“Odi?” Mother frowned. She touched my head and neck, just to ensure I wasn’t running temperature.
“A strange man came to you. You don’t know him from anywhere. He tells you a stupid story about needing your help to save a community you know nothing about. And here you are, almost killing my owo soup just because you’re thinking of what? You better get that idea out of your head.”
“But mama, you’re the one who always told me about the things you heard the night I was born. And you said that night, the crescent moon appeared. The stranger told me that if the crescent moon left, even if we have the half and full moon, it will be till another crescent moon before I would be able to visit their community. Mama please, let me go.”
“Ové, go into the house,” Mama instructed, ignoring my pleas.
After dinner that night, she locked me in. When I asked why she said she wouldn’t want to wake up to find that I’m gone.
I understood her fears, I understood her emotions; an only child wandering off to an unknown land with an unknown man. What if he was a ritualist? A kidnapper? A rapist? What if he was a slave catcher? Slave catchers were rampant. They came all the way from Iri, Emede, Aviara and sometimes, Uzere. They mostly came around when they had to make a sale to the white man or when they had a festival that needed a human sacrifice.
“Phew!” I sighed, stretching on the mat by the locked window. I turned and lay upward, thinking more about the situation. I couldn’t understand why I became suddenly obsessed with the strange man and all he had said. I couldn’t understand why it suddenly became so important to me.
After turning a while longer and still feeling restless, I got up from the mat and tried to open the window. It was shut tight. Mama must have wedged it with heavy logs of wood from outside.
“I need to go, mama. I need to.” I whispered, desperately
As if in response to my need, a soft whooshing sound, followed by a firm, “And you will.” Startled me. The light baritone voice scared me to bits. I jumped backward looking in the direction the voice had come from. The room was dark, mama didn’t leave even one lamp for me.
“Who are you?” I asked, with trembling lips.
In response, the east wing of the room began to light up. A few seconds later, the entire room was as bright as a campfire under the night sky. A man stood, holding a hammer like staff from which a reddish fire emanated. He was still wrapped in leopard skin, but his head was free of adornment. I could see his face.
“You?” I asked, recognizing the stranger from the night before.
“In your heart, you sincerely want to help us. It is the sign I was asked to look out for. That is why I’m here. You called me.”
My fear subsided a little, and I backed away from the wall. “If you really have all the powers I think you do, from what I have seen, then take me with you. Take me to your land before anxiety gets the best of me.” I took two steps in his direction.
“Your wish, Ovieya, will always be my command.” He stretched out his left hand while taking two steps forward. “Take my hand. Our people await your coming.”
Without hesitation, I stepped forward and took his hand. We disappeared quietly and almost in an instant. Only to appear in a thick forest penetrated by the rays of the sun.
“Where are we?” I asked, looking around.
“You’ll see soon. Come with me.” The man said, leading the way through a narrow path that led north. We finally emerged from the forest to the bank of a river surrounded by a hill at the other side. Birds hovered in the clear blue sky, making circles occasionally and whistling away. At the east side of the bank, a series of boats were lined up. A man sat in one of them, eating food from unwrapped leaves. He was dressed in a blue robe. His hair was bushy and very unkempt, so were his side and chin beards
“Katomo.” My companion called, as we got closer.
The man looked up from his lunch and his gaze narrowed to a slit. Quickly, he licked all five fingers clean before wrapping the food again and keeping it inside a thin leather bag. He got to his feet just as we reached the boat. Up close, he was a finely-built man, not even the robe could hide the muscles of his arm and chest. His thick brows raised at Omar and his full lips parted only to speak.
“Omar, I see you’re back.” His baritone was unmistakably rich and I couldn’t help but notice it, wondering why a fine looking man with a nice body chose to look untidy. His eyes darted past my companion to look at me. He could pass for a man in his mid-30s. “Welcome.” He bowed.
“Oh! Don’t. Please.” I felt embarrassed, having a man who was my far senior bowing to me.
Having protested, he straightened up, slowly. And after observing me a while, his lips curved into a smile, revealing oil stained teeth with food particles stuck on them. A chuckle soon followed.
“What is funny?” I asked, confused.
“Everyday, we met at this bank.” The man said. “Everyday, we quarreled. Every day you forced me to recognize your royalty by bowing or kneeling to you. And now, this? You don’t want me to…”
“I have no idea who you are or what you are talking about.” I cut him short.
He turned questioning eyes on my companion. “She doesn’t remember anything, yet.” Omar answered his silent question, “and you will do well to keep your rants to yourself until things are in place.” He added.
“You mean until she remembers.” He turned back to me, running his eyes to and fro the length of my body. “I must admit you look younger. But, where are my manners? I am Katomo, the ferryman. Your once upon a time rude subject. Where would you like to go?” His eyes teased me, and so did his words. I could tell there was something about me that made him want to quickly get rid of me.
“Take us across the river,” Omar answered in my stead.
The next 15 minutes saw us crossing the river and reaching the shore at the foot of the hill. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked up at the tall structure, wondering what could be on the other side.
“Odi sits on the other side of the hill” Katomo explained as if reading my thoughts. “Or rather, what’s left of it.”
“What is Odi?”
“Our land, our home.”
“We will be there in no time,” Omar said, taking out a cowrie which he placed on Katomo’s outstretched hand for the fare.
“Actually, it’s three cowries.” He smiled, wearily. His right hand still stretched.
“Since you left, and Odi fell.”
“What are you talking about?” Omar took two steps towards the ferryman.
“When you get to the other side, see for yourself. You’ve been away too long. And me? I’m just trying to survive.”
“I was sent on an errand.”
“An errand that has taken you so long to deliver.”
“I don’t have time to argue like a woman. All I want to know is what has happened to our home.”
“Greed and the insane desire for power. Warriors from Abentu’s household raided the land. It happened 2 moons ago. They destroyed everything, took some men and women, killed some, while others fled. I was at the river when it happened. All I heard were screams. I ran up the hill to see what the cause of the scream was. Behold, dead bodies lay scattered and riders slashed at our people. The few who escaped are hiding in the bush. I should be with them, but I have work to do.”
Katomo’s story had a great effect on Omar, for he stood, speechless, for several minutes.
“That means whatever calamity I was supposed to help avert has already happened,” I whispered more to myself than to the men.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Omar recovered. “If Odi is truly gone and our people are hiding, why bring us here in your boat? Especially as you know who she is.”
“I don’t trust people like I used to, Omar. Sorcery runs in these lands now like never before. How am I sure you’re really Omar? How am I sure she’s who you say she is?”
“Look at her!” Omar ordered, pulling me to stand before him and face the ferryman. “She is the spitting image of Ovieya, our Ovieya. How can I lie to you?”
“If Abentu could do what he did, then anyone can do same, or worse. My loyalty lies with me. Not with her, or with you. I protect what’s left of us and I won’t be stupid to reveal our hideout to people I don’t trust. So feel free to go to Odi. Just pay up what you owe, first.”
“We mean no harm.” That was me, stepping forward to stand some inches away from the ferryman. I don’t know why I moved so close. But I could practically feel the rise and fall of his steady breathing “He brought me here for a reason. And I agreed to come because I wanted to help.”
Frowning at my closeness, he stepped back. Two steps. But not before I noticed his breathing had become rapid. “Well, your help is no longer needed. The calamity long foretold of has happened. You can go back to wherev…..”
A slashing sound startled us and as fast as we heard it, a short metal blade pointed at Katomo’s neck. “You won’t speak to our Ovieya in that tone.”
Katomo looked at Omar blandly, for a few seconds. “Take back your cowrie.” He threw the small object at Omar. “This fare is a free one.” Then he looked at me and bowed slightly. “Ovieya.” Without another word, he pushed his canoe back into the river, jumped in and paddled away.
“My name is Ové. Why did you call me Ovieya?” I asked, my eyes still on the ferryman.
“Because you’re wife to our Ovie.”
“I’m not married.”
“You were before you left us.”
“When you met me last night, you said I was your daughter, not your Ovieya.”
“That’s because you’re also a daughter of the land.”
I turned around to face him. “Tell me more about Odi and more about your Ovieya. I’m sure I’m not her, but I want to know about her. ” I turned again to look at the ferryman. “And him too. Tell me about him. There’s something about him I can’t seem to place my fingers on.”
“I will tell you everything you need to know. But first, we must visit Odi, or what’s left of it. We need to see things for ourselves.”
We walked through a path that snaked up the steep hill; low shrubs on each side. The rest of the land around us was usurped by fresh, evergreen trees. Our climb was more strenuous than I had imagined, but we managed.
Once at the top of the hill, I sat to catch my breath. But not Omar, he went ahead, some distance away and looked out over the lands below. I knew what he was looking out for, so I pulled myself up and walked towards him.
“Do you see it?” I asked, coming up behind.
“No.” He replied, not looking at me. “You can’t see the towns or city from here. It is surrounded by the forest. I’m only looking out for signs of life. I don’t see any.”
I looked out below. True, a forest was all I saw. “Let us not assume.”
After about five minutes rest, we started the journey of descending the high hill. In about thirty-five minutes, we were at the foot of the hill and face to face with the forest that was the beginning of Odi kingdom.
“If what Katomo said is true, then we should be alert,” Omar said, handing me a small dagger.
“I don’t know how to use it.”
“You will, soon.”
He advanced into the forest and I followed behind. We Walked on a narrow path, quietly maneuvering road blockades and listening for signs of life. There was none.
“This is unusual,” Omar spoke up, after a long while. “This place used to be inhabited by warriors from each tribe. They served as border guards, monitoring the movements of people. They knew those who went in or out of the city.”
“They may still be here.” I tried to be optimistic.
“If they were here, they would have long confronted us. No one goes into Odi without a pass from them.”
“It sounds like a really organized kingdom.”
We advanced further, and gradually, a terrible stench filled the air, like rotten flesh. I covered my nose with one hand; doing everything possible to bear it. The stench worsened when we finally emerge from the forest into a very wide clearing that disappeared at the horizon. Ruins of huts and mud houses spread out before us in their hundreds. Some were burnt, others, destroyed.
The cause of the stench lay about us; Decayed corpses with smelling liquid and maggots all over them. I ran back into the forest and bent low, holding my middle as the content of my stomach forcefully jumped out through my mouth.
“Are you ok, my queen?” Omar asked, looking down at me. I hadn’t realized he followed me.
I nodded, slowly. “This is Odi” I said, rather than ask.
“No. What’s left of it.” Omar whispered, obviously taken aback by the destruction and death in the land. “All the same, let us keep going. We need to reach Ozo. The main city lies there….”
“Are you blind?” I barked, my veins pushing out from my neck. “What city are you talking about? Did you or did you not see what we just saw? And the smell?”
“I’m still keeping hope alive. I’m still hoping we meet someone who can help us.”
I looked away, wiped my lips clean with the back of my hand and straightened up. A thousand and one thoughts crossed my mind. How could I have left home for this? How could I have been so stupid? So curiously stupid?
Well, here I was, in a land as good as dead. A dangerous world, one I knew nothing about. What would mama do when she finds I’m gone? What will papa do when he returns and finds me gone? I was born under the crescent moon, so what? Animals rejoiced at my birth, so what? A man comes to me and says he’s a messenger, so what?
“My queen, please.” Omar’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Time will not wait for us.”
I looked up at the sky through leaves and branches clustered together. I realized there was no turning back. I either see this to the end or die out here.
“You said you are a messenger, sent to get me.” I turned my eyes on Omar. “Tell me, who sent you?”
“The one who sent me is the one I want us to meet. It is now clear that Odi has fallen. But he who sent me may still be alive. He said no matter what, he will wait at the palace for us. We can’t quit now.”
I nodded. “Let’s go.”
Forging ahead, we walked back to the clearing and past dead people and animals. One corpse lay with legs ajar and ripped clothes.
“She probably died while being gang-raped,” Omar said with sadness in his voice.
The stench of death filled our nostrils and turned our stomachs, as we walked further, maneuvering ruined huts and dead bodies.
In another forty minutes, we arrived at what seemed to be a high mud wall, broken in several places.
“The city wall!” Omar said, feeling the rough surface with his spread-out palms.
Blood stained several parts of the whitewashed wall. At the foot of the wall, the rotten corpse of a dead soldier still wielding a big shield lay. A massive arrow pinned him to the ground from the stomach. There were other dead soldiers lying around with arrows stuck in them.
“This was a terrible war.” I finally spoke, anger replacing fear. “How could people do this?”
“They didn’t want to keep the kingdom. They just wanted it destroyed. Ahh! Omar yelled, slamming his fist against the wall. It was the first time I saw him lose his cool. He slid to the ground and sat beside the dead soldier.
“Get up,” I ordered. “You’re not among the dead.
“I might as well be. I have tried to keep hope alive. But here we are. It turns out Katomo was right.”
There was something in his tone and expression I couldn’t really understand. But something told me he was mourning.
“Come.” I stretched my hands to him. “Let’s keep going.” He was reluctant, but he took my hands and got to his feet.
We walked past the white walls and into the city. It was full of death and destruction. Vultures cried terribly as they fought to eat rotten flesh. It was disgusting watching them peck at rotten eyeballs. We looked away.
“This used to be the meeting tree,” Omar said, when we got to a spot. The tree was cut in half, a sign of defiance.
We proceeded north and soon arrived at the ruins of the palace.
“This was your palace, your home.” He said.
There were two big houses made of mud and finely polished wood, one sitting on top the other. The walls were whitewashed and strange markings drawn on them. The top house was split in two. While one half stood, the other laid on the ground, ruined. The west wing of the ground house was fallen, exposing the inside of the scattered palace hall. The thatch roofs were down, scattered. A dead man hung at the edge of one window, almost falling off. Behind the palace, a long wall, broken in several places, extended to a long distance.
“The palace yard” Omar said.
He moved from my side then and sat on a raised, stone platform. I noticed his countenance was dull.
“Are you alright?” I asked, joining him.
“No. How can I be? Everyone I have ever known is either murdered or captured as slaves.”
“You have a family?” I was really surprised.
“I had a family, I had friends. I had neighbors. I have no idea what has become of them.” He bent, holding his head with both hands.
I couldn’t say I understood his loss, but I knew he was mourning. All because he went on an errand.
“I’m sorry about this.” I placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “If only time can be reversed…”
A loud noise from inside the ruined palace startled us. I turned around sharply to look in the direction the noise came from. Omar jumped to his feet. He yanked a spear off the body of a nearby decaying corpse, drew his dagger and bent low, poised, ready for anyone.
The noise continued and was soon accompanied by curses until an elderly man emerged. He was tall and dressed in a tattered blue robe that matched his dark skin. His grey hair was bushy and his not so grey beards, overgrown. He limped on one leg. But that didn’t seem to bother him.
“Uncle Buko!” Omar called, inching closer to the elderly man. The man stopped and looked up for the first time.
“Omar!” he’s eyes lightened up and an earnest smile curved his lips. His eyes quickly darted past Omar to look at me. And that was when his smile broadened. “We did it. We brought her back.”
“We?” Omar asked, skeptical
“Yes, we. You have no idea the secret works I’ve been doing.” Moving away from Omar, he stood before me and bent slightly, “My Queen, welcome back.”
“Thank you,” I replied, trying to hide the fact that I did not know him.
“I am Buko – eldest member of your council, representative from Faroh house.” He bent, his knees touching the ground. “I sent Omar to get you. And I have sneaked into this palace, every day, awaiting your return. You do not recognize me, but I’m always at your service.”
“Please stand,” I said, stepping a short distance away. “You don’t need to bow to me. And thank you for waiting for us. What happened here?” I looked around again.
“The prophecy came to pass.” He said, getting to his feet. “And it came through one we never suspected. He worked day and night in the shadows. No one knew. I suspected his strange behaviors and secret visits from strangers at one time. I confronted him, but he convinced me otherwise.”
“Abentu.” Omar said.
“Yes,” the elderly agreed. His expression was grave as he looked at nothing in particular, trying to remember the events of the past months. “Abentu it was. How did you know?”
“We met Katomo.”
“Ah! I see. The ferryman. He is no ordinary ferryman.”
“What do you mean?”
“He now leads what’s left of the Odis. Abentu holds a number of us as slaves. But some of our one time soldiers are now loyal to him. Katomo rescued those he could. He refuses to be their Ovie, but he rules them. He protects them until the day Odi will be rebuilt and reunited.”
“He doesn’t believe the land can be rebuilt,” I spoke up. “And from the look in his eyes, I disgust him.”
“Hmmmm… True. You do disgust him. And he has every right to feel so.”
“I’m confused,” I spoke up, ignoring his words and anything that had to do with Katomo. “I don’t know this land or remember anything from this world of yours. I’m sure you picked the wrong person.”
“Your sister was not able to defend our kingdom over the hills.” He said, ignoring my own outbursts. “But she was able to save a lot of her subjects.”
“I have no sister.”
“You do.” He looked at me. “Your death and rebirth is the biggest blow ever dealt to Odi kingdom. You were forced against your will by way of deceit.”
“Your husband. Oza Ovieya”
“Why will a husband deceive a wife? Was there no love and understanding between the …”
A loud chant some distance away cut me short. It was the chanting of men. Not any man, but warriors.
“Follow me,” Buko said, leading the way. Although he was aged, he was fast. I had to double up to catch up with him. Omar followed behind, turning every now and then just to make sure we weren’t caught.
Buko led us past the ruined palace building and some distance away, into a bush path. A few minutes in, we branched off the path into the bush.
“Help me.” Buko called to Omar. Together, they raised up several cut trees with many branches and leaves “Under.” Buko said to me. I went under it and they too joined me. “Stay quiet.” He ordered.
I was scared. The thickness of the bush coupled with the trees resting on us got me worried. What if snakes were around? Scorpions? Ants? I tried looking around me but the trees over us wouldn’t let me. A little whimpering escaped my lips.
“Ssshhhh!” Buko reprimanded me. “Quiet!” He whispered
Within 10 minutes, we heard horse-hoofs on the path. Their pace was casual and the chanting had stopped. The men talked among themselves.
“The foot tracks are gone.” A voice said.
“They must have branched off.” Another voice said. “Check the bushes.”
We heard a few of the men unmount their horses and before long, we saw their dark bodies wrapped in rich kente with colored stripes, checking the bushes. My fears increased and so did my heartbeat. It slammed hard against my chest and I was sure the men would hear it. With machetes, they cut through the bush and headed, unknowingly in our direction.
They were only a short distance away when a loud order from one who I guessed was their leader, caused them to abort their quest. They scrambled back to the path, mounted their stallions and rode off like there was an emergency.
“Those warriors are from Sugho, Abentu’s kingdom,” Buko said after we got off the Bush and stepped on the path.
“The Sughos don’t dress that way.” Omar countered.
“They do, depending on the house they come from. I visited Abentu once, a long time ago. There is no mistake. The kente these men wore is from his lineage.
“I thought Nri had eyes on Sugho. They haven’t attacked?” Omar asked
“Not that I know of. The Sughos have brought a lot of kingdoms to their knees. The Nris fear that Sugho may become too big and too strong for them. I guess they are thinking hard and long about their decisions, so foolishness doesn’t drive them to self-destruction”
“I see! We could join forces with Nri then. We forge an alliance.”
“You don’t learn, do you?” Buko turned to eye Omar. “We formed an alliance with Sugho, look what they did to us. Now you talk of another alliance? And even if another alliance would work, with what do we form such alliance?” Buko snorted. “In case you’re blind, let me tell you. Odi stands in ruins. Our warriors are dead. Those who live are divided. We have no home, no gold and our queen is an 18years old girl who knows nothing about her land. Alliances are forged with wealth and the assurance of great armies. Not by mere talks.”
“Then we should find ways,” Omar said, stubbornly. “We had a gold mine. What happened to it?”
“When a kingdom is captured, I thought they usually lose everything?” he sounded sarcastic. “You talk like a child, Omar.”
While the duo argued, I listened intently, trying to follow the arguments and see if I could finally understand. But I couldn’t fully grasp the whole thing. My attention shifted. I feared for them, I feared for myself. I feared for the dangerous times we were in. I feared that I would be unable to meet up to their expectations.
“What do you think, my queen?” The sudden question from Omar jolted me out of my thoughts.”
“What?” I asked, eyes wide opened.
“You see what I’m talking about?” Buko said, smirking. “My plan stands. We go north.”
“And who would we meet in the north?” I asked, wondering.
“The queen of northern Odi, your sister.”
PS: If you haven’t read the complete book. you’re missing out on something. Seriously. So go here, and get it – ODI – A Tale of Two Kingdoms
PSS: If you’ve read it, what’s your favorite part of the story? I’m looking forward to your feedback.