Pawo walked casually through a bush path in the forest. Duefe followed behind, looking about and ensuring there were no bad surprises around.
From up the tall trees, birds chirped. Rabbits scurried here and there. The journey had been a long one. Pawo had obviously forgotten how far the distance from Utho Era to Nala was. She had been on the move with Duefe since the morning of three days ago. As they went, she thought of Deba and how the marriage ceremony was going. She also thought of Ezomo and smiled at the surprise disappointment waiting for him after Izogie’s marriage. If he wanted sons, he had to go find other women for that, and respect his late brother’s widow. She only prayed Deba would be safe after the marriage. Tradition demands that the bride and chief maid stay thirteen days at the bride’s parents’ house, before being taken to the groom. But she knew Ezomo won’t wait thirteen days for his daughter to leave before coming for her. And the moment he discovers that she’s gone, Deba would pay dearly for it.
“Please guard her.” She whispered, hoping her late husband would hear her. “We can’t let our daughter suffer at the hands of your brother.”
“I don’t believe she will,” Duefe answered. He had heard her prayers and thought it wise to comfort her the best way he could. “I watched her grow, although from a distance. Deba is tough. She can take care of herself.”
Pawo didn’t miss the affection she heard in his voice. Neither did she miss the sadness. Duefe didn’t just watch her as he said, something else was up.
“You love her?” Pawo stopped and looked him in the eye. She was good at reading people just by looking into their eyes. It was a gift she passed on to Deba.
“I love her as a father would love his daughter. Nothing more. I’m old enough to be her father.”
“Yes. But you don’t need to be afraid to tell me the truth.” She persuaded.
“Deba was only 10, I think, when her father, your husband, disappeared. My brother disappeared too. He was my only family. We both made loses that day and I vowed to look after both of you. I may not have been close, I couldn’t be. Oba Ezomo forbade me. I noticed that after you rejected his advances, he stopped sending you food in good quantity. I never stopped watching either of you. I sneaked food from Oba Ezomo’s storeroom and added to what the messengers were to deliver to you. I simply told them they were from the Oba. I didn’t want suspicion. So yes, I love Deba. But as my daughter.”
Pawo’s mouth dropped open at the revelation. All the times she had thought Oba Ezomo sent her good food, the food was actually from Duefe. Otherwise, she and her daughter would have starved a lot.
“Duefe… I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You don’t need to.” He smiled “I swore an oath to remain in your husband’s service till death. I’m only keeping that oath. I’m sure he would want me to take care of his family.”
Throwing caution to the wind, Pawo threw herself forward and encircled him in her embrace. “Thank you.” She said, her eyes wet.
Duefe stood, shocked by her action. She was a queen he dared not hug. Besides he didn’t think he deserved a thank you. He knew too much, but he had no idea how to tell her everything he knew; starting with Ezodo and Ere’s disappearance, as well as his brother’s.
Peeling her hands off his neck, he stepped back. “Your Highness,” he bowed slightly. “We have to keep moving. I am only your servant.”
“Yes, we have to keep moving.” She cleaned her eyes. “I’m sorry I was really carried away. But I don’t regret the hug. And you’re not my servant, just my friend. Thank you for being loyal to my late husband, and now his family.”
He bowed again. At the same time, he made up his mind to tell her the truth, as soon as they got to Nala.
The walk for the rest of the day was hard for Pawo. Duefe allowed very little rest. They had walked all day and all night, sneaking in shadows and bushy paths. Once, she had to shout at Duefe to slow down.
“We can’t slow down, my queen.” He said. “What I have done is treason. I don’t know what the Oba will call what you have done. Either way, if we are caught, we are dead.”
“But we are far away from…”
“We are not far, your highness. Look around you. Everything here is part of Utho Era. We are still within reach. All Oba Ezomo has to do is send five rider warriors after us and they will catch us. They will smell us from a far distance. I want you to rest, my queen. But we have to get to safety first.”
Pawo knew he was right. He had risked his life for her. He was very loyal, but she had no right to bring him death. Although her legs ached and begged for rest, she moved on. It was the following afternoon they got past Sowe, the last village in the kingdom, and stood in view of the hills bordering Utho Era and Uzema.
“I had forgotten how large our kingdom is,” Pawo confessed, shielding her eyes from the sun so as to look at the hill. It was a high one, full of trees. “We have walked fast for almost two days with very little rest, and we still haven’t reached the border.”
“Reaching the border is one thing. Preparing for any surprises is another.” Duefe said, eyes on the road.
“You think the people of Uzema will turn us away?” She was scared.
“I know someone there. One of the border men. I’ll speak to him and see if they will grant us safe passage. But still, the Uzemas are in alliance with Oba Ezomo. If they let us pass through and the Oba’s warriors come, they will seize us and hand us over.”
Pawo stopped in her tracks to catch her breath and think. The hill bothering the two kingdoms also lead to other places. Climbing and going over meant going into Uzema. Climbing and going either west or east meant going somewhere else. Pawo thought it through before facing Duefe.
“What if we find another route? Is there none?” Fear was evident in her eyes. “I’d rather die than be married to Ezomo or let him lay with me. I won’t bear his sons. I refuse to.”
Duefe sighed. “I understand.” He nodded, then looked around. “There is another route, west of the hill. But it is lonely and very dangerous.”
“But we can try it.” She insisted.
“As you wish my queen.” He agreed, reluctantly. How could he tell her that slave catcher and a lot of people seeking innocent souls for rituals always lay an ambush in those parts? No, he could not. All the same, if Ezomo ever found where they were, the Uzemas won’t think twice before handing them over. They would take the lonely route. He would only do his best to protect her and pray that their ancestors watch over them.
He led her to the foot of the hill and the climb started. They were midway up when the sound of horses, galloping in the distance, caught Duefe’s attention. Pawo continued up the steep hill and Duefe turned around. What he saw confirmed his fears. In the far distance were riders from the palace, five of them, galloping at full speed. They raised their spears and rode on in silence. If they had been seen, he didn’t know. But the earlier they got to the top of the hill and camouflaged among the plants, the better their chances of survival.
“My queen,” he called. “We have been found.”
Pawo turned around. Her eyes widened in horror as the saw the approaching riders in a cloud of dust.
“Don’t stand and watch. Come with me.” Duefe took her by the hand and continued up the hill, his pace increased.
Deba, after making her way down the hill, walked gently through the bush paths leading up to the spot Makeni had pointed out the last soldier.
“Distract him.” He had said. And to her, distract him meant seducing him. How in the name of the gods was she going to do that? She had never been interested in men before. She never learned how to attract them. She had never even been aware of the opposite sex until she met him. And now she was out to seduce a warrior?
What god or goddess was she going to pray to for assistance? Olokun? Yemoja? Oya? Deba sighed. She would do what she can. But if things didn’t go well, Mekani could go on and hit his head against a tree. She wouldn’t care. She winced as the image of Mekani hitting his head against a tree flashed before her eyes. Of course, she would care. So like it or not, the plan had to work.
Her face was blackened with charcoal from the fireplace where Mayo prepared breakfast. Her hair was a scattered mass and rid of all bridal adornments. Mekani said it was best that way. She had to be seen as one of the slaves, not a princess. But there was nothing she could do about her clothing. A good thing she had cut it into a different style. It was a good disguise for her too.
Down at the village, Almost everywhere she turned, there were dead bodies in twos or threes. Dead animals were not left out. The entire village smelt of smoke, blood and death. How could people be so wicked? At one spot, a man’s headless form lay. Blood oozed out of the neck. At another spot, arrows pinned down several children. Some mothers lay on top their children in a fruitless effort to protect them. A mother’s love. She thought, remembering her own mother. Pawo would die before seeing her in a place like the one she was in, let alone dying because of some stupid distraction plan Makeni and the men had in their heads.
Taking her mind off her mother, she walked steadily until the warrior of their interest was within sight. But she didn’t dock. She stood and let his eyes rest on her. The man’s ebony skin shone under the blazing sun. Up close, Deba could see he was light bearded, but had bushy hairs and carried with him huge muscles underneath the taut skin. Upon sighting her, he pulled out his sword and started in her direction.
“Ngakho wena bazifihla?” He spoke in a tongue she was not familiar with.
“Please, please don’t kill me. I only want water.” Deba begged.
“Izimpethu abafana nawe akufanele bavunyelwe ukuba baphile.” His pace increased.
When she saw he wasn’t backing down, she turned and ran. So much for seducing a warrior who looked determined to kill her. He chased her. Of course, she was only a girl. It would be stupid for him to call the attention of his men over a girl. So he carried on with the chase alone.
Deba ran toward the east wing of the hill and started to climb. The warrior reached the foot too and was about to join her when two strong hands seized both his hands from behind. The warrior struggled, but Dogo disarmed and slammed him hard against the hard ground. The man yelped. Before he could regain himself and draw out another knife, Several swords pointed at his head and neck.
“I won’t think twice before cutting you.” Mekani threatened
“Idiots.” The man spat. “Abanye ngeke ningithole futhi abulale nonke. Awazi ukuthi ubani wena obhekana nakho.”
“General, Basuke kade laphela futhi wena ekupheleni kude iphiko entshonalanga.” Makeni replied.
The warrior looked a bit surprised that a stranger would speak his language.
“You speak his language?” Deba asked, descending the hill again.
“Yes. It is Zulu language. I wonder what Zulu warriors are doing here. They’ve never brought their fight this way before. This is new.” Mekani examined Deba with his eyes. Are you ok?”
“Thanks for your timely intervention, I am fine.”
“What did he say?” Kubu asked, still looking at the warrior.
“He says the others will find him and kill us all. We’ve messed with the wrong man.”
The men chuckled at the threat. “You should tell him we’ll kill him first,” Dogo said after he recovered.
“I already told him that. But all the same, before his threat comes true, let us leave this place.”
Dogo took out twines from his pouch and tied the prisoner’s hands to the back. He was then shoved as they made their way further east, the opposite direction of the rest of the Zulu warriors. They had absolutely no more need to climb the hill.
It was well after noon. The sun was setting on the horizon. Red patches of clouds had taken over the sky. The evening was here. The night was to follow soon. The party had walked many miles, from hills to forests and rivers. Along the way, Mayo caught a rabbit that had gotten stuck in a trap, close to a farm.
“Is that necessary?” Deba had asked, wondering why a rabbit was so important at the time.
“For dinner? Yes, it is important.” He smiled, admiring the animal.
After a long time under the scorching sun, and with sweat streaming down their bodies, the evening had arrived. The party stopped at the banks of the third flowing river they came across. It bordered a small village on the other side of it.
Mekani strained his eyes across the wide river, trying to make out activities in the small village. There were activities alright; children playing in circles and women at the banks washing clothes. Some hard-looking men, probably the village’s warriors, guarded the river as the women worked. Colorful kentes hung from their shoulders and wrapped their bodies. As soon as they noticed the small party at the other side of their home, they stood up and walked to the edge of the bank, looking across with stern faces and calculative eyes. They talked among themselves.
“We rest here,” Mekani announced, after watching the village people a while longer.
“It is an open spot. We’re exposed.” Mayo remarked. “And from the way those warriors look at us, I don’t think they like our presence.”
“When I said here, I didn’t mean in the open.” Mekani corrected. “We find a hidden spot in the forest behind. The important thing is we are close to the river. We need some cleaning up. Try to ignore the villagers. We are not trespassing.”
They moved away from the river bank and into the forest. Kubu found a spot under the tall trees. It was still open though, but not as exposed as the banks.
“What will you do to me?” The captured Zulu warrior asked Mekani as Dogo sat him at the foot of one tree and tied him against it.
“Whatever pleases me. But first, I want to know why you bring your war here. You murdered a whole village. The women and children too. Have you and your warriors lost your hearts?”
The warrior’s hard eyes stared at Mekani with disdain. Then he spoke and he spoke harshly.
“What is he saying?” Deba asked, coming to stand behind Mekani.
“Let’s talk later. I’m not done with him yet.”
Deba nodded and stepped back. Mekani continued his interrogation, short distance away.
To be continued….
First published in 2016 on Karo’s Story Blog
©Karo Oforofuo. August 2016. All rights reserved.
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