahead of schedule?” the Sha’a inquired with thinly veiled mockery.

“No, O Mighty Sha’a, I haven’t.”

“Indeed. Then you wish to admit your failure, and agree to work only for me?”

“No, O Mighty Sha’a, I don’t.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Uh … well … in order to make your living man of iron, I … uh … need special materials. I must have a certain kind of fuel … and … uh … special water … to bring such a man to life.”

“Just what do you need, Walukaga?” the Sha’a asked. “Whatever it is, I am certain I can provide it. After all, I am the Sha’a.”

No one noticed Pomphis’s suppressed snort of laughter as Walukaga gulped, dug his finger into the neck of his shati, and went on.

“O Mighty Sha’a, to heat the iron I must have one thousand loads of … uh … dried hearts of the aardvark. For aardvarks are … tenacious beasts and … er, uh … only tenacious fuel can bring life to cold iron. And … uh … also … to keep the fire from burning to fiercely, I need one hundred pots of … rhinoceros tears. Only such tears could … uh … slake such a fire.

“You see, O Mighty Sha’a, ordinary charcoal from wood and … uh … ordinary water from wells … are of no use in making the man you desire.”

Silence, not the Sha’a, reigned in the Audience Chamber. Not only were Walukaga’s requests incredible; this was also the longest utterance anyone had ever heard from the blacksmith. Behind a convenient pillar, Pomphis reveled in glee, for events were unfolding exactly as he had planned.

Finally, the Sha’a was able to speak – or, at least, sputter.

“These requests … are absurd,” the monarch said. “They are ridiculous! Preposterous! There aren’t enough aardvarks in all of Nyumbani to fill a thousand load-baskets with their hearts! And rhinoceros tears … why, a whole pride of lions would not be sufficient to make a rhinoceros cry. Are you attempting to mock me by making such impossible requests?”

“No more than you mocked me, O Mighty Sha’a, by asking me to perform the ‘impossible request’ of making a man or iron with knowledge in his head and feeling in his heart,” Walukaga retorted hotly.

Behind his pillar, Pomphis cringed in consternation. He hadn’t told Walukaga to say that! He was supposed to say something more diplomatic, such as: “Can a humble blacksmith like me hope to succeed where the Mighty Sha’a admits he cannot?” But Walukaga had forgotten those words, and spoken out of stubborn, self-righteous resentment.

Pomphis knew what was coming next. The Sha’a’s mouth had almost disappeared beneath his ndevu, as did those of some of his retinue. Others reacted with discreet chuckles. Some of the bolder courtiers went so far as to laugh aloud.

“I think he has you, Sha’a,” said Mchipcho, the most senior of the gathered nobles.

Has me?” the Sha’a thundered.

As the blue-robed monarch rose from his throne, he towered like a huge bird of prey, and his seamed face was twisted in regal wrath. The members of the court quailed in the face of his heavy breathing and flexing hands. Even the stolid Walukaga took a step backward.

Has me?” the monarch repeated incredulously. “By Mulungu, we shall see who ‘has’ whom! Listen well, blacksmith. By this time tomorrow, I want my iron man here. Fail to deliver, and you die.”

Walukaga’s stomach dropped to his feet, for the Sha’a had just given him a death sentence. There was no question of disobedience, or even escape. Disobedience of a Sha’a’s edict was unthinkable. Like a man suddenly bereft of the will to live, the blacksmith turned and trudged out of the Audience Chamber. More precipitously, the others followed.

Within moments, the Audience Chamber was cleared, with only the Kwan Yang ambassador departing with any degree of dignity. Only two people remained: the Sha’a, brooding indignantly; and Pomphis, thinking desperately.


As the night echoed with the clang of hammer against metal, only one person in all of Mavindi dared to go near the shop of Walukaga … and that one went stealthily. The walls of the squat building reverberated with the violence of the blows the blacksmith smashed against a bar of red-hot iron as the intruder slipped through the entrance. It was not by accident that the shape of the bar Walukaga was beating bore a rough resemblance to a certain, diminutive member of the Sha’a’s court …

“Well, you certainly planted your foot in the elephant dung today, Master Blacksmith,” said the true object of Walukaga’s rage.

Slowly, the blacksmith turned his head. His eyes locked with those of Pomphis. Then they narrowed into gleaming slits of fury. His lips curled back from his teeth, and the muscles beneath his leather apron tensed in anticipation.

With an inarticulate growl, Walukaga sprang toward the Bambuti. He was determined that if he must die, at least the bringer of his misfortune would die with him – Sha’a’s property or no Sha’a’s property.

But Pomphis was as elusive as a frightened impala. What followed was a dance of frenzied lunges by the blacksmith and desperate feints and dodges by the Bambuti. Occasionally, Walukaga managed to seize part of Pomphis’s clothing. But Pomphis was always able to tear himself free. By the time the blacksmith’s fruitless chase ended, Pomphis was nearly naked.

Part of Walukaga’s disinclination to continue his pursuit was the state of his head after he had slammed it against the edge of a table beneath which the mjimja had just dived.

“Are you some kind of djinn sent by the Mashataan to punish me for my transgressions?” Walukaga groaned as he held his head and leaned groggily against the table.

“I am the person who will save your skin if you listen to me this time,” Pomphis retorted. “If you do as I suggest, you’ll come away with your life, and more. Understood?”

Wearily, Walukaga nodded in agreement.

To himself, he wondered: Why me?


The next morning, the Royal Summoner solemnly approached Walukaga’s shop. With him came a dozen fully armed soldiers. Although resistance against a Sha’a’s edict was forbidden, on rare occasions it did occur. And if Walukaga chose not to comply, he could be a dangerous foe, indeed.

But the blacksmith showed neither rebellion nor resignation when they saw him, though his face and posture betrayed the weariness of a long night’s work. Wordlessly, he accepted the hornbill feather from the Summoner. Then he gestured toward a litter bearing a large object covered with a white cloth.

“Could some of you help me carry this to the palace?” Walukaga grunted.

Three bemused soldiers grasped handles of the litter, while Walukaga took the fourth. As they lifted the litter, the soldiers found the thing beneath the cloth somewhat heavy, though the weight didn’t appear to bother the blacksmith. Soon the soldiers were sweating and puffing with exertion as they carried their burden through the streets of Mavindi.

A curious crowd soon began to follow the procession. They wondered what Walukaga was up to. Had the blacksmith surrendered to madness, believing that he really could make a living iron man? Or had he cleverly constructed something especially exquisite for the Sha’a, hoping to exchange it for his life? Half of Mavindi was wondering what was under the cloth by the time Walukaga and his escort reached the palace.

Before long, Walukaga and his litter were in the Audience Chamber. A larger- than-usual number of courtiers and spectators were gathered in the chamber, for they longed to witness a repetition of the singular events of the day before. So focused was everyone’s attention on Walukaga that few paid much attention to the new costume the mjimja was wearing. Unlike his usual skimpy attire, on this day he wore a construction of dried grass that covered him from head to foot, with the exception of a pair of round eyeholes.

The Sha’a’s gaze shifted from Walukaga to the litter, then back to Walukaga.

“So, blacksmith,” the monarch said. “Have you brought me a man of iron who can walk, talk, and fight; a man with knowledge in his head and feeling in his heart?”

“I have, O Mighty Sha’a,” Walukaga replied.

With that, he reached down and pulled the cloth away from the object on the litter. Gasps of surprise swept through the crowd at the sight thus revealed. For on the litter lay a man-like shape fashioned similarly to the jointed toys Walukaga made for children. And it was beginning to sit up, of its own volition …

Even the eyes of the Sha’a widened in astonishment as the iron construct lurched shakily to its feet. Due to the haste with which it was built, the six-foot iron man was not exactly pleasing to the eye. Its body was barrel-shaped and its limbs cylindrical. Its head looked very much like an inverted bucket. Holes in the metal approximated human features, and similar punctures on its torso outlined the musculature of a powerfully built man.

Beautiful, Walukaga’s creation was not. Nevertheless, it clanked and rattled its way to the foot of the throne, and bowed.

“I am N’tu Chuma, the Iron Man, at your service, O Mighty Sha’a,” the simulacrum said in a hollow, tinny tone.

Pandemonium swept through the chamber.

“Sorcery!” cried some.

Djinn!” whispered others.

“A trick,” sneered the cynical.

“If I didn’t see him standing over there in that grass costume, I would swear Pomphis had a hand in this,” Mchipcho whispered to the Sha’a.

Before the Sha’a could reply, N’tu Chuma began to strut back and forth before the throne, singing to the accompaniment of clanking feet:

“I walk … like a human walks,

“I talk … like a human talks,

“I know … what a human knows,

“I feel … and the feeling shows.

“I’m made … to Walukaga’s plan,

“O Mighty Sha’a … I’m your kind of man!”

Over a growing gale of laughter, the mortified Sha’a shouted:

“Silence! Silence, all of you, before I have your tongues skewered!”

Immediately, all sounds ceased. Even N’tu Chuma stopped singing.

“I see, Walukaga, that this wonderful iron man of yours can, indeed, walk and talk,” the Sha’a snarled. “Though by what sorcery you’ve managed to accomplish this, I do not know. But there is one more test. Can your iron man fight?”

N’tu Chuma spoke before Walukaga could reply.

“F-f-fight?” the iron man quavered. “Oh, no … I forgot …”

The wily Sha’a seized his advantage, and gave orders to two of his guards.

“Nyeusi! Give the iron man your sword. Mkaja! Engage our metal friend in combat. Let us see what kind of fighter Walukaga has given us.”

Hastily, the guardsmen did what the Sha’a commanded. Nyeusi’s sword has pressed into the iron hand of N’tu Chuma, while Mkaja unsheathed his blade and moved toward the iron man. As Mkaja advanced, N’tu Chuma tried to hide behind Walukaga. But two other guardsmen pulled the blacksmith aside, and N’tu Chuma was alone against Mkaja, who hesitated.

“Attack, Mkaja, or you will be food for the jackals before sunset!” the Sha’a shouted.

Spurred into action by that dire threat, the guardsman swung at N’tu Chuma’s blade. Clumsily, N’tu Chuma parried the blow.

“Wait!” the iron man pleaded. “Can we not talk about this?”

Mkaja was in no mood for conversation. As the courtiers gaped, he pressed his offensive. Another swing sent N’tu Chuma’s sword flying. Making noises that were anything but warlike, the iron man retreated as the guardsman’s sword dented the metal of its arms and torso. Then N’tu Chuma’s feet tripped over the edge of the dais upon which the Sha’a’s throne rested, and the iron man crashed ignominiously to the floor.

The jarring impact caused N’tu Chuma to fall apart … revealing a hollow construct with built-up legs and built-in wires and pulleys to guide its movements. From the barrel-shaped torso crawled a diminutive, bleary-eyed individual who turned out to be none other than …

“Pomphis!” exclaimed the Sha’a, in unison with most of the other people in the chamber.

“But if this is Pomphis, then who is that?” asked Mchipcho, pointing toward the grass-enveloped form everyone thought to be the Bambuti. As if in answer to the courtier’s question, the imposter pulled the costume over his head and stood revealed as Kariume, the eleventh son of the Sha’a, who was about the same height as Pomphis.

“What possessed you to do such a foolish thing as this, Kariume?” the Sha’a demanded.

“Pomphis said it would be fun,” the boy mumbled.

“Pomphis! Pomphis! Pomphis! How I weary of that name,” the Sha’a said, hand massaging his brow.

He glared balefully at the disheveled Bambuti.

“I see it all now,” the monarch said. “This has been your work from the beginning, hasn’t it? I should have been suspicious since you first suggested the best way to secure the services of this blacksmith. But I never dreamed you would allow your mischief to go this far.

“Well you both shall learn what happens to those who mock their Sha’a. Both of you will be impaled – on the same stake!”

“You pardon, Most Honorable Sha’a,” a new voice interjected over a murmur from the courtiers.

The new speaker was the Kwan Yang ambassador. Only rarely did the envoy talk, but when he did, even the Sha’a listened.

“It would seem, Most Honorable Sha’a, that you are reacting excessively to the embarrassment of being out-matched in wits by a blacksmith and a court jester,” the ambassador said mildly. “Were I to speak of such a reaction to my own Thrice-Heavenly Emperor, that most estimable personage might be inclined to give serious consideration to the halting of the long-standing trade that exchanges our silk and spices for your ivory and gold …”

Carefully, the Sha’a considered the ambassador’s veiled threat. Loss of the Kwan Yang trade would irreparably damage Azania’s pre-eminent position among the East Coast kingdoms. And, of course, his personal power would be diminished. Two wretched lives were hardly worth the risk of such consequences.

“So be it,” the Sha’a said, swallowing his regal pride. “They will live. But you, blacksmith … I never want to see you or your works in the palace again. And you, Pomphis … you will never again interfere in my business with your silly schemes. You know I could always sell you back to the Komeh. Now, go! I cannot stand the sight of either of you!”

The blacksmith and the Bambuti departed gladly as the courtiers quietly voiced their approval. Some of them were glad they would not be losing the services of the best blacksmith in the kingdom, while others would have missed the amusement Pomphis provided.

Adjusting his ndevu, the Sha’a glared at the two men as they made their exit. And he vowed never again to consider any suggestions from his third-ranking wife.


Two days after the events in the Audience Chamber, Walukaga was happily at work, completing Keino Kamau’s order of fifteen hoe-blades. He had not yet called his apprentice back to work, for he longed to be alone with the pleasure of honest toil.

Then, above the hiss of hot metal, he heard the greeting of a familiar voice: “Good day, Master Blacksmith.”

“Oh, no,” Walukaga moaned as he turned to see Pomphis standing in the doorway. “O Great Mulungu, what have I done to deserve your hatred? Why do you continue to send me this curse that walks on two legs? Tell me what I must do to be rid of it! I will do anything you ask, O Mulungu, if you just tell me!”

“I’m glad to see you, too,” huffed Pomphis. “I won’t be staying long. But wait till you see what I’ve brought you.”

“What?” Walukaga asked warily.

“Cone in,” Pomphis said, motioning outside the door.

In walked five young, beautiful, smiling and scantily clad women from the hinterlands.

“Who are these people?” Walukaga demanded.

“Why, they’re your five women, Master Blacksmith,” a grinning Pomphis said. “Enjoy!”

The sound of squeals and giggles from the women and howls of protest from Walukaga followed Pomphis as he strolled away from the blacksmith’s shop.

“That may be the last time I do a favor for anyone over five feet tall,” the Bambuti mused.

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