Maia’s adventures in a magical kingdom in Africa, where everyone seems to know her name.
|Chapter 1 - Towers of Stone
Maia awoke on the hard, red earth, shivering in the misty cold. She had no idea where she was. Her first thought, as the fog of sleep began to lift, was that she must stay still. She should not be here. She dared not move, terrified that the thumping of her heart would draw attention, advertising her presence to some unfriendly beast that slithered beyond her sight. She breathed in the chilly air, and tried to convince herself that this could only be a dream. Her thoughts raced from one to the next, trying to make sense of what she saw. She shut her eyes tight and tried to think.
She had gone to bed just a few hours ago, safe and warm in her grandfather’s rickety old house in Chipping on the Water. The house sat on the edge of green fields that stretched beneath gentle rolling hills, and the only noise you could hear at night was the breeze ruffling the leaves of the the oak trees in the garden, or sometimes the bark of a fox out on its nightly patrol. It was summertime, and it had been an unusually hot day, one of the last for her to enjoy before term began and she started at her new big school with the other children who had finished primary.
And yet, she opened her eyes again and did not see her bed, her lamp or anything of her room with its familiar colours and furniture around her. Her head did not rest on her comfy pillow, and her legs were not tucked up under her warm duvet. No matter how hard she tried, the vision in front of her remained resolutely, impassively, the same. A clearing of red dust, circled by great towers of rock, huge boulders balanced improbably on top of one another in columns that reached up into a black starry sky.
The silver moon was not the only source of light on the scene; a flaming torch of fire hung from the bottom rock of one of the towers. Maia was both relieved and unnerved to notice this evidence of human presence. She still could not bring herself to move, fearing someone, or something, was watching. She tried to control the panic rising inside her and took slow deep breaths. She had to admit to herself that this was no dream; every sense confirmed it was real. The breeze brushed across her bare legs and the aromas of the surrounding vegetation wafted past her nose. It did not feel like home, it did not smell like home either.
She summoned up her courage, and stood. She walked slowly towards the tower with the torch, sensing a watching presence. Fighting this instinct, she told herself that there was no reason to assume the torch belonged to anyone watching; it was just as likely whoever had placed the torch did not know she was there. They would be as surprised to see her when she found them as she was to be here at all. When they did, they would almost certainly want to help. She had no idea what she would tell them. She hoped they would take pity on a little girl lost in the darkness, and they would help her get home.
As she silently moved towards the light, she looked around for any hint that might explain her situation. She put aside how she had got there and focused on the more pressing matter of establishing where she was. She reasoned she could not be far from home; it was still dark so she had been moved during the hours of nighttime which limited the distance her unknown foe could have travelled. Fresh thoughts and fears tumbled into her mind as she considered all this and her brain warmed from its slumber. Although hopeful moments ago that a kind stranger may be nearby, she had suddenly, and she was sure correctly, reached the conclusion that whoever had taken her and left her in the wild was no friend. They were a kidnapper. What they had planned she did not know, and she was powerless to stop them unless she could find help.
She reached the rock face and gripped the torch, feeling better to hold the flame aloft and take in her surroundings with something resembling a weapon. The fire cast dark shadows and seemed to exaggerate the blackness of the night around her, but with it she could study closer the stone in front of her and the ground at her feet. The rock was smooth and reddish grey, soaring up above her. The towers formed a perfect ring of varying height, with one large gap leading out into the inky blackness beyond.
Maia looked down in the search for clues. She saw a dry earth pockmarked with clumps of spiny grasses, and large cracks making a mosaic of tiny valleys in the scorched mud. There were small burrows dug into the earth, made by what she could not tell but smaller than the foxholes near her home. Not able to decipher these riddles, she tried to use her other senses. She could hear the cry of nocturnal birds she did not recognise and a smell she did but could not place. She moved around the ring of stone, feeling a sense of security from being protected on one side by the rock.
She stopped and peered into the gloom, trying to make out a shape near the centre of the clearing. A tall mound of earth, more than 10 feet tall, rose from the floor. She walked carefully towards it, looking both ways in a vein attempt to spot any dangers in the dark. She thought she knew what this mound was, but that only raised more questions than it answered. She reached it, placed her hands against its surface, and whispered to herself.
"It can't be"' she said, without conviction. She lowered the torch to the floor and looked again. Large insects scurried this way and that, carrying leaves down into the labyrinthine structure. The breeze brought the familiar smells back again, and a series of memories flooded with them. Sitting on her grandfathers knee in his study, poring over photographs of his youth and studying the multitude of artefacts he kept locked and labelled in glass cases. Another memory, this time of his greenhouse, the aroma of plants brought back from faraway lands which he cultivated with such dedication as a reminder of his first home. She knew with a jolt where she was.
She was in Africa, and she was all alone.
Maia began to cry, tears rolling silently down her cheeks. She was helpless and scared. Her mind raced and circled without direction, all rational thought abandoning her. She could not understand what had happened to her and had no idea what to do next. All she could bring herself her to do was slump to the ground, hold her knees to her chest, and weep.
It was then that she heard it. A deep rumbling from outside the circle of stone. She almost welcomed the sound, as she could no longer bear to be alone. She had no doubt the sound was coming for her, that this could be the reason she had been brought here. She also instinctively knew this sound meant danger. She did not move, her helplessness overwhelming her, and waited.
The thunder approached, shaking the earth. It was coming towards the gap in the rock, and as it grew louder, other noises grew with it. A snorting accompanied the rumble, the strained breaths of a vast creature. Maia could guess what it was, and, instinct taking over, she jumped to her feet to run.
The rhino burst into the clearing. Its huge bulk galloped towards Maia, a grey giant bearing down on her with unstoppable force. Its horn glinted in the moonlight, and with its approach it lowered its head towards the ground to point the sharp tip at its prey. Hot breath steamed from its nostrils as it ran and it bellowed a deafening roar. Maia ran, putting whatever distance she could between herself and the beast. She rounded the termite mound and headed for the far side of the circle, knowing even as she did that her actions were futile. There was no gap to go through and no way of scaling the smooth boulders. She heard the rhino crash through the mound and knew it was close.
She fell into the dirt, and turned to face the rhino. She knew she had just moments, and screwed her eyes tight. She thought of home, and all the things she had dreamed that she would now never do. She only hoped this would be over quickly, and she would feel no pain. The charging hooves were just meters away; she held her breath and waited.
The sound changed. The earth stopped shaking, and she heard a rasping noise as a great spray of dust was thrown into her face. She felt a hot breath on her cheek and opened her eyes, slowly realising that she was unharmed and that the rhino had stopped. The enormous head of the rhino was inches from her face, looking straight at her. She saw how its horn was unlike any she had ever seen in pictures. It was intricately decorated, carved from a glistening stone, ringed from its base to its tip with a graceful backward curve. She stared at the rhino with wonder, and it stared straight back.
She felt a strange connection to this animal, and a kindness in his gaze. A sort of sadness seemed to radiate towards her, as if he wanted to help her and for her to help him. Still sat beneath it, she held out her hand, and he lowered his head once more, this time not as a threat but as a sign of friendship. She placed her hand on his horn and gently ran her hand down onto his nose. She did not know why she wanted to, but she leaned towards him, touching his horn with her forehead. The rhino tilted its head and softly sighed.
"No!", a terrible voice cried out from above. The rhino swung its head towards the noise, nearly lifting Maia off the ground. She saw a blinding flash of light, the shadows of the towers silhouetted against the night sky, and the last thing she felt was the sensation of falling into space as the world spun around her and she tumbled into darkness.