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Tale of the High Spirits: Rule of Void (BOOK ONE) -By Ekene Onuorah (ekeneonuorah@gmail.com)

The rod that beat you is broken, but you have no reason to be glad. When a snake dies, a worse one comes in place. A snake's egg hatches a flying dragon. This is the rule that reminds us to plan ahead -Rule of Void. (Is 14:29)


LIST OF CHAPTERS 1. The Rendezvous 2. Tale and Task 3. Body Guards 4. Grip of the Northern Greed 5. Hungry for Tavern 6. Fire Analogy

7. Rain on the Priest 8. Politics of the Northerners 9. Grand Treachery 10. Fight of Ice and Fire 11. Searching for a Trap 12. Escape to Capture 13. For the Namesake

14. The Second Encounter 15. Shadow Traveller 16. The Guardian of Life 17. Death of Hope 18. End of Scythe 19. A Flying Dragon


PROLOGUE The south was inhabited by a tribe of men known as Alantans; whom by nature were hunters. Their perfect stalking was purely recreational, with no intention of trading, though they sold to anyone who came to buy in their markets from the other lands, and the pitiful price at which they sold would make one think they were foolish, but sometimes, they seemed wiser than their neighbours. Never mind Alantans when they say hunters, fishermen are included because they hunt for fishes in their lake at Saracora. Few others hunt in the Southmouth coast which going farther southward would lead to the great ‘Rift’ where the world bent. Most men of this land married at a very old age; no wonder their families were known to be made up of one or two children, though some three, but they produced as much as they could closely guide. They worshipped obedience when necessary and knew that by instinct, and that would make an elderly who sees rude behaviour in a child know that the cause may go beyond visibility, therefore, would handle such meticulously, as their age would not let them act physically. In a family of Dera, in this part of the south, with Ohams and Keleta as the two fathers, their sons’ lives were somewhat different from that of their fathers. Lota the son of Ohams, despite being the only child had the liberty to wander, but to make sure he wrote (as was the tradition to ensure safety) when he would be staying away for longer than three days, while Ohams himself stayed within their land with a gong always in his hand for the service of all. The other Alantan -- stronger and younger than Ohams -Keleta aforementioned tendered his own son Echendu like an egg. Though being his only son, he was five years older than a sister named Marihe. Keleta viewed the world beyond Alanta from another perspective so kept his wards within the safe and rack of Alanta so as not to crack while he himself wandered for no or queer reasons. He had gone out and had stayed for days, still no message arrived and no one was worried -- their lives were strange. They were conscious of the High spirits who may seem arch-angel-like or godlike to you, but they do not care much about them. Some call them when in surprise, but others do not necessarily curse them in accident; they scold them. Take for instance, a drop of dung fell from a tree inhabited by a parrot. It dropped on the head of this woman who was returning from the market and she screamed, “Almighty should take this power from my incompetent Spirits.” She realised herself and looked up to the sky adding, “your large mouth would have stopped this.” She cleaned herself and continued her journey while the parrot above repeated her words. After about a minute or two, she found a gold coin on the ground and screamed, “High Spirits! A bag wouldn’t be bad!” A bag was two hundred coins; it was their method of counting.


* PHASE ONE *

1. THE RENDEZVOUS Long time ago, when the cloud was cruel on the ground, when authority was enough to blind-fold the unity of men, and the death of a warrior was not regarded, there lived a king in the North. He was unlike other kings -- he valued neither the noble nor the commoner, because he wanted to rule the world. He was so determined in his cause that he sent all his warriors, including his second-in-command, who was a eunuch, to battles, to claim treasures from rich kingdoms until he was left alone with his forecaster, also known as seer. He felt quite unsafe for a thought known to him, and there was an extra love he developed for his life. He had the best protection others could only possess in dreams, yet the feeling could not get off his memory. He summoned his seer and after relating his problem to him, this was what he got: “My Lord, I see your mother’s words spring out from the underworld, yet I see what you seek at hand. The sky says that you have a son.” “Who, or rather, where is he?” the king asked. “I know not,” the seer replied, and took another gaze upward. “Just the star interrupting the clouds. Yes! The Starlady of Kpando empowering the man who will get him to do that. It’s confusing, My Lord.” “Then the Starlady is the one I seek now for she is at hand.” The king withdrew some of his warriors from battles, and sent them on a new mission. The Starlady being a woman with special ability to serve her land was shot from a long range with a cross-bow while performing her duty. The grand-commander of the land of Kpando was also shot while leading an attack against the assassinators. The corpses of the two were not found; and when the king got the news he had awaited, he muffled: “Starlady leading an enemy to empower my son? Curse that my son who will bring my death! Curse that woman who cursed me!”

*

Months had passed after the mission from the North was executed -- no one went after this king. It was a market day; Ochel was coming home without a snack for her daughter whom she had promised to buy one for. Marihe, who must be approaching eighteen but still a kid in her ways, was angry, therefore, frowned. Her mother (happily for a coin she picked on the way) asked her to pluck the last water melon


at the backyard and bring it to the frontage. She knew Ochel was fond of surprising her and would either be waiting with the snack or a knife for them to squander the melon. Joyfully, she skipped along with the fruit on her head but found her mother waiting with hands forward and a sack on the ground. Mother must be joking as always, she thought. “I’m expecting my sister,” Ochel said, smiling. “She must be happy to have the last melon of the year.” She picked up the sack and extended her hands for the fruit. Marihe blushed and shrieked, letting the melon crash on the mud. The mother in her crusty manner threw the handiest object at her daughter; the gold coin! It flew past the girl’s ear and disappeared into the bush. Before the next thought, she had given her a chase.

Echendu, shaped to be very nimble by nature, was under a tree some footsteps away from home. He was treating a boy who had sustained a foot injury while chasing a grass-cutter. The place was the central and meeting point of the boys of the hamlet. It was surrounded at a corner by fixed benches built with bamboo sticks that were inserted into holes made on short tree trunks. The large path that led to their house was not different in appearance from other paths, main roads and squares in the rest of Alanta and their nearest neighbour -- Kpando. These were characterised by a mixture of yellow sandy and gray stones. The pavements and other spaces around the path that had not been trodden for some time usually developed piles of carpet grasses of a quality that was not much different from the synthetic grass that we find in football fields today. Weeds were also rare to be found among these grasses, but the flowers that dominated them had made the pavements unsafe for unconscious people to sit on; because of honey bees that came for flowers. There was a high probability of finding low trees with canopy aligned around the paths, while palms and other high fearful trees dwelt in the heart of bushes and forests. There were three remarkable high iroko trees in the three bushes around this hamlet, and that had become their landmark. A warm breeze blew and carried some white petals into the square where the two boys sat. As they enjoyed the scene, they were immediately joined by Haruni -- a far relative, and when Echendu was squeezing a leaf that would be applied on the boy’s leg, Lota came home on horseback with a bottle on his hand. Echendu raised his eyes, taking notice of his cousin’s arrival but not paying any attention to him. “Two days you’ve been away Lota while we scheduled it for yesterday,” he said at last and bent to squeeze another leaf. The tone was more of grumbling; his mouth was seldom open. “I’m sorry -- I stayed in a friend’s house at Kpando,” Lota apologised, but saw no change in Echendu’s countenance. He shook his head and said, “I killed an antelope down Kpando hills.” “Where is it?” Echendu asked, springing upward but his voice was not clear. He blinked many times in anticipation for the answer and his eye lashes seemed to be obstructing his vision. He was so hairy that he looked older than his age, but not older than Lota who had been shrunk by the stress of travelling.


“I...I-” Lota was saying, raising his hands. “Bring the coins let’s go to the tavern now!” Haruni interrupted and Echendu nodded in support of what he had said. Lota laughed and raised the bottle he was holding. “I exchanged it for roasted corn and this bottle of liquor.” Echendu turned, shaped his mouth into a nozzle and blew some ground leaf on the boy’s leg. “I’m tired of this old practice,” he said, opening his mouth for some air; the bitterness was the reason he had spoken so little. As he stretched, his waist joints crackled. “Let’s go hunting then!” Haruni suggested. “I’ve also gotten sick of that,” Echendu replied. “What then?” Lota asked, and pointed at the boy, just to remind Echendu that he was waiting with some coins to pay with. Echendu dismissed the boy without accepting anything, except for a handful of sand which had become his tradition each time he treated a child. He smiled and moved round the tree in a nimble gait, sprinkling the sand and answering Lota’s question which he had kept in mind. “Travelling and doing things marvelling, just like my fairy-thief.” “Without magic?” Haruni asked, and moved from one bench to another closer to Echendu. “You see Haruni, I don’t want magic,” he replied and sat on the foot of the tree. “Why? I suppose you’d ask. All the ‘nothing goes for nothing’ except the folk who are born with it.” Haruni laughed and said, “It is the things that we don’t want that usually come our way; though, most times, the ones we want.” “No one argued about that,” said Lota, “but if he had magic, that boy’s leg would have been healed, and this strife put to an end.” He pointed forward: there was Ochel running after Marihe with a pestle. They brought the race to an end after they had pleaded with Ochel and scolded Marihe, but then a horse approached. “High spirits!” shouted Ochel. “That’s my sister coming, and I’ve got nothing to give her!” She picked up a stone, as the gold was gone and the pestle now with Echendu. They held her, and she still complained. “I didn’t know your sister was the messenger I used to lust after,” said Haruni, jokingly, “because that’s a mere commercial rider coming!” “Mother, your eyes are not getting any younger,” Echendu said, laughing at her mother’s poor vision and forgetting that he had also believed that it was his aunt who was coming before Haruni pointed out the error.


Ochel, relieved of an unprepared visit, remembered that Keleta had not sent any message for the past few days he had been away. “See if she’s delivering your father’s message,” she said to Echendu. “My father has also been away for days,” said Haruni. “That’s a great chance to approach her!” said Lota. “Don’t you see the great scenario luck has prepared for you?” Haruni, being the eldest, strongest and finest of them all, made a move. He was huge in size and friendly, and like all of them, he was always conscious of appearance in the women folk and saw it as more important than character that came from the soul. But that had not taken their gentility in addressing to every woman in general. The rider had dropped a letter for him and turned back immediately without uttering a single word; maybe she was nervous and couldn’t stand the jokes or merely snubbing Haruni who had rushed with a smiling face (as Lota had suggested) or probably she was rushing to complete the day’s task. Whichever, Lota was already on the ground making fun of Haruni. “Words not to disturb her again?” he asked, and rolled himself over the sand. “She had time to put them down, but not enough to greet the man.” He continued bathing himself until his hair got over-stuck with sand. Ochel realised that Echendu had helped his sister sneak away. She hissed and turned to see if there was still any hope of finding her lost coin, but Haruni brought her back with a scream. “What in the name of the High spirits is it, Haruni?” she asked. Haruni struggled to read out some parts in the letter. “....From Faniyi-” “Your father?” asked Echendu. “What happened to him?” “And yours... Echendu,” he said, pointing at Echendu. “....And upon them stealing a Northern cloak landed them in the Northern dungeons.” Lota cleared sand out of his eyes and asked, “At the palace?” Haruni shook his head. “Etiti death camp,” he replied. He managed to complete it and then crumpled the paper. Coming to think of it, how could someone in a death camp send a letter, or rather, smuggle a letter; maybe he bribed the guard or used a magic bird, as many who heard the story thought. This kept punching Ohams when he got the news, so he dropped his gong (as this was a serious matter), and gave Echendu a go-ahead to find out. Echendu’s life would be meaningless without his father just for a month because it was him who brought things made in foreign lands for the boy’s fun; he was not allowed to cross their land. How then would it be when he loses his father forever?


When he first declared his intention of ‘going out to scout’ as he said, his mother shunned him. It turned into reality when Lota advocated to help out, and what do you think about Haruni whose father had written and must be impatiently waiting? The three boys now in the quest of men -- especially for Echendu who then had the opportunity to see those things which Lota had made him imagine -- set out that night. Before the next morning, they had crossed the land of Kpando which was a free land from all that they had heard. A land guarded by the Kpando warriors and judged by a Lady; a treasure whose likes had been known, even before her birth, and the walnut trees already planted in the place kept for her. The nuts were to mature when she was ready to eat them and at her own demand. Her name was Dilichi Olic; she just assumed duty recently, after the last Starlady was assassinated. The way Lota described this woman would have made Echendu want to stay and glance at her face for a while, but his father was his all. Before the next night, they were through with the Amaato land which led them into Etiti. These two last mentioned lands (Amaato and Etiti) were absolutely controlled by the warriors from a race of people from the first land bounded in the north by a very high mountain with the resemblance of an ice coating a rocky wall. At this boundary, the mountains went into the heavens, making the people of this world seem like those thrown down from a cliff with no way up. This first land of this part of the earth was Mbaofu. Every land, including the rivers that separated them ran east and west as far as any wanderer had ever exploited (so those living at the far east and west called theirs whatever they liked). Most people of Mbaofu were warriors under the imperial order of the king who dwelt in the Northern palace and the warriors were known as Northerners or Northern warriors. They also had mercenaries among their forces which further strengthened them. The scouting had hardly begun around the Etiti death camp as planned when the Northerners made them prisoners down in the land of Amaato. They happened to be there because the camp at Etiti was over-filled (that guards started getting irritated), and prisoners necessarily needed to be killed, but hope came when the great hunters were faced with an offer that could make trouble out of nothing, though Keleta and Faniyi were promised to be released once this was achieved. They were to abduct this Lady of Kpando; the task was referred to as ‘easy’ by Lota who boasted that they were skilled hunters; which they were anyway. This lady had suffered series of attacks, so her land warriors decided that a crucial meeting would be in order, and that gathering actually paved way for the hunters, now treasure hunters. Their want was now within reach but a matter of ethic bothered one of the hunters. Would it be justifiable in the face of the old men that their rescue was to the detriment of innocence? The feeling of guilt is never far away from a human conscience; that kept haunting the hunter while he tried to wave the thought away.

*


In the silent peace of the night was a whistling bird interrupted by a lamb screaming. Dilichi’s sleep left her and she sat up in a four-poster bed with a shaking lips and skin bathed in a pool of goose flesh. Attempting to stand, she gave up upon the rustle of the mattress. The tranquillity had made even the tread of an ant audible. With her fingers tucked in the armpit, she wondered what could be in her pen. The fingers crawled round her neck, slightly pulling a necklace so that it completed a cycle. She jerked it off and rose immediately, ignoring the sound from the mattress. The bird might have continued its song when another lamb screamed. She dived back into the bed while the rustle lingered more than ever. A woolly blanket engulfed her and she began to think, unknown that she was speaking. “But the chance to escape wouldn’t lead her back, or is she trying to punish me? My key is not here!” She touched the necklace again, sat up and shook her head. She stood at once and fumbled through the dark room. Reaching a table about four paces opposite the bed, she turned up a lamp which reflected a bronze key on the table. She picked it up and smiled vaguely. “If the key is here,” she said to herself, “then she is still in the prison... and another thing in my pen.” She frowned immediately. “A wolf?” She shook her head. “Snake?” She nodded. “Absolutely, it is a snake.” She squatted while her hands swept under the table, then she grabbed a sheath knife. The key was fastened to the necklace; and upon rising, she let her brown leather gown, which was almost as tall as her, scrub the floor. The top-most was V-necked while the sleeves which stopped just before her wrist was a little tight; that was the sort of clothes that she liked to wear. Bead strings were woven around the regions of the neck, sleeves and below which covered her feet. She tightened the rope below the neck, tied it with another around the bust and fastened the sheath to some leather strips in the waist region which looked like belts and its bands. She moved towards the door, and with a feeling of being susceptible to the bites of nature came back and wore her boots. Leaving the door, she turned right through the passage; and with help from the dull light which flowed through the edges, she was able to trace a door in the sitting room. Slowly, the bolt was drawn open while at the threshold she stood stretching her neck through the door that was half-way open. The surrounding was illuminated by the full moon while the normal scent of the walnut woods that stood paces away ruled the air. Her head moved from left to right and was quickly withdrawn with her nose narrowly escaping a smash on the bolt, but then, a wisp from her dark hair hooked onto the door; she pulled it hard. She bolted the door and struggled back, enduring the pain from her uprooted hair.

There was no scream this time but the usual quake had all returned. She moved back to her room, and uncertain what next to do went left of the passage. Her hands were spread across the wall until another door was reached. She bent nearer and used her pendant to unlock the padlock. Inside the room were


many apertures on the wall opposite the door, and through it were rays of light streaming in. Straws that were kept for warmth crackled on the floor, making the cold weather seem less harmful but fearful. A small window was carved beside the door, probably not for ventilation but still an additional beauty to the prison. There came a slow movement within and she took about six or seven short sluggish steps inward. “Anna!” she called but nothing happened. She took another step and this time called again in a passionate but serious voice. There was a sneeze followed by sounds of dangling metals. She moved closer and bent over to unshackle the prisoner. Anna was leaning on a wall left of the door with her hands stretched apart and her legs bound in ropes. She showed no sign of surprise at the unusual help from her captor. She remained still until her first hand was freed, then she wiped her face and stretched her neck, giving off series of mechanical sounds. “Lady, those weren’t your guards...right?” she asked, and as if she saw ‘yes’ written in Dilichi’s eyes, she went on. “I’ve been awake all night, even before your sheep cried.” She looked at Dilichi who was now unbinding her legs. “I noticed the shadow obstruct this light.” She pointed at a patch of light that was cast on the floor just beside her. She talked for long but got no reply, so kept quiet. When Dilichi was through with the unbinding, she dropped the rope and released the handcuffs. It had chains between it and the end which was screwed to the wall. The handcuff dangled, making series of sonorous sounds which she stopped quickly by damping its motion. She turned to Anna who was now rolling up her hair. “Hurry let’s leave before they find their way in-” “Who?” Anna asked. “The shadow you were telling me about-” “Oh! you were listening? Who are they by the way?” she asked, quickly. “Northern warriors... I had a glimpse of them on their way to my backyard.” She pointed towards the door. The name Northern warriors had since this present time become a household name for violence and destruction, so whenever it was mentioned, it signalled great danger whether referring to the brutal warriors themselves or being metaphorical. Anna frowned and shook her head. “Lady, Northern warriors? Once they strike your heart, the body moves with the soul-” That was to make sure it was the warriors themselves she was talking about, and not other possible dangers. “Stop!” Dilichi said. “And hurry!” “I’m hurrying Lady, but where do we run to if you are serious about those monsters?” She still rolled up the hair.


Dilichi looked away and headed towards another end that was dark. She picked a pair of boots and dropped it beside Anna. “Thanks, lady,” Anna said. She was tightening the boot when a light ray that was formerly cast on the sole slowly darkened. She tilted her head upward to see if Dilichi was aware of her observation. Dilichi was fixing her sheath when her head moved and caught Anna’s eyes looking up at her. “Why the gawk?” she asked, but Anna’s face remained still. She bent nearer and asked, “Are you not through? I’m leaving before they-” “Lady! They are back already!” Dilichi’s face crinkled when her ‘they’ resonated with Anna’s ‘lady’. She shook and looked around, trying to grip what just sounded, but the concrete in which the wooden house was reinforced shattered, the wood itself began to weaken after tremendous hits. Dilichi and Anna were already on their way to the exit. The former was about to unbolt the door when a man entered into the passage through the shattered prison room. “Where are your guards?” Anna asked in a whisper. “Shhh! He cannot see us,” Dilichi replied, moving her hand around her thigh. She touched the sheath and remained fixed. “Lady!” Anna called. “I have my eyes. Just wait!” She clapped her teeth and her lips got smaller. Her determined jaw was obliquely inclined while her captivating small brown eyes acted like a searchlight. The man’s steel brushed against his leather sheath; the sound left the girls half-dead. Rays from the lamp in Dilichi’s room reflected on a sword and travelled further to glint in her eyes. The sharpness of the vision honed the sword in her mind, until she was left with the option of blunting it with her own. She was about to unsheathe the knife when the man turned towards her room. His sword went in, followed by his body, slowly. She was relieved to some extent but still in suspense, so she tip-toed forward and silently shut the door. The exit was opened. When they crossed the door, the night light shone on Anna’s grey gown -separated by a wide dark waist belt. A pen with four long wooden poles at its edges (which supported a thatched-roof) was opposite the house. Around the entrance to this pen stood a man with a shining helmet. He removed the helmet immediately, and as he took a step, his red leather cloak which ran below his knee floated in the wind, exposing his tight breeches and the upper part of his boot -- all made of black leather. He tussled with the helmet and slowly moved towards the girls. “We came just for one of you,” he said, “the Starlady of Kpando.”


Dilichi’s mind was filled with regrets. It would have been safer if she had run at the first time, but gave up that chance to rescue her prisoner. She thought of running back into the house to hide or seek for another way of escaping, but remembered the warrior who was already occupying her room; and possibly the entire house. The outcome would be unpredictable, so with a strong heart of risk-taking, she moved forward. “I am,” she said with her hands right on the sheath. She slowly drew it out and gripped firmly on the jewelled hilt. The man laughed and dropped the helmet. He drew his sword immediately but ended up in a scream. A short knife had plunged into his chest and he fell against it, pushing it deeper. Only the jewelled hilt remained visible. She was already in the pen; there were two dead lambs that lay on the ground. She climbed over a white horse within and was followed by Anna after which the beast trotted and jumped over the wooden grids that surrounded this pen. Anna’s head mistakenly touched the roof, causing straws to slide, scattering over the lambs; their bleat were all over the air. From beside the house came three other warriors who were not at all confused. Two hurried to their horses around the walnut trees that were lined at a distance. They went after the girls while the other headed into the house; to alert the others.

The exterior of the house was built with stone quarter-way from the ground; the rest wooden. The roof was thatched and the surrounding fenced with bamboo grids. A warrior hurried outside through the door and seeing his fellow stagger on the ground, he screamed and ran to aid him. “Haruni! Who did this?” he asked, squatting and then kneeling on his coat. “Lota... I... am-” He was trying to raise his hand as well as speak, but all were in vain. “I’m listening!” said Lota. He gasped and seemed to have gotten a little strength to speak. “I won’t be able to continue on...” Lota held his head. “You will! Echendu can cure you. Just tell me, who? “ “I’m not sick for Echendu to cure me,” he said, and started gasping again for breath. “My heart... is... failing; you might be the last I’m speaking to. Lota, rescue my father from these Notherners... It is the Starlady who stabbed me when I was about to-” “You will live to save your father -- just hold on,” Lota said and rose. He looked down to him again, turned and started calling Echendu. Echendu was already rushing out of the house when he heard his name. “What is it?” he asked, and turned immediately. “Haruni!”


He ran forward and removed the knife that was plunged into Haruni’s chest. Lota sheathed his sword and turned to Echendu who now wiped the jewelled knife. “See if any herb can sustain him,” he said. Echendu rose and shook his head. “This is not... easy... to deal with.” Lota still insisted. “Please!” Echendu stared at him, and then turned to the dying man, wondering if ‘please’ could revert life or invent a cure for such condition. The gasp alarmed him so he moved towards the dark forest. “Where are you going without your horse?” The voice halted Echendu’s motion, and he turned slowly. A man on a brown leather coat and black belt crossed between his shoulders and waist was coming out from the door. A crest helmet was on his right hand while on the other was a sword which he slid back into its sheath immediately. Four other warriors hurried to the side of the house. Lota was about to speak on behalf of Echendu when four horses ridden by the warriors galloped past him. He ran out of their way. Having recovered from the shock of the strange action from the warriors, he turned back to the man. “He’s not running, captain,” he said. “One of us was injured by the girl, so he needs to find a cure.” The captain whose name was Fena laughed and said, “The least you can do is go after her; many of my men had been injured this way and if you risk looking up to them, you may end like the hen going after an eagle.” “Because he’s not your brother!” Echendu said and, as if he weren’t himself when he made the initial comment, turned and bowed his head. “We are the one to be questioned if anything should happen to him.” The captain laughed again and moved to his horse that waited outside the fence. “You better go after her if you want your old men back!” Lota turned to Echendu and nodded. “I must kill that witch!” he said in a low voice. Echendu, seeing that Haruni had given up, shook his head and turned back to Lota. “Our bid was to capture her alive.” Lota’s eyes got wet immediately he looked at Haruni. He closed his eyes and cried, “But now she has taken one of us!” To him the wind had blown but the liveliest tree was not able to prove its worth. The Northerners were not the victim, but a strong man who boomed with life. A Northerner would have been preferable!

*


Six warriors were with the captain as they rode southward down the short grassy hills in the outskirt of Kpando land. They had gone up and down, meandering through valleys and gulch before arriving at this last hill which stretched far into the bridge that linked to the next land, Alanta. There were only a few widely spaced trees in the vast hills and some occasional bumps on the path. The scarcity of trees aided by the moonlight made everything down the horizon visible. Lota and Echendu were ahead of the six warriors. While the captain tried to catch up with them, the gap seemed to increase. At a time, he then kept pace with the others, but still had a clear view of the white horse running down the hill under the brightened night cloud. “You will do anything to save your father!” the captain said. Lota, who must have gotten a little bit acquainted with the Northerners than Echendu, knew what the captain meant, so turned to Echendu and said, “Shoot! Even if it means her death. Remember, she killed Haruni!” “That would risk my father’s life, even Haruni’s.” “Close your eyes and lose both.” Echendu removed his bow. After a while, he drew an arrow from its bag and stretched the bow. He knew that Lota had discussed a lot with the captain before they embarked on the journey; he knew not even a bit of their discussion. But he was at least sure that the girl’s death would breach their agreement. “Captain Fena is not to be trusted,” he said in a low tone. “They are just using us.” “To get what we want,” Lota replied. “We just have to cover our own side of the bargain.” “What if she dies? My father and Haruni’s will be no better than death. Think about that -- we only end up as assassins.” Lota felt the guilt but would not want to admit it. He nodded in jest and asked, “Any other way, preacher?” Echendu slowed down and positioned his arrow. There was a loud neigh after he had shot; the whole warriors seemed to be nodding in admiration. “Use your eyes well!” the captain said. “Now I’ve seen that Lota wasn’t blabbering about your exceptional skill in shooting. She won’t ride longer than an hour!” “They are two!” another warrior said. The captain turned to the warrior as if an offence had been committed by the correction. “They can’t run farther,” he said. “Even if they like, let them be three. Keep in track!”


*

The girls crossed a large bridge which brought them into the next land. They had hardly gone inner through a scrubland when the horse gave them a frustration of hope. It fell to the ground, squeaking and squealing. They got up and dusted sand off themselves. The horse was staggering, and then at last, stretched its limbs. “What’s wrong, Chacha?” Dilichi asked, seeming afraid to go near for inquiry. Anna marched forward and said, “Lady, find out the problem and stop speaking to a horse.” Dilichi crawled to the anterior while Anna stood at the other end. An arrow was stuck around the loin which shook Anna immediately she found it. “They shot your Chacha! Come and see!” Dilichi rushed to the point and removed the arrow at once. As blood trickled down from it, she stamped it on the soil, sorrowfully. “I remember when he cried,” she said, in a quavering voice, “I pulled the rein but Chacha couldn’t run faster -- because of this!” She picked up the arrow again and crawled back to the other end. She scratched the hairs on its head and was speaking at the same time. “Farewell. I’ll always remember you. I expect you back, Chacha...” Anna bent and patted her back. “Enough of the lamentation. Let’s run to the Alanta village before the Northerners get here.” “Just that Chacha was the last gift my father gave me,” she said, and closed its eyes while her own eyes remained wet and wide open. “Up, before you share the same patting gift with Chacha,” Anna said, and helped her up. “The village is far and safer, the coast is nearer, and remember that I’m the one whose life is endangered.” She fixed a gaze at her for confirmation. Dilichi nodded. “But their wanting me alive is more dangerous,” she said and looked around. “You know about this land?” Anna nodded. As she moved backward, she widened her cheek. “I’ve been here. Don’t tell me that your guards ran away.” Dilichi shook her head and said, “Just on an errand to the Square.” “What errand at this time -- when they should guard you?” There seemed to exist some heaviness in the way Dilichi now spoke. “I wouldn’t want you to stay longer in that room, so I asked them to include you in tomorrow’s schedule.”


Anna flinched immediately. “This is the result!” She realised how rude she was being towards the woman who took such a risk to bring her out of the house. She then turned and bowed, asking, “Why did you help me?” The question had not been answered when sounds came from a distance. Anna frowned and moved immediately to Dilichi. “Can you hear that?” she asked. “They are near,” Dilichi said.

*

The captain was the last to arrive at the scene. He came down from his horse and moved to a point where he saw that the warriors were more concentrated. He bent, caressing the dead horse and smiling. “Running a quarter league with an arrow; what a very strong horse.” Echendu who was forward picked up an arrow which he inspected. He turned and saw Lota coming from behind. “They headed to the Southmouth coast.” “Why do you think so?” Lota asked. He raised his hand, exposing the arrow to the moonlight. “My markings are on this. It must be the one I shot their horse.” “Then?” Lota asked indifferently. “I found it around!” Echendu replied in an angry tone. “Where else could they have gone? Their tracks went this way, in case you’ve gone blind.” Lota, after watching, nodded and moved to the captain. “We head south!” he said, as if he were in command. The captain rose immediately and folded his hands. “Why?” Lota nodded and went on to explain. “Alanta is my homeland, so I know it better. There’s no place safer on foot for them at this time.” Echendu then came forward immediately and pointed to the shrub by their left. “This way can be a short cut, but dangerous for the horses.” “What are you saying?” the captain asked, looking very perplexed. Lota took over the explanation from Echendu. “Wild spikes grow in there. Their spines can instantly kill a cattle; same with horses.”


The sceptical captain rode inward and turned back to scoff. “What trap are you leading us to? Trick?” Lota shook his head. “We can’t trick you while you have our fathers.” The captain smiled. “Your father is not with us as you’ve said-” The horse neighed and crashed him on ground. The captain, very afraid of his own life, threw himself out like a long jumper. He was on the sand panting while the others surrounded him. “But it’s not harmful to us, even on barefoot,” Echendu said.

*

There was a campfire burning at a distance, but the girls ignored it and ran down the steep sloped sandy coast that led to the sea of Southmouth. They knew that the fire would attract the warriors so decided to take succour inside the water. The moon that was imprinted on the calm sea was disrupted when the cloud swallowed it. Dilichi tried to wade through the water but jerked back immediately and ripples travelled out. “It’s cold?” Anna asked. As Dilichi nodded, the moon came out, looking very brighter than before. Although she needed a light to see, the moon would never be an option now. After cursing the moon, she turned to Anna and said, “Here isn’t safe. See, our footprints are all over the coast. We should seek help from them.” And even save them from the Northerners, she reminded herself. They were running towards the fire when a man rose immediately with a dagger. His face was young but his eyes looked old and fierce. He was on a dark cloak. He took some steps forward and the girls halted, but after some seconds, Anna took more steps forward. The man also came forward, and then slowly, he lowered his dagger. “Anna!” he called. He sheathed the weapon and came nearer. “What is it?” “You know him?” Dilichi asked. She nodded. “I’m a friend of his wife.” She moved quickly to him and said, “Northern warriors are coming after you.” “What do they want?” he asked. “Fish? They can only get our creel… and maybe blades.” He drew his dagger again. “But they are too many to fight against, Okri,” said Anna. “Just awake your brother let’s run.”


The brother was in a loin cloth and was lying on a cloak that was spread on the ground. He wore dreadlocks which was enough to serve as pillow for him, though he supplemented it with his hands. Okri being the alerted fellow bent and started shaking his dozing brother. “Ochi! Ochi! Ochi!” he called, but the young man seemed to be deeply absorbed in a dream. He was just murmuring while his eyes remained closed until Okri said, “Northerners!” Ochi sprang up, picked his own dagger and rotated from a spot. He first of all moved towards Anna and halted. He turned to Dilichi and touched the blade of his dagger. “They are bloodthirsty and too many,” Dilichi said. She pointed over the sea, reminding them that sailing inward would help. Ochi put on his cloak, took a stick from the fire and moved down to a part where canoes were parked. The warriors could now be seen afar, but again the moon co-operated as it slid into some long plumes of thick clouds.

*

The warriors followed the tracks on the sand until they were at the sea boundary. There was a torchlight that went farther into the horizon; they knew that it was their sport. Two warriors were hauling a large canoe into the water while Lota busied himself trampling over the fire. He buried the sticks into the wet sand while the embers that were left released vapours into the air. “Good fight, brother,” Echendu said. He had been observing everyone in their various activities. Lota smiled and strode towards the other warriors. Echendu went after him immediately. “No need doing that,” he said as he paced. “Their light has gone off.” The captain moved his eyes from the sea to the sky. “As you can see, no more sign to trace them with,” he said and turned to Lota, “so we must ride back before morning!” “What about my father?” Echendu asked. The captain smiled. “The agreement is still void.” “We fill it then,” Lota said. The captain moved closer to him and asked, “How? They’ve gone far and it’s dangerous for my men in Kpando and Alanta. The two of you must lead us back.” “We can keep you safe,” Lota said. “This is our land, and lives are at stake.”


“Yes,” Echendu agreed, “we will wait. Surely, they must return.” The captain nodded and placed his hands on his sheath. “We just have to trust you with your father.” The words in combination with the captain’s evil smile seemed to irritate Echendu. “And there’s no need going back without the Starlady,” he said. “The words sent by the king were just to motivate you,” the captain replied. “He won’t harm me; your old men are the ones to suffer if the two of you do not deliver, although he might spare you for conscription.” Echendu frowned. “I guess it’s only a coward that will serve the man who murdered his father,” he said, and looked up at the captain. “Are you not a warrior?” The captain waited a while before he read meaning into the words. “Be careful!” he said in an angry tone. But Echendu went on. “And I’m sure your father is no more, mercenary.” “Hold this fool before I end his life!” the captain said to Lota. He might have the power to do anything but there must be something that he wanted from Echendu -- his services as a hunter. Lota knew that a high ranked Northerner could never be this kind to take an insult, but Fena had done so. He touched Echendu and bowed his head, pleading with the captain.

Lota was picking up the fire woods he had trampled earlier when Echendu approached slowly. He noticed him and started speaking: “It is true that they say the Northerners are gullible, but terrible at the same rate, Echendu. They can do horrible things, so you must not talk to them anyhow. Only a stab of their weapon in the heart can send you to an early grave, but the worst is that your body won’t be with us for a befitting funeral. It is the mystery about them... so be wise!” He looked up immediately. Echendu stared into his eyes for some seconds and shook his head. “May the High Spirits guide Haruni’s soul in peace.” Lota nodded. “Haruni will only rest in peace once his father is freed -- that’s what he told me.” Echendu smiled and said, “But I don’t trust this captain. Do you?” Lota did not answer for a while. He surveyed the environs; when he was sure that no one was near, he said, “I will kill Fena if he betrays us. But know that there will be no betrayal if we don’t get the girl -- the Starlady-” Echendu squatted immediately and held his cousin’s shoulders. “I’m saying that we have the chance to either escape now or kill them first... before they get the chance to betray us! There can still be other alternatives of saving my father.”


“If you can risk your own father, I won’t risk Haruni’s. Think of the agony his mother will undergo from losing a son and husband in a season. I can as well avenge his death.” “By killing her?” Echendu asked, pointing over the sea, as if he were sure of her exact position. “Our success depends on getting her either alive or dead, so yes!” Echendu shook his head. “It’s of no use to the dead, likewise the two fathers. The poor girl did what needed to be done. Put yourself in her shoes-” “Suspend the talk until he leaves,” Lota said. Echendu turned back and saw the captain coming; he helped Lota complete the arrangement of the fire woods. Soon, the smoke began to swim upward. The captain sat near the fire, exactly opposite to Echendu, and was looking at him as the other warriors came slowly. “Smoke and fire are the same. If we can’t capture the girl,” he said, “we bring her corpse and claim that she killed herself.” Echendu frowned, having understood the outcome of Lota’s earlier discussion with the captain. “Killing her?” he asked, looking directly at the captain. He couldn’t believe how harsh the world was, not just capturing a woman, but taking her life to save another. “Why?” he asked. Proudly as a good strategist, the captain said, “Because that is the only way the king will release your father.” Echendu chuckled and bent his face. He was heard, but it sounded as if he spoke to himself. “If you cared about my father, why would you seize us for seeking to help him?” He raised his head immediately and said, “You are trying to save yourself, captain!” “From what, exactly?” The captain’s eyes were sparking. Echendu turned and met Lota’s eyes warning him. He was more shocked at Lota being a part to such discussion of killing; he took his eyes away. He had heard a lot about the Northerners, so was not surprised at the captain. “Save myself from what?” the captain asked in rage. Echendu nodded. “You forget so soon? Your king will take your life if you do not deliver.” The captain tore his cloak, rose immediately and pointed at Lota. “Hold your foolish brother! Next time... which will be the third, I won’t be nice to him!” Lota, knowing that Echendu might still utter a statement capable of worsening matters, held him by the shoulders and led him away. The captain was panting while the other warriors tried to calm him down. Few paces away, Lota asked, “Why are you being uneasy to compromise?”


Echendu hissed. Sweat ran down his face, despite the cold weather they had been in. “So you would let him kill an innocent girl!” he said very slowly. Lota smiled and folded his hands. “Exchanging her for your father is the same as killing.” Echendu’s voice quavered and would have even been taken as a weeping child if not that his shining eyes were visible. “I wasn’t planning to leave her there permanently,” he said and panted. “I’ll go for her after my father is released.” Lota laughed. “Look at you, thinking like a child. It was all your father’s fault; protecting you like a lamb. You couldn’t even rescue your own father; you’re intending to treat a treasure that way -- it’s childlike to think like that. Do you know the way to the Northern palace?” Echendu shrugged and turned around. “In fact, I’m confused.” “Oh yes you are!” “Then I’m tired of all these: no life worth more than another. I will leave this place now, look for a better way and-” “But she killed Haruni-” “For a reason -- to protect her own life. Even you would have taken the chance of killing a Northerner to protect yourself!” “And you wouldn’t protect your father’s life?” Lota asked, and looked steadily at him. Echendu stepped back and scratched his head. “Speak again and listen to yourself. These are strangers; we shouldn’t trust them. I want to leave, please.” Lota stepped nearer as the other drew backward. “You are a coward, Echendu! How I wish my father isl strong to take up this cause.” “Call me whatever you like, I’m not comfortable with these people, especially Fena. I’m going away. Now, I see the wickedness in the world my father had always talked about.” “Wait!” Lota said, moving very close to him. “All I do is not for you, but my father’s brother and Haruni’s father. Never for a cowardice cousin like you!” He drew nearer and seized Echendu’s collar, then whispered, “I swear to rip off your head if I ever look for you. You dragged me into this, now, you want to desert me.” He waved an axe over his face and let him go. Echendu staggered back and was puffing. What has gotten into his cousin? he was wondering. The association with the Northerners he could partly blame, but Lota in particular he gave the rest for letting the people he described as being ‘gullible’ take away the ethics instilled in him.


Lota moved closer again and raised the axe. “True that we’ve played since we were crawling, but this is a matter of a man’s life. Take me serious! I’m your senior, respect my words, coward!” He panted, then swaggered back to the campfire. Echendu stared at him for minutes and turned back towards a rock. He dropped his bow and quiver, and leaned on it. He decided that another threat from Lota would burst into a fight so that the rain he had delayed would fall. He gazed at those warming themselves and chatting around the fire, then hissed and searched his pocket. The jewelled knife which he found, he admired. He brought it closer to his nose but the scent he got was not of death -- as the knife had killed Haruni -- it was of the love of life. He seemed to have sworn spiritually or subconsciously never to let a pin harm the ransom for his father’s release. Some of the mistakes he would make from then might not be premeditated, but he was happy with the outcome. He slowly lay on the soil and began to think over Lota’s words. Perhaps he was being helped. No one ever wanted to kill without reason, but wasn’t his father enough reason to kill? He realised that the clouds had cleared, leaving behind a full moon that was decorated by some twinkling stars that were forming a shape for the eyes to gaze upon. He knew that admiring such would make him unaware of any danger around, yet he went on to indulge while his mind kept looping in thoughts.

*

The sea was very hostile, except the sound that came from little sea creatures, but was pitched too low. Another sound was the plop from the paddles. They had sailed very far and were now rowing back. Ochi, the man on dreadlock, was in front while his brother Okri sat at the other end; both were paddling. “All my life of hunting,” said Ochi, “I don’t think that anyone has sailed this far.” “Because of the creature?” Anna asked. Okri rested the paddle on his laps and said, “Fishes stay nearer to the coast; we sail east or west for them. Going this south is to the Rift and that endangers one to the hungry Isiabuo.” The name shook Dilichi; she asked, “Are we near to the Rift?” Her mouth was open and her eyes round as she awaited the news. Okri laughed. “Almost near...but now going further away.” She then sighed while her lips clapped together. “I heard about them in stories,” she said; “I haven’t seen a live one.” “How are you supposed to see them?” Anna asked and turned back to Okri. “Or have you seen any?”


He shook his head. “It’s meant for greedy hunters. We just have their pictures in tales; two large mouths wide open, waiting for you to fall in so that it would close. Hope you don’t want to see them?” Anna laughed and pulled the paddle, reminding Okri to continue with the work. “You all are afraid of the Isiabuo, but we might be going back to meet those monster warriors.” “They must have gone,” Okri said. “It was night that hid them, but as you know, morning is very dangerous for them.” “Yes,” Ochi nodded. “Alantans will roast them. I wonder how they were able to pass through the land of Kpando.” He shook his head and said, “Such a weak army they’re beginning to have.” “No!” Dilichi said, shaking her head. “Kpando warriors had a serious meeting in the Square tonight; all of them-” “It’s insane to think of,” Ochi said, “ ‘All of them,’ I wonder the source of such news... or are you also from Kpando?” He answered himself immediately, nodding, “Of course, you look like them; fine maidens of Kpando-” “I’m so sorry for failing to introduce her,” Anna said apologetically, and when she turned to Dilichi, she saw her face frowned. She just bowed at her and went on. “She’s the new Lady of Kpando!” Dilichi frowned more, wondering what could have made her reveal such information. Perhaps, the Northerners might not be the only ones hunting her. “The Starlady?” Ochi asked, turning backward. “No! A noble can’t be so humble.” “Father said that humility is the sign of nobility,” Okri said, but was not defending what Anna just revealed; he was proving his brother’s words wrong. The two were no longer paddling; they kept staring at her until she raised the front part of her hair which exposed a dark star symbol imprinted on her fore head. It was the size of a dot, and had five branches. “But that’s the rune!” Ochi said, shaking his head in amazement. “Is it true? Is it true that you’re the Starlady? Your people must be grateful to us for saving their treasure. What an honour?” “We saved yours at the coast,” said Anna, “so the honour is all yours, sleeping fishermen, or fish hunters as you call yourselves.” Dilichi, seeing that they had nothing sinister in mind after the revelation, asked, “You are brothers?” “Twin brothers!” Ochi said, excitedly. Okri nodded and said, “If you are the Starlady, then those men were coming after you.” Dilichi nodded and was determined to accept the outcome.


Okri went on. “It means that it is no longer rumour that Scythe Shangah wants your gift. Your making the past appear like a shimmer is for the purpose of truth: of what use will it be to a king who doesn’t like peace?” “There are many more ways she could be put to use,” said Okri. Dilichi nodded. “And I’d rather die than serve him!” There was such a power in the speech that made everyone look at one another. “I’m sure he doesn’t need your will,” Anna said. “His sorcerers might be capable of extracting people’s gift and bestowing it upon a loyal servant.” Ochi turned to Anna and nodded. “That’s if they get her. But why did you lie to us, Anna? You said they were coming after us.” Anna nodded. “They came after her, she joined me and then we met you. They were coming after all of us… so keep paddling; accusations will worsen everything.” Ochi laughed as he paddled. “You can never change, talkative. You lied before and may be lying now.” Dilichi nodded and turned to Anna. She whispered, “Tell them the truth since you know them.” Anna laughed with a wide grimace. “Hear me now because I won’t repeat myself. I was accused of lamb theft, but I’m innocent. Some mad women brought me to her.” She pointed at Dilichi, raising her eyebrows. “That was how I met her!” Dilichi nodded. “And she doesn’t look that bad.” “Good news then!” said Okri. “She’s in the right hand -- the hand that wields the starplate, so hopefully, by tomorrow, the truth should be out.” “Of course,” said Anna. “I just hope you are,” said Dilichi, “because I don’t enjoy seeing people tortured on that rack.”

*

In the shadow of the coast was a creature crawling slowly on its belly. It had two heads of the size of a hut at both ends of the belly. The head and the other parts of the body were covered by a mouldy skin of a dirty-green colour. The head was decorated with countless little spines and one long horn in the middle of each head. The four eyes were terribly blazing in a crimson light, almost setting ablaze its large mouths that had been left open; that might have contributed to the rumpled nature of its nostrils. The


tongue was sticky and the liquid it released glued the coastal sand. Its Long teeth gnashed and almost cracked, and that silenced other little sea creatures that had sung all night. A growl from it alerted Echendu so that he opened his eyes. The creature only lived within the Rift, which was far ahead into the sea, so that left him pondering. “Isiabuo on land?” he said, and sat up immediately. “Isiabuo!” he screamed, expecting help from his colleagues. He looked around and saw no one. He wondered whether Lota had left with the warriors because of the dispute they had in the night, or probably the beast might have consumed them already. He moved his hand backward to get his bow on the rock. He turned immediately when his hand scraped the bark of a palm tree. He sprang up at once and moved backward. The beast growled and slithered faster towards him; he turned to run. It leaped like a slingshot and he lowered his head immediately. It missed the head and continued its motion upward. Echendu was down, staring at it as it disappeared into the clouds. “Isiabuo flying? Great!” he said and panted. He closed his eyes and seemed to have heard a voice. He opened his eyes and saw Lota whispering into his ear. “Why was it great flying?” Lota asked and rose. “Not the red blood of the Starlady. You don’t want to kill so you feel like flying.” Echendu smiled. “You heard me? It was an Isiabuo flying in my dream.” “When will you stop this?” Lota asked and laughed. “Speaking tortoise, four-leaved clover and so on; I thought you were admiring the lucky constellation which might mean luck for us tonight. Get up; it’s time!” Echendu stood and looked up at the sky. The stars had taken a rough arrangement of the shape of a star. He remembered that he had seen it forming before he dozed off. He brought his eyes down over the sea and turned quickly, frowning at Lota. “You must be strong, brother,” Lota said. From the way he looked and acted, he was indirectly apologising for his harsh speeches yester-night. “What are you still doing there?” the captain asked, as he paced towards the sea. “Get into the canoe, fast!” Echendu hung his bow on his shoulder and stared over the horizon again. He would have remained defiant, but for the fact that he might delay some actions if on board with them convinced him to obey. He was thinking of a way to help this lady while those around him thought exactly the opposite. “You are still there, fool!” the captain said. Echendu shook immediately and moved into the canoe. Lota was holding an axe with a wooden handle while the other warriors, including the captain, had a sword each. They wore their helmets, except the captain. Four warriors paddled.


*

There was no difficulty detecting that it was some people strange that approached. The plop of their paddles was extraordinarily a great splash. The two canoes seemed to have held the dark which should have been on the verge of disappearing. Dawn, as fast as it could, approached while the Rift got nearer in the shortest possible time. The sea which stretched east and west had a boundary at the south which went alongside the sea. The current around this boundary appeared to be directed into this great depth, though the heavy splashes also seemed to be returning the water back into the sea. Highly dense dews and steam rose from the Rift, going up as long as the eyes could focus. The canoes were about the size of an ant if given the chance to exaggerate, but sincerely, they were invisible around this threatening Rift when viewed from far aerial. The positions of the two canoes were very dangerous; nothing could be guaranteed at that point, not even danger. Truly, the race of life knew no barricade. It was not raining, but their clothes were damp, not from the sea, but the air. Yet, Captain Fena would not give up, even when the Rift was nearest to the people he was pursuing. Ochi had thrown his paddle backward but it did not travel any far; and he received no reprimand. The only sailor left also knew that the path they were treading had never been trodden before. “Why not sail west?” Dilichi asked. Okri shook his head. “The current is uncontrollable outside these parts; and the danger is unfathomable.” Dilichi closed her eyes and wept in her heart. “Give it up! I can’t let all of us end in the Rift because of me. You’ve done your best!” “But I still have a plan in mind,” the sailor said. “Tell me,” she demanded. “About twenty paces from the Rift, I will go sideways and give up.” Ochi who was then at the back said, “But a paddle might not withstand the current.” Okri frowned at him. “You didn’t consider such before using yours as a weapon. You should have thrown a dagger instead.” After a while, he said, “Don’t worry, life is a risk. You know how fast I can paddle.” Still, the fate waiting in the frontier never perturbed the captain. All he wanted was to see the end, so his voice kept echoing in the misty air, “Keep moving or stop! We will pursue you to death!”


“But those men could be fellow Alantans,” Echendu kept saying. He turned to Lota and said, “We should stop this madness!” The captain also turned to Lota and said, “Don’t pity them. They’d stop if they love their lives.” “And if they die?” Echendu asked. Lota looked at Fena and turned to Echendu saying, “Then be ready to shoot.” Meanwhile, the treasure whom for her sake all the risk was being taken had given up within; not just giving up, she was trying not to be selfish. “It’s okay, twin,” she said. “I won’t let you do that. Let them have me!” When Okri hesitated with a shaking head, she started struggling over the paddle with him. “Give it to her,” Anna said. “Respect her decision!” She was direct in speaking, but for the fact that the Rift was near, and death seeming nearer, she might have spoken for the fear ahead. “But you know that the Northern warriors will not spare us,” Ochi said, “even if they get you.” Dilichi was about leaving the paddle in response to what Ochi just said. She wasn’t aware that Okri was also about leaving it to her because of Anna’s persuasion. They both left it at once and it plopped into the deep; that was followed by their loud screams. A ray of light might have risen from the east but the darkness in the captain’s heart absorbed it. His howl kept sounding into the air; Echendu was very bothered by what this captain was saying. “Shoot!” the captain shouted as he had for many times done in this minute. “But we gain nothing by doing this,” said Echendu. “We should throw them a paddle.” The captain looked at him, followed by Lota; the light was absorbed once more. The scrape of metal sounded from the captain’s sheath; Echendu removed his bow immediately. “Oh no!” he said, looking around desperately, but happier within. “What trick are you up to now?” the captain asked. “Shoot! What is ‘oh no’?” “I left my quiver at the coast,” Echendu said, confidently that he had won by luck. The captain’s heart started beating very fast and his eyes widened. “Your dream has finally come true. Now, you’ve gotten what you wanted.” “Their death?” Echendu asked, pointing at the canoe. “Even if I had the arrow, and I shot them; how were you supposed to get her body... to save yourself?” “Echendu!” Lota called.


“I don’t care,” he said and shook the canoe. “Inside the Rift? You are all guilty of their death!” “And this is how I will get her body!” the captain said. With a strength drawn from the presence of an angered rage in a wicked soul, he pushed Echendu. His splash against the paddle splash cancelled each other. There was a swift flow accompanied by rising bubbles made very visible by the rising sun. The one who thought he was hardened enough to accept any compromise found himself developing spines; spines in the middle of every goose skin that grew on his skin. “What?” Lota said, with no power to scream. He cleared his eyes and once again plucked the lens. The sun had risen truly, so the best was to believe what he witnessed. If spared, he would be the only one to return, out of the three that left. “Oh yes, I’m finished, likewise him,” grumbled the captain as he awaited an opportunity to add Lota if necessary. When he saw that Lota was not planning to rebel, he said, “You can as well join him. The earth is a witness that I warned him three times.” Lota shook his head and bowed it low. The downfall of a man is just for a short rest which would give him much more replenished energy necessary to zoom. Lota believed that, he thought over it as they returned.

*

The canoe came crashing on the ground, bounced up and floated above. Ochi fell slowly like a suspended mass. Anna and Dilichi followed at the same rate, then Okri. They all struggled to land on their feet but only the men succeeded. They could not have guessed that there was another world inside the Rift, though some pessimistic ones had started imagining the place to be Hades. The two girls dropped to the ground like leaves in the wind. Dilichi rose slowly, looking up and turning around, pondering not just upon what she was seeing, but whether to be optimistic. There were white roses which stretched far into the horizon; it was the same all round so the place would have been taken as a garden if not that there was no gardener. The leaves were fresh, the stems neatly cut, the petals reflected a strong white colour, everywhere sparkled, but there was no insect that came for the flowers. The only obstruction was a grey building with two pillars in the facade; in-between it was an arch entrance. It was open, but the passage seemed to contain some clusters of white petals that looked like butterflies. But the petals were buzzing. The upper part was covered in a cloud bank. The cloud was glowing but there was no sign of the sun.


A strange sound not like thunder came and a warrior broke out from the cloud. He landed into the same place while Okri and Ochi unsheathed their daggers. The latter rushed forward and gave a heavy strike; the warrior removed his helmet which he used to defend it. “Echendu!” Okri called in an exclamation less of anger. “You know him?” Anna asked, but was disregarded. Echendu had healed Okri of an illness free of charge; that was enough to invite empathy in his statement. “Why are you in the Northern attire?” he asked. “I’m ruined,” Echendu said and threw the helmet on the ground, but it floated; they were in a different world. “You ruined all of us!” Ochi said as he stepped nearer. Anna tried to call their attention but all were focused in the surprise at seeing Echendu. “Kill him!” she said. Echendu turned to her immediately. “You don’t even know where we are!” His voice really echoed. Dilichi, thinking that the warrior had come for her, started suspecting conspiracy with the fishermen, or fish hunters. She believed that a sort of magic had been used to trap her; she should have been in the belly of a beast, or drowned inside the water. They had succeeded at last, she thought, and believed when she saw Ochi dropping his dagger on the ground. She rushed forward and picked up the dagger. She rushed towards the warrior with the weapon set in a position to strike. “Stop!” a voice yelled; she halted and everyone looked towards the building. The white petals formed a veiled woman on gown made of purple beads. She was standing in the frontage of the building. “Don’t hurt yourselves,” she said with her face glowing. Two other women on gowns made of red beads emerged from the pillars and stood beside the woman. The woman on purple took three steps forward and, “You are all one in the same cause,” she said. “You don’t know us,” Echendu said. When the woman turned to him, he asked, “Who are you?” “That’s what you should have asked,” the woman said. “The Northern warriors have done their part -fulfilment in an attempt to destroy. The lucky constellation appearing suddenly in your world meant something. Here is the meeting point, and time for a great task to begin.” Her voice was soft; it seemed as if it had sounded from afar. The two women on red moved forward while the commoners moved backward. They were about to run when the right hand of the woman by the right and the left hand of the other stretched like an elastic. As the hands encircled them, Echendu snatched the dagger from Dilichi who willingly left it. He slashed but the steel passed through, freely.


“Magic!” Dilichi said. “They are not of our realm!” Echendu said, which was an explanation to those who did not understand what went on, though he himself was flummoxed at what the woman then said. “Neither are we of the spirits,” the woman on purple had said. She unveiled her face; a strong dazzling light flowed from it and everyone started screaming. That was the last they saw the place. Only a voice was heard explaining that whatever condition man found himself, whether as a result of accident or coincidence, he should know that it had been planned by the ‘Spirits’ charged to guard him; it was their way of derailing men from the dangerous events of the world. In another way, it might be their means of leading men to their destiny.

*

The warriors arrived at the coast a little while after dawn. Lota had not spoken ever since he was threatened; he was just far away, though still aware of his environs. He remembered calling Echendu a coward, yet he had become quiet, afraid of death. The future of the two men which was their main reason of going for the journey, he could not guess. He had co-operated, even when his cousin was doomed, and now, he wondered whether Captain Fena would consider helping him. The Northerners were known to be evil, and the world beyond Alanta very wicked, Echendu’s father used to say, and now it had proven itself. Lota’s mind kept accusing him; he could not conceal it so he moved towards the captain. “They are all dead now,” he said. “Will you release their fathers?” The captain removed his helmet and shook his head. “The girl is with your famous Isiabuo, not with King Scythe. You must lead us back.” “May I ask for a favour, please,” Lota said, moving nearer. The captain dropped his helmet, untied his sheath and moved forward to meet Lota. “You were brave to have been the only survivor, so whatever it is, if you’re not careful, you are going to lose that. I’d have killed your cousin if we had succeeded, owing to the bags of insult he threw at me, but he made things easier. Worry not, the most important now is that we are going in disguise.” He was about pulling off the coat when it stretched back. He relaxed, trying to figure out the force that did that. Lota had seized his neck with an axe ready to slit his throat. The other six warriors unsheathed their swords and slowly came nearer. “What are you doing?” the embarrassed captain asked in an angry tone. “Avenging my cousin’s death!”


“Don’t be foolish like him; my men will kill you.” Lota looked around and said, “After I’ve killed you.” The captain scoffed. “What do you want?” “Everything!” “I don’t get you.” “You caused the two deaths, yet you wouldn’t release their fathers.” The captain smiled. After he had heaved a sigh, he said, “I will hand them over to you; that can’t be a problem.” Lota laughed, but ended in tears. “They are not under your command. You won’t let me live once I let you go. We finalize it here.” “Get him!” the captain shouted to the warriors; they moved nearer. “You better stay back!” Lota said, and tried to drag him backward, towards the sea. “Unless he’s not important to you.” And that was a nice piece of bluff. Lota was at least happy that the warriors listened to him. “I say, kill him!” the captain cried, and started struggling. The men rushed forward, but stopped in unison. They fell to the ground, exposing dark arrows that were stuck to their backs. The captain saw the source but before he could understand, he was already dancing in similar tone. Lota was almost caught by an arrow that went through the captain’s chest; it protruded out of his back. He removed his helmet but still shielded himself with the captain. He peeped from the captain’s shoulder and put his hands up, letting the body go. A man rose beside the rock where Echendu had lain in the night. “He is Lotana, the son of Ohams Dera! No more shooting,” the man said. He had a huge and muscular stature, was dressed in a black leather cloak with a wide baldric belt over his waist. He climbed over the rock and about twelve other men rose, lowering their bows. “I thought I would be saying goodbye here,” said Lota. “Stay there!” Hewas said. “What were you doing with these monsters?” “You just saved me, Hewas. It’s a long story. I was about killing their captain; didn’t you see that?” “But you are also dressed like them,” said Hewas. Lota put down his hands while Echendu’s name echoed within him. “I need to see my father now!” he said, and started moving forward.


“I said that you shouldn’t move!” “You won’t hurt your fellow citizen for disguising. Though it’s not wise, necessity forced me.” He pulled off the red cloak and dropped it for them. Hewas stared at him for a while, and then jerked his head at his men. “Follow him to his house and get the details. What is Alanta turning into?” He turned to the dead warriors and shook his head. “This must get to the council, before it develops a horn.” ekene

2. TALE AND TASK


Here is the tale told by that woman on purple. She had a golden sceptre, but was not a princess: what the sceptre is meant for; you will get to see, since it’s been untold. Within the time her face dazzled and the time a voice spoke was like a second to them, though minutes or hours might have passed. “I want your understanding, forgiveness and co-operation,” the woman said, touching Dilichi’s eyes, and moving over to Echendu. Dilichi opened her eyes and it seemed like she had just woken from a deep sleep or had entered into a trance; whichever it was, she looked around to see if she could tell the difference. “Where’s Anna, the others, and this place?” she asked in succession. They were sitting on the floor in a round hall filled with arch shaped alcoves. The woman on purple was standing on a platform separated by two steps from where Dilichi found herself. The stage had two pillars at its front edges, joined by an arch wall above. There was a pulpit behind the left pillar and a golden sceptre on top of it. Torches burning with purple flames were all over the place. Behind the woman was a wall which seemed to reflect everything in the hall in a purplish glare. “Welcome to the temple of the Mmiris,” the woman said in a delicate tone. “What have you done to us?” Echendu asked. “The light blinded the two of you and your spirits were brought to this temple. Your friends are asleep… and as well, safe.” “I can feel my body,” Dilichi said, looking all over herself. The woman smiled. “Spiritual body, just for recognition; it is untouchable by the living.” “Who are you, and what do you want from us?” Echendu asked. “We are the Mmiris-” He frowned. “Mmiris?” “We are the medium between the spirit and the living.” “Are we dead... great one?” Dilichi asked. “No! You may call me Ankorej,” she said and took a step downward. “I am currently the priestess of this temple. I was a queen in a peaceful realm, but in my humility, I feel honoured to bring this task. You may sit.” She pointed at them. They turned back and found two wooden back chairs floating. They rose and sat without fear, while the woman continued.


“The two of you have been chosen for a task that will save the world from both human suffering and spiritual agony. I see the world as my children; therefore, the least price I can pay for their redemption is to leave my throne to bring this message. The key to this is you, Echendu Dera.” He frowned at her, wondering how she knew his name. He thought of a better way to awake himself if this was to be a dream, yet the woman was still looking at him. He tried to swallow himself up, but at last realised that it was something that should be done subtly. “Can you take us back to our world?” he asked. “Yes, but you must listen to me.” “Listen to you? Please my father could be dead if I waste an extra time here.” “Waste? Many more will die if you don’t listen.” Echendu rose from the chair immediately. “You don’t expect me to sacrifice my father for many more.” “Then be ready to sacrifice your mother and your only sister after you have saved your father whose death has been predestined.” “Who told you? You know me?” “It is left for you to decide, after which you sit.” Without thinking twice, he sat back. The details given by the priestess were accurate to the best of his knowledge: how she got them gave him the clue that he was not dealing with a commoner. He observed her majestic and confident movement; the only attribute he could think of was the sincere mother of the most famous king told in tales, a mother who could be so humble to depart from the palace just to make sure that the subjects were safe. He was soon brought back from the imagination by the woman’s speech. “Once in every generation a girl is born with a rune that twinkles above. She would have the power to wield the ancient starplate, together they become the treasure of the favoured land, Kpando. Maintaining order by the way of truth is the purpose of this gift.” “What do you want from us, priestess?” Dilichi asked. “Us?” she asked, pointing at Echendu. “You now speak for your enemy? Never mind, he is from Alanta; it was circumstances that put him in red.” She climbed back to the stage and turned to Echendu. “Do you know your worst enemy?” she asked. He looked at her for some time and took a deep breath. Since she knew about him, it shouldn’t have been a problem for her to look inside his mind and spit out the answer. He saw that the priestess was anxiously waiting, so wanted to give a random answer, but again the word ‘worst’ echoed and he turned to the woman. He couldn’t think of any other ‘worst’ enemy than the sinister who brought him to his still mysterious death. “Fena, a Northern captain,” he said.


She smiled and moved round slowly, then settled at Dilichi. “She is the Starlady and already has been marked. The prophecy I’m about to unseal on earth will say that your first encounter with your worst enemy shall reveal to you whom you really are. I know this because I once was the messenger of the three High Spirits.” Echendu by now must have realised that the woman had mistaken them for some people else of maybe a realm where three High Spirits existed, for all he had heard both in fables and in reality were about two High Spirits that saw to the affairs of creation above and death below. The third believed to be superstitious was nature. He thought it would be best to let the over confident woman who thought that she knew all be aware of her errors. “I only know of two; Oganigwe and Ezemmuo.” He turned to Dilichi, expecting her to name more if there was any he had not heard about, but she looked away. She must have remembered the first words spoken to her in the temple and had acted on it when she turned back. “That’s all we know,” she said. The priestess smiled and nodded in sequence. “You are perfectly right in your own sense, but what controls the wind, fire, trees, water?” “That’s nature; nothing controls them,” Echendu said. She stopped smiling and faced them with her hands folded to the back. “Amadioha was the spirit who did that before. And now, we have gotten to somewhere that will make my own mission easier. As I said, we are supposed to be the messengers of the three High Spirits, but the grass will always bend to the wind, so we’ve bent to justice in the land of the living and peace of the underworld.” She moved to a pulpit behind the pillar and picked up the sceptre. She moved backward and touched the wall with the sceptre; its reflective property disappeared. The wall slowly transformed from cloudy to window-like surface, portraying a beautiful landscape that was filled with strange actions. “What is this?” Dilichi asked. The priestess smiled. “A derivative of your starplate. I will explain as you watch.” She moved back to the pulpit and dropped the sceptre. “Long ago before time began, the Almighty God assigned the earth to three High Spirits. They had no reason to answer high; no purpose for their supremacy on the land... so they decided to make lower spirits. We are just part of them-” “The high or lower?” Echendu asked. “No, we are in the middle, but subordinates to you, because we serve you as we now do. “The three Spirits were Oganigwe, Amadioha and Ezemmuo. They chose to bring life to the earth with each having a specific duty; Oganigwe was in charge of creation, Amadioha took care of the created while Ezemmuo owned the Underworld where everyone returned to. They had a rule which you must


memorize; it says: ‘Interfere not with creation; the created will find their passion.’ This was the rule that guided them. Men grew in wisdom, creating other things, maintaining them, but were always against the things that caused death. Ezemmuo became jealous that the living praised the Creator, adored nature, but cursed death and the Underworld...” Echendu wanted to get involved in the story but the position of his father pulled him immediately. He remembered that he wasn’t in a world he should feel relaxed and listen to tales. Though hopeful that he would be out, his father’s life might be timed. “Please! My father’s life is at stake,” he said. “Only patience can save you because you must lose something special to get that unknown knowledge. This is a very long history that I’m doing my best to brief.” “Very long fantasy,” he said and rose. “I’m a fanatic to fables but this is a matter of life or death! I won’t be able to learn more, so please... just let me go and save my father.” “Sit down!” she said. Echendu looked at her for a while and her face became dazzling. He shook immediately and sat, still uncertain about the woman’s true nature, but was once again carried by her warnings. “That is what you believe,” the priestess said. “You cannot save your father without fulfilling your destiny. The mission of giving you the message is mine, yours to accept at the right time. After all, you should have been with an Isiabuo, but you know how you escaped it without armour.” Dilichi looked at him and remembered where she should have been if the rumours were true -- in a rumpled stomach, wet and dark. The situation was extraordinary because both in legendary stories and in reality, whoever that had dared near to the rift, was making himself a fish for the beast. If their current situation was to be the fate of whomever that had skipped through the beast, then the story would be real when told in a real world. She turned to the priestess and, “There can only be acceptance when we see ourselves in the world again,” she said. “Exactly as it should be, but disastrous if you go on to doubt. I see that you are ahead of him. “As I was saying, Ezemmuo built up this great hatred for his duty and demanded for a swap. It was granted to him so Amadioha went down to the Underworld. Ezemmuo in charge of nature used it for fun. He misguided men, causing disasters that brought death which pushed them into seeking help from stones and trees -- this way... he went against the Spiritual Rule.” A little bit of discomfort arose in him each time the fate of his father came to his mind, but he knew that it was only diplomacy that could save their situation. Once again he tried to remind the priestess whom she was dealing with. “Why are you telling us this?” he asked. “Isn’t it a spiritual issue?” “That’s my mission. Besides, you are a spirit now. The truth will be for you to decide in the body.”


He then decided not to interrupt the story again. After all, he was used to telling such stories to people which most, especially Lota, referred to as make-up whereas it might be something he truly saw. It had not been up to a day he dreamt of Isiabuo flying but Lota took him as he had taken this woman now. He lent his ears to the woman but some part of him kept distracting -- reminding him that time should not be wasted listening to some tissue of lies. He shook his head and leaned forward. “...After a long time,” the woman went on, “Ezemmuo saw that the more death he caused, the larger the Underworld and this developed a new jealousy-” “What is it in the Underworld that worth envying?” he asked immediately he understood it. “Your grandfather rejoices when he meets your father, likewise your father when you join him in the Underworld. People separated by death find joy when their loved ones rejoin them.” “Joy in the Underworld,” said Dilichi. “I’ve never imagined such.” “You can see there is,” she said. “So he demanded for a swap again, this time with Oganigwe. His wrath had already been felt on earth and assuming with the duty of the Creator, they knew where he would lead humanity to.” “They refused,” said Echendu. “Absolutely, it was the right decision. This made him wage war against mankind, but the more he did, the happier the Underworld, so his rage rose as it would be for-” “He is a sadist,” said Dilichi; “just like a king in our world.” The priestess nodded and said, “You are leading me to the point with less word. It took Ezemmuo time to create the Power of Possession which he used to forge evils into the world. These evils he used to create a mystical realm where souls and bodies taken from the earth were kept. This way, the death he caused never returned to the Underworld; the living saw no peace.” “Then he has disrupted the Creator’s work and the joy of the Underworld,” Echendu said. “Apparently,” the priestess replied, “there isn’t happiness in the spirit and in the world. The souls got no credit; everything went odd.” “But there should be joy in this his world,” Dilichi said. “A part of their memory is magically left on earth. They only think of their loved ones but do not recognise them there. They weep forever in the realm while Ezemmuo feeds on their grief.” Echendu nodded, believing that he had understood the story but still had not seen how it concerned him. He related the grief to his condition and what his father might be passing through. “A wise spirit shouldn’t keep creating man, knowing that their life and after-life would be agony,” he said, just to let the priestess know how passionate he was about the story, but it was sentimental and a way to hasten his return.


“The worst is yet to come,” said the priestess. “The Creator loved men more than his honour. How could you have lived if your mother was childless? Would your father be happy without a heir? How would you feel if you were to be the last to die?” “I’ve seen why; he’s wise,” confessed Echendu. “I just want to leave-” “The most important thing was that by the combined sacrifice done by the two, Ezemmuo’s action is now restricted within his confined realm, Alammuo.” She moved down towards Echendu. “But he still operates with the evil on earth, and will keep operating until the worst is over. The task I’m giving the two of you is to stop this.” “Can a little oppose a High Spirit?” Dilichi asked. “The people who die with his mark can still be resurrected. They are like the living in a spiritual body. Your popular saying of the body leaving with the soul-” “When the Northerners strike,” Dilichi said. She nodded. “Absolutism is a contradiction but the negative always overwhelms the aim of the ruler. Greed leads to jealousy, and all other immorality follows. One of the evils wants to have all the powers and all the lands under his command.” “Scythe Shangah?” Echendu asked. “She had said that,” she said, pointing at Dilichi, “and with her help, you are going to uncover secrets, free the captives, end the anguish by ending Scythe’s reign, and most importantly, help his successor assume throne.” “You must be joking!” said Echendu. “Tell me, you are joking because I don’t even know what this king looks like.” “He will reveal himself to you.” “And the realm?” “If you don’t find your way to it, it will find its way to you.” “You are with the wrong person, believe me,” he said and looked at Dilichi. “She might be the right one; I’m not.” “I’m certain the two of you are. No one would have survived here tonight if the chosen one had not escaped the beast.” Echendu turned to Dilichi and shook his head. “I’ve wanted adventurous life but never had the chance to live it. I must pass through warlords before getting to a master. Only a Northern captain brought me here when I wanted to secure her life.”


“It was for a purpose,” the priestess said. Echendu smiled at the easy way the priestess replied. He still wanted to let her know that she was with an inexperienced person, a man to be who had been kept only in a county to hunt and graze, never to worry for his future once his father was there. An easy life he was beginning to like before the seclusive fort binding him shattered and he became like a day old child in the midst of hungry wolves. No hope for his living, if not for a caring cousin who devoted himself to help restore his life, but had ended up crashing it, as it seemed. All his speeches were like coins used in bargaining for the release of a prisoner. The first agreement was paid for with his life, and now that he had seen hope, he was trying to be careful so he does not attract another un-payable debt. “I don’t even know the way to this Northern palace,” he said. “Everything is in your head. You will get help from enemies and friends. The combined power of the High Spirits will offer you the greatest help. Tripod power is magically hidden in the Northhead, and you’ll bear the key.” “Now I know where we are heading,” Dilichi said. “The Tripod Power told in stories: make three wishes and it’s granted. Getting through Northhead is even a dream.” The Northhead being a hole in the icy-rocky boundary was shielded by an unknown force and guarded by the Northerners who camp around the Ezemmuo Mountain. Several tales had been told about the Northhead among which was it being a fort where an ultimate power was shielded. “My father used to tell me some Northhead lore,” said Echendu. “The strongest and most trusted creatures guard the mountain. The hole is also shielded by magical barriers.” “We are all right,” the priestess said. “Tripod power told in tales, Northhead surrounded by the warriors. Another fairy you haven’t heard is that shadow can bypass a closed door.” “What are you saying?” Echendu asked. “You will understand when the time comes. Northhead has impenetrable magical barrier round it; the key to this barrier is fast descending. Scythe lives in the coldest part of the world so that he could be nearer to this place once the key descends.” “Mbaofu is his fatherland and the Northern palace his heritage,” Dilichi said. “But he rules more than his fatherland,” the priestess said. “He doesn’t need the Tripod Power to get what he wants,” said Dilichi. “He commands thousands.” “But the three commands the power allows is ultimate that no legion can surpass, except that it cannot take nor create life. Those in Alammuo could be held forever if Scythe gets this power. Humanity could be wiped within the twinkle of an eye. What more?” Echendu frowned. “Then the Creator should give his messengers the key to bring to us at once.”


“Don’t you understand the analogy of a tripod?” the priestess asked. “These are three individual powers from the three Spirits bound by natural magic. Only the key which is unknown to them can open it. Individually, the power is powerless. The key is coming from the Supreme. Know that you must cross seven lands and seven rivers before getting to this power.” “How?” Echendu asked. “Seven rivers while there are only five known lands.” He had taken it too literal but seven lands and seven rivers meant difficulty. He knew that, but had no time to reason it out, or was just anxious. “You are in the first land; the last will be your beginning,” the priestess said. Echendu frowned more. “I don’t understand all these parables.” “I’m plain,” she said. “The next is the secret you shall uncover, after which you help his successor claim the throne.” “Even if I succeed in killing this king,” he said, “and his son ready to spare the murderer of his father, I’m not their mythical dwarves that crown kings.” “The task I’m giving you is to help wipe the evil. It is the destiny of the next son of Shangah to bring peace to the world, but then, your destiny to discover and guard him before destroying Scythe. One day, the army he will command will help the world gain victory against an evil force determined to destroy it. You are to guard this young Shangah after paying my own debt...” Echendu frowned. “Which is?” The priestess pointed at Dilichi. “Protect her!” The whole words revolved around Echendu’s head. His most important task was for his father to be freed. He knew that accepting this burden might be a shortcut back but also a depth like the Rift which must be filled. Now that it had been imposed on him; “impossible,” he thought. He anxiously wanted to get back to life and was still thinking of a better way to achieve that when he noticed this movement beside him. Dilichi had risen from the chair and had knelt. “Please, I would have loved to kill this king myself but he’s been hunting me ever since I was ordained the Starlady. Your chosen might have to go alone.” “Get up and sit for there’s no escape from destiny: all you need is proper motivation. One day, Echendu will be wanted, even much more valuable a treasure than you are. If he gives in to the son of Shangah, the world of the living will be in shamble. The end of your mission should be getting the next Shangah to the Northern throne if you want a lasting peace. I’m not going to force you into your destiny but know that from now, there will be no peace in your lives until you accept that which you have known.” She beckoned on Echendu to come. He rose and moved slowly while she removed a bead from her neck. She used it to imprint a round purple wart on his neck. She moved back and folded her arms. “I now have a way to link to your body.


When you go back and find this mark on your throat, know that you must protect the Starlady until she is ready to join you. You are ahead of your enemy; do not let him get ahead of you.” She bowed, moved above and clapped. The two women on red appeared from the two pillars. Joining at the middle, one turned to a red python while the other turned into a white stone with numerous tiny holes on one side of it -- they called it abrasive stone. The priestess bent, tore its mouth apart and removed a round object -- that was coated with moss, and about the size of a fist -- from the mouth. She struck it with the abrasive stone and dropped the green one on the ground. Smoke rose from it like a geyser. “This is a rare python considered as the most poisonous in your world, but its magic will be a blessing throughout your mission. The mark I’ve given you will disappear once you’ve awoken your friends.” She stepped down and moved to Echendu again, pointing backward with her left hand. “The green object is called a freshstone. I understand your mind asking you, ‘what if I’m being tricked?’ “ Echendu nodded. “I need a sign to differentiate between dreams, tales and revelation-” “You trust the revelation and the task if I give you signs?” she asked, and folded her hands. “What is the deadliest animal in Alanta?” Echendu thought for a while and said, “Anohia...though they hardly leave the Tina hills, but once they do, the aftermath is usually devastating to non-hunting tribes.” She smiled and moved over to Dilichi. “Well, you enjoy seeing animals. Don’t you?” “I do,” she replied in a gasp. The priestess smiled and turned to Echendu saying, “She will be attacked by the beast, but you, Echendu, will decide whether to save her -- which is your current mission. Your last sign will be a blessing from the red python, but your first a riddle: ‘earth shall open to eat; men shall pull to save.’ When you see these signs, know that it is left for you to heal the world.” The smoke turned to a slender stem immediately, bearing different kinds of fruit. The priestess moved to it, plucked an orange and peeled. She smiled with a mouthful and turned to Echendu. “You can’t touch us but we can eat. What does that suggest to you?” “In-between human and spirits,” Echendu said sub-consciously. He seemed to have heard the echo of his last speech and was surprised with himself. The priestess veiled her face and it became dazzling again. The light came like a tempest towards the humans and at the same time, Echendu was saying, “You are not giving us magical powers with such a heavy-” He ended with a scream. The light had blinded them once again and what they heard echoing was: “The two seals are in you.” No one understood, and the source was unknown because the time it came was like between dream and


reality; the medium between the two worlds, and the setting sun seemed like a rising one to Echendu. He was back but perplexed.

*

He opened his eyes immediately in a canoe with a paddle in his hand. His scream awoke Dilichi who was also lying in the same canoe. She must have seen the red cloak which left her screaming also, and then what Echendu saw was whom he was to protect diving into the water. He followed her into the water immediately and engulfed her from the back with his right hand while she gripped the canoe and caused it to shake and tilt. “Just do me a favour,” she said. “They’ve done nothing, just let them go and I will follow you to your king!” He looked back at the canoe and found Ochi and Okri lying unconsciously alongside Anna. He was not sure that he captured them. If yes, where are the other warriors, and even Lota? The Rift flashed into his mind, then the priestess and the Starlady. “It wasn’t my intention to take you,” he said. “And here, I don’t even know how I got...” “Let me go then!” she screamed. “I’ve been dreaming?” he asked, hauling her nearer to the canoe. “Dream?” she asked, looking down his jaw. He left her and touched his neck. He could feel the wart, so after a while thought, he turned and saw Dilichi struggling with the water again. He swam towards her and helped her get into the canoe. He took the paddle; he was still puzzled. Minutes ago, he thought everything was real, but now, he had awoken abnormally in the real world. He didn’t want to sound foolish by revealing all that he saw, yet his gut was pulling on him to give her inkling. He wasn’t comfortable with the way she trembled and could not think of a better way to comfort her other than express his thoughts. “I’m just sorry,” he said, and was nervous to look direct at her. “I promise to let you go once we get to the coast. I thought it was you that I saw in a... in a... dream!” She turned to him immediately with a frowned face. “That can’t be! I also saw you! You magically created the hallucination.” Echendu touched the wart. He was now partially confident that further words would not be foolish, but was still conservative and still looked at her to see if she could throw more light before he would dive into telling her more. “I’m just confused,” she said. “I don’t know how you look before, and until it goes.”


He understood where she was pointing to and acted at once. He touched Anna, then the twins and the wart was gone. She seemed to smile a little but was embarrassed with herself, so ended up in a frown again. “You want me to think it’s true?” she asked crossly. Echendu sighed in relief, shaking his head slightly. “You remember the signs she talked about?” “Until then,” she said. “Until when?” Anna asked, staring around. She saw Echendu and shook but was firmly held by Dilichi to prevent another emergency rescuing. Anna turned backward and was relieved that she was in a safe hand. “I dreamt of death...our death in the Rift,” she said. “He saved us,” Dilichi said, pointing at Echendu, but never looked at him. Okri pushed his head forward. “Echendu!” he called. “What happened?” Echendu waited a while; the only explanation he could give to the flummoxed man was, “It was a mysterious situation we found ourselves in, but thank God we’re back.” Ochi yawned and shook in surprise. “No!” he said and looked around. “A woman with two magical body guards-” “Tied us with their hands,” Anna said. Dilichi nodded and turned to Anna. “What next?” Ochi turned to her, then to Echendu and said, “All of us were there. The light came and the two of you woke us.” Echendu smiled and looked up to the sky. “Magic against time,” he said. “Are you a magician?” Anna asked. He pointed to the sun which must definitely go down completely in less than an hour or two. “That happened in the morning, and here we are in the evening. Let’s get to the coast first.” “And until then,” Dilichi said, “we can’t tell how many days we’ve spent in the mysterious world of the waters.” She turned to Echendu and their eyes met for the first time. She was the first to shy away but still said what she wanted to say. “Okri and Ochi almost killed themselves for my sake so I feel obliged to tell them the story. What do you think?” Echendu, having met two confused eyes from the twins, nodded and turned back. Anna was already dozing, so he said, “I take this time to tell you what I saw, as friends I must trust. What of her?” He pointed at Anna whom Okri now supported.


“Better because she’s a parrot,” said Dilichi in a low tone so as not to raise her but high enough to be heard by all.

*

A man with an unkempt white hair and in a plume cloak walked through an arch hallway. He turned towards a room, meeting two guards at the door. They bowed and separated their spears, which was formerly crossed. There was a furnace at an end of the room, a little bit separated from a black leather couch. A large bed was at another end. The air was filled with the scent of burning incense. The man stopped at the door, bowed and said, “Lord Scythe, not good news the messenger has brought.” The king sat up immediately from his bed and looked up. His head was completely hairless but his side bears and moustache crawled. He was on a black tunic which contradicted with his very fair complexion. His head glinted in the lamps that were hung all round the room. There was a protuberance on his face, a nose which would be irresistible to a butcher. He looked down, harnessing the nose and saying in a lackadaisical tone, “Another bad news, Natali?” The eunuch being Natali who should be his second-in-command, but had also taken the position of the herald nodded and still stood around the doorway with an intense as the king’s reaction was always unpredictable, even when faced with good news. “Why is every attempt failing?” Scythe asked and rose from the bed. Natali shook and, ‘As I Had Known He Would Do,’ his face seemed to portray. He was someone who could read the king at any moment in time and was never bothered when humiliated. He at least was confident that he would never be killed by the king because of a covenant they had had. This had kept him nearest to the king, so as time went on, he kept on mastering him. “The warriors couldn’t!” the king continued. “Not even the hunters aided by spies. Who else can?” He shook his head in anger and sat back, trying as hard to control himself. “As far as the Starlady remains in a free world, our victory will remain a potential war.” Natali took a few steps forward with his right hand on his chest. “My lord,” he said, “why not forfeit the benefits of her powers and end her life at once?” “I’m not interested in her just for what she holds, but for the unforeseeable havoc she could cause. If I kill her, another, who is stronger, will be named. I have taken time to study some ancient writings about Kpando; I learnt that a true Starlady is born with the star rune, and that happens every hundred years or more. When a true one dies, the next is chosen in a wrestling contest of the bravest maidens in the land of Kpando. Their chief priest performs a ritual to declare her ordained. She shall remain that until death,


even if a true one is born. After her death, the true born one -- not chosen from the bravest -- is ordained. If we could ever have a chance to get a Starlady alive, it must be now with this undoubtedly weaker maiden. We need to trap her alive within this palace, to prevent what I told you that Zifite, the seer saw-” “Starlady leading a great enemy to oppose us?” Scythe nodded and settled into a more relaxed position that would attract compassion from anyone who had not heard his story. “What do we do, My Lord?” Natali asked. “From the farmers in Amaato,” Scythe said, engulfing his head with his palms like someone who had been stricken by a severe headache, “Buruka should raise whatever price his insider in Kpando asks. We need her at all cost, but if that fails, we shall risk creating fallen out of ourselves.” “Yes, My Lord,” Natali said and took a bow. He was leaving, but suddenly turned back. “What is it?” Scythe asked. “Our men in the Ghoori kingdom are making progress. Once they capture the kingdom, we shall crush the Desert Empire and claim the treasure.” “Natali!” he called and folded his hands. “My Lord.” “I acclaim their impending victory, but I want every division to withdraw their warriors and get ready for a greater task.” “My Lord?” “Yes,” Scythe said, nodded and sank backward into the bed. “I want to be ahead so the pillars don’t crack unexpectedly.”

*

Meanwhile, before the last sight of the sun, they were at the coast. The others got out, except Echendu and Anna; the latter still slept. He touched her with an intention of waking her, but she hurried out of the canoe immediately. Echendu pretended not to notice her reaction. He dropped his right leg on the sand and felt cold. It was covered and he took it to be water. He moved the other leg and noticed himself getting shorter. He kept sinking deeper into the sand until he was left suspended on his hands that gripped tightly to the canoe.


Dilichi turned and screamed. The twins hurried and pulled him up. They were all puzzled at the spot, and even drifted from the area should it be a portal to another realm. “But I just passed through this point,” Anna said as she looked backward, at the canoe. Dilichi nodded and checked on everyone with her eyes. She slowly moved to Echendu and touched his shoulder, causing him to stand bolt upright. “What?” he asked and turned immediately. He sighed and observed the sand patches that were on his body. “I’m ridiculed,” he said with a smile. She seemed to chuckle but bent her face saying, “Don’t you think that this has solved the riddle?” “Earth opening to-” “Quicksand, don’t you think? You should wash yourself.” She turned slowly and moved away. Echendu, after thinking about it said, “Impossible! Only a fool will ride into fire.” He shook his head and moved backward in a ridiculous manner. He caught Anna glancing at him and so behaved himself. Anna rushed towards Dilichi immediately and asked, “What is he talking about?” “Later,” she said, and came back to Echendu. “What kind of impossibility and fire were you talking about?” Echendu felt himself a coward for grumbling those words. He kept quiet but after a while looked up and found Dilichi looking directly at him. He never knew when his neck began to shake. He said, “Scythe is ready to give them whatever they need to get you. You face the Northerners; for me, I can’t.” He shook his head again against what he just said, but someone had come from behind to interrupt him. “Are you going to fight?” Anna had asked. “No, nothing,” he said, and looked very confused which was uplifted by his sandy skin and cloak. Okri came and led Echendu away just to rescue him from the questioners, but they ended up discussing other matters. After the discussion which only lasted for a short while, they moved to Anna. “The two of you can’t reach Kpando before dusk,” said Okri, “and we have neither horses available nor space to accommodate you. You will go with him.” He held Echendu’s shoulder. Anna shrugged when Echendu nodded. She moved closer to Okri and whispered, “You are giving us to a-” She paused when she saw Echendu moving away. She watched him move farther and kept watching that she forgot what she was saying. Echendu was around the rock where he had lain in the previous night. Dilichi came around and, after a while conversation, left. He picked up an empty quiver and looked towards Anna. She shook and faced Okri whom she had been with.


“You’re safe with him,” Okri said, smiling. Dilichi touched her back immediately. “We are leaving with him,” she said, but Anna still shrugged. She held her shoulders and bent towards her ear, whispering, “Better follow my orders… because the rack has not shifted from the Square.” Anna smiled after a frown. She looked into Dilichi’s eyes and said, “Even after going through the rift. I still have not understood the magic that saved us.” “That shouldn’t bother you since you can’t believe me. And not even the fear of being guilty, because I believe you are... innocent.” “How do you know?” she asked, and had started rejoicing. Dilichi started moving towards the rock. “I think I only guessed -- the starplate will tell. Just believe what I told you about him.”

*

Footsteps away from a hamlet came an old man riding slowly on horseback. He would look up and down, shake his head severally before concentrating on the path. He noticed three figures coming, so halted. He came down from the horse, took a handful of sand and paced forward on foot. Echendu had a glimpse of him from a distance and took faster steps to have a closer and clearer view. Before he could reach the man, sand blinded his eyes. In Alanta, sand or water were the most effective elements used in detecting ghosts, because they believed that ghosts are not stained by either. “What are you doing, Ohams?” Echendu asked as he wiped his eyes. “Lotana told me that you fell into the Rift of Isiabuo, so am I with a ghost?” “Isn’t the sand on my body enough to prove that I’m not a ghost?” “I can also see your footprint,” Ohams said and embraced him. “The news is all over the village, and your mother is dying in grievance. High Spirits will have my chicken tonight.” “That’s why I’m glad to have met you.” He turned and waved his hand. Dilichi and Anna met up with them; Echendu took their hands. “Meet my uncle; he’s the town crier of Alanta kingdom.” He also introduced them by name and they bowed in greetings. Ohams rushed over the greetings and turned to Echendu. “What happened to you? That my son lied is now obvious, but why would he?” Echendu folded his hands “I’ll explain in your house. I need to sneak in so my mother doesn’t see me.”


“Why?” “I don’t know what her reaction would be. I think you should tell her first, tell her that Lota lied; and that I’m coming home.” Ohams didn’t speak again. He just led his horse slowly and moved with them. The Northerners came into Echendu’s mind, then Captain Fena. He looked at Ohams and frowned. “Where is Lota?” he asked. Ohams cleared his throat and said, “He came back and told me the lie. I warned him not to, but I don’t know how the story leaked and your mother came to me crying.” “And you left her, knowing how she responds to-” “I tried to console her, and as well console myself. You should have seen the way I was riding.” Echendu nodded, “I’m alive,” he said. “Is Lota alright?” Ohams moved closer and put his hand over his shoulder. Echendu looked at his uncle and his heart began to sink slowly in suspense. He looked away and scratched his head. The first time he asked about Lota, the answer was diverted. Now, it is physical diversion by patting. He stopped and looked at him again. Ohams realised the type of answer Echendu was afraid of getting and smiled. “Don’t worry, boy,” he said, petting his neck. “Your mother almost went mad so I had to plead with the council. They let Hewas and his men accompany Lota-” “To where?” “It’s not a matter of ‘where?’ but ‘how?’ They went in the guise of Northern warriors. They killed some warriors at the coast this morning.” Echendu smiled, but with a bit of dismay. He would have wanted to appear like a ghost to the man he took as his worst enemy. In his mind, Lota had become a great man by keeping to his words, but also an idiot by doing the right thing at the wrong time -- at the time he was assumed dead already. Since he was living again, and Lota having killed his enemy, he nodded and turned to Ohams. “I know he will kill Fena, but would have been happier if I met him alive.” “Who is Fena?” Ohams asked. Echendu frowned. “It seems he didn’t tell you everything.” “I don’t know what ‘everything’ is -- he just told me how you died, and that he has killed your murderers. Lota and Hewas are on their way to Etiti land; to see if any trick can rescue my brother and Haruni’s-” He paused and nodded. “Yes, he also told me about Haruni. Is it true?”


Echendu turned to Dilichi who was behind with Anna. He turned back immediately and nodded to the uncle. Town criers often forgot the difference between confidential news and a public one, but in this case, Ohams was one of the people he could trust with his story. He also remembered about the bush bearing ears, so partitioned the story and told him the ones that would not attract the people of Alanta to Dilichi. “Captain Fena caught us on our way to Etiti death camp. We have been in the prison for two days until their king-” “Scythe?” Ohams asked. “Yes,” he nodded. “He made us an offer to kidnap the Lady of Kpando in return for our father. Captain Fena and his warriors went with us.” Ohams nodded slowly and, “And, did you get her?” he asked. Echendu frowned and slowly shook his head. “Of course, that’s not right,” Ohams said. “Exchanging lives?” He shook his head and turned to Echendu. “How did Haruni’s... you know what I mean, how he died, or is it a lie also?” He waited for an answer and quickly added when Echendu was about to speak, “Oh! I pray it is, and all my chicken will be sacrificed to the High Spirits. The testimony must travel, come on, tell me.” “I will tell you later. The most important now is how all of us can get inside that house, unnoticed.” He pointed forward. Ohams rode forward, through the path and branched left to a narrow side that lead into their hamlet. He came back with a cloth which Echendu used to cover his head. No one was biased about the house being empty because normally, the women should have been out for gossip at that time, talk more of now that they have Echendu’s mother to console. They had all settled inside the house when Ohams bolted the door. He climbed down the wooden stairs which led to the door. There were wooden seats in the four corners of the house and a table at the extreme, opposite the door. By the right was another room with raffia woven curtain. Ohams was about to take a seat when a knock came at the door. He hurriedly led them into the room by the right and locked the door. He rushed to the entrance and opened it. “Lota! Back so soon? What happened?” Lota took a deep breath and walked down the stairs. He took a seat while his father came and sat beside him. “What happened, son?” He lowered his head. “We were attacked by Kpando warriors, so we fled back. We were almost killed.” “They thought you were Northern warriors?”


Lota nodded and turned to him. “I don’t know what next to do father, but the least is tell you how Haruni and Echendu died.” “Wait!” said Ohams. “Just promise me that you will-” Lota rose immediately and stamped his feet on the floor. “I just escaped from the last promise I made you!” “Allow me to finish, son.” He stood and held his son’s shoulders. “Don’t act weird if I show you this.” “What?” Lota asked. He had already cast a suspicious eye on his father without thinking of anything in particular. Fear gripped his neck and he shook his head. Ohams led him to the door and slowly opened it. Lota leaped backward and found himself on the ground with his face smashed upon a broom. He stood up and ran towards the door, but was grabbed by Echendu. “This is a phantom! I saw you drift into the Rift, I swear!” “Something lifted me, right!” Echendu said, still holding him very tight. “Then it must be magic.” Echendu nodded. “Yes, the flying Isiabuo did it.” Lota looked at him and shook his head. “It was a tragic loss, so don’t joke, tell me what happened!” He was released from the grip and he staggered backward, panting. He raised his right hand and, as if he had forgotten what he wanted to say, lowered it. He looked around and said, “You weren’t the only one I saw. What of the Starlady?” “She’s over there, and her friend,” he said, pointing at them. “Those men were Palori’s twins -- Ochi and Okri.” “The twins?” he asked. Echendu nodded with some signs of smile on his face. “I saved them all.” Lota looked at the girls and turned back to him. “And the girls?” Echendu remembered that Lota was a part to the agreement of killing Dilichi so he kept quiet and looked at him. Ohams was quiet, and the girls bewildered as they waited to see what would come next. Lota nodded and slowly moved backward. He turned immediately, ran up the stairs and out from the room. Ohams went after him, shouting and cursing. He at last locked the door and said, “I shouldn’t have shown him. I’m sure he spread your death news, and now, he’s going to turn it around, stir it and cook it!” He was knocking on a table until Echendu came and held him.


Echendu did not want to believe what his mind suggested that Lota might do, although he knew Lota to be capable of doing such. Protecting the Starlady, he thought was his mission, but he did not want to jump into impossibilities, knowing that one mission would lead to another and eventually death, as he believed. He wanted to protect her as a responsibility; not as an obligation from an assigned task. He forgot that he had been looking at her for the past seconds aimlessly in front of his uncle. His eyes met with that of Ohams and the old man smiled; he had noted that. “You need to know her, uncle,” he said, pointing at Dilichi. “She’s the Starlady.” Ohams thought for a while and nodded. “I thought my ears were deceiving me when you said that to Lota.” He turned to her and smiled. “It’s an unexpected honour. We are peaceful people. We don’t trade lives. Feel at home, lady.” She stood and bowed her head, then sat back. “I think you should speak to his mother,” she said, pointing at Echendu, “before the worst happens.” Ohams nodded and shook Echendu’s hand. “You were brave to have saved them; I want to hear the tale.” Echendu was confused on what to say. Every bit of the story started revolving around his head and when the one that seemed like a mystery to him came by, he sat and asked, “Is there anything strange you know about Northern warriors? I mean, the weapon they use or the magic that makes it work.” “That’s not the reason we are here,” said Ohams. “Maybe, it will interest you to hear the recap of what you already know.” Echendu nodded. “Go on.” Ohams shifted his eyes from him to the girls and back. “It seems you are insensitive, Echendu. How can you tell me to recap a popular saying -” “But you know what my father did to me-” “He didn’t shield your ears! Well, once they touch your heart with their weapon, as it is said, ‘your body leaves with your soul.’ Your body disappears! I’ve seen one myself.” “That’s not what I mean,” Echendu said and scratched his head. “What makes the weapon do that, and where do the bodies go?” Dilichi sat up on the seat and frowned. “But you know,” she said in a very low tone. “He can’t know,” Ohams said confidently, and turned back to him. “Their weapons are spelled. Scythe has alchemists and sorcerers-” “I’m asking about the kind of magic that does that.”


Ohams rose immediately, stamped his feet on the ground and said, “I’m not a magician! Do you have any intention of becoming one?” He paused and frowned, looking at each of them, one by one. “Or was Haruni taken by their sword?” All were silent as Ohams kept rotating and imagining Haruni being taken by a spelled weapon. The silence lingered until Anna rose. “Maybe I have a clue,” she said. All eyes were on her as Ohams sat back. “Forgive me our lady but this is true. My late brother was a warrior of our land and somehow a sort of spy for the Northerners. He came back one evening from Amaato and told me how he was taken to deliver weapons from Mbaofu. He told me that every weapon used by them is honed by sorcerers with stones from the Ezemmuo Mountain-” “I’ve heard such rumours,” Ohams said, laughing and trying to dismiss it as a child’s thought. “It’s not just rumour!” Anna cried. She panted for a moment and went on. “He smuggled a sword home and showed it to me. He said that Scythe has a way of recording the number of killings for every warrior, and that he rewards them accordingly. Eventually, my own brother died by the sword-” Dilichi rose immediately and asked, “Suicide?” The other shook her head. “Grand Emerie came -- that was before he was made the grand-commander, I don’t know why my brother fought him. He knocked the sword off him. Before my very eyes, Emerie hit him with the sword in the heart; he disappeared.” She was already sobbing. Dilichi had to rescue her. She moved forward and cuddled her. “Why didn’t you report him?” she asked. “He told me that he was doing justice. He reminded me that the punishment for treason-” “Extends to every member of the family,” Dilichi said. Anna nodded. “He promised not to expose my brother as a spy, so I swore not to tell. I don’t like to remember this; I don’t even know why I’m saying it!” “You’ve said it all,” Ohams said and moved towards the door. He smiled and held the bolt. “Crying won’t do her any good. Lock this door when you are through Echendu, let me go and speak to your mother.” The door opened but the nature of its slam meant danger. Echendu and his company were not sure, but were alert as they had been.

*

Ohams had shut the door because he saw Lota coming forward with a crowd when he was outside. He frowned and beckoned on them to stop. Others did, but Lota came forward.


“Lotana!” his father called, “what have you done? I can’t believe you told them what you saw.” “Not just that,” he said; “that woman in there killed Haruni-” “Shut your mouth! Who told you that? It’s a lie!” “I saw this myself. The Starlady killed Haruni.” Ohams moved forward and came back. He was confused and did not know whether to confront Echendu first or send the crowd away. “That’s how you witnessed Echendu’s death!” he said to his son. The crowd started drifting forward. Ohams noticed some that were holding clubs and machete. He turned to Lota and asked, “You called them to take Dilichi?” “Who’s she? Oh yes, I remember.” “Hope you didn’t?” “I told you that she killed Haruni!” A woman, probably Haruni’s mother came with another group of men, and all of them moved nearer to the door. They were humming and buzzing and seemed uncontrollable, but Ohams was surprised on how he was able to stop them. Two men whom were Haruni’s cousins came forward with clubs on their hands. Despite Ohams’ warning, they never stopped. “Are you coming in?” Ohams asked; “the door is open. I don’t know how his ghost got in.” The crowd seemed to be silent while the two men halted. Ohams continued, “You may help me drive him out or kill him for the second-” “I told you a lie!” Lota said, interrupting his father. “Echendu didn’t die! Father, don’t deceive them!” He pointed at Haruni’s mother who was the leader of the crowd now. “Beriche, the murderer of your son is in there!” The woman moved forward while the crowd followed slowly. Ohams saw another woman among them and said, “I can’t let the ghost hurt my own wife. Don’t go with them, Nansa!” The woman seemed to be obeying, but Lota again interrupted. “But he just came out of the house, mother,” he said. “Or is he resistant to ghost-fear?” Ochel, the mother of Echendu ran forward with a pistol on her hand. She crashed it on a clay pot in front of the house. Ohams jerked backward. “What is it, Ochel?” he asked. “Which should I believe?” the woman cried. “Your son tells me that my son’s dead, now says it’s a lie and you prove him wrong. Is he alive? Tell me before I set it on you!” She set for another pot but some


men among the crowd held her, claiming that they did not come to destroy properties. She dispersed them with the pistol and moved on. Lota rushed to his father and said, “What do you say father? You can’t harbour a murderer!” The kid-like girl ran to Ohams and burst into tears. “Why do you deceive my mother?” she asked. “You worsen the entire situation, instead of consoling her. Who is lying?” She seized Oham’s clothes. “Wait, Marihe. Just go and hold your mother let me-” Ohams was still speaking when the door opened. The sandy clothes Echendu was wearing convinced the crowd to drift further away, including Marihe, until Ochel bent and took a handful of sand. “The sand on his body is enough,” Ohams said. “You should help him get rid of it.” She picked a piece of the broken pot containing water and poured it on Echendu, then ran and hugged him. She turned back to Marihe. “Come and touch your brother; he’s alive.” The three hugged themselves and the crowd drew nearer. Beriche stepped forward, and at the same time, Anna and Dilichi came outside. “Now Lotana,” she said, “tell me that my own son’s death is a lie or show me the murderer. Which of them?” Dilichi shook and drew backward, followed by Anna. She had started understanding the strife and was thinking of a way to escape when Echendu left his mother and stood in front of them. Ohams drew nearer to Echendu. “Did she kill Haruni?” Echendu looked at him for some seconds and slowly nodded. “He was on Northern uniform just like Lota. She did it to save herself.” Ohams looked at the girl who was now shivering. He turned to Lota. “Tell them to leave my house let’s straighten this issue.” Beriche struggled to the door while Echendu held her. She moved back and turned to the crowd. “If you cannot vindicate my son’s death, I will!” She rushed forward and the crowd followed. Echendu spread his hands and a club landed on one. The girls ran inside immediately while Ohams took Beriche to a corner. Echendu pushed a man who fell on another and a pot crashed; another crashed. He tried to block the door but they pulled him harder until he was forced into combining feints, kicks and blows for them to be kept away. Another pot cracked and he looked towards it, only to dodge a blow that was coming from that direction. Another club landed on his head from another side while Lota pushed him and ran inside. He was on the ground when the others swooped in. Some kept his mother


away while the rest held him. He struggled harder to free himself which led them into tying him up. He looked up and saw them dragging the two girls outside. “Why are you seizing the both?” he asked. “They are together,” a man among the crowd said. “All of you will feel my arrow if anything happens to any.” He rolled himself and saw Ohams coming to him. The old man bent and said, “I won’t untie you, and you shouldn’t injure yourself. Just be patient till I convince Beriche.” Echendu nodded and saw the crowd moving farther. “Where are they taking them to?” Ohams turned immediately. “Taking them to-” He ran forward. On the way, he turned to Echendu and said, “Don’t stress yourself, let me ask!” Two men were holding each of the two girls as they moved towards a path. Beriche and Ohams ran after them. “Where are you taking them to?” the latter asked. “To Haruni,” a man replied. Beriche strode towards him and in a harsh voice asked, “What do you mean?” “Kill her of course,” another man replied. Ohams turned and pleaded with the woman. “They will listen to you, please, don’t let them do this!” She looked at the distressed Dilichi and hissed. “We decide what to do with her later. Keep them in my son’s cage.” “But, that’s not safe. Know that you might be inviting their warriors.” She removed a key from her pocket, and having thrown it into Lota’s hand turned back to Ohams. “I think they are safe this way. If a warrior happens to come here, it will be the work of the town crier.” She turned to the crowd and pointed her hands further into the path. “The padlock is on the cage.” Ohams almost slumped when they were about to move. He recovered himself, and to the woman who had observed this he said, “Take time and think about this… so you don’t regret it later. Snake could bite them!” “Still better than death,” she said, and turned to Lota. “You better don’t release the key until I ask you to.” She nodded at the men, and they moved. “They will have to be kept in the cage,” a man said to Ohams, “until Beriche’s rage is tamed.”


*

Immediately Echendu was released, he ran to Ohams and told him whatever came to his mind. The course he took was a lie which left his long story without bearing, but Ohams was unperturbed because Echendu had been known for such. The summary of all that he had said was that the warriors of Kpando had seen them taking her down to Alanta, and possibly, they must come for her. The lady’s action as a matter of fact was reviewed. Haruni was dressed as a Northerner and every security minded person would have done what she did; that was the only point Ohams grabbed. As he was leaving for Beriche’s house, Echendu added, “They also marked my face. Even Lota’s, and that means danger!” But Ohams whom he was talking to was already out of sight. The man was with Beriche, and after a brief discussion which was more of argument in the most moralistic form, he joined Echendu whom had impatiently waited outside. They all headed to Ohams’ house in search of Lota. There was no one in the house, so they waited a little after which the impatient young man thought it would be wise to take a look at the cage, at least to console them with the news of the positive shapes which things were beginning to take. Immediately he had risen, he turned towards the door and it opened. Echendu had already climbed the stairs when he noticed that it was Lota. “You killed Northerners at the coast, yet you charge someone else of killing a look-alike.” “Stop that!” Beriche said. Lota smiled and slowly stepped down the stairs. “It might interest you to know that I didn’t kill any...myself!” “But you saw me flow into the Rift, yet my living again couldn’t give you a change of heart.” Lota nodded and pointed at the woman. “It’s Beriche’s decision -- not mine!” “It was your fault,” said Echendu. Lota smiled and took a seat. “Yes, I told them the truth, and maybe the offer is still valid.” Ohams frowned and said to his son, “We don’t exchange lives! Why didn’t you tell Beriche the circumstances that surrounded her action?” “Circumstances?” asked Lota. Echendu went to his front and squatted, speaking into his face. “You still trust the words of those who almost -- no, they killed me!” Lota flinched and turned to Beriche. “Your husband can still be released.”


Ohams then rose quickly and stamped his feet. “Listen to your foolish father, wise son, before I disown you.” Lota felt the anger in his father’s eyes, so bowed his head. “What do you want from me now? It all lies on Beriche.” The woman raised her face immediately; it was wet with tears. “Give him the key. Always endeavour to tell the two sides of a story -- and not only the part that will favour you.” She hissed and bent her face. Lota stared at her for a while and shook his head. “I knew it was going to end this way,” he said, and started moving round the room. At every three steps at least, he said, “Haruni was a great friend.” Beriche, after Lota had repeated that for five or six times, wiped her eyes and said, “Don’t you know that it’s my son you are talking about?” Echendu nodded and moved towards Lota. “This is just a sentimental lamentation. Just give me the key and stop pretending!” Lota turned to him at once with a darkened face. “And what are you going to do if I don’t?” He moved nearer and touched his cousin’s chest. “Come on! Do your worst!” “I don’t like that,” said Ohams. Echendu moved backward, turned immediately and ran outside. His mind was set on searching for Palori’s twins, but he saw a man walking past the house; he had to run up to him. “Come and help me get my belonging from my brother,” he said. The man stopped, turned and surveyed Echendu. The man himself was very tall; taller than an average human, but Echendu at least never had to raise his eyes at him, because he was somehow uplifted by his boot, and in another way by his nature. His neck was straight as a result of his jaw that was usually inclined to some angle upward. He was also above an average height, but not extraordinarily tall as the man. “How much can you pay?” the man asked in a deep voice. Putting on a smile of self-confidence, Echendu replied, “Anything you ask, once it is successful.” But the man laughed in an offensive manner. “You that don’t even own a dime. Bow is all you’ve got.” “At least, it costs more than a dime,” Echendu said and the man yawned. “I’m sure you haven’t had your dinner-” He saw Okri coming and ran forward to meet him. “Come and give me a silver coin!” the man said but there was no reply. He chuckled to himself. “I know you to be a worthless treasury archer.” Meanwhile, Echendu had met Okri and had told him the situation. They ran back into the house but saw Beriche holding the key.


Lota at the sight of Okri shook his head, despite the friendly face the latter had put when they saw the key. Lota moved towards Echendu and said, “You brought a body-guard? I should have known it’s all I will get after the help. Everyone’s now against me!” Echendu took the key, turned back to his cousin and said, “Your action almost cost my life.” He ran out of the house immediately.

*

Under a tree some distances away from the hamlet was the small structure where the girls were kept. Its major frame or skeleton was metal while the other parts of the wall were crossed with strong bamboo sticks. Echendu ran through a narrow path that led to a bush bearing one of the Iroko trees. He stopped at the cage and found its door open. He peeped inside -- the floor was elevated with some woven ropes, so that a sport would not be comfortable whether standing or sitting. He pulled the nearest part of the floor and the entire rope danced in vibration. He cleaned his eyes, but it was still true that the cage was empty when he looked again. He could not think of anything next other than just squat and pant. Within a short while, the other three arrived. “Where are they?” Ohams asked, with his head switching to every corner. “This was how I found it,” Echendu managed to reply. Okri went round the cage, checking for footprints, and when he was back, he drew Echendu up to his feet and said, “Lota must have done this -- he must have taken them to the forest around the time you waited in his house.” “But I warned him never to do this!” said Beriche. She ran back to the hamlet.

*

Lota denied the allegation when they were back in the house. When Ochi came in, they decided to go and take a look at the cage again. They at last settled on the bamboo seats at the hamlet meeting point, where the twins asked Echendu to tell the true story -- which might help. He began, and it was not surprising to Ohams when he heard some strange words. What more could be expected from a brain approaching a silver-jubilee without the experience of the other parts of his world? Ohams believed that the boy had been wallowing in their forest, exploring the best of herbs and imagining the best of stories untold. He only got interested when the twins confirmed it. It was re-told, and at last, Echendu said, “I know this sounds like fables and I don’t believe it either-”


“Why telling it then?” Lota asked. “The girls are in danger, whether with you or in the forest-” “They are not with me, I repeat!” Ohams upheld his hand, so they all kept quiet. He cleared his throat and laughed. “It’s a nice story you told, son, but I haven’t heard of anything in-between the spirits and human.. except, maybe, animals-” Lota nodded. “Of course, he’s used to imagining things-” “Shut up, Lota!” Ohams said and seemed to have sparked up. He rose and pointed at his son. “Your incorrigible acts caused all these, and now, you are going to help him track the girls.” His fingers had already switched to Echendu. “We,” said Okri, “are going with them.” And his brother rose and nodded. Ohams commended them for that, then moved away without giving any more command. Beriche asked Lota to endeavour to join them as he was good in tracking with the aid of footprints. She also left, leaving Lota like an enemy among old friends. His conscience had begun to work; Echendu could see that from his silence and his eye movement in the moonlight. Echendu crept towards him and said, “I now believe that you’re not with them, and that means that they must be heading to Kpando this night without horses. Please, don’t let this come between us again; you just have to help.” “It’s dangerous,” Lota raised his eyes and said. It was the summary of what Echendu had been expanding. He laughed, but he meant to help because he had shaken hands with Echendu, and was now rising to his feet.

*

From the cage, they traced the footsteps up to the main road, but lost their tracks due to the many other footsteps. However, they were following the road that should lead to the bridge when Lota found other footprints that were in pairs; that they followed. They rode for about half an hour into the Alanta forest before a roaring sound came. They continued and the trail led them nearer to the sound. Lota’s eyes clashed with Echendu’s and they nodded in unison. “I believed you, Echendu,” the former said and rode nearer to the other; “not just because of the Anohia. I was so proud to accept my mistakes after Beriche has had a change of heart. I’m sorry.” Echendu shook his head in amazement, but said, “Thank you; just their safety first.”


As they moved further, the roaring seemed to be increasing. Echendu halted and turned to Lota. “How sure are you that we are not hunting, instead of going after the girls?” Okri who had gotten close to them nodded and said, “Or the beast could be going after the people we are tracking.” Lota turned back and shook his head. “My fault!” He drew the bridle of his horse and trotted forward. “Madness!” Ochi said while the others just laughed and rode after him. They could hear a horse riding further away while Lota hid around a tree. Echendu knew for sure that the horse was Lota’s. “Who is riding for you?” he asked, when he had come around the tree. “The other girl.” “Anna?” “I don’t know her name,” replied Lota. “The girl with the Starlady. I just let her ride on.” The twins had joined them. When they heard what Lota said, they looked at each other and, “Why did you let her go?” Okri asked. “My wife wanted to see her.” Lota tip-toed to another tree and said, “Stopping her would have endangered the both of us. Anohia hunts by motion and sound in the night. Perhaps she’s safe with my horse.” “What about her?” Echendu asked. “The Starlady.” Lota pointed his axe forward and waved it. “She must be hiding there; the beast is searching.” He looked at Echendu and said, “You know what to do.” Echendu nodded and unfastened the bow that was hanging on his horse. He slowly moved forward while the twins, holding a dagger each, crawled to another side. The animal was roaring and stalking around, trying to trace where the hunters had come from. The body was long and the motion of its four legs was the replica of a tiger waiting to bounce on its prey. The tail twisted and swung from side to side until it halted with a yawning mouth. An arrow came towards the tail and it turned immediately, pouncing towards the arrow. It pierced into its head while a pair of dagger slashed its neck. It rumbled and stretched slowly, then Lota butchered its limbs and bent immediately. He picked up a key and later believed it to be the pendant of a necklace that hung down from it. He showed it to Echendu. “This beast must have eaten the owner of this,” he said. Echendu took the necklace and examined it closely. “I think it belongs to her; because it has the same scent as-” He slid his hand into his pocket and brought out a knife. “Yes, just like her knife.”


Lota frowned. “You kissed the knife? How did you get the scent?” “Your nose is insensitive.” Lota was about taking the necklace from Echendu when something landed with a heavy thud from a tree. Lota hurried to help, but the victim ran and landed into Echendu’s hands. “Have you joined him?” she asked in a sober tone immediately she had turned. Echendu shook his head. “We all came to help you.” “I have joined to protect you,” Lota said and came slowly. “I’m sorry.” Her face wrinkled in surprise and she wondered if it were a ploy. She then saw the twins coming and sighed. “You all came? Thank you, but where is Anna?” Echendu explained that she had left on a horse, possibly to Kpando. She bowed her head and said in a low tone, “The beast dispersed us and I remembered something. You may think that this is ordinary and foolish to believe, but it’s a revelation. It is serious.” Echendu didn’t want to go that way, but wanted to make her feel safe. He cuddled her and helped her stand upright before remembering the manner in which a man should hold a woman, even when in distress. He led her to a horse recklessly so that no eye would think further. He gave her the necklace and the knife which invoked in her an extra trust for the hunter. Echendu remembered his father and hissed at the wickedness of the world, just as his father used to say. Now a little relieved by reconciling her with his people, and their lives restored after the rift, but there was still a void waiting to be filled. Something else, if not destiny must lead him to the Northerners. His father kept calling him within as they rode home, and as a man, must have to take the responsibility. Determined to take it upon himself, and letting neither Lota nor Ohams in on it, his mother could be another obstacle. She might not let him go alone, just as he had decided not to let the Damsel travel alone. He must decide as a man and, at the same time, must keep up with the past, whether a tale or a revelation, in order not to get behind.


3. THE BODYGUARDS Very early in the morning -- at that time when the surrounding played its tricks like the morning haze that hovered over a hazel, making it seem like a huge warrior -- Ohams came out of his house and saw someone climbing onto a horse. He cleared his eyes with a finger, trying to make sure that this wasn’t one of such tricks. Moving his eyes into the lightening dark, Dilichi was on another horse moving slowly while a girl ran after her. He folded his hands and tilted his head to the left. “Where are you going, Echendu?” Echendu was on a cotton shirt that had long blue sleeves. Over it he wore a waistcoat made from pure animal skin. He shook immediately his uncle had recognised him and started loosening the waistcoat. Ohams stepped nearer. “You are leaving for that make-up story?” Echendu froze for a moment and slowly turned. “I’m not leaving,” he said and came down from the horse. “And I didn’t make it up; it is true!” “True that you lied to save a girl?” “Uncle!” Ohams laughed. “You may have saved her but nobles don’t marry hunters.” Echendu immediately looked back and saw that she was engaged with his sister. He turned back and said, “Stop! You’re embarrassing me, uncle.” “Don���t shout at me, boy! We understand. And as for Beriche, it was her kind heart that helped your lie. The case would have been a disaster if it was with your mother. I met Beriche, I personally convinced her to release the key, so don’t play with me -- where are you going?” He put his hands into his pocket and said, “Alright, I was going to see her home.” “She knows her way, body-guard. It’s either you have taken those dreams serious, or you think you can just make home with her just because you rescued her from the kidnappers.” “Lota is my witness.” “That drunkard of a son,” said Ohams. “He told me that he alone took a keg of wine that night. As a result, he couldn’t explain what exactly happened.” Echendu frowned and moved towards his horse. He tightened his waistcoat and climbed over in defiance. “I’m just going to see her off!” Ohams nodded and moved towards a house opposite from the one he had come out from. “Ochel! Come and see your son misbehaving! She knows how to handle you.”


Echendu came down from the horse immediately. “But it hasn’t come to that, uncle.” The door opened and his mother came out. She surveyed everyone with her eyes and at last rested her hands on her waist. “Where are you going?” she asked. “Emm...” He looked at Ohams and frowned; his lips stammered. “Seeing her home and going farther for my father.” “Alone?” She raised her hand and moved towards him. “Did you tell anyone?” Ohams hurried and held her hand. “Stop behaving like a wolf. Very soon, he will become a father and you won’t keep hitting him; after all, Lota can go with him.” Echendu turned and saw Lota in front of the house. Their eyes met and Lota nodded with smile on his face. “Better!” Ochel said and turned to his son. “And make sure you come back on time. We have arranged to speak to Hewas and his men about father.” She smiled at him and moved back into the house. Ohams then came and held his shoulder saying, “Be careful, Echendu. Your mother and I will speak to Hewas.” He strode back to his house and, on reaching the door, tried to hit his son. Lota was at an alert, so he dodged, and that brought laughter into their mouths. Echendu turned in relief but not with a sigh because Lota might still be an obstacle to his intention of further travelling. Dilichi and her sister Marihe just finished speaking. They hugged each other and the former climbed back to the horse. A pair of hand landed on Echendu’s shoulders, and he turned. Lota with a friendly face took his cousin’s hand and said, “You may have all the time to look at her, but that should be after you’ve killed all the Northerners.” Echendu hissed. “You’ve taken something this morning?” Lota laughed, still clasping to his hand. “You now have the freedom to slay the warriors who issued a sanction among the lands. If anyone questions you, fall back to the Rift and a priestess will save you.” Echendu separated their hands immediately and moved backward. “I was only taking her home. Get your ride if you are coming along, teaser, or should I call you drunkard.” But Lota laughed as he was being teased. “You can’t tell when I’m serious. I saw you flow right into the Rift.” Echendu took a deep breath and came nearer. “But your father told me that you had a keg of wine that night.” “No,” said Lota, shaking his head. “I told him that all those were as if I had taken a keg of wine when they were happening.”


“No wonder! I saw the way he was speaking. Did you find an empty keg under his bed?” Lota opened his mouth in laughter. “Is it my father that you talk about this way?” Echendu smiled back and climbed onto his horse. He smiled and nodded at Dilichi, then turned backward; Lota was coming with his own horse. They rode into the brightened morning, encountering the dawn chorus and the hazels that now danced with the wind. They went through a valley and its adjoining trough which stretched into a forest, and that way had been a shortcut to the bridge that linked the two lands. Alanta and Kpando should have been one because of the common type of vegetation and climate they shared; it was only the great river that flowed from east to west that had sworn to keep them divided for all eternity.

*

The door that led to the throne room in the Northern palace opened and Natali came in with a man in raffia attire. Scythe who had been relaxing with a cup of wine dropped it immediately. “Natali,” he called, “what are you doing with a masquerade in here?” Natali smiled and bowed. “Sorry if I scared my Lord; he came with some interesting news. I’m sure you’d love to hear him out.” “Yes,” the man said and bowed. “Long live the source of power. I am Kahluka Janic, a sorcerer from the Arica County in Etiti land. I heard that you are looking for a way to track someone.” Scythe moved to his throne and sat. It was a white marbled throne with no curved corner; everything was straight and the joints right-angled. The back where he leaned was very high that sometimes, it was mistaken as part of the wall. The only extra material that came to this throne, especially during the extremely cold seasons was a dark long piece of cloth made from a mammoth hide. The king having relaxed asked, “And what contribution are you going to make towards that?” Kahluka bowed again and began, “I uncovered an ancient magic -- a rare one for that matter… that can send a message to other practitioners through inflicting sickness. It is called the Spell against Warlocks.” Scythe reclined and was expecting the explanation but he got none. He looked up and saw that Kahluka was only waiting for a go-ahead. In short, the sorcerer had only advertised. “What can it do?” Scythe asked. Kahluka smiled and bowed again with his hands folded to the back. “It can travel through the fluted-pot to a person who will touch our target. Once he touches the target who must be ungifted, she gets inflicted with a sickness. Whoever finds her will believe it is a curse curable by magic and herbs,


therefore, will take her to a healer. Any person with magical powers or herbal knowledge who touches her in an attempt to heal her will be under my enchantment, therefore, shall say whatever I like; something like this, ‘The remedy to this sickness is a turnip that grows only in the Northern palace, which if not gotten in the next twelve days, she will die…’ whereas, she would be healed on the twelfth day.” At the time Kahluka introduced himself, Natali had thought that his magic would just make their target appear in the palace which was the main reason he brought him before the king. He was still waiting for the wand waving power when Kahluka bowed in complement of his explanation. “What does that have to do with the Starlady?” Natali asked. “I think you are not thinking,” Kahluka said. Scythe smiled and sat up. “You mean, we can send the curse to her loved one.” Kahluka nodded. “And if she truly loves the person, she will risk coming to this place to surrender in exchange for the anti-dote, who would be you.” “We haven’t gotten news of her for days,” said Scythe. “Maybe, this will exhume her from her hiding grave, as I’ve told her mother.” “Of course, My Lord,” replied the sorcerer, “but there’s only one problem. Through whom do I send it? Someone who can touch someone close to her heart.” Natali nodded. “We have a spy who can do that.” “I will also need to take the eyes of a day old child to be able to cast this once-in-a-thousand-year old spell.” “It’s no problem,” Natali assured him again. “Finally,” the sorcerer said, “I demand a gold class bag as my pay.” Natali looked towards the throne to see what the king’s reaction would be. The king nodded and rose in a way that seemed like he had sat for hours and had been waiting for this opportunity. He walked to Kahluka and placed his hand on his back. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it is a multiplying seed that you are sowing. You shall be paid double now, and if you succeed, I shall redouble them, so proceed. I reward good deeds.” Kahluka bowed several times, saying, “Thanks for your generosity, Lord Scythe.” When the king was leaving, the sorcerer rose and said, “But the eyes are not yet here. It is you who will cast the spell after I have invoked the powers.”

*


They had galloped for hours and finally were through with the evergreen grassy hills of Kpando. As they ventured into the plain forest, though some parts undulated up to the plateau where the majority of the people lived, they advanced in phase with Dilichi riding in the middle while Lota stayed by her left or west. The wide path was not dusty and would have suited a trotting speed, but their present speed was attributed to Dilichi’s empathy for the horses. She was the first to slow; then the rest danced to a similar tone. “What made you kill my lambs?” she asked when the two least expected to hear from her. The silence must have lasted. “Answer as the horses recover!” she added. Echendu answered the question in a manner that showed that he was not sorry for the death of the lambs, not knowing that in the owner’s mind, it was even more than a human murder, though she tamed the rage. “It was Fena’s instruction,” he had said. “We thought that the sound might attract any guard around, and you in particular.” “But you were smarter,” said Lota. She laughed and bent her face. “I did come out, and I saw some red bloody leather cloak flowing to a corner. I wasn’t scared at all.” She moved ahead and turned back. “Who actually did the slaughtering?” Echendu’s eyes met with that of Lota and the latter nodded, signalling to the former to tell the truth without sentiment for the present fate of the slayer, who consequently had become a victim. “Haruni did,” said Echendu. “And I’m sorry about that,” Lota apologised. “But, what interests you about these animals? We hunt them… and you keep them.” She smiled and rotated her horse. “That has been my life since childhood; that reminds me-” She halted the horse, then turned towards a narrow path by the left which led to a log cabin. “I know you must be tired, but just for a moment and as the horses take their rest, let me greet a friend.” Lota frowned, pointing towards the house. “You mean that a friend or someone lives in this remote area of the grove?” “You asked no question about my own house,” she said, and slowly rode forward. She turned when she was far; it was as if she had been in darkness all those while. There was light shining brighter than the sun in her face when she smiled. Echendu knew that his eyes were not deceiving him. The beauty he had realised mesmerized him, and as he kept gazing, she kept moving farther. He shouted, “You can tell us why!” She stopped and turned with another smile. “This friend of mine rears rabbit and the food grows around here. Excuse me for a moment.” She then rode forward.


“You have all the time!” Echendu murmured to himself, though frenzied to see her again. “And we will hang around,” said Lota. She left her horse around a tree and moved into the house. The entrance which was formerly open shut immediately, shutting Echendu’s eyes at the same time. “Do you still take what you saw inside the Rift for granted?” Lota asked. Echendu still closed his eyes for some time, wondering the intention of the question. Perhaps, the many signs he had seen was enough to turn the trance into reality. What if he tells Lota what he thinks and it turns him into a lunatic? Lota was a fan in mocking and ridiculing people. He decided to be in the middle; neither a winged nor land creature. He can as well be both and still be on a neutral ground; somehow flying and hopping. He shook his head and his eyes flapped open. “I don’t, but I guess it was revealed to the wrong person -- a weak hunter.” “No one has ever done that which you did.” “What -- you mean travelling with her?” He was pointing to the direction of the path. Lota laughed. “No, but you can as well add that. No one has ever gone into the Rift. You paddled back, indicating that you rescued them. You are not weak; you are an experienced archer.” “You are teasing me. This would have suited a man like He was, who commands men, or someone who never sits at a place… like you, Lota.” “Can’t you see that I’m the one being teased. I’m sure your mind has been to wherever I’ve been. You can do it.” Echendu moved his horse slowly. “One man cannot defeat the Northern forces.” “But a man can kill Scythe Shangah.” “The famous kings of Etiti and Amaato failed; the task is above a man, even a kingdom. We talk of better things-” “Her?” Lota asked, pointing towards the house. He smiled and moved forward. “I’m sure she’s in there to take a look at the rabbits. Have you told her that you shot her horse?” “Why should I? That won’t do her any good.” “She will hate you if she learns of it.” Echendu laughed. “If she didn’t hate you for almost taking her life, why would she hate me over an animal, though I won’t care?” “She loves animals more than anything; she said it.”


“Well,” said Echendu, “I believe, she forgives easily because I’ve told her everything-” “Everything?” asked Lota. He looked on, and on and said, “Except-” Echendu smiled. “Maybe my mother’s hot temperament. Do you know? -- Ochel lost a gold coin while chasing my sister.” Lota shook at the loss, but nodded and said, “Better tell her about the temperament so that she will be prepared once you bring her bride price.” Echendu hissed and rode slowly in an opposite direction to that of Lota. They both started moving, and always met at the middle. “What could be keeping her?” Lota asked, and after some seconds called Echendu. “You should exercise a little patience.” “Echendu?” Lota called again. “Patient; moment hasn’t expired.” “Echendu!” he called louder. Echendu turned immediately and shook at the sight of troops that rode forward. Anna was the civilian with them. Echendu reversed, moving nearer to Lota who was already few steps away from the warriors. They were in black leather cloaks, each with a shield; some had spears while some others had swords. A man in a coat made of sheep fur was beside Anna. They seemed to be talking to each other, and finally, Anna pointed at Lota. The man rode forward, came down from the horse and walked towards Lota. “I am Emerie Truilo,” he said, holding his chest, “the grand-commander of the land of Kpando.” Lota extended his hand for a shake. “Nice meeting you-” “Cut it!” Emerie said, interrupting him. “We got news that our Lady is in Alanta, under your captivity.” Echendu from afar raised his hands in submission and rode forward. “We don’t want any trouble; that’s why we escorted her back. She’s in there.” He pointed at the house. Emerie turned to two warriors behind him and jerked his head towards the house. The two left for the house and searched around it. They came back and reported that the house was locked and its surrounding empty. Echendu was shocked at the news. He frowned and hit his horse. “She went there to greet a rabbit keeper.”


Emerie laughed. “You guessed well; we will have to take him until you bring her to us. You have a chance to save him.” He raised his hand, signalling some warriors to seize him. Lota bent towards his saddle, gripped an axe and pointed it forward. “Don’t touch me,” he said, “we don’t want your trouble.” He rotated the horse with his left hand and kept the warriors away with the other. Echendu turned to Anna. “Tell them that we saved her.” But Anna did not speak. He was then forced to take his bow which was the only weapon he had. He immediately stretched it and said, “Don’t touch him. Dilichi is in there; I swear!” The grand-commander folded his hand and chuckled. “I can see how fit and ready the two of you are.” He snapped his fingers and the warriors zeroed in on Lota and Echendu. “Lay down your weapons and take us to her! It’s the only chance I can offer.” Echendu’s eyes clashed with that of Anna. She nodded, so Echendu winked at Lota, signalling him to put down the axe. The warriors seized him immediately the axe fell to the ground. “This is outside our agreement!” said Echendu. “We are supposed to take you to her.” Emerie pointed his middle finger at Echendu. “Just do the opposite -- bring her to us. Go to Alanta and get her; the faster the safer your colleague is.” Echendu dropped his bow and jumped towards a warrior. He hit him with his elbow and snatched his spear. He ran towards Lota but some other warriors blocked him. He kept knocking on their shields, and in that way managed to keep them away. The warriors concentrated on defence and seizure until he was stuck in their midst. They seized him also. “Where is she for the last time?” Emerie asked, and was smiling. Echendu struggled but it was futile. He at last settled, huffing. “If she’s not there, then we don’t know where she is.” “Then I must move with the two of you,” the Grand said. He beckoned on his men. Anna came down from her horse and knelt in Emerie’s front. “This one is innocent,” she said, pointing at Echendu; “he tried to save us. Let him go, please.” “No time for compassion,” said the Grand. He pushed her out of his way and climbed back to his horse. “We are taking them to the Square! Maybe, the rack will make them co-operative.” He turned to Anna who was on the ground. “If you really want them alive, tell them to produce our Lady, or better… produce her yourself.” The warriors tied Echendu and Lota and hauled them away, together with their horses; that reminded Echendu very much of the lie he had told Ohams the previous night. The words he had spoken


unconsciously were now making him a prophet; its fulfilment had frustrated them like lambs being taken to be slain. He had to accept the fate he envisaged. Meanwhile, Anna had risen from the ground and had tried to follow them, but saw that they had taken her horse -- which was by right Lota’s. She then decided to take a look around the log cabin. She walked round, and on coming back to the front, a woman on a green robe and straw hat stood there with a bundle of fresh grass on her hand. The woman saw Anna and raised her secateurs, while the grasses she was carrying scattered to the ground. “Tell me what you want if you wish to leave in peace.” She was moving nearer as she said those words. Anna pointed to every direction. “They said that- that- someone came here!” “Who said?” the woman asked in a harsh tone. “Tell me, your mate is trapped? Speak before I hit -- who are you?” And she was getting ready to use the tool. Anna staggered backward frighteningly and saw that the woman was ready to attack if she dared to run. “Some men arrested there,” she said and pointed towards the main road, “just now -- they said that Dilichi came here.” The woman dropped the tool immediately and ran to the door, which brought Anna’s lips to a halt. The woman stretched upright and pulled a rope above the door. It swung open; and there was Dilichi rolled with ropes from feet to neck. “I’m so sorry,” the woman said as she hurried to help, “it was a trap meant to catch thieves.” Dilichi rose immediately with a sigh. “When did thieves start coming for rabbit, Sareh?” The woman dropped the ropes and shook her head slowly. “I’m just sorry for the embarrassment. Grand Emerie was only interested in finding you that he abandoned the safety of the land to petty thieves.” Dilichi shook her head and moved closer to Sareh. “This land has been a safe place to live, hiding nothing ‘Northernish’ to anyone, except for me.” “True, but turned ‘Northernish’ after you disappeared. It has been theft cases here and there; apparently, the rabbits were victims.” She looked around and could not find any of the animals. “It’s a pity,” she said, “but you must know that I’m back; back to restore the order. Where are the rest?” “I took them to the inner room,” Sareh replied. She moved nearer and touched her hair. “What happened to you, lady?” Dilichi had remembered that there were people waiting for her. She nodded and ran out of the cabin house immediately. She was surprise, as well as Anna, that they shook at the sight of each other.


“You again?” said Dilichi. “You left me last night. Well, I’m just glad that you’re safe.” She started running to the main road. Anna ran after her, apologising on the way. “I’m sorry for my mad attitude,” she said. “You helped me but I abandoned you.” “It’s alright. Echendu and-” “Emerie has them; Echendu and his cousin.” “What?” She turned immediately and frowned. “You told them?” Anna nodded and started rubbing her palms together, apologetically. “I’m sorry, I thought they had you.” “Who are you talking about?” Sareh asked.

*

In the Square were Echendu and Lota lying on a rectangular wooden frame that had rollers at both ends and was standing almost vertical from the ground. Their legs were fastened to one end and the hands to another with a movable bar. The floor of the Square was sandy and the land surrounded with a high fence made with logs. Warriors were positioned at every corner. There was a round hut in the middle, a hut surrounded by red rope meant to keep people away from it. Emerie was standing beside Lota and was holding a ratchet attached to the top roller of the rack. As he pulled it, Lota released a scream. He moved to Echendu and held the ratchet on his own rack. “Since you won’t talk,” he said, “I’m going to stretch the two of you to pieces. Tell me what I want to hear.” He waited for a while and pulled it just a little. Echendu screamed. “Let me speak!” he said. Sweat was flowing down from his face; his muscles seemed to have torn. With his mouth wide open, a fly nearly flew inside if he had not blown it. He remembered that he was undergoing an interrogation, so hissed. Emerie had already left the ratchet and was in his front waiting for the answer. “We don’t have her; I swear!” he said. Lota saw that the objectivist was determined to tear them apart; with Echendu screaming, he intervened as he had always done. “I know,” he said. “I know where she is!” The Grand’s face lightened. “Then speak!” he said, leaving Echendu’s side and coming back to Lota. Lota gasped and coughed. “Believe us, she is in that rabbit house. You can get your chief priest for an oath if you can’t trust our words.”


In a rage, the Grand said, “I will kill the two of you and still storm Alanta by nightfall to fish her out!” “They will smoke you like a fish,” said Echendu. “Be careful, Echendu!” said Lota, warning him as he had always done. “I can’t die in silence!” His head was shaking in defiance upon the rack. “Don’t caution him,” said Emerie; “I know how to handle such people.” He moved to Echendu’s side and held the ratchet. The scream that should have filled the air was only stopped by grace. “Stop!” A man was waving his hand and hurrying forward. He was in a grey cloak and carried a staff which had fresh fronds and red clothes tied to it. There was a leather bag hanging on his neck. Emerie turned. Having seen the man, he bowed and said, “My greetings to Chief Priest Opa. These men know where she is.” The priest shook the staff and stamped it on the ground. “The grand commander if still the great strategist I had known should have known-” Emerie frowned. “Known what?” “That she’s alive and we would need them alive to compel the remaining captors into releasing her. Don’t you know that she would be better in their hands than in the hands of the Northerners?” Echendu gave a sigh of relief, tilted his head towards Lota and said, “There is always hope.” Emerie heard that; his little head had made his large ears too sensitive. He turned immediately. “You are hopeless; I’m going to show you that.” He hurried to the ratchet and was about to pull it when he heard a loud noise coming from behind. He turned back and saw Dilichi riding in; a crowd came after her. “And yet, another hope,” Echendu said, giving a loud sigh. Emerie turned back and grabbed the ratchet. “No!” Dilichi screamed. “They saved my life!” Emerie sighed and withdrew his hand. “Your hope is a lucky one,” he said, and turned to the other warriors. “Untie them! They are heroes! We apologise for paying them this way.” Dilichi came down from the horse and hugged the Grand. She moved to the priest and bowed, then sat on a bench. Echendu careened towards her and sat. “Would you mind if I ask what happened at the rabbit’s house?” “Sareh’s house,” she said, pointing forward.


Echendu followed her hand, and there was the woman standing. He nodded in acknowledgement and rose. “You are Sareh?” “Yes,” replied the woman; they shook each other. Echendu was about to sit. He said, “She just told me that she was going to see a rabbit rearer.” “Oh yes, I’m her rabbit rearer,” said Sareh. Echendu turned immediately to Dilichi. She nodded, hitting her hands on the bench for him to sit. He bowed to Sareh and sat. Sareh slowly walked away. Dilichi sighed and said, “I’m sorry; I was caught in a trap intended for thieves.” “I should be sorry,” said Echendu. He looked up and saw Lota coming with Emerie. He turned back to her and said, “Tell your grand commander to release our horses and weapons; we are going before the sun goes down.” “You can’t leave like that,” said she. “You have to see my home! If not for anything, at least my mother will be grateful to you.” “Exactly,” Lota said from afar. He tried to hide his excitement as he came nearer. Echendu did not realise that he was so near. He eyed Lota and turned to Dilichi. “That would have been nice, but it is late.” “Won’t you like to spend the night there?” she asked, and was smiling. Lota could not hide the excitement again. He burst into laughter, and then controlled it immediately. “Don’t mind me,” he said and pointed forward, “I was just laughing at your Grand’s little head.” “His little head?” Echendu asked; Emerie looked towards them and, as if he heard the comment, started coming in their direction. “You’ve fallen in, Echendu,” said Lota. “You’ve forgotten how he heard about your hope.” Echendu, seeing that the Grand was really coming towards them, turned to Lota and said, “But you started it!” He stood to confront the Grand. Dilichi also rose immediately and stood with them. “Don’t worry,” she said, looking at the Grand whom had gotten near, “he won’t do anything.” Emerie stopped in their midst and bowed at Dilichi. “Lady,” he said, “I’m so sorry about the way I treated your friends, then happy I am that you’re back, but there’s a problem.” She frowned and turned to Echendu whom at the same time had started drawing backward. “I’m sorry?” she said.


Emerie nodded and moved closer to her. “Someone is down in a very bad illness that I don’t think it’s easy to rise from.” “Who?” she asked, and seized his hands. The Grand shook his head and bent. “Your mother, Kuilo.”

*

The woman was lying on a bed in the care of a little boy that was just old enough to take care of his hunger. Her whole body was covered with white wrappers, except her face which had little black spots. She was an exact replica of her daughter, except that their hair colour contrasted. Her leg shifted while the boy moved over to cover it. The door flew open, with Dilichi running straight to clasp her mother’s hands. There was an ivory bangle on Kuilo’s wrist which her daughter caressed most. Whenever she felt the roughness of the surface of this bangle, she would remember her childhood days, when she used to admire the artistic carvings of the birds of different beaks on the bangle. Those were the days when she would ask if the birds would emerge as real birds, and her mother being a jolly type would urge her to keep touching it, assuring her that the more she touched the birds, the sooner their time to become real birds would come. She then got used to the bangle and never came near to her mother without touching it, especially those rough parts that made her palms feel alive. She looked forward but the eyes of her mother frightened her. The woman turned and smiled. “God be praised that the High Spirits brought you safe.” Dilichi tried to smile but her heart was too burdened with the sight. “When did this happen?” she asked. Some footsteps approached; they were Emerie, Echendu and Lota. They entered into the room one by one, with the Grand shaking immediately he was in. “You shouldn’t have touched her!” he said. “What if it is a plague?” Kuilo tucked her hands back into the wrapper. “He’s right,” she said and looked up. “How did you know that I was sick, since I have told no one?” Emerie moved nearer and squatted. “I saw some of the warts when I came to see you early this morning.” Dilichi frowned immediately. “You mean that all these started this morning?” “I only noticed it after Emerie was gone,” Kuilo said. “I have been under a high fever ever since your whereabouts was unknown.”


Dilichi uncovered the wrapper slowly and closed it at the sight of the larger warts that were on her skin; each had puss that were gross to look at, talk more of touching. “Have you started taking any medicine?” she asked. “Nothing yet,” a tender voice replied; it was the boy that had been with her. Dilichi only noticed him at the moment of the speech. She touched his head, drew him nearer and asked, “How are you, Moulo?” “I’m fine,” he replied and pointed backward. “I’ve sent words to the herbalist who lives before the Mainsquare junction.” “Good boy,” Emerie said and moved backward, to stand beside Lota. Echendu who had been struggling to move forward was restricted by his cousin. He then moved forcefully so that Lota left his clothes to avoid a scene creation. “I know a lot about herbs,” he said, looking at Dilichi. She nodded. “And you think herbs can cure the warts?” “Let me examine it first.” He squatted, greeted the woman with a bow, shifted the wrapper that was covering her hand and moved his own hand nearer. There was an intense heat that he felt developing within the space that separated the two bodies. “The fever is very heavy,” he said. Dilichi came near and placed her hand over the body, avoiding contact as she was warned. “I can’t feel anything,” she said, and Echendu frowned. “Is he a herbalist?” Emerie asked Lota who was standing beside him. “He just has some knowledge.” Echendu moved towards the woman’s face and, “Do you feel feverish?” he asked. “Not at all, but something worse,” she replied. Echendu, angry with the different result he was getting, placed his hand over the skin, touching one of the warts. Lota shouted his name in an angry tone that shook the entire room. Emerie stopped him from moving forward. “You’re afraid of him being infected?” he asked. “Don’t worry, healers can always get out of such.” Lota calmed and nodded, and even began to feel embarrassed with his action. “Just that,” he said and sighed; “this brother of mine can never use his ears.” Emerie was about to comment on that when Echendu rose confidently with a smiling face.”I’ve known the kind of curse this is,” he said.


“Curse?” Dilichi asked; her face was darkening. Echendu nodded. “A magical one which can kill in twelve days.” “Twelve days?” Dilichi asked; she was sad because the speaker was smiling over such a grave issue. “That’s three weeks-” She paused and turned to Lota. Lota broke out from Emerie’s hold and struggled to cover Echendu’s mouth, but Emerie seized him again. “Leave him to what he’s good at,” said the Grand. Lota chuckled. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Emerie touched his chest and succeeded in taming it. He turned to Echendu and asked, “Do you know the remedy?” “Yes! Yes!��� Echendu nodded. “A plant that only grows in the Northern palace-” “He’s got a fevered brain,” Lota complained. “He’s never been to the Northern palace! I can swear to that!” “Yes! Yes!” Echendu nodded again. He turned to Lota and said, “But I do know the contents -- it is written in a book my father bought when I was little.” Dilichi rose immediately with tears trickling down her eyes. “You said it’s magical?” she asked. Echendu nodded without any attempt to conceal anything which might comfort her for a while. She wiped her tears and said, “Then, Chief Priest Opa should know about it.” Emerie hurried to her with his head shaking in disagreement. “We should be concerned on how to get to this palace… to get the plant.” “I’m going to call the priest,” she said. Emerie clasped her fingers and said, “Stay with your friends let me go and get him, if that will please you.” She wiped her tears again and nodded, which granted the Grand the approval to go and get the chief priest himself. Lota moved over to Echendu and asked, “What makes you think this?” Echendu looked at him for a while and shook his head. “I don’t know... I just know that the anti-dote for this only grows there. I’m sure that I read it… These are the symptoms.”


Dilichi also knew that Echendu had never gone far from his land; unless he had lied all those while they were in the temple. She noticed the boy again, but this time he was not talking; he was on the verge to nod off. She touched him and said, “Moulo, go and light the lamps, take your food and sleep.” Echendu watched the boy as he nodded and left. “Is he your son or brother?” Lota smiled and turned to Dilichi. “Something’s wrong with him.” Dilichi nodded and moved over to cover her mother’s hand which had shifted from the wrapper. “He’s my brother, but more like a son. You can wait in the sitting room.” She moved towards the door that led to the sitting room and they followed her. A knock came at the main door immediately she was in the room. An aged man on a tattered leather cloak stood at the door when she opened it. He was carrying an animal skin bag. He smiled and bowed, saying, “Someone sent for me, lady. I’m the herbalist-” “I know you,” she said, interrupting the introduction and letting him in on time. The man went straight to the room where Kuilo was, greeted her and shifted the wrapper on her hand. He touched the skin just to feel her temperature but ended up smiling without saying anything related to temperature. Echendu staggered like a baby that had just awoken from sleep as the herbalist rose. “Is it heavy?” he asked. The herbalist nodded. “The remedy to this sickness is a plant that grows only in the Northern palace, which if not gotten in the next twelve days, she will die.” Dilichi burst into tears immediately. “Echendu was right,” she said; Lota was surprised also at the wisdom shown by his cousin, even in his sheltered brain. But Echendu frowned. “Right about what?” he asked. Lota hit his head. “Can’t you see that this herbalist have just repeated what you said.” Echendu’s eyes became a sphere as he placed his hands on his chest; he was denying within. “There must be a problem,” he said, “for I can’t remember saying that.” He looked at Dilichi, then moved to the herbalist. “Which part of the palace can we find this plant?” “Let me... em... just take a look.” He looked into his bag, closed it, then looked up and nodded. “It is a turnip that grows on the roof.” “Is it magical or just any turnip?” Echendu asked. Dilichi wiped her tears and touched Echendu’s shoulder. “You said it before and now you are asking. It is magical!”


Echendu slightly shook his head and said, “Some kind of paranormal activities are going on here.” She nodded. “It’s only the priest that can tell who is using magic against who; I’m going to get him to do that.” “Your Grand has gone for that,” said Echendu. The herbalist dropped his bag on the ground and sat. “You should believe me lady. I’ve been in this field before birth, but if you’re going to bring Opa, I won’t take it personal.” Tears rolled down her eyes again but the mother scolded her. “You should better stop that and take care of your brother,” Kuilo had said. “Serve the land if anything happens, but I know that I will live if the Spirits will.” Echendu was enticed by the statement. He moved near to the woman and said, “You will be fine. This is just a trap to lure her into somewhere.” He turned and tried to console Dilichi but she moved out of the room. Kuilo looked at Echendu and smiled. “Let her know that no tears can change any destiny.” Echendu bent nearer to learn more. “What do you know about her destiny?” he asked. “I’m not talking about her, but myself, because every man’s destiny is in his hands. Every man’s death has also been predestined.” Echendu nodded. “I’ve heard that before and...” He rose and knew nothing else to say. He bent nearer and reassured her that she would be safe. “In case it happens,” said the woman, “a lot of people around my daughter are wolves-” Echendu had kept that in mind. Immediately he heard the woman speak in that sense, he said, “Spying for someone? -- I suspected such.” “Take care of her,” the woman said in a serious and passionate voice. Echendu got confused whether he was being mistaken for someone else or that the statement was intended for him. He touched his chest and asked, “Do you know me?” Kuilo shook her head with a smile. “But I do know that this face is capable of consoling a sorrowful; that’s what the world needs to win this battle.” He was shocked at hearing those words. He rose immediately and moved backward. “What war?” he asked. The woman cleared her throat and said, “I received an anonymous message through my fluted-pot yesterday, telling me to exhume my daughter from her hiding grave.”


Echendu looked around the silent room; it was even getting darker. Moulo came in immediately with a lamp which exposed the herbalist sleeping on the floor. Echendu bowed to the woman and left the room. Lota was just coming in from the main door when Echendu met him and asked, “Where’s she?” “She said that she was going to bring their chief priest.” Echendu moved outside and looked around. “Do you know the place?” “I know that Upper temple is somewhere down the Grain market but I don’t know if it refers to their chief priest, Opa.” “Is it far?” “You want to go after her? Well, it’s not.” Echendu moved to the side of the house and came back with two horses. He climbed on one and stared at Lota. Lota folded his hands. “The past days has been stressful, from one place to another... including the rack!” He nevertheless climbed the horse and rode forward. Echendu moved towards him. “Do you know what fluted-pot is?” Lota frowned and nodded. “I think I have overheard warriors mentioning such, like the fastest means of communicating to anyone in possession of another.” “Magically?” “What else do you expect? Who talked about it? I mean, it will interest me to know.” Echendu smiled. “How interesting then for a fantasy lover like your cousin?” He rode into the dark immediately while Lota followed. They were around the homestead between the market and the priest’s temple when they saw a horse standing on the narrow path. Lota came down immediately and touched it. “This is the horse she was riding on,” he said. Echendu touched the saddle and bent nearer to smell it. He bent and found footprints scattered all over the path, and then the jewelled knife, which he picked. “There must have been a struggle here. Here is her knife.” Lota was already squatting and crawling slowly. “They went this direction,” he said. They rode for a few minutes and stopped at a point where the path split into two. It was dark, but thanks to the moon which was at least half-way illuminated so that they could see. There was a tree at


the middle, and behind it was a wooden cart; the type used for transporting grains within the Grain market. Lota headed towards the left and turned round when he found no footprint. “We are in the wrong direction,” he said. Echendu came down and was checking to know the right path when the wheel of the cart rolled to some degrees. At first he knew it was normal to find empty carts around the market, and maybe, being disturbed by the wind, but as the sound increased, he moved to Lota and said, “Highway men have set a trap for us.” “Did you find anything?” Lota asked, and was looking very surprised. “The carriage has been shaking, even moving a little.” Lota hissed. “You might be disturbing the sleep of a mad person.” Echendu listened again and hurried to his horse. Lota laughed. “How could you get scared too quickly?” he asked. “Go on and check, it could be her.” “Why not check it yourself?” Lota nodded and positioned his axe on his right hand. He moved nearer to the cart. Reaching at the back, he dropped the axe immediately and crawled in. He came out, took the axe and moved back while Echendu still waited to see how his tricks would end. The cart shook strongly and Lota ran out of it immediately. Echendu stood boldly, watching the actor as he climbed over to his horse. “Is that all you can do?” he asked. “I’m serious now,” said Lota. “There’s magic in that cart. It’s empty, but is shaking despite the absence of wind.” Echendu was about to counter-reply when the cart rolled back and forth again. He shook and ran to his own horse. His left leg was already raised to climb but he came down and moved towards the cart like a possessed man being drawn by a tune. “Echendu! Come back!” Lota was saying, but couldn’t go near to stop him. Echendu squatted and found another apartment below the main floor of the cart. He gripped a protruded wood and peeped into the dark space; a figure with hands and feet that were shackled to the edges of the cart was struggling. He carefully bent the cart until it rested by its left side. Lota was already on the other end cutting the handcuffs with his axe. Echendu unrolled the leather that was binding her mouth; she breathed heavily when it was entirely free. Lota pushed the cart and it stood back on its wheels.


“What happened?” Echendu asked. She bent her head and wiped her face. “Someone is trying to sell me,” she said; there were so many drops of tears. “How?” Echendu asked. “Four masked men attacked me on the way. They tied me -- under this cart-” She pointed at the cart. Echendu nodded. “What else did they do?” “I saw them take a bag, I guess of gold-class, and they dropped something inside the cart.” Lota came out of the cart with a small jute bag and a roll of twine. He dropped the twine and raised the bag. “Something like this?” “Check the content,” she said. When he turned it upside down, wheat decorated the ground. He bent, picked up a crumpled brown paper and straightened it. They had all surrounded him, trying to read the dark ink in the dull moonlight. Lota started singing it out like one reading in verses.

“Sorry we were late; she is under. We’ve taken the thing so the deal is over. As you find your way, try to cover.”

“People!” said Echendu, thoughtfully. “I’m pondering if the thing is the bag of gold; just two hundred for a life.” Lota folded the paper and tore it into tiny strips. “The people doing this must be around you. And the buyer must be on the way -- Northerners.” Dilichi nodded and turned immediately. “Someone is approaching.” They dragged their horses to a nearby scrub and stayed there in wait. The horse halted in front of the cart and a woman came down. She fastened the cart to her horse and climbed back to ride before noticing an arrow that was pointing at her. She folded her hands, letting the bridle loose. “The Starlady is back, yet you still operate?” The voice was so feminine and innocent that hearing it would make one think that she could not harm an ant, but Echendu believed that he already knew what master the woman served, so moved nearer and ordered her down. She obeyed, with her mouth still busy. “No highway man has ever escaped, so better for you


if you leave me and cover your face...” The woman was still speaking when a pair of hand seized her from the back. Dilichi walked across and stood in front of her. “How long will you keep up with the pretence?” she asked. The woman shook in surprise. “Lady!” she called and began to struggle. “Yes,” Dilichi nodded. “You trade me, yet use my name to save yourself.” “I’m sorry and confused as well,” said the woman. “Was my horse about carrying you?” Lota pushed her forward. “Stop this and tell us what you were about doing.” Dilichi bent closer. “Where were you going with the cart?” She frowned and rose from the ground where Lota had deposited her. “The warriors at the Mainsquare junction paid me to deliver it to the North border. They said that some men will be waiting to take it. I can take you to them.” “Who are you?” Echendu asked. “My name is Maganin Laina, a commercial rider and messenger. I work within Kpando and Alanta, and sometimes go to the Northern lands.” Lota picked up the twine and took her hands. “So you don’t know what you were asked to deliver?” She shook her head. “I was warned never to look inside if I’m to get the remainder of my pay.” Dilichi was already at the back of the cart. “You are coming with us to the Square!” Echendu followed and saw her unbolting the back cover. “She may be somehow innocent,” he said. “How come she didn’t read the message, or even try to check the content?” Lota had already led the woman to the back and had pushed her in. He turned to Dilichi and said, “We may know the warriors posted at the Mainsquare junction through your Grand.” “I know them,” she said, “but we have to go with her for confirmation.” Lota closed the back and bolted it. Two horses dragged the cart while Lota rode behind with the third horse. They were about to branch to a main road which linked to the path that would lead to the Mainsquare junction when a horse approached. Dilichi recognised the rider from a distance and waved her hand. “Why didn’t you call the chief priest again?” she asked.


Emerie frowned and brought his horse to a halt immediately. “You mean that... Opa hasn’t come yet?” “Unless he has taken another route,” said she. “The warriors supposed to be at the Mainsquare junction; are they on their post?” He shook his head and inquired whether there was any problem. “Yes!” Echendu answered. “They might have tried to sell her for two hundred gold coins.” Emerie untied a shining yellowish leather bag from his saddle and raised it. “They sold her for this?” Dilichi shook in amazement. “Where did you get it?” she asked. Emerie lowered his hand and rode nearer. “The three warriors at that junction have all been murdered by someone I thought was a highway man.” Dilichi frowned more because she was getting more confused. “Highway man?” Emerie nodded and went on, “I’m now beginning to suspect him for another crime. I ran after him and he fought me. I killed him and got this bag from him.” Dilichi smiled. “It’s still complicating, but we still have someone who might lead us to the remaining.” “Who?” he asked; his face was frowned. Lota raised his hands from behind. “Over here in the cart!” he said. Emerie bowed at Dilichi, rode past her and after inspecting the woman, reversed his horse and said, “Then we head to the Square immediately for the trial,” he said. At the Square, Dilichi went inside the hut in the middle of the large space while lightning flashed overhead. It was dark all over. The others were waiting for her around the wooden gate which had spikes on its top. Lota was holding Maganin and was muffling some words to Echendu. Emerie had alerted the warriors around the Square, and as he came back, accompanied by a warrior, he noticed the eagerness of especially Echendu at witnessing what would follow after the successive flashes in the sky. This had always been the case whenever the Starlady was inside the hut, though the flashes were usually invisible in the daylight. Emerie smiled and positioned himself beside Lota. “You’re here to help your eyes,” he said. Lota laughed. “Maybe him,” he said, jerking his head towards Echendu, “because I’ve witnessed that before, though not in the night.” “You must be an aimless wanderer then,” said the Grand. “Who could leave his work in the day and travel all the way from a distant land, just for the sake of listening to the cases of some accused? Such a person is aimless in life!”


Echendu wanted to uplift that attribute but the urgency of what was happening shut his lips; short of words he was at the immense power possessed by someone he had started getting acquainted with. He observed Dilichi as she came out of the hut with a round glowing object on her palms. It was flat and had five branches that spread out from a round centre, which was about the size of the palm. The branches were about the length of the fore-finger and were pointed at the tips. “Is that the starplate?” Echendu asked; his voice sounded very high. Emerie turned to him and said, “Beware is not just to be aware, but to keep away. Better if you don’t go near her at this kind of moment.” “Yes,” Lota nodded; “it stings, as I heard.” The plate had already dimmed by the time she was near to them. She stood upright, holding it with her two hands while her mouth moved in incantation. She shifted her hair, exposing the rune and looking up at the woman. “What else do you know about tonight’s incident?” she asked. Maganin bowed. “The three warriors paid me a silver coin to take the cart to the North border. They warned me never to look inside.” “Look at this,” she said and pointed the plate forward. A yellow stream of light whirled between the woman’s eyes and the plate; it finally flowed into the plate and caused it to glow brightly in a green colour. It was followed by a spark in the middle. When Dilichi bowed, the plate dimmed. “Untie her hands! She’s innocent,” Emerie said. The warrior removed a short knife from his pocket and cut the twine binding her hands. Dilichi shook her head. “That’s what she believes -- that she knows the truth.” “You’re thinking of the blood-eye?” Emerie asked. “To the detriment of her consciousness, when she has said all that she knows. I’ve not seen you in such a rage lady.” She stared at the plate and back to Emerie. “Justice in my duty you remind me of. Just make sure you do yours right.” She strode back into the hut. “You may go if you wish,” said Emerie. “It’s my duty to investigate this.” Maganin gave a deep sigh, though still embarrassed, but had herself to blame for accepting such an unknown deal because of the, maybe, higher pay. She folded her hands and nodded. “I appreciate, but I want to apologise to the lady.”


Upon the glowing sky Dilichi came out of the hut and hurried forward towards a horse. “I’m going to get the Chief Priest Opa to see my mother,” she said.

*

The chief priest stamped his staff in front of the house, came in with a bag hung on his left shoulder and walked to the room Kuilo was. Dilichi was waking the herbalist whom had been sleeping. The herbalist rose and bowed. “Greetings great Chief Priest Opa.” “Thank you,” the priest replied and turned to Kuilo. “What in the name of God is wrong with you?” The woman shifted and rumpled the part of the wrapper that covered her hand. “This is how it is all over my body,” she said. The priest removed a small object from his bag and chewed, then closed his eyes with his hands placed over Kuilo’s. He started chanting, and at last touched her. Echendu and Lota were being thanked by Emerie for their help in rescuing their lady. After that, they entered inside the room. Dilichi moved to Echendu as if she had expected him at that time. “The same thing is happening again,” she said. “What?” he asked. “The herbalist has denied as you did, while Opa is now saying that the remedy lies in the Northern palace -- the turnip.” Echendu excused them and led her to the sitting room. “Whoever touches your mother,” he said, “says this same thing. This is a trick to lure you into this palace!” “But I touched her. I think it’s something to do with healers, and it’s transferrable. This sorcery must be from him. He has the solution to-” She hesitated, looking at Echendu. “Yes,” he nodded. “I must have said that under a kind of enchantment. I believe that the remedy is false; it’s a trap.” “But Scythe must have the cure; I can’t let my mother die-” “Neither could she watch you die. I’ve known what the Northerners can do. You can’t trust them!” “How many people do I have in this world? My mother and my brother. I’m going to risk that; after getting my mother healed, I will try to escape.”


Echendu shook his head. “I had thought something like that when I was in a hurry to rescue my father; it only led me to you. What is the assurance that the sickness won’t return? You might even not be able to get out.” She understood what he was saying. Her mother was her only home and the brother her only hope for the family continuity. With the way things were going, if anything should happen to her mother, her own hope would be gone because she knew the kind of threat her own life was under. She gazed at Echendu and sobbed in her heart. “Then submitting to him will be the only remedy.” “No!” Echendu shook his head again. “We must find a way to get that turnip; not submission.” “Go after your father let me go for my mother.” “They are both in the same direction,” he said and moved closer to her. “What does he want you for?” She turned round and was not willing to answer until she saw the persuasive eye that was cast on her. “My gift,” she said. “Why? All I’ve heard about him -- he doesn’t like peace!” She nodded and began to explain. “Before I was ordained, he sent words to the chief priest that I should be brought to the Northern palace after the rituals... for him to make me a judge over all his nations!” Echendu looked at her and imagined how the palace could be, having someone of this sort as a judge. It seemed perfect in his mind and he asked, “Don’t you trust him?” She laughed and folded her hands. “I trust what he did to the kings of Etiti and Amaato many years ago.” Echendu would have liked to know what she was referring to, but was interrupted by Lota and Emerie who had entered into the sitting room. “I’m marching a battalion to the Northern palace tomorrow,” said the Grand. Echendu smirked at the decision. “You might be marching your warriors into their death,” was what he told the Grand. Emerie was only smiling as Echendu used so many points to prove his words. When he was through, the Grand said, “It’s a risk we must take for our Lady.” Echendu turned to Lota, realising more points that might prove the plan an idiot-proof, therefore, a failure. “The turnip might become a treasure for them to guard if you go that way.” Lota nodded. “I told him this when he suggested that to me.” He turned to the Grand and said, “You don’t need to raise any awareness.”


Emerie laughed and turned round while his head continually nodded. “All of you should sleep over this matter. I’ll meet you tomorrow with my own opinion.” Dilichi would have sparked on hearing that the decision had been shifted to the next day, but she realised that eleven days was not that far from twelve. It would be better to come out with a fool-proof, even on the last day than to be messing around with plans full of flaws right from the first day. She nodded and said, “We’re already thinking of something that might not be pleasing to your ear.” Emerie crinkled his little face while his eyes went inner, instead of bulging out. “Know that your wish is what I will always follow,” he said and bowed. “Tomorrow, lady, even if you wish to ride into battle with us.” He smiled and moved backward while his head bent towards the room, reminding the herbalist and the chief priest what time of the night it was. “Expect something worse!” said Dilichi. She was making up her mind. She could not bear having Moulo as the only one left in her world. Emerie bowed again before leaving. The chief priest and the herbalist also joined him; the jingling staff sounded as they moved, it was shortly swallowed by the thuds of galloping horses. The silence of the night was beginning to signal danger to Dilichi, but the awareness of her problems shoved the premonitions. It had started with the attack, but the unravelling of the true nature of some of the ‘then Northern warriors’ seemed to have cancelled her fears. Now left with her land warriors as part of her predators, coupled with the Northerners’ determination to hunt her for their master, all she could get from the few around were comfort and trust. She locked the door and turned with a mild smile. “My first problem is solved; the rest might be anyone else who will try to stop me.” She was looking at Echendu and was biting her lips. Echendu nodded and turned to Lota. “I’m going to make trouble with my mother; you will have to go back alone tomorrow to tell her that.” “As your servant?” Lota asked. “No,” said Echendu. “I am man enough to go for my father, and maybe, see if I can get the turnip for her.” Lota looked at her and turned to Echendu. “Twelve days is not twelve months -- let me go with you.” “But the people at home will be worried about us.” Lota scratched his head and pushed his hand like someone chasing a fly. “We can send words to them. We can pay two dimes for our message to be delivered.” Dilichi came forward and sat on a long back seat. “Maganin,” she said, “will be pleased to send your words down to Alanta. We shall need someone with a better knowledge of the road.”


Lota stamped his feet on the floor while his hand stuck to his chest. “Emerie called me a wanderer,” he said and bowed. “Lota Dera, at your service.” They discussed on how the journey might be until no one else talked. Dilichi then went to the kitchen and came out with a flat basket which she laid on a table immediately. She dusted some back seats that were around the table before turning to invite them. “My mother’s maiden is on break,” she said, “and it’s too late for me to call mine. You wouldn’t mind eating this -- roasted walnuts.” Lota frowned and turned to Echendu. “Do you know that we haven’t taken anything today?” Echendu who had been wondering what she was doing relaxed, letting the aroma of the fresh oil from the basket grace his nose. He rose and replied to Lota, “She hasn’t taken anything too. So, who should complain?” They sat opposite each other on the seats while their mouths never rested. Later, Dilichi came out with a jar which Lota thought to be wine, until it was poured into cups, and he frowned. As if she had noticed the wrinkle, she brought another jar; it was raw milk. She sat at the edge so that Echendu and Lota sat by her right and left, respectively, with the former occasionally glancing at her with a side eye when she was looking down, and switching it to Lota when she was not. He knew that there were so much anxiety in the face and confronted her when their eyes met. “Have you taken care of your mother?” Echendu had asked. She nodded; and after some seconds said, “She doesn’t eat in the night.” “What of your brother?” She supported her jaw on her palms while her elbows stood firmly on the table. “He took bread and milk, and had fallen asleep, even before I left.” Lota wanted to speak but ended up coughing. He took the cup next to him and belched after he had emptied it. “I thought it was wine,” he said at last, knowing it was not. He never liked the way Echendu looked at him so he turned and said, “But, the milk is comforting.” No one spoke and he felt himself a fool. He then thought of a way to cover up. When his eyes clashed with Dilichi’s, he asked, “Are we going to sleep there, or here?” Though Lota succeeded in speaking, which was for his comfort, the question he asked meant a lot to Dilichi. It reminded her of the events of the past few days. “I can’t go back to that house again,” she replied, and started counting with her fingers. “First, I’ve seen that it’s unsafe; secondly, some warriors betrayed me, so I can no longer trust my guards; finally, my family and my life must be in order before I will be in that house again.” Silence began to build up again. Lota broke it when he asked, “Why do you live alone?”


As if Dilichi was waiting for a chance to answer that, she spoke at once. “So that I can be able to do my duty without family interference and distractions. The location is for lesser disturbance, yet some still bring their cases there.” “Instead of the Square,” Echendu said. Lota cleaned his mouth and took another cup of milk. “Pardon if I’m asking too many questions, but it’s important. Where do we find Haruni’s body?” Dilichi smiled as if she did not get the question right. She then answered in a way that proved that she got the question. “Emerie doesn’t waste time in burning traitor’s corpse. The ash he would sprinkle in the Evil Vale.” Echendu frowned, although he knew the method to be the right way of disposing such corpses. Haruni might not have been famous but his after-life should be undeserving of such shame, thought he. “We bury dead bodies,” he said. “But our own tradition is to burn them,” said Dilichi whom was beginning to hate the subject. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You don’t need to be,” said Lota. “You are brave to have defended yourself. It’s just that Haruni was a great soft hearted friend.” “And me?” Echendu asked with a smile. Lota watched at him for a while and said, “You? Choose between a bunch of coward and a stubborn brother -- it’s at least a title better than death.” Dilichi could not clear her conscience of the fact that she had killed. As they talked more about the event, the guilt she felt was about to depress her; she waved it off at once. “He was as soft hearted as her mother, yet he wanted to kill me! I am a human just like you.” Echendu and Lota looked at each other, wondering how they had pulled her strings. Why the sudden spark? Echendu’s face seemed to ask. “We are sorry if we offended you,” he said. There was no change in her countenance, though she was silent. He tilted his neck towards her and said, “Just try to hold your rage. I promise never to let you into such danger again.” She rose immediately with a smile. “The best way to wage your rage is to trap it in a cage -- that’s a great lesson I learnt from Beriche.” As if these past minutes never existed, she moved at once to clear the table. As she was leaving the room, she turned back to them and said, “Let me show you to your rooms if you’re ready.” Echendu rose and bowed in appreciation. “But,” he said, “let me speak to your mother first.” He marched into the room like one whom had lived in the house since birth.


The sitting room was silent when Dilichi left for the kitchen. She came back shortly and cleared the items left on the table. After some minutes, laughter was heard from the room; Dilichi knew it was her mother’s voice. She slowly turned to Lota with a smile and said, “The priestess said we can never have peace until we take up her mission, but I’ve found peace now -- with you people.” “Maybe, it’s because you’ve taken up the mission indirectly.” She was meditating over the statement when Echendu came out from the room. He halted as soon as a strange voice spoke from behind. “Echendu,” the voice had said, “I will hold you responsible if anything happens to my daughter.” The voice seemed to have affected each of them. Echendu turned immediately at Dilichi; his head was shaking in denial. She pointed at him and her face seemed to ask, ‘Why would you tell her that I’m leaving?’ Lota was hitting his hand on the table. When Echendu turned to him, he asked, “What did you tell her?” “I’m sorry!” Echendu said with a frown. “But, I told her nothing. I swear!”


4. GRIP OF THE NORTHERN GREED There was an axe sketched in black ink upon a brown background, and a line linking it to a gong below that was drawn with an ink of the same colour. As the messenger who delivered it was riding away, Ohams stopped admiring the beautiful outline of the drawn shapes. He unfolded the paper with an indifferent face expression, but that was just to avoid suspicion from a woman who was nearby, should the message be a report of another capture. “What is it?” Ochel asked, and had known that something important must be in the letter. They had both been awake, mulling over the boys that had not returned. She trespassed with her neck bent to some angle. “Axe seal is from Lotana!” he said, “and the words are intended just for me; the only man that handles the kingdom’s gong.” “But Echendu was with Lota.” He nodded and ran through the message, then turned to her after he had chewed his finger. His face was not expressing that there was danger in what he had read. “From the two boys: we’re grown to take a risk for Keleta and Faniyi.” Ochel screamed and threw herself on the ground. “This I’ve feared when you let him escort the distressed damsel he rescued from the Northerners-” “Slow down!” Ohams said. She slowed, but then increased the stress. “The first time they went -- which you allowed -- landed them in the Northern prison!” “Don’t forget Haruni,” he said and scratched his head. “Something has to be done to stop them.” Ochel rose and held her head while her feet trembled in the cold sand. “My husband is important to me, but I can’t let my son suffer with him.” “He’s also my brother,” grumbled Ohams, “and don’t forget that my only child is involved, now.” Ochel realising this turned to the man, with her face expressing neither happiness nor sorrow. “What then are we going to do?” she asked. “Hewas said that he can’t risk going to that death camp again, after the attack he suffered from the warriors of Kpando-” “They were dressed like Northern warriors then,” said Ohams. “He can help us stop them if we hurry.” Ochel as an action woman made her wrapper tighter and rushed to her door. She locked it, forgetting her daughter who was within. She turned to Ohams and said, “We head to the council immediately.”


*

Meanwhile, the young men they were planning to stop had already made up their minds to ride into the fire. Echendu and Lota were getting the horses ready; tying the saddle, inspecting the bridle and burdening them so little so they don’t get tired easily. The horses were then fed as directed by Dilichi who now stood with Emerie, discussing silently. Echendu could guess that she was telling the Grand that her friends had advocated helping out, with stress that the use of warriors might raise an alarm capable of turning the turnip into a great treasure. But then, he heard them arguing and so listened, though he did not get all that they said. “You can’t punish a whole family for treason, since you haven’t done your own investigation.” “We shouldn’t agitate on that lady,” Emerie said and bowed. “Your wish I will always follow.” She smiled and also bowed. “Please keep to your duty,” she said, “and don’t put anyone to death while I’m away.” “Your wish, my command, lady. Captain Jezel’s squad will escort you to the North border.” “That’s nice!” she said and hugged him. She turned to leave. “And... one more thing, lady. I brought you this.” He was holding a head tie on his hand. She drew a wide strip of band from her pocket. “Echendu has given me a better one already.” She tied it round her head immediately. Emerie, a little bit disappointed, kept the cloth back in his pocket and said, “Remember to send words if there’s any problem.” “But, I haven’t gotten a seal yet.” “What other seal will suit you better than the star?” She nodded and was smiling, and as Echendu watched them, a pair of hands plucked his back; that made him bolt. He saw a dead grass-cutter drop on the ground and realised himself. “Why have you been looking at them?” Lota asked. “The horses have not been fed; you agreed to do that when I was going to hunt.” Echendu laughed, but Lota teased him more. In their mind, the chapter of her being treated as a murderess had closed, letting in a new era of admiration. She was indeed a princess, though the rune on her face made her look more like a goddess, and that might have thwarted some admirers.

*


The envoy sent by Emerie to escort them stopped midway down the hill that led to the North border, and as they were riding back, they had hardly made it up the plateau when another horse ran into them. It was Lota; he came with news. “You must follow me back, now!” he said. “Why?” asked the captain named Jezel. He had ten warriors all on horseback; the horses seemed sluggish in their movements. “We noticed men approaching the hill,” said Lota. “They’re Northerners.” He panted for a moment and reversed his horse, not caring to know if they were following; all he knew was that his horse ran faster. They nevertheless joined him, doing a little bit of climbing at some parts that sloped upward. In the trough of these areas, the sun seldom saw the ground, because of the greed of the canopies. When they had passed the undulating parts, they continued riding downward until they met Echendu and Dilichi whom were already on their way uphill. “Maybe you should go back and get more men,” Echendu said immediately he saw them. But Jezel stepped down and appointed four men. “... you and you, go down and scout!” Echendu thought they were going to bring more men as he had told them; it was Dilichi who told him what they were going to do. The same scouting he had intended doing in the Etiti death camp before.... He wished he could upgrade his knowledge on the technique, but that would depend on the success of this. The four men came back shortly, reporting that it was roughly a standard platoon of the Northerners that they had seen riding up the hill. “That’s about forty men,” Jezel said, stressing that they had handled such before. His finger was on his mouth as he mulled over the report. “Is that how to scout?” Echendu asked a warrior beside him, but the man started laughing. Echendu realising that he was the one being laughed at was confused; the only thing he did was to look around. “That’s enough!” the captain said. “Let’s embark on a strategy now.” “But we’ve been out-numbered, according to the scouts!” said Echendu. Jezel could not help laughing when he found that the warrior beside Echendu was laughing. He moved forward at last and patted his shoulders. “I said that we have handled them before,” he said. He went on to remind his men that their position uphill was an advantage, therefore, they should expect a complete victory without losing even a horse; as the Northern horses were known to be very powerful. And without losing a member either, because Jezel’s squad was a well known corps. Also without sparing a single Northerner. For the sake of time, he should not have told them that, most of them thought, because if wishes were swords, they would not waste time sending it to the Northerners. They could not


believe it when Dilichi disagreed on sparing none of the Northerners. She asked them to spare just one, through whom their motives of coming would be known, but that would depend on their ability to kill any; after all, forty against eleven warriors, or thirteen if the Deras were willing to join, or fourteen if Dilichi would fight, should not be a problem to predict its outcome. They had to camp on trees or hide in haystacks to await the men. The ground was preferable, but was out of reach. There were trees standing all round, but no hay in the hills. Then as Echendu was about to climb, he saw a heap of what they would have opted for. He alerted the others, and on their exploiting it, the hay had become useless because it harboured a barrel containing bows and piles of arrows. The tree now became their first option. Jezel then instructed them to shoot twice and jump to the ground to fight the rest with swords. “And remember to spare the last person,” Jezel reminded them again. Echendu looked at Dilichi whom was standing with the captain when he heard the last instruction from Jezel. He stood by her side and said, “I’m sure the lady is not allowed to fight.” She smiled and pointed at the captain. “When her master is here? It won’t be right.” Jezel nodded and said, “I taught you with swords, not bows.” He nevertheless gave her a bow and grumbled, “I don’t know why the Grand let you go. Well, it can be an opportunity to practise the trainings I’ve given you.” Echendu heard that. He knew it made some sense, but could not help having her around, before the Grand himself would turn to trading her. He just went to the pile and packed a broom size of arrows. The Northerners must have been nearer, as the scouts reported; therefore, no time was left for more arguments. Up they climbed and waited until a tree danced; that was the signal they had awaited. Many should have missed, but were all perfect just like Echendu in the nights before, including the lady whom was not trained in archery. But, only thirteen Northerners had fallen off their horses; it was Echendu who missed. He dropped the arrows and used the one he had come with from Alanta. He missed another and followed it up with four consecutive accurate shots which left him as the highest killer at that time, while the others had only two to boast of -- but in obedience to an instruction. Some of the Northerners whom were left now shielded their master while the rest came out for the tree monsters. Echendu was the last to reach the ground. He saw a thrust going towards the lady; that particular Northerner gave him an extra count, but Dilichi did not escape a minor cut. There were then only three Northerners left to shield their leader. With the Kpando warriors zeroing in on them, they should have no option other than to give up. “Let us go, and we will leave your land!” the man being shielded said, but it was late for that. They must capture at least one Northerner alive, if not more. “Not until you tell us your reason of coming,” Jezel said and beckoned on his men to seize them.


Before their very eyes, the first warrior of Kpando who had made a move was stabbed in the chest; his body was nowhere to be found. It disintegrated into tiny lights and got buried in the thin air. The rage that gripped Jezel almost left the last man being their leader dead, but he remembered the words of their lady. The horses were alive, the Northerners all dead; except the one needed to be left alive, but the Kpando warriors were not complete. The lady had taken care of the bleeding on her wrist long before Echendu had come to ask how she felt. She nodded and said, “You shot six and missed two. We’ve lost one. I sustained the injury.” “I’m sorry,” he said, but the person he was apologising to was out of sight. He hissed and said, “Don’t forget that I also killed the man who would have made you the second victim!” The swords had stopped speaking and a minute mourning was observed for the fallen. The Northerner was leaned on a tree under the bondage of Lota and Jezel; interrogation was about to begin. Echendu’s first turn in that direction was Dilichi on sight; he paced fast to rejoin her. “Who are you?” Dilichi asked immediately she got there, as if the others had been killing the time. The Northerner looked at her, and back at Jezel with great contempt. “Answer her!” Jezel said. He smiled and said, “I am Davy Nwalor, a Northern warlord. We didn’t come to hurt anyone...until your warriors lobbed us. We just came to check the safety of our men-” Echendu was overtaken by a vague laughter. When he saw that all attention had been directed towards him, he turned to the warlord and asked, “What were your men doing in Kpando?” Davy was scornful of the question but when Jezel ordered him to answer, he first stammered, then grabbed something to say. “I don’t know; my mission is to ensure their safety.” Jezel rose and looked up at the sky. He was smiling and was asking, “When have the Northerners started caring for the safety of their men?” He turned to Dilichi and, “We’re taking him to the Square, Lady!” he said. She shook her head in disapproval. “He will drag us behind. I will be faster if I go to get it -- the starplate.” She was on her horse; Echendu was on his, waiting for her to take off first. She turned and saw him, and would have enjoyed asking some questions, but because there was not enough time, she moved. The sun had risen overhead, yet Echendu delayed on the way with many questions. Most at times, she would add to the question before answering it.


“What consciousness was Emerie talking about when you wanted to use the blood-eye on Maganin?” Echendu asked. She smiled and asked, “Have you seen me do that?” “How could I have; when I’m not a wanderer like my cousin?” She slowed down and explained a little. “...then, the starplate would become an eye drawing energy from the victim’s blood, making him unconscious for a while. You will get to see it one day.” She trotted before the last sentence. When Echendu caught up with her, he asked, “Whose duty is it to perform the ritual of your ordination?” “Haven’t you heard of Opa?” she asked, and noticed the sudden silence in him. “What are you thinking?” Echendu knew she would ask. He also intended to ask with the opportunity his silence might create, so he asked, “Don’t you think that Scythe would have been a wiser man if he had seized the priest before he ordained you? Both the priest and you would have been his.” She thought over it for a while and seemed to be nodding slightly in agreement. She then shook her head boldly and asked, “Do you know what the fairy-rabbit does when in danger?” Echendu smiled and nodded. It was one of the favourite stories he liked to hear from his father when he was still a little boy. “It will change to a rabbit-hole, no matter the position and condition!” She nodded, commending Echendu for the answer. “You’re truly a fan of fairy-tales. That is how Opa goes when trouble comes.” He nodded and went straight to his point. “You run when in danger, yet I hear that the starplate stings.” “Yes,” she replied. “It hurts, even hotter than a blacksmith’s molten steel.” “Since the priest has his and uses it, the starplate should make a good body-guard for you.” Her facial expression disapproved the idea. She just rode forward and said, “Sacred! Sacred is the star!” She refrained it many more times until they were at the Square. Sacred! Sacred is the star, Echendu thought, should also make the wielder sacred, but here they were flying along with each other like love birds going into a nest. She was actually riding into the Square, singing and smiling, but only to flush at the horrific sight of Emerie flipping around the hut which should also be sacred too. “Lady!” he called in shock for he thought she was gone. “I was just thinking of a better way to seal the hut until you return.”


She had become a mistress in caging her rage, as she learnt from Beriche, but there was nothing to be angry about. She declared the reason she had come back while Emerie gave her a gold class bag; an empty one to be used in covering the plate. As Dilichi went into the hut, the two men moved aside for a brief conversation. Emerie whom had led Echendu to the corner they were currently standing started speaking. “I just want you to know this.” His tone was more of grumbling that Echendu did not even realise that he was the one being spoken to. “Know what?” Echendu murmured within himself, forgetting the sharp ears of the Grand; he shook when he got a reply. “That she’s too precious to us… to be betrothed to a king, not to talk of a hunter.” Echendu was embarrassed. “And you let her go?” he thought. He had suspected such when he heard the sacred of a thing. “What choice do I have?” Emerie replied. Echendu discovered that he had murmured once again. He decided to answer boldly, instead of murmuring. “Choice to protect her with the starplate,” he said. Just as Emerie was about speaking, he heard tread coming to their direction. It was Dilichi; she now had the bag hung over her neck. “Send words if you encounter a problem,” the Grand said, touching Echendu’s chest. Echendu bowed, as he had seen them do most at times, but on raising his head, Dilichi was already on the ride. She shouted, “Let’s go!” “Wait! Let me come along… to see the Northerner!” Emerie said. The three rode back to the hilly forest, just before the North border, a league away from the foot of the mountain on which they were. She untied the strip of band on her head and held the plate on her hand. The plate glowed yellowish and dimmed, but still glimmered -- as the gold it was -- in the middle of the sun. “Look at this!” she said to Davy whose neck was stiff. His eyes were fixed at Echendu as if he was his captor. By the strip untied, he saw the rune and realised that he was with the Starlady, yet did not want to look. The person he had been looking at forced him to look by inclining his neck. The stream of light whirled, but the colour of the plate was red; Davy had lied. The plate sparked and its light dimmed.


“You can see, warlord,” she said. She stepped nearer to her and smiled, “Save your head for the while.” Davy’s eyes glazed for some seconds and his face twisted in a grimace of pain, yet he would not speak. Lota was getting impatient, but that was what Echendu wanted; a chance to see this blood-eye he had heard about. “He’s wasting our time,” Lota said. Davy’s eyes scaled round, from the interrogators to the power wielder and his men whom Emerie was preparing to burn. The horses were already riding uphill and all their swords going to the blacksmiths to be recast. Lota plucked Davy’s ear, reminding him to be quick, but he shook his head grudgingly. “Let me go!” he said, “I’ve told you all that I know.” Dilichi nodded at Jezel; a small knife from the captain punctured the palm of the warlord. Though no much pain was inflicted, but as soon as the blood dropped in the middle of the plate, Davy’s breathing normalised and he staggered and stumbled when Lota had let go of his hold on him. The warlord had slumped with his eyes closed. He had entered into a peaceful sleep, and that was just a part in the blood-eye. The other part had taken place in the plate. The blood had touched the centre and had boiled vigorously, then evaporated into a thick cloud and hovered round the plate. They all gathered to see what Davy had seen, for what he was thinking during the interrogation was now cast upon the plume over the plate. A man whose identity was unknown was standing and was instructing the Northerners. He was in a white leather suit which had three stars on the arm. He also wore a crest helmet over his head. That was all that they saw; and the plate dimmed. Echendu became interested in Davy’s arm; he noticed that it was decorated with two stars. “The man must be his supreme,” he said to himself. “Of course, a general,” said Emerie. “Maybe a viceroy under one the lands Scythe commands.” The plate was being slotted back into the yellow leather bag when Echendu involuntarily thrust his hand forward for assistance in widening the lid. The plate scratched his wrist, so on the ground he screamed, burying his fingers in the sand for the quickest absorption. “Your first experience of the blood-eye has left you an outlaw with a scar,” said Dilichi without a drop of sympathy. It was all smiles that she gave all the while. The hand had been exhumed, but there was a short scar of red colour, just like a welt; an everlasting mark which he was to be recognised with, even in rotten flesh. “It wasn’t intentional,” said he, and now, he had learnt that the plate was more than a weapon -something worth envying. “Maybe you shouldn’t attempt touching it again,” she said and still smiled, but now at Emerie.


“Of course, it wasn’t intentional,” said Emerie, “and neither will sorry heal the welt.” He folded his sleeve and exposed a similar scar on his wrist. Before Echendu could turn, Dilichi had nodded. “Yes,” she said, “and I don’t need sorry to tell you that I’m sorry. The more compassionate I am, the greater the pain within the next half hour.” “Now you know what I mean by beware,” said Emerie. He moved to Davy whom Lota and Jezel were already looking after. Echendu cleaned his soiled hands. “It hurts. So how long will he sleep?” He was pointing at Davy. “I don’t know,” she said, “but must awake to be very tired.” “Ah!” he screamed. “I can’t be sorry anymore,” she said. “Just keep talking.” “I understand. Why did you waste time questioning him when you could get the answer at once?” She laughed as if the question was childish. “There are still answers beyond me,” she said, “just like the general’s name. But questioning is safer for him, concerning the issue of consciousness, and still relevant when he gets stubborn. It will evoke the particular scenario that I want for the blood-eye.” Echendu digested the lessons and thought it was time to go, but the name of the general was still unknown. “So I guess we are not yet going,” he said. She nodded. “I need to learn about the general who sent Davy after me.” Lota came with two swords that he got from Jezel, and gave one to Echendu; he kept the other for himself. Echendu weighed it and admired the hilt because of some strange carvings that it had, but he looked at his bow which almost failed him. “What do I need the sword for?” he asked, touching the bow that was on his shoulder. “I’ll bet that there are lots of dangers on the way,” said Lota, “because this is harvesting season. They will be up and about with their assessors. I also saw what your bow did, so the best thing for you is to hone your skill on it and supplement it with the sword.” Echendu turned around, trying to catch a glimpse of himself. “That means, all eyes were on me when I missed those shots,” he murmured to himself. He tied the sheath and said, “After all, Lota has his axe.” For over three hours Davy did not wake, despite the noise that came from the moving horses. The sun was almost going down when they had lunch in the hill, yet Davy still enjoyed the sleep which no amount of beat disturbed. Some were getting weary, and those like Lota impatient. Echendu was busied thinking of better ways to protect the lady. The cart that was used to bring them lunch was returned by Jezel, in return for dinner. As he was leaving, there was a loud disturbing sound that came from the wheels, yet Davy remained motionless. Lota plucked a branch; no one complained. Very soon, it would be dark; and they would still remain there waiting for the Northerner. Lota withered the leaves and


stepped towards the sleeping warlord. He raised his hand, looking very determined to flog Davy, but he awoke before the stick could touch him. Dilichi reached out for him, even before Lota whom was very near. “Who was the man giving you order to capture the Starlady?” she asked. Davy by now must have had enough sleep. He was very tired and helpless and knew that his fate would be unfathomable if left in the hills alone. Telling lies again would be detected by the starplate. He was thinking of the best answers when Emerie gave him hope. “Say it,” Emerie said. “I swear by the Spirits to keep you safe.” Swearing and going against it was like inviting the Priestess of Doom. Davy was relieved, so he spoke, despite being very tired. “Buruka Okuta, the viceroy of Amaato in the service of King Scythe.” Emerie chuckled. “So what’s your prize?” “Mine?” he asked, and the Grand nodded. “The viceroy of course, and Buruka his second-in-command.” Emerie chuckled again. “What is he going to do with General Natali then?” he asked. Davy bent his face as if in remorse. He said, “These masters deceive us most at times; all we do is follow their orders, though we know we’re being deceived. It happens everywhere.” “So he sent your platoon to get me?” Dilichi asked. After a while, she added, “And you agreed to come.” Davy shook his head. “The truth is that he’s getting a battalion ready… to strike this land.” Emerie laughed. “Not when I’m still the Grand.” The plate was out again; Echendu flew as far as he could, though with his eyes and ears as sharp as it could be. The plate glowed this time in a greenish colour; Lota was glad that they were leaving at last. He had picked a lot from the pockets of the dead Northerners, and could not wait spending them in the taverns down in Amaato. Dilichi covered the bag and handed it to Emerie. “Keep your promise,” she said, shifting her gaze to the helpless Davy. “I will,” Emerie replied with a smile. He took the bag and hung it over his neck. She nodded. “Keep it in your court until I return to lay it in the hut.” Echendu still could not believe he was letting the plate go; he watched the Grand leave, come back, before arranging with the warriors on what should be done with Davy. Lota was helping the Grand with the decision.


“Everything the Northerners think is you,” Echendu said when he was near Dilichi. He shook his head slowly. “It’s unsafe for you to come with us.” “Are you helping me out with my mother or doing what the priestess said?” “Both are the same -- for your safety,” he said. “ ‘To hold me responsible,’ was what your mother said; I don’t think I’m equal to that task.” She laughed and asked, “So what do you suggest? -- Dumping me?” Echendu had wanted this question, of course, he won’t dump her willingly, and neither was he willing to let the plate go. Emerie was already through and must have to go soon. It was told that the plate had never left the land of Kpando, but Echendu was determined to break this record -- to make a history. “Fulfil this condition and you come with us,” he said. “I’m coming with you or I go alone,” she said. “But I will like to hear the condition.” Her hands were on her waist in wait. Echendu did not know how it would sound, all he could see was her neck tilting forward. Its mode of vibration was not just nervousness but impatience; she was waiting. “Come with the starplate,” he said at last. The ogre that had taken over her face was a kind Echendu had never seen before, even in Captain Fena’s face when he forgot his arrow at the coast. But the face lightened again like a moon exiting from a dark cloud. “A treasure I should preserve for my successors?” she asked with her hands on her chest. “Do you think I’m of any importance without it?” “That’s the reason you should come with it,” Echendu said, moving nearer to convince her. “It’s your power and your heritage, just as you said about Scythe living in the Northern palace.” She shook and knew it to be the truth. But the starplate was sacred; she was sacred, but she was leaving; it became obvious to her that someone was being cheated. “What do you need it for?” she asked. Echendu was then encouraged to take another step nearer. “First, you saw what we got out of Davy, then as I have told you-” “Weapon to fight with is exactly why you want it.” “For your own protection,” he said, pointing at her. “Can I touch it?” She remembered, and started considering it. But what would people say, even though her decision would always be the final? “Even if I agree,” she said, “some won’t embrace this idea, and even if they do -- because they won’t like to complain -- Emerie can’t. Every Grand swears to protect the treasure.”


Emerie might hear them from afar so he led her farther, but the Grand was already preparing to ride (with the starplate) which made Echendu hurry. “He swore to protect the treasure which is you, yet the meeting was held to the detriment of your safety. He’s also letting you go to a place that is worst, worse than the Rift.” “Didn’t he take a difficult decision?” she asked. “He did, but is not passionate about it. Take Jezel for instance, he didn’t want you to leave; he showed it.” She waited a while and folded her hands. “What are you telling me to do now?” The sun was going down and Emerie was up to ride, but one or two things delayed him -- he was wondering whether to take Davy by horse, by foot, haul him for a while or haul him all along. Echendu must have to be fast if he wished to succeed. As he thought, Lota delayed Emerie the more; that was good. Echendu was very close, so spoke silently. “If Emerie could risk you,” he said, “why can’t he risk your starplate? Oh yes, it’s yours! Find courage to approach him, tell him that you need protection. The warriors protect him; the Spirits protect the chief priest. Tell him what you need; it will be right.” ‘Right’ echoed in her heart; absolutely, that was right. For a while she gazed at the Grand, with a suspended breath, then sighed and strode towards the man now with the plate. Emerie was squatted with Lota as they tied Davy’s hands; Lota must have suggested that hauling was better. Echendu followed slowly when the lady had reached the destination. “May I speak to you alone, Grand Emerie?” She was standing with her hands folded to the back. Emerie turned back with his head tilted upwards. “Of course, lady,” he said and nodded. They took a short stroll down the hill. She thought of a better way to begin. “I don’t know if this is right,” she said, “but I’m the one endangered.” She stopped walking and faced Emerie, ready to take whatever the outcome might be. “Can I go with the starplate?” Emerie had taken a sigh but his face was frowned. He slapped his cheek and stamped his feet. “A coward I am not to have summoned courage to ask,” said he. “I thought you might turn it down so I never asked.” “Asked what? What I just asked?” she asked. He nodded. “Your short service to the land has been perfect… so you deserve to be safe. I was thinking of you going with that plate.” He removed the bag from his neck and held it forward. She could not believe her eyes, yet she did not take the bag. She smiled and threw herself at him. After the short hug, she skipped back and found Echendu and Lota arguing.


“He swore to keep him safe,” said Echendu. “Binding his hand isn’t harmful. Remember that Emerie once did that to us.” Echendu nodded. “Well, it hurt me and I’m going to tell him that.” He turned and saw the Grand. “I’m sorry if it hurt you,” Emerie said and gave orders for Davy’s hands to be freed. “What kind of person is this?” Echendu murmured and turned to see if he would also hear that; there was no sign. He immediately bolted by a pinch which came right on his shoulder. He turned and found Dilichi smiling in her usual way. “He was thinking of the same,” she said, “and has approved it without thinking further.” Echendu in his heart was happier than she was, but he never dared to touch the bag which now dangled from Dilichi’s neck. “He’s not as bad as I thought,” he said. Emerie might have heard that because he jerked his neck to the back and was looking at Echendu, but that look came with a smile. He shouted that he was leaving, for it has gotten late. “Jezel will soon arrive with food, so wait,” he added. He did not wait for her to reply. He rode with Davy and some of the warriors. “At least, my coins won’t go to the taverns tonight,” Lota said; he was petting his pocket. “What were you saying about him?” Dilichi asked Echendu who still looked at the Grand now far away. “No,” said Echendu; “I mean that he’s a good man. Good and responsible Grand.” “Better mean it right,” she said before a fire rose. Blue flames went high into the sky, releasing the smell of drying flesh into the air. Upon the crackling sound, Jezel arrived on two ponies that drew a waggling wagon with some wobbling wheels with sound that pierced the ear. He gave Dilichi a hood to supplement the band strip. Lota was already in the wagon, checking the heavy load which caused the noise. He opened a bag; it was disgusting. “What are we going to do with all these bags of sand?” he asked. Jezel smiled. “I brought you dinner! The rest you know? Think!” They spent half of the night round a campfire mulling over their journey. They took a nap in-between before setting out. Jezel and some warriors helped hide Lota and Dilichi. Their weapons were kept inbetween the bags that were in the wagon. Their three horses pulled the cart while Echendu drove. He was dressed in a cloak and his head hidden in the hood intended for Dilichi. Jezel followed them to the foot of the hill and waved them off.

*


Anna had come very late to see Kuilo; she did what parrot does. The poor helpless woman could not help abusing Emerie when he admitted that he had let her daughter go to the land ruled by Northerners. Ochel, Ohams, Hewas and his men also came to the house to seek for help in finding their sons. They were greeted with the news that the boys must be in the Northern territory by then. Hewas was a known, and in fact, wanted person in those territories, because of what he did with arrows on the Northerners in a battle years ago. There was nothing they could do, so they ate walnut and went back to their land to await the fate of their sons. The two families had become friends that way because their problem all seemed to be the same: people are united when they share common problems.

*

Echendu rode in the early mornings past the plains in the North of Kpando; he was nervous as he approached another area similar to the Rift. The river sang in high splashes around this area. There was a large bridge rumoured to had been wooden long ago, but had now rotted, yet the link still lived. How it came into being, no one knew; not even their Adam and Eve could boast of the proper answer. People necessarily needed means to communicate with their neighbours; that was the main reason why most kingdoms settled along the same longitudes linked by bridges. No one could also tell if more of such bridges existed in the far east and west of the rivers that divided the lands. The bridge was like land, and as firm as a strong-hold. Northerners were scattered left and right. Echendu was yet to cross the bridge when a warrior approached, waving for him to stop. The warrior was carrying a large sword on his hand. Echendu had no choice; the Northerners were many, not like this the first time he crossed with Lota and Haruni. They had all returned from the faraway lands where they fought and now had been withdrawn. Echendu could do nothing, except offer his obedience, just to avoid suspicion; that would be worse. “Who are you?” the warrior asked. “Are you not aware that trade has been abolished between these two lands, and Alanta beyond.” What fib could he tell? He had heard such from Lota, about sanction and fighting and falling back to the Rift for the priestess to save him. It might have been better if Lota had driven, so that he could be able to conjure something fast enough. The warrior still looked and was now coming nearer, so he had to act faster before the worse would happen. “It’s a special request.” The words just escaped from his mouth; he regretted it because he couldn’t muster what the request was.


“Special request?” the warrior asked; Echendu found himself nodding. “Take off that hood so that I can see your face. Oh! What a hairy face? Hope you’re not a fairy?” Echendu’s head seemed to have enlarged; the intense became unbearable when the next question was thrown. “Special request sounds funny,” said the warrior. “From who, exactly?” He knew no one and knew no place. He remembered Captain Fena and Warlord Davy and, maybe Buruka and Scythe whom he had not yet seen live. Surely there must be a way out, he thought. He could lie like Davy; after all, there was no other blood-eye that could scan his words, except the one in the wagon. “Warlord Davy Nwalor,” Echendu said. “Ohhhhh!” the warrior yawned. Had his lie been spotted, it would be a disaster? Maybe the man called Davy had given them a wrong name, but then he heard the warrior saying, “Davy Nwalor, the warlord. So how is he?” There was now another warrior that stood; he had pushed the first away. It was then that Echendu looked on his arm; it was decorated with a star. He could not see the arm of the first warrior who was now going back to join the other patrols. The warrior stepped forward, taking off his helmet. “You mean that Davy gave you goods to deliver?” he asked. Echendu now had the chance to twist the answer if he had envisaged a flaw, but such decision on a hot seat was a hard thing to do. He got more confused while the right thinking diffused. “No,” he said, but was nodding. The warrior frowned. “ ‘No’ from the mouth and ‘yes’ from your head,” he said and got more interested in the case. Echendu nodded. “ ‘No’ that he didn’t give me, and ‘yes’ that he ordered me to deliver them. He got them from the Grain market this morning.” “I suppose you didn’t fly,” said the warrior. “Sorry! Last night.” He was looking so determined. “To whom are you taking them to?” the warrior asked. Another big question for Echendu, but he had known the general, though not sure of the name Davy mentioned. But the star shone green, he could remember. “He said that I will get direction to the viceroy of Amaato.” “General Buruka?”


“Yes,” Echendu nodded, wondering if he should have shaken his head. The warrior unsheathed his sword and came slowly. He looked at the rider and took another look before going left of the wagon. The sword was knocking on the body; this sound pierced straight into Echendu’s heart. The warrior kicked the back and sheathed back his sword when he was at the right. He knocked along with his hands and clapped when he was back to the front. “So what’s inside?” he asked. The hardest question now, because it might warrant a search. He was just saying anything that came to mind so that searching for them would take a while. “...bags of pure salt from the Southmouth coast, dry rolls of fish from the Saracora lake, roasted meats from the Tina hills, sacks of grains from the Kpando Grain market...” “Just nothing for Lord Scythe’s guards,” the warrior said. He took a step nearer and went on. “We are new to this place. Is that all you have in there?” “That’s all I know,” said Echendu. “What about the Starlady?” The warrior was speaking friendly but his hand was on the sheath. “Isn’t she in the wagon?” “Did I just mention walnut from the Starlady?” Echendu asked himself. He shook his head wondering if this was a set-up. The warrior took the head shaking to be negative so went on, maybe to search. The worst was that Echendu had no useful weapon, except the short jewelled knife he was keeping for Dilichi; it was even unreachable at that time. His mind was now set on fist fighting if they should ever threaten to search. The warrior was out of sight when he pushed his hand inside the pocket, trying as hard to reach for the knife. “Our orders are to expect the warlord with the Starlady,” said the warrior; he was coming out from the left side of the wagon. “And if he does not-” “Oh the lady?” Echendu said, interrupting the warrior. “I was there when Davy got her. He asked me to go with the cart while he goes for the starplate.” The guard jerked forward in amazement. “You mean that Davy Nwalor now has the Starlady?” “Including the head camps of Kpando,” said Echendu, relieved in his heart that it was working. “That means that my work is almost done here,” said the warrior. “Can you describe this warlord?” His mind flashed back; he imagined Davy looking at him while he pushed his head down. “Darker than I am, grey in the centre of his hair, hazel in the eyes...” The warrior nodded as he described and finally turned to those that were behind him. “Let him pass, for soon, we’ll leave this poor area.” “Apparently!” said Echendu as he rode forward.


From the same warrior came these next words, “He’s among the ones making this area to be poor. Make him drop some droppings, and then give him direction to the Heaven! I’m sure he was paid.” As Echendu rode past the bridge, it was as if the tide had risen. He was in the middle, thinking over those last words; he understood them when he was on the Amaato side -- when one of the patrols had approached him with fingers spread apart. “Five silver pieces is your tax,” said the warrior. “But he never told me that,” said Echendu, pointing backward. “He delayed you because of your tight-fist; that’s what every trader around here does. Be wise before you off-load and load; which is stressful.” Echendu had no money with him; so he thought of what to do. Lota rejoicing over dinner so that he won’t have to spend in the taverns meant that he had money, he was suspecting. But, how could he ask Lota in this condition? It was like jumping back into the fire; there was nothing else he could do. He came down and stretched his neck through the window. He kept his voice low while Lota who had heard their conversation packed a handful and handed it over to him without listening to know how much should be given. Echendu counted out the five carefully and was about handing it over. “You were grumbling and murmuring over five,” said the warrior. “No! I wasn’t.” “You were! I heard you in the wagon.” It was dangerous to keep agitating on this; bribery could pave the way, Echendu thought. “I’m sorry, let me make it six!” he said. “Still little for a wagon of this size... or I search,” the warrior insisted, looking very determined to act. Echendu boldly moved forward and poured the whole coins before the warrior, not minding if he would consider it an insult. It was money after all; and not scorpion, he thought. The warrior bent and started picking them up. “You can go,” he said. “After you’ve passed that ridge, ask for Buruka’s Heaven by the west.” Echendu flew back before the warrior would change his mind. He drew the bridle, so off they waggled while the wheels still wobbled; releasing irritating sounds which the warriors never liked. As they picked the coins, they screamed on top of their voices.

“Spread faster than dust, Fly cleverer than flies,


Never again smiths cast, These wobbling wheels.

Fire it does not blast, Yet its cry stings like bees, Roaming in the dust, To suck our peace.

In this border so vast, Your silver just an appease, Sure it wasn’t your best, To us it’s just like peas.

Hear now you pest, Don’t act like a mouse, Your gold we expect last! That’s why we say please.

This one is a must, Just get rid of the wheels! Later we can settle the rest, Before we warriors choose!”

The greedy warriors screamed with much stress on the consonant clusters while Echendu ran as fast as he could before they would change their mind. They had more than enough coins to share, and so were glad. They were happier when the wagon had left; so was the driver when he had left the fools.


Miles off, the wagon had been abandoned after all the singing from the warriors. They were now on their individual horses, going down the ridge with mist all around, and had nothing to cover with, except one. She was in the middle and had the hood on. By her left was Lota dusting sand off himself before it would sediment in the roots of his hair. “You’re stupid,” said Lota. “Why did you throw money at the man?” Echendu laughed. “At least, it wasn’t stone. I heard your gasp -- you almost screamed my name.” “I did; I can see that Emerie has given you his sharp ears.” Echendu nodded. He turned and looked at Dilichi, wondering why she was not talking. “The assessor almost caught us,” he said. “Why didn’t he?” Dilichi asked; their eyes met immediately she turned. “Simply avaricious,” Echendu replied. He took his eyes away and added that it was silver that paved their way. “Luck we met then,” said Lota. “Imagine how it would have been if we had met an inquisitive type.” “I did meet one,” said Echendu, “but it was at last that I knew his reasons of doing so; they’re all the same.” As they were about to speed off, there came some marching thuds; not from the warriors but their horses that moved at the same pace. The one in front who would have been a standard bearer in a warfront was not up to standard -- it was when he saw horses approaching that he raised the flag. It waved in the misty air, absorbing all that it could. The inscription on the red flag was the reflection of the direction given to Echendu. Just then, a warrior approached. Echendu passed a message to Lota in such a low tone that the middle rider didn’t get that. “The warrior said that I should ask for Buruka’s Heaven,” he said. “Apparently,” said Lota, “from the waving cloth, they are his emissary.” Echendu nodded and turned to Dilichi. “Keep your face down,” he said. The others had halted; it was obvious that the particular one that moved was coming towards them. “Have you no respect for Buruka’s Corps?” the warrior asked and still rode forward. “Fine is three silver coins, each.” His voice echoed within his helmet, making Echendu to wonder how his face would be outside the metal. Echendu started looking at Lota, wondering if the tavern’s budget was still left, after the much paid at the border. Lota nodded and said in a low voice, “I aim for higher after giving my low.” He came down from his ride, counted out nine and was about returning the only one left on his hand.


“Don’t!” said the warrior. He took off his helmet to make sure his eyes were not deceiving him. “Everything is not too much,” he added. Lota, in a polite manner, came very close and handed the ten pieces over to him, then grumbled to himself, “Though we haven’t known our offence.” He seemed to be leaning on the warrior’s horse when he had said those words, so the warrior moved back a little and waved his hand. “Keep off, let me explain!” he said. Lota bowed with his hands folded to the back. He moved backward to his own horse. “Next time you meet a corps,” said the warrior, “bow your heads and keep off from the path. That’s your offence!” “The bushes are not just for monkeys,” another warrior said from behind. The first nodded his approval for the comment made by his colleague. He turned to the travellers and said, “Next time, the bag on your woman’s neck will be the price. Thank your God that you met some good fellows today.” Echendu and his company digested the lesson as the warriors rode past them; never again did they get fined for blocking the way. Their experiences with the last two Northerners had been fun, though it sometimes got scary in the middle. They just wished it would continue to be so, and not physical combat. It would be fun after all to trick them; Echendu had started imagining that. “All these Northerners are just the same,” he said. “We may find it hard to pay in the taverns before midday.” It would be true if it continued that way, Dilichi thought. She looked at Lota surprisingly at the way he had been pulling money out from his pocket. “How did you get all those silver coins?” she asked, and fixed her gaze so that the topic would not be averted. “Like I’ve gotten this one,” he replied, laughing with his hand up in the air. He was carrying a pouch whose content he had set dangling. “Sure it’s more than hundred gold coins; just half of a gold class bag.” He was still laughing, but his colleagues were perplexed. “How?” Echendu asked. “Oh!” he said, pointing at his cousin. “Not even you noticed that out of the collectors came something to be collected.” He laughed again in a stupid manner. Dilichi, with her right thumb, pointed backward. Her face was frowned. “The ones at the border?” she asked. “From the most recent fools,” said Lota. “Everyone’s got a price to pay; the ones at the border got Echendu’s deception. Know it now: I exchanged with the last fools.” He continued laughing.


She nodded, turned to Echendu and smiled. “You two have gripped the Northern greed. I just hope it doesn’t bring trouble.” Echendu scratched his neck and rode forward, keeping ahead of his counterparts. “What offence is more than stealing in front of a truth seeker?” he asked when he had turned aback. “Mind your words!” Dilichi said. She quickly looked at both sides before returning another gaze to Echendu. “Don’t you know that the bush has ears?” They trotted, keeping to the side of the paths when they saw warriors in group. They had to behave like the monkeys, to avoid losing what they had gotten. The taverns were still far, but midday was fast approaching -- the Northerners must have delayed them a lot; consequently, their stomach had gotten empty. They kept riding.


5. HUNGRY FOR TAVERN The Sun had reached its highest point in the sky, yet they still rode through the forest. Cold wind sometimes blew hard on them and they wished they were together, cuddled in a warm cave, rather than riding. Their condition was not bad at all; the sun was warming the air against the cold wind that blew along these forest passes; they only wanted to be more comfortable -- that’s the effect of hunger. Leaves started spraying on them after the misty wind was gone -- that’s what squirrels always do to irk travellers; this squirrel must be very unlucky, dealing with hunters. Lota who seemed most hungry had already made his way up the tree with his axe ready to slit, as it was on Fena’s neck, but was disappointed at the hissing creature that slithered upward. He came down and hopped onto his horse with a face strongly showcasing his disappointment. “Not a squirrel?” asked Echendu. “Or... it has disgraced a hunter,” said Dilichi, laughing. Lota waited a while and said, “Just the poison!” He was ahead and moved slowly. He turned around and was surprised to find the others still behind. “What is it?” he asked. “You saw a red python?” Echendu asked, pointing at him as if in doubt. Lota’s face crinkled and seemed to ask what this mad man was saying, a poison he remembered himself saying and thought of the need it might solve. He grasped the answer and his face lightened. “I forgot,” he said, nodding and gasping. The two hunters were on the tree, but the creature was now nowhere to be found. Dilichi who had been on the ground noticed it crawl over to another tree. She dropped her bag carelessly and climbed over the tree, without alerting the others, until she was half-way. The tree was situated along the path, and had a nice canopy. It was not unreasonably short, it was in fact of average height, but not as high as an Iroko. “I can see it!” she said. Echendu shook, not finding her on the ground. He then knew that his ear never deceived him because her voice had sounded very close. They both hurried down and waited for her. “Come down. You’ve never hunted,” said Echendu. She was killing their time, but none ever wanted to let her know. “I’ll learn in due time,” she said. The speed of the python wasn’t a hard task for Echendu to attempt from the ground, but she was on top so he kept his bow low and climbed, leaving Lota behind to cover the ground.


Should the Northerners be passing, there must surely be trouble because the horses were on the pass. Lota was trying to prevent such trouble when he saw a bird that looked steadily at him from another tree that stood across the path. He frowned and called, “Echendu! Our worst enemy in the air.” “King fisher?” Echendu guessed, still hurrying upward. “King fisher rules at Saracora lake,” said Lota. He took some few steps but the bird kept looking at him, shifting its neck at every step. “The one I’m talking of rules in the Southmouth.” “Osprey?” “It’s looking at me, and I’m looking at it right now.” Echendu laughed. “Keep looking at it, busy fool.” “Why is it your enemy in the air?” Dilichi asked. Echendu gripped a branch and smiled grimly at her. He had finally made it up and would appreciate spending some time so that Lota would grumble. “Imagine going to hunt for the sea creatures,” he said, “and you have success doing so, and you feel that it won’t be enough. You leave your fish in a creel and go back to hunt for more. How embarrassed would you be to come back and find your fish dancing in the air? Your fish, I mean, will be hanging on their beaks.” “Very glad!” she said, and traced the bird through Lota’s line of vision. It would be fine to look at an osprey, especially at this era when there are only few of them left in the world. She held a branch and headed towards the direction of the python. “So what is it doing in the woods?” she asked. After a brief silence, Lota called, “Echendu!” “Answer her yourself!” Echendu said, as he moved towards the tip of a branch, trying to corner their sport. Lota took the three horses by the bridle and said, “Echendu, look south!” He moved the horses inward. There were warriors riding up from afar -- south to be precise -- and the way their heads were shifting would tell one that they were searching for something, if not the hunters. Among them were men that the hunters had tricked and deceived. “Hurry and clear the horses!” Echendu said. “I’m already doing that. You should be quiet over that tree.” When he had taken the horses far enough, he took his axe and stayed under the umbrella of a tree. He peeped to the other tree his friends were and saw the python moving in a way that might cause the warriors to look up. He started wishing he had magical powers that could halt the cursed python. The warriors were arrayed in rows of three; there were six rows in whole. Two other warriors with a star each on their arm rode at the back. They were all putting on their helmets, except these two at the


back. Their heads kept switching from left to right in search of the offenders. The python stopped for a while, hissed and started rolling from a branch while the leaves showered over the ground. “These annoying squirrels again,” said one at the back. “They can’t try this on Alantans,” said the other. The mention of Alanta almost made Echendu want to jump off and fly, but it was a foolish thing to do -rejoicing to the praises of fools. The warriors never cared to look up. Their shields were tied to their horses while their hands stayed stationed on their sheaths as if danger had been sensed around the pass. There came a loud thud, and the warriors whom were already at an alert with swords that glittered in their hands looked towards that direction. A python slithered towards a bag. It actually led the warriors’ eyes to the bag whose cover flap was open, though the content remained hidden. “Get that gold bag!” the first warrior at the back commanded. He only suspected it to be filled with gold coins. Dilichi almost jumped off the tree. Echendu felt it and so held her, although his own head was shaking in anxiety. Two warriors hurried towards the bag, but the creature curled up with its mouth ready for mischief. They knew how dangerous a bite from the creature could be, so they never gave it a chance to attack; they pointed their swords forward. The first gave a thrust which it dodged; the direction it went left a warrior breathless. The second dived in an attempt to seize its neck but it shifted and dodged another slash. The two leaders laughed as it strangled the man; it was fun to them. They sent another two and the python curled round the bag with its head charged for another attack. Its eyes now burned in terror after it had devoured the next two. Every other warrior that was sent came slowly, knowing that it wasn’t going to be an easy task, but as their masters yelled, they moved on and absorbed the poison. Soon, there would be none left to run errands for the two men, so they took caution immediately. “What do you think?” the first asked the other beside him. “The python is under an enchantment.” Just as he said it, the python crawled away from the bag, but the warriors left were afraid and couldn’t touch the bag. An order was passed for them to search and see who was responsible for the sorcery. The first place their eyes went was up the tree, where Echendu and Dilichi trembled. The tree shook! “Come down, both of you,” the warrior said; this was the warrior whom Lota had stolen from. The same fear that made Dilichi slip from the tree in the woods of Alanta gripped her once again; down she crumbled without minding where she would end. Echendu followed immediately. In a matter of seconds, they were surrounded by the Northern swords -- spelled swords. The journey was not fun any longer!


Echendu also identified the warrior who had questioned him at the border; that particular warrior came forward and was laughing. “Why is she now putting on your hood?” he asked. He came nearer and whispered, “We also found your wagon.” Echendu nodded. “Yes! Our horses got tired along-” “How about the bags of sand?... And remember, we did promise in our chants to get your gold last.” “Yes, I remember,” replied Echendu. “There’s the gold!” He was wishing that they would go near the bag so that the python would resurface again. A warrior stalked slowly and picked up the bag; the python didn’t give a hiss. The other warrior that Lota had stolen from came forward, asking, “Where is your burglar friend?” Echendu vaguely waved his hand to the direction Lota was, then landed his hand on his head and scratched it. Dilichi took over from him immediately. “Taking care of our horses downstream.” The warrior nodded and smirked. “Unfortunately, no stream flows around here. We also want your gold class bag, so bring it!” “That’s it also!” She pointed at the warrior that now held the bag. The warrior nodded and turned. He demanded for the bag, so the lower ranked warrior with it stepped nearer to present it, but the leader from the border stopped him with a sword. “I demanded it first,” he said and pointed to Echendu. “You can ask him.” “Yes,” Echendu nodded. The other warrior whom Lota had stolen from frowned; his two hands rested on his sheath. “You just said you wanted it last from your chants,” he said. “Moreover, its content was stolen from me... so you can have the empty bag.” “No way! The thief is not here to prove that. I got a star before you, so why not give me my right?” The ordinary warrior was confused on whom to take it to. He wanted to move forward but two swords reflected light into his eyes. The grass would always suffer the thud of the elephants. The other warrior sheathed his sword as if in preparation for a peace deal. “I’m older than you in the service. I’m telling you that he stole more than its worth from me!” he said. After continuous argument, the leader from the border moved forward to take the bag, but the other unsheathed his sword and attacked him. Within the twinkle of an eye, the warrior that was stolen from fell to the ground; a downward strike took his body away from the vicinity.


“Now to business,” said the other, sheathing back his sword. “We got news that none of Davy’s platoon breathed as at that moment. You lied.” “But Davy is alive!” said Echendu. The warrior laughed and nodded. “We also got the news! By the way, are you a sorcerer?” He turned and fixed his gaze at the spot where many of his warriors died from the python’s bite. “Python guarding your gold,” he said. “No,” Echendu said, but was nodding. The warrior laughed. “Still confused as you were, but we’ve understood. Your lady should take off her hood and untie the band let’s see something -- if the news is true.” “But you can take the bag and go!” Echendu said. “You can’t bribe us again. Well, we know her; there’s a bounty on her head so we can still add more to this bounty.” He turned to the warrior who was holding the bag. “Check if it is up to two hundred, then bring it to me, quickly!” The bag was opened, but the plate had been carelessly flung towards the warrior who commanded. He defended it with his sword, not minding where he sent it to. His sword glowed at the time they were in contact, but because it didn’t last long, the pain was bearable for him. Coupled with the anger that had gripped him at the common warrior who had thrown the plate at him, he made a revenging move. The warrior who had thrown it was already on his knees when the commander helped him end the pain by ending his life. He watched him vanish before he turned. The others that were holding Dilichi had scattered; he had used his sword to send the plate to the lady’s hand, and had inflicted the pain on some warriors at the same time. From another end came Lota swiftly swinging his axe to every angle, taking the warriors that were unaware of his arrival; that action left Echendu with no option other than to join. Only the commander was left standing, but the three were terribly afraid to attack. The warrior rushed towards Echendu and struck, but the two swords sparked as if they were equals. When the two fell to the ground, the python that had come out of nowhere faced Echendu; it had already bitten the warrior. Echendu leaped at once with his sword set while his feet moved backward. “Don’t hurt it!” Dilichi said; “it helped us!” The python leaped towards Echendu’s sword and fell with its head sliced off from the body. “Why did you kill it?” Dilichi cried. Echendu looked around, flummoxed. He dropped his blood stained sword on the ground. “I never killed it; it killed itself.”


The mouth of the python was torn very wide, exposing a moss covered stone. Echendu knowing what it was sighed. “Fresh-stone!” “What are you doing in this wood called Amaato grove?” a voice asked. They turned and there was a tall weary old man wearing grey hair and beard. He was in a yellow cloak with a brown chord tied to his waist. “Silence means something,” said the man, “but what you’ve done is nothing!” “Go your way with your foolish proverbs, old man!” said Lota. He rushed to get their horses. “Don’t you think we were rude to this man,” Dilichi said as she placed the plate back into the bag. Echendu turned to check on the man but he was gone, leaving no trace, trail nor tread. “Lota’s stealing caused this, and now, we may have woken another trouble,” said he. Quickly, they packed their belongings and hurried forward, looking for a safe place to test their freshstone. Lota was not scared to pick the last of all the coins from the warriors. When he was through, he ran after them, looking like the greedy warriors. They reached a glade that was faraway from the path; and there they settled. Dilichi fastened her bag to the saddle, patted the horse and uprooted some grasses for them. “Know that there must be a spy somewhere in Kpando,” said Echendu as he panted. “That is not possible!” said Dilichi. “Emerie will always fish them out.” Echendu laughed, laying down the fresh-stone and looking around to make sure they were alone. “That’s what Emerie will always say. If Anna hadn’t told you about his brother, would you have believed that spies existed in your land?” “Emerie did fish him out!” she said proudly, trying to make the horses eat something. “Bragging won’t help us,” said Lota. He was counting his coins and was putting them in bags. “Exactly what I was about saying to her,” Echendu said. “Your suspicion will only drag us behind,” Lota said, and came nearer to Echendu. He squatted and said, “The most important thing now is to fill this space...” One of his hands was on his stomach while the other pointed towards the stone. “...with your magical green thing -- fresh-stone.” Echendu smiled and prayed in his heart that it would be successful. He was happy that Lota had started believing in him, trusting the stone to fill his empty belly, although he had never seen it in action. “I need an abrasive stone to strike with,” he said. “There’s one in my bag,” said Dilichi. “Lota, check for the bag around my saddle.”


As Lota headed towards the horse, he kept his coins near his mind, wondering if he could ever get a gold class bag to put them in. He saw one hanging on the saddle and wished to possess it. At the time he was speaking, his hand was untying the bag. “Where did you get this?” he asked. “At a stream around my house,” replied Dilichi. Lota laughed. “I mean the gold bag.” She turned immediately and, in a scream, said, “It’s the starplate!” Several feet, Lota had flown with the bag. The bag flew higher, though they landed at the same time, and on the same spot. “You’re lucky,” she said, holding the bag. She dropped it on the ground and removed the stone from the saddle. “You are still there?” she asked, looking at Lota; the stone was thrown to Echendu by her. Lota gasped. He never believed he could run from the starplate this way until he saw Northerners being rendered lifeless by it. “You intentionally sent me to your clutches?” he asked. “Don’t listen to my sleeping friend,” said Echendu. “He’s just resting in style.” Lota heaved a sigh of relief, but on trying to get up, he frowned and called, “Echendu!” Echendu dropped the stones he was about to strike together and unsheathed his sword. “What?” he asked and looked around. “Sorry,” said Lota, really apologetically; “I always call you this way whenever I sense danger, right? It’s nothing -- just the osprey again.” Echendu hissed and picked the stone. He was grumbling, “You better rise from that bed of yours.” “But you sensed danger,” said Dilichi. “The bird is your enemy... although it’s beautiful. I wish to get fish from the fresh-stone... so that we can entertain the bird.” “Is that how you will hunt for the turnip?” Echendu asked, still holding the stones apart. She frowned and pointed at the hunter. “Echendu, watch your mouth; the trees can hear.” “Forget the old expression,” said Lota. “Old men such as the fool we met on the way used such words to scare us from gossiping their secrets.” He tried to rise but fell back and the bird flew. Dilichi laughed and turned to Echendu who was still holding the stones. “Strike and stop listening to Lota’s words,” she said, adding that they sounded tavern-like, including his actions. Lota rose immediately and said, “Don’t strike, Echendu!” “Why?” he asked and was fast to pick his bow and arrow.


A warrior had taken the bag while more dived into the glade with spears, shields, swords and bows; all directed towards them. There was no space for Echendu to stretch the bow, neither was there any space to run through. “Shoot them all, except the woman!” a voice commanded from the back. Tens of arrows flew according to the command. They dived backward to dodge; that was not safe at all, they had met a barricade made by the combination of the warriors’ shields. Surely, they ought to die in the next second because the arrows had reached their eyes. Their chapter had been closed in their minds and as they cried to God in acceptance of their fate, the arrows paused and flipped back like a somersaulting athlete. The warriors who dodged were safe; some others were unlucky because the arrows they shot returned to them, sending their bodies out of sight. The rest drifted backward but were commanded to move forward by their leader. They did as commanded, but before they were able to strike, their bodies were in flames. Echendu was already on the ground in an attempt to dodge the thrust that would have met him. He saw his green stone on the ground and picked it. The miracle boosted their morales, so off the two hunters and the lady zoomed with their heels nearly reaching their neck. A high whirl wind arose in the middle of the glade. It quenched the flames on the body of the Northerners. Many recovered themselves, and with the starplate now in their possession, they continued their search for the Starlady. Echendu and company arrived at a place which they believed was safe because of the absence of noise of the forest creatures. They slumped to the ground, panting and gasping and looking around to see if any warrior followed. “The fresh-stone is gone,” cried Lota in such an angry voice that further infuriated his hunger. He never knew why he believed so much in the fresh-stone. “We should go for the starplate!” said Dilichi, suggestively, as that was more important than any stone. Echendu rolled two stones forward and removed the bow from his shoulder. “Something is helping us somewhere, and another is spying at the same time,” he said. “We should go for the starplate, but not with an empty stomach, since the fresh-stone is here.” Lota, who thought that it was gone, smiled and raised his right hand, saying, “I’m in support.” They turned to Dilichi; she nodded with her mouth open, still huffing and puffing. Lota snatched the stones from Echendu who was still petting them. His first strike left white mild smoke gushing out of the fresh-stone. “Just drop it,” Echendu said, yawning and stretching. He stressed his neck joint and looked up after he had had another stretch. His feet sprang immediately and he called, “Lota!”


“Are they here again?” poor Lota asked, reaching to the other stone for defence as his axe was no longer with him; he had left it on his horse. “No,” said Echendu. “It has become your duty to bring such news. Keep your voice low, and don’t look up let me tell you what I suspect.” As if Echendu had exposed something dangerous, Lota ran to him. Dilichi joined them and her head quaked from an unknown force. The force was also pushing Lota’s head upward. “Tell us what,” said she, in a voice that quavered. “Just... nothing,” said Echendu. He shook his head. “I just think that something is and has been spying on us.” “You’ve said it before,” said Lota, “and we now know it to be true. Is that why we shouldn’t look up?” Echendu nodded. “My suspect shouldn’t suspect that we are aware. It is hanging above.” Dilichi’s head slowly began to tilt upward. Echendu pushed it down, with an apology that he was sorry. “I’m also sorry for defying you,” she said, “but scared! I think, this is the right time to write to Emerie... for his battalion to start marching. Things are getting scary!” “No rider is here!” said Echendu. “And, it’s even nothing concerned with battalions.” Lota stamped his feet on the ground. “Then what? What is up there?” His head moved side-ways. He had even become afraid to look upward. Echendu panted for some seconds and said that it was a bird; this made Dilichi hiss. She said, “Of course, they like to hover around smoke.” Echendu’s hand pulled the two of them nearer. “The osprey we had seen,” he said. Lota sighed. “You have been scaring me because of a bird that only hunts fish. You can never change, Echendu.” “But you said it is your enemy,” said Dilichi. She turned to Echendu, putting on a determined jaw. “What do you observe?” she asked. “I’ve heard a story about birds spying on people.” Lota hissed. “Fantasy boy he’s always been -- always dreaming of tortoise and mocking birds, talking of flying Isiabuo and more. What else?” “But osprey is not a forest bird,” Dilichi said thoughtfully. Lota had started believing the fairies. His head slightly went up and came down. “How then do we solve this?” he asked.


“We kill it,” said Echendu. Dilichi’s head shook severally. “Why hurt an innocent bird?” she asked. “We only suspected.” “I can’t listen to you,” said Echendu. “I can remember that you wanted to kill the python at first when you climbed the tree.” “Because it bites,” she said, defensively, “but when it proved itself good, what did I say?” Lota turned around and groaned, “Osprey is an enemy to the fishes.” Echendu smiled a little and nodded. “We’re wasting time,” he said and moved forward to pick his bow. Lota paced towards him. “Be careful to avoid suspiciooo...” The bird had flown but it came back and perched on another branch which was even easier to shoot from. Echendu moved to a corner and fixed the last arrow he had run with into his bow. He stretched it with his last strength. He remembered how he missed a shot at the hills of Kpando. The fear of missing with this last arrow gripped him when he released it, unprepared to do so. A stem had sprung up from the fresh-stone and, at the same time, warriors rushed into the glade. The arrow went straight, but the bird was leaving, so it caught the quills on its tail, letting loose three of it to dance to the ground. The bow as the only thing left on Echendu’s hand was thrown at the warrior nearer to him. He then decided to seek refuge over a tree. He saw the bird fly back without control when he looked up. It then glided downward. There was a loud sound that even brought lightning from the sky. There were ashes of the warriors’ burnt heads; the rest of their bodies were unharmed. The bird on kissing the ground transformed to the old man Lota had thwarted with unkind words; he was on the ground, gasping. Dilichi picked her yellow bag from a warrior and checked the content; it was still golden. Lota moved with her, but Echendu stood, boldly looking at the man. “They almost killed her, so I did that!” the man said, and kept a face like someone expecting appreciation. “But now, Kahluka’s wand has disintegrated when you shot me. I’m tired; I need something to eat.” He turned, looking at the fruits on the stem. “Are they edible?” “Yes!” Echendu nodded, but still stood at a point. “Help me pluck some.” As Echendu bent to pluck some for the man, Lota and Dilichi came back with an extra bag of gold and brown leather cloth. They had ransacked the pockets and horses of the Northerners. “We need to write to Emerie anyway,” said Lota, removing an ink from one of the bags. The ink spilled on his hand and on a vellum sheet he had gotten, so he furiously dropped everything on the ground. He looked at it for some while and shook his head. He picked one of the quills and opened the ink.


The man spat out the fruits that had gotten into his mouth and cried to Lota, “Don’t touch that! It’s the transformation of Kahluka’s wand, and my power.” “I don’t care, old man,” said Lota, and was about to dip the quill in ink when Echendu pushed him. The whole ink spilled on the ground with its splashes making dots on the bag of gold. Lota rose and moved backward with the quill and the empty bottle. He was still determined to stain it. Echendu followed him and pleaded. “Please, don’t do that!” Lota shook his head. “He is the spying bird!” “That’s what we thought. He saved us with his magic. He caused the thunder and lightning that burned the warriors’ heads!” The man nodded. “Including the python,” he said; “I controlled it. I sent back the arrows. I caused the wind and the fire, but those things I cannot do again because you shot me for the spy which I am!” Dilichi frowned and cornered Lota from another side. “Lota!” she called; “listen to your brother.” Lota thought for a while, and then dropped the quill while Dilichi added it to the two she had picked. She took it to the man and said, “Have them and tell us what you want from us, or why you’ve been spying on us.” “Give it to him,” the man said, pointing at Echendu. “Keep it safe, I’ll ask you for it in the next forty days.” Echendu smiled. He shook his head and said, “You can’t find us.” The man laughed and plucked a garden egg which went straight into his mouth. “My name is Kudor Ok’owe; I will continue with you until your mission is accomplished -- that’s if you wish.” Echendu jerked back and forth and his eyes clashed with Dilichi’s. Lota was the only one who got the courage to approach the old man. “Who are you?” he asked. “I’ve already answered that,” the man replied. He seemed to have looked deeper into Lota which made him frown. “You dare not question me,” he said, “before the osprey mistakes your eyes for fish called mackerel.” Lota moved backward, but Echendu held him from behind. “Wait,” whispered the latter; “let’s be polite in asking.” The man nodded and said, “Kudor is quite delighted to learn that the lesson of ethic was taught the boy by the hunter called Keleta.” Echendu frowned. “Where is he?” he asked immediately. Kudor plucked another fruit and pushed it into his mouth.


Lota never liked that. “This is a tricky scheme to eat what we laboured for!” he said. “Oh yes! You’re right,” replied the man. He sat comfortably and said, “I saw people when I was on duty as an osprey spy for a king called Scythe. It’s unusual to hunt the red python so I was curious to know what you wanted it for. This stubborn fellow saw me before the Northerners came.” He was pointing at Lota. “I used the python to fight the Northerners, and at last saw that you might spare it, then my curiosity would be meaningless, so I helped you kill it. Also, I noticed that she is the Starlady.” He was pointing at Dilichi. “I came with an attempt to know which one of you is Echendu Dera, and if he is here, it means that the person I have waited for has arrived. The stubborn fellow scared me, but I used the opportunity to follow you along -- to see what you were going to do with that green thing. You lost your plate and I helped you regain it by burning their heads. The only way you could pay me back was to take a wand I got from a friend, Kahluka. All those powers are now gone.” He made a move to rise. “I’m going to tell the rest of the ospreys in this wood called Amaato grove-” “That we’re here?” asked Dilichi. “No, My Lady,” he said, shaking his head. “I have a house, though my family is in a very big problem. Before I can take you to my house, I need to clear the road in this wood called Amaato grove.” He rose immediately. “Keep the quills safe in this forest. In forty days time, Kahluka’s wand will be back. I’m going to make a way, as I said. Wait for me in this part of the woods called Amaato grove.” His hands were spread while his mouth moved in incantations. He joined his fingers and flew northward as the bird, but now with a rugged looking tail. ‘This wood called Amaato grove’ resounded in Echendu’s ear as he watched him disappear; he wondered if he had been in a trance. He turned to Lota and asked, “What do we do?” Lota shook his head. “I should have said that we will trust this man only by Trial, but I’m beginning to believe that we will get more help from him. How could the arrows that I saw in my eyes reverse just like that. We may still get more.” Echendu removed the jewelled knife he had concealed in his inner pocket. He picked up one of the Northern leather cloak that was lying on the ground. He cut out a cloth and kept back the knife. “That’s mine,” said Dilichi; “don’t keep it.” Echendu nodded. “I’ll only exchange it for the quills,” he said. He gave the knife to her and collected the quills which he wrapped in the leather cloth. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I want to keep it safe for him since Lota-” He turned and looked around, but could not find Lota. “Where’s Lota?” he asked. “He has gone back to bring our horses, and some other things that we left.”


Echendu smiled and nodded. “Coins and valuables,” he said and picked up a sword. He headed towards a tree. The earth he dug out was yellowish, some other parts white which almost looked like kaolin. The wrap was buried safely. As he turned to see if the clay would suit what he intended it for, he saw Lota coming with the horses. “You’re no longer safe,” said Echendu, “so your rune needs to be masked.” He was holding the chalk. Dilichi turned and saw the colour of the soil. “I’m not white,” she said. Lota came over, collecting the chalk from Echendu, inspecting it and nodding. “It’s a nice idea, but it contrasts with her complexion. You go and search for a darker colour while I crush this.” Echendu rushed off. Before the next second, a force had pulled him to the ground. Trap was all that he thought, but he turned to find that it was a shoot from a tree. He pulled it off and rolled backward. What he found shook him; he found himself screaming, “Lotana!” He looked again and said, “Hurry! Come, quickly!” Lota and Dilichi hurried as he requested. They had come with a sword and a knife. Echendu was smiling as he pointed to a small plant on the ground. Lota frowned excitedly. “I’m surprised,” he said, “but we don’t know its value.” “But you never believed that a clover could have four leaves. I told you about the one I saw near the coast but you doubted me.” “Because it wasn’t there when we went back.” Echendu uprooted it and scraped sand off its root. “I can’t let this one suffer the same fate.” “If that Kudor is a magician,” said Dilichi, “he may know what it is.” “Most of the ospreys in Southmouth coast are spies for Scythe,” said a voice. The sudden statement shocked them all because they didn’t know that he was around. The man had landed as the bird. He was at the same time shocked when he saw what Echendu had. “Are you a magician?” he asked. Echendu’s head was shaking as he asked, “Why do you ask?” “Why Kudor asks?” the old man said, touching his chest. “Isn’t it a four-leaved clover that is in your hand? Over there is a tree bearing different kinds of fruit.” “Great one,” Lota called him, “do you know what four-leaved clover can do?”


Kudor laughed. “Your eyes are now eyes; not fish anymore.” He looked downward and smiled. “This rare type of clover bears four seeds in its stem, called curio stones. The stones can cure magically inflicted dumbness, and can cause it at the same time without casting a spell.” Dilichi watched Echendu as he tore the stem apart. She turned to Kudor and asked, “Are you a magician?” “A true born wizard,” he replied, “but my powers have been limited by you people; I can feel it.” The stones had been carefully placed in a leather cloth and pocketed by Echendu. “It’s worth keeping anyway,” he said, and turned to the wizard. “What were you saying about ospreys?” Kudor cleared the ground and sat. “You can all sit because it is a long story that I’m about to tell.” They looked at one another; their eyes seemed to be agreeing to Kudor’s enchanted words and actions. They sat and the wizard resumed. “There was a cavern called The Gifted Cave, where those with gifts were bred. We first heard of Scythe when his father died. He slaughtered sixty men of a city called Chemosku for failing to build an Obelisk that would touch the sky for his father. Apparently, Chemosku in eastern part of Etiti has now become a lost city. When the kings of Amaato and Etiti criticized the young king’s action, he invited them for a peace deal, but that led to their deaths. Our head, called a Curator, sent him a warning message, but in the shadow of the night, nothing breathing was left in the cave, except three men that weren’t there on the night of that terror. These three men devoted their lives to seeing to the death of this king. They studied everything about him, and were given hope by a priestess who promised to send them a Guardian. “The first, through whom the priestess spoke was a seer named Zifite, but is now under the clutches of Scythe, and is even aiding him get to us. The second is a sorcerer of exceptional powers named Kahluka; he is not of this world as he said-” “What?” Echendu asked. “Oh yes, you shouldn’t know because it is only those who have been to the Gifted cave that know this. Scythe might have known, because he now has Zifite. The Northhead cracked open when the world was divided, therefore, it is a portal to the Land of the Dead; you might have heard that one. Kahluka told us that it is inhabited by those who died before their time, and that it was a powerful magic he got that enabled him escape. He tried to get back, because this was not the part of the world he lived, but Northhead is shielded... so he was seized by the men who guard the place. He escaped and got acquainted with our world. At last, he discovered the Gifted Cave. “The third is the wizard named Kudor-” “You?” Dilichi asked.


He nodded. “I used many magic to attack Scythe but his Coat of Armour is powerful. It was after one of my attacks that I returned home and got news that I’m the only living soul left in my family -- some Northerners in their wanton desire murdered every one of my family for not paying them taxes; an order from Scythe, they said. I joined the order of Scythe’s spies -- the osprey -- so that I could study him more, but I got less than I dreamed. “We were given directions to your father, Keleta Dera. We told him what we were asked to tell him. He never wanted to see you get hurt so he advocated to join our band. It was funny, but I didn’t want to force him into telling you who you are; I know that destiny can never be denied. He joined us; he is indeed a strong man. The first task we gave him to get a fluted-pot scared him from us-” “What’s a fluted-pot?” Lota asked. “The Lady of Kpando has one which she gave to her mother on the day she was ordained -- she will tell you about that later. “For days, Kahluka and I didn’t see Keleta, so Kahluka decided to go on his own, leaving his wand under my care. The next time I heard of him was in rumour... that Scythe has killed him. I’m now left alone, looking for a way to conjure an ancient powerful magic that can kill any man, but that would leave me as murderer of more innocent people, if it ever succeeds. Truly, it wasn’t successful, but I’m happy to find Echendu Dera, and the essential ingredient to this mission, as I was told, Dilichi Olic.” Lota was holding Echendu and Dilichi when Kudor was speaking. At last when he thought the talk was over, he cleared his throat. “I’m not through,” said Kudor; “so don’t get ready to talk. I was nesting beside a friend’s house when my wife that I left for the past two months sent a letter to him, telling him that I don’t take care of them any longer -- and that is true. She said that she’s having problem with Northern warriors. All of you are, therefore, coming to my house after this little hunting.” Lota cleared his throat again and said, “We also came with our family problems.” “Yes,” said Echendu, though still in shock that he had gotten into what he would have run from under normal circumstances. He turned to the wizard and, with a smile to relieve himself, said, “My father is still alive in the Etiti death camp, with a friend. They weren’t going for any fluted-pot; they wrote to us about what they were doing-” Kudor frowned. “Wrote you from a death camp?” He smiled, nodding to himself. “We shall see if it’s true. Although Kahluka’s wand is gone, flying to the camp won’t be a problem for me. Let’s get to my house first.” Dilichi looked around and found her colleagues rising. She frowned and said, “My mother is also sick. Echendu said that the-” “I’ll hear that later,” said Kudor; “just pack your things let’s go. It is getting late!”


Echendu looked at Lota and they both nodded. Kudor plucked another fruit while Lota yawned as he chewed it. “Why not help yourself?” the wizard asked. Lota smiled, holding the white chalk he was crushing and a water bag on the other hand. He had gotten the latter from the Northerners. “I’m sick of the way you eat them. Take us to a tavern.” Kudor rounded his eyes in excitement and nodded. “My house is the best I’ve ever seen around. What are you doing with that?” “This?” Lota asked, raising it up and directing it to Dilichi. “We want to mask her rune. Many have gotten suspicious of the strip she ties-” “That means, she believes me.” “How?” Echendu asked. He uprooted the stone and the stem disappeared. He pocketed the stone, then turned to Kudor. “You mean that you’ve been lying?” “I never did; I only noticed that she has believed me. Any attempt to cover the rune won’t allow the power of Trial to pass through me until it’s washed away.” “True?” Echendu asked as he turned to Dilichi. She nodded. “But, we still need to mask it anyway, because I...believe him.” Kudor smiled and moved nearer to Lota. “I thought it was a milk drink,” said he. He took the calabash containing the white liquid from him and laughed. “Let me blend it to her complexion.” He waved through her face and covered the calabash. He gave it to Lota with a smile. Dilichi untied the band and removed the hood. She held her front hair apart while Lota applied it. It was indeed her true complexion because the rune was no longer a threat. She covered it with the hood and joined in packing their load; Lota was most concerned with the coins. “There’s a problem still unattended,” said Kudor. “There are many ospreys in this wood called Amaato grove. This is the last province captured by Scythe. We will have to hunt them down, then we get to my house.” “Is your house safe for us?” Echendu asked. “I don’t know yet, but I’m sure it will be if you come in as Northern warriors. You killed men down this woods, the stubborn fellow can get their coat, vamp!” “You’ll get to see that he’s more stubborn,” said Lota, pointing at Echendu. He left with the speed of the word, ‘vamp!’ “Also get a horse for me, then bows for your hunting!” Kudor’s voice echoed through the forest.


The forest creatures that seemed inexistent began to reply in their different tones. The wind sighed and yellow leaves rained down on them. Every step taken then seemed to cause some strange sounds, but they were never afraid. They couldn’t tell why they trusted the wizard. “So how did you come about those kinds of magic?” Kudor asked when he had turned to Echendu. Echendu frowned, wondering the intention of such question. “A true wizard should have known,” said he. “The spirits gave them to him,” said Dilichi. She was some distances away, getting the horses ready. Kudor laughed. “Which?” “How many High Spirit have you heard of?” Echendu asked. “I don’t believe, but I know,” said the wizard. “I’ve heard so many stories about them -- Oganigwe and Ezemmuo, but we also hear of nature, Amadioha. It is the chief priests that believe in all those things; we mundane people trust that there is only a supreme being. Once we do justice to the living, he will reward us. Why did you ask?” “Nothing,” replied Echendu. As he prepared to ask further questions, he heard some noises and turned. Lota was coming with the horse Kudor had requested. Echendu had his bow. Lota and Dilichi took one each for themselves and collected arrows from Echendu’s sac; Kudor had warned them against the magic of the Northern weapons. Echendu and Lota also dressed in the Northern suit; they were ready to ride. “What of me?” Dilichi asked. “Any female Northerner?” Kudor shook his head and cried passionately, “If Kahluka’s wand was still with me, everything would have been easy. Rest assured, I will do my best to protect you, but the rest are on their own, though covered in the Northern shelter.” Dilichi climbed onto her horse and smiled. “You both look like noble warriors, as you were on that day.” “That day?” Echendu raised an eyebrow, smiling. He remembered the day Lota was dying to kill her. Kudor looked at them one by one and nodded. He climbed onto the horse Lota had brought for him and smiled. “Just ride beside them like a noble sister-” “Wife!” said Lota, interrupting the wizard. “You have too many issues,” said Kudor. “You speak like a drunkard joker who sleeps in the tavern. No wonder, you gather coins like Northerners. What more?” He looked at Echendu. “A wanderer,” the younger hunter said.


They rode outward, towards the nearest path. The sun had started settling in the west; it made Lota angrier. They had passed a tavern but it was not taverns they were looking forward to; they thought they were heading to Kudor’s house, but Kudor was leading them to a place where more energy was to be spent -- the point where the other ospreys would assemble to exchange the day’s news and compile them for presentation before their master. They met many warriors along, but were safe. They followed a narrow path that was high, and crossed a stream. Kudor moved downward and stopped at the deeper side of it. “Is this where you live?” Lota asked; his face was frowned. “We’ve crossed taverns in counties, yet your house wasn’t one. Are you a mermaid spirit? Why taking us to a stream?” Kudor did not speak. He came down and dragged his horse down to the stream. When the horse had had enough drink, the wizard turned and said, “We are here to hunt, as I told you.” “Fish or birds?” Echendu asked. Kudor looked upward and turned round; the place was empty. Across the stream were stuffed giant grasses. The side they were allowed a little space of at least twenty paces inward. The space was filled with yellow sand after which some lines of tall trees stood. The trees were slender in the trunk, the branches joined to the others, making their leaves act like umbrella beneath. It was at least safe, the wizard thought. “keep your voice low,” he said to them, “and make sure you recognise me with my barred tail. You will need to hunt for the fish -- as Alantans say -- before you hunt the birds, but must be careful so that they don’t suspect you.” Echendu turned round and shook his head. “But, no bird is here,” he said. “They will soon assemble for today’s report. Two Northerners are supposed to be waiting with mackerels. The lady should be a thief being tortured by the Northerners. When we shall be having our meeting, you shoot them all, except the bird with the barred tail.” He climbed back to the horse and rode upward. They followed him but the next thing they saw was a bird flying backward while the horse continued riding alone. “Catch the horse!” Echendu shouted to Lota who was before him. Lota rode quickly towards the horse while Echendu halted. He watched his cousin disappear into the woods that seemed safe by sight, but dangerous in imagination; he never knew why he thought it dangerous. Something flew past his eyes and he shook. He looked over a distance and found black things like bat hanging downward from a branch. He shook his head and went towards the stream to hunt.


He was very skilled in the art -- wading without ripples and seeing into the water without being deceived by refraction. He pushed his right hand and grabbed three fish. Then as his second hand spread, the ones trying to escape as a result of the splash got filtered on his fingers. He threw them out and turned; Lo and Behold, two Northerners were coming from a distance. The first had stretched a bow that pointed towards Dilichi while the other had a large net -- the brown type used in catching slaves. Dilichi clapped her hands in excitement, not knowing what her back was beholding. “Hunting is your talent,” she said. “How about calling it fishing? Alanta is such a-” “No; don’t!” said Echendu. The warrior lowered his bow at the command, but got closer and seized her, even before she could understand what was happening. The other with the net dropped it and came forward. “Assisting us with fishing?” he asked. “Who posted you to this place?” “I... I... I was posted here,” said he, but his attention was focused on the other who was holding Dilichi. The warrior facing him unsheathed a sword and drew nearer. “Who by?” he asked. “General! Captain! Sorry! Warlord Nwalor!” The other nodded. “Good aid with the hard task of fishing, but were you not informed that this place is sacred? The ospreian fellowship takes place here.” An osprey landed immediately and started taking on one of the fish. It hopped, turned round, then continued pecking on the fish. Echendu almost got distracted by the bird. He turned back to the warrior and said, “I know; that’s why I started early with the hunting... fishing.” The warrior sheathed back the sword and moved backward. “You seem to have lived with Alantans... You said we shouldn’t shoot this woman?” “Yes!” Echendu said, shaking his head. “She’s my wife -- my sister!” “That’s the main reason we must shoot her,” said the warrior. “We live by example.” “We must shoot her, even if she’s your own flesh,” said the other that was holding her. Two horses somehow rode alone past the place; Echendu knew that more warriors would arrive soon. He had noticed some shuffling which immediately disappeared into the forest. He rushed forward and grabbed the warrior who was busy looking at the direction of the forest. “What are you doing?” a strange voice asked.


Echendu was wondering what had made the sound. It sounded like the parrot that lived on a tree along the road that led to their hamlet down in Alanta. He started suspecting the bird, and then was convinced when the other warrior replied facing it. “He chose neither justice nor droppings for his wife’s trespasses,” the warrior said. “Not quite sure that I’ve seen him,” said the bird. “Are you sure he’s not a spy?” “You are the spy!” said Echendu. He spoke in the ear of the warrior he was holding. “Let’s negotiate if it’s money that you want.” The bird gave a hiss that was not different from the sound gotten when your ear is placed in an empty container. It started pecking on the guts of a fish. “I’m sure the fish in the lake will grow in number if your strangled wife completes their food twenty for today.” The approaching horse was Lota’s; he had shot the warrior that was holding Dilichi. Echendu pushed the one he was holding and dived towards the bird with the net. The warrior that was pushed rose with a sword but Lota slew him from behind. Their bodies were quickly thrown into the stream while Dilichi went back to the stream, continuing her strolling and throwing pebbles into the lake. Over ten minutes passed, still nothing came. The disguised hunters who were waiting in the nearby bush started getting impatient. “It will be better for our belly if we smoke a fish there,” said Lota. “We haven’t eaten for today.” “Night is not yet here,” said Echendu. “Do we have to wait till night?” Echendu turned to him and shook his head. “Do what must be done,” he said. “I’m even tired of-” “Don’t try that!” a voice said from the top of the tree they were under. They looked up; it was their own osprey. “I thought that you must think of such mischief so I stayed around. Do that which you think must be done, Echendu; not what you heard that must be done.” It flew away immediately. Lota turned to Echendu and, after watching him for a while, pushed his head. “Why didn’t you tell me what you had in mind?” “You were quick to believe him?” asked Echendu. “He can’t read my mind. I’m truly hungry.” “But not eager to eat. We better wait till nightfall.” The birds had started coming, but none came down to the stream because of the lady who stood there, throwing pebbles into the water. The bird with a barred tail glided and caught a fish from the stream before settling on the ground. It bisected it from head to tail, ate the guts and the gills before attempting the fleshy parts. Three other birds, seeing this from the top, joined. Before the next two minutes, some others joined. Within the blink of an eye, two more came down.


The warriors whom were watching from afar felt that it was time. “What do you think you are doing here, woman?” Lota asked, coming forward with a stretched bow from afar. “Make her the twentieth; she has delayed our fellowship,” said the bird with a barred tail. The other birds that were around heard their fellow speak, so they all landed. They were nine in number; not so many, but were really causing a lot of trouble in that forest. They all were hurrying and struggling over the fish; this made them come together. Echendu straightened the net as they dragged Dilichi nearer to the stream, and nearer to the birds that were now in cluster. “Do that fast and leave us,” said a bird in the middle; that must be their leader. Echendu found a rope on the net; he held it. He gave Lota another end to hold. Immediately a bird had taken off from the circle, they dived with the net, capturing all, except another that had flown with the first. They were inclined to grumble at the sight of the escaped bird, but the captured ones grumbled the most; they never understood what was happening. The bird with the barred tail flew after the escaped one. In the mid-air, it changed to Kudor and threw his hand forward. He missed its wings but caught its tail; and was falling at the same time several feet from the ground. He whirled it round twice before throwing it downward. It then became obvious that he would crash himself. Just a few inches to the ground, his hands joined and his wings sprang out, spreading wide; he had luckily completed the spell for his transformation. He flew horizontally, escaping abrasion from the sand, but the stream was the next place to land. The water was the first place he swept with his wings, then turning back he hovered a little higher before taking a safe landing, and finally transformed. Dilichi was holding the last bird which was almost dead. She sighed and raised it up. “You can see, wizard, that we have them all.” “I can see, lady,” replied Kudor, “but, don’t be too impressed with that.” He moved upward. When he had gotten about ten paces away from them, he said, “You can make them the twenty-whatever for the fish.” Lota flung the net immediately into the stream. It was followed by a high splash; surely, there was enough for the fish that evening. “None for us,” said Echendu. Lota wondered if he could ever get the birds back, at least roast them and use them as an alternative to quench his hunger. Others were leaving, but he kept gazing at the stream. He turned and said, “Hope it’s time to go.”


“I believe,” said Kudor. “It will still be a long ride backward before we can link to the road that will lead to my house.” Lota seemed to be joyous. “Going backward,” he said, “are we going to reach the tavern again? I mean, the one that we passed while coming.” “No!” said the wizard, sincerely. “Just few paces before the tavern, we branch and go to my home.” Echendu rode forward on a horse. “Do you know that we haven’t eaten since today?” he said to the wizard. Kudor laughed. “And you think that drinking it off in the taverns will help? Since past three days, I haven’t eaten.” “Except mackerels,” said Lota. “And the fruits,” said Dilichi; “you almost chewed the stem.” “Yes,” Kudor said, nodding. “I will still like to know about that magic, maybe when we get to my house.” He sped off without giving a notice. They rode to the outskirt of the forest and joined another road that went uphill. Activities were going on in the town, including the Northerners that moved around with their assessors, looking for goodfellows whom they could snatch taxes and fines from. The wizard and his band made no trouble with them; maybe because he was leading them by the side, or because the young men were dressed as Northerners. Lota’s eyes kept moving around, searching for a place to spend his surplus coins. Unknowingly, he crashed with a warrior! “Were you not supposed to be among the second battalion that marched to Kpando?” the warrior asked. Lota looked at the man’s arm, and it was a star. He checked his, but it was a crescent; the warrior was his supreme. “Do you take droppings of gold?” Echendu asked from the front, in an attempt to save his cousin. The warrior frowned at him immediately and came down. “You are going into the deepest mine tonight.” “No,” he said. “I only meant money.” “Oh yes, droppings means bribe,” said the warrior, “but you should mention it without the ingredient, else, any supreme around will notice and take it from me. It is a language common to us lower officers, unless they have managed to learn it from your type.”


Lota bent towards his saddle and took a handful. The warrior was shocked; he climbed onto his horse immediately he had taken it. When the warrior was gone, the wizard turned to Lota and said, “Tavern is still in your mind, stubborn fellow; that’s what you were thinking when you hit them.” Before Lota could defend himself, he heard voices calling on them to stop. Running horses were coming after them; the warrior he just gave money was leading the group. They galloped along, following Kudor until the warriors got tired of pursuing. The night was all that they met in a lonely place; they could never tell how the night came. There was fire burning uphill, far away from them. “Is that your house, or the tavern?” Lota asked. The wizard hissed and looked away. Dilichi rode nearer to him and said, “I want to go up there and spend the night; I’m sure it’s your house.” “It belongs to a priest who serves Scythe,” the wizard replied in a loud tone, “but we are not going to fight him now.” “Of course we are not,” said Echendu. “Not able now, and not willing later. And I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any tavern around, since your house has become out of reach.” They waited, but the wizard neither moved nor spoke. “I suggest we go back,” said Dilichi. “I’m hungry for the tavern.” Kudor laughed and rotated his horse. “Just when my house is under your nose.” He rode into the dark they thought was bushy. It was a design the wizard had made with crawling and cover plants. It was arch in shape and stretched over a short distance of about twenty paces. They followed him through the garden that now looked like a hallway. As they got nearer to the end, the aroma of food caused some to salivate. The aroma was all around, and strong; they guessed the food, even before they had seen a torch in front of the house. “Your house is more than a tavern,” said Lota. “But we still need wine anyway. The food smells nice and must need wine.” The wizard nodded. “You don’t just want wine; you want one from a tavern. My wife should provide that.” “Are we sure his wife is the one cooking?” Dilichi asked, looking at Echendu.


Echendu thought over it and nodded. “Since he said that she has a problem with-” He shook his head. “I don’t want to fight again; not now that I can’t stand the hunger. We will rob the Northerners -” “Then be prepared to fight,” said Dilichi. Kudor moved forward; when he had gotten to the doorstep, he turned and said, “By knocking we shall sense, and by opening we shall see.” Torches began to light around the house; the watchers knew that it was magic, although they were shocked when it first started. They drifted forward and heard a knock on the door, even before Kudor had touched it. “Wizard...Wizard,” said Echendu, laughing out of excitement. He meant to praise the wizard but Lota took over, turning it into some drunkard chants sang in taverns. He first heard it when they were gambling, and one man who had a wand attempted to cheat by getting them all drunk.

“Wizard! Wizard! What runs in his blood? His marvel in the world, Makes us go mad. Wine he made from sand, Fools us into his band. His manipulations with card, Earns him all the gold. With his wave of the wand, His wants lands in his hand. Wise wizard! Wizard! Wizard!”


6. FIRE ANALOGY The door opened, exposing a relatively short woman in a yellow leather gown, given Kudor’s height. She slowly stepped outward and stopped at the threshold. She was shocked at first; maybe at the sight of the warriors, but folded her hands, uttering no word when she had seen the wizard -- her husband who she had known as a cosmopolitan man. Kudor started a family life at a very old age, and had not been very faithful to this new life. His desire for a family started after the death of his brothers who would have continued their lineage. His quest for justice with his gifts, and the hatred he developed for Scythe after so many years almost turned him into a hermit. He never wanted family commitment to be a distraction to his quest. He still had a part of the old life in him which had never been funny to his wife. “I am very sorry,” he said when he had read the woman’s face. The woman didn’t move, so he climbed up to her, shortening the stairs that separated him from the door. “Please, I’m sorry,” he said. The woman unfolded her hands and placed them on her waist. “I saw the light outside,” she said, “and I knew it was you.” She turned and moved back into the house. Kudor, knowing that it was an invitation, beckoned on the others to follow him. The sitting room was warm. Two torches burned at both ends, releasing its fumes through the windows. The main door positioned in the middle was opposite a passage that led to the other rooms, and maybe, the back door. A long table that stood at the left side had seats circled around it. Kudor ushered them to the wooden seats that were by their right; the type meant for visitors’ comfort. The aroma from the kitchen seemed to be increasing when Kudor went towards the passage; he wanted to apologise personally to his wife. But the woman was coming out with a large wooden tray which had plates on it. Kudor jerked back as she passed. “Goodness!” he screamed. “I didn’t know that you’ve accepted my apology. I beg you, please, food is not my most pressing need now -- I need to see my son.” “Food is!” Lota thought that he whispered it to Echendu, but the voice was loud. Echendu crossed his finger over Lota’s lips, silencing him. The woman set the plates on the table, arranged them according to the seats that were set, then turned and said to her waiting husband, “I’ll accept your apology later, when you must have given me your reasons. The food... also, is not for you-” “My friends?” he asked, thinking that she was joking. “You are so nice! You should have let me introduce them before serving-”


“Not for them either,” said she. “It’s for Northerners; but not these ones. That’s the problem I have.” “Problem with Northerners?” Kudor asked and moved nearer. His eyes, ears and nostrils were wide open in anticipation for any sad news. “Where’s my son?” he asked. “I hid him when you knocked.” He heaved a sigh of relief, but after a while frowned. “You hid my Duru for fear of the Northerners? That was why you shook when you opened the door-” She nodded. “Because I saw you with Northerners. But I see that they aren’t the ones I owe.” Kudor frowned and never knew whether to be angry with his wife or with the Northerners. “You owe them? Northerners?” He looked at himself and shook his head; it was definitely his fault. “That’s it,” said the woman. “You left your only son, who is not up to a year, for some useless quest of searching for a hero. You want a hero to kill-” “Quiet!” he said, seeming to forget that he had been apologising, “before it gets to the Northerners!” The woman hissed. “That’s what I want,” she said, “because I’ve suffered a lot from you. I’ll tell them what you want, and expect more Northerners. Oh yes, they are coming to join these ones.” Kudor laughed. He looked backward and turned to his wife again. “They are not Northerners; they are the quest that had kept me away from you; not just my son.” He bent his face and continued pleading with her. She was about holding Kudor as a sign to show that she had forgiven him but another reason for her anger erupted. “Other wizards that I hear about multiply coins for their lovers,” she said, “but you will do none, and yet drop nothing for me. You never dropped a piece of stone when you left! Why do you draw water with a basket? Tell me.” “I’m guilty,” said Kudor, “but you must know the truth: I never gave you because I had none, and multiplying is another kind of stealing from others. I shouldn’t draw water with a basket just because I can; I’d do it only if there is no pail.” She was further angered at the way her husband defended himself, apologetically. The argument went on until a child started crying. She went to get the child and was followed by Lota who tried to plead on the wizard’s behalf. Soon, they were all pleading with her until she agreed to tell what the Northerners had done to her; not agreeing to forgive her husband. “Duru got sick in the middle of last month; you weren’t there as usual. I went to a healer and he said that I must bring a chicken, as his tradition demands, before he could commence on any treatment. At that time, the cost of a chicken was half the tax payable for its purchase, but I pleaded with the assessor so he led me to the warriors. We struck a deal that they will let me buy the chicken while I pay double the tax in three instalments, with interest.”


“How much has it risen to?” Lota asked. “I don’t know. The last I remember: sixty-four silver coins. I knew it would be like dreaming to repay, even if my husband comes back. I planned to sell all our farm produce but that would make us starve. As at then, there was an order from Buruka to increase tax for both buying and selling; that would have left me with nothing if I had sold anything. After some weeks, the warriors came here and met me cooking an evening meal-” “They turned my house into a tavern?” Kudor asked. “Because I know they can’t resist your product.” “Forever!” shouted the woman. “Our agreement is an everlasting dinner if my wish is to be free from their wrath; they threatened to take my son.” Kudor placed his two hands on his head, walking round and round. “I wish Kahluka’s wand was here,” he grumbled. “That’s not all,” said the woman; “they eat first, then I keep the rest.” The wizard came to the table, hitting it with his hands. “You mean, you haven’t tasted this tasty meal?” The woman flushed. She turned backward and said, “You didn’t taste it to know it is tasty.” “But our nose did,” said Lota. He moved closer to her and said, “We have a lot. We can pay them.” She turned immediately. “Don’t think about that! They are greedy, and my child will be the price once I breach this agreement.” “Around what could the debt be?” Echendu asked. “It is theirs to decide,” she said vaguely. She took a seat and started looking at them, one after the other. As if she was starting to pity them, she said, “Just relax until they are through; there’s still enough food left in my kitchen; enough to go round, few spoons each.” They all frowned, and as if everything had rewind itself, they began to plead again. After much of that, they were able to convince her that they could settle the Northerners, therefore she should eat and feed her child. “Well,” said the woman, “you can as well eat theirs, since you are paying them tonight.” They could not give up the chance, so round the table they all converged eating and making merry and quenching the worms that had disturbed their intestines. Kudor never wanted any distraction during the meal so whenever anyone said something concerning the reason they were there, he would shun the person. Echendu raised the issue of his father, but the wizard said, “After the meal!”


Echendu was mostly overjoyed; not for the meal, but his hopefulness that the wizard would help him with his father. His heart was although in suspense about the ‘greed’ Kudor’s wife attributed to the Northerners. He knew it was true, although they had had their way through; when they gripped the Northern greed. He knew that Lota had more than two gold class bags, which should be at least four hundred gold coins or the equivalent in silver and other valuables, but there still existed the possibility that the warriors would demand for higher. Echendu looked at his hands; their hands and weapons, coupled with the wizard, would do should the warriors prove stubborn. He looked around and recounted themselves; he didn’t know how many the warriors could be. “How many are they?” he asked. “I said, after the meal!” Kudor reminded him once again. Dilichi, who was in-between Echendu and the woman, bent towards the former and said, “Just take your mind backward and count the number of plates she had brought out at first.” The woman smiled at her, nodding impressively. “That’s wise,” she said, and picked a green chilli pepper. “Is it pepper you’re taking this way?” Dilichi asked. “That’s her life,” Kudor replied. “You can please her by fetching more from the backyard.” “After the meal!” Lota reminded him. Echendu turned to his cousin with a wide smile. “You must have had enough.” A sudden knock which shook the whole house came at the door. The magnitude of the bang alerted everyone; Kudor’s wife ran into the passage with her child. She knew it was them; they must be very anxious because the knocking still went on. “Stay safe there,” said Kudor; “I’m going to handle everything.” He paced to the door and opened it. A woman was there with a paper which she handed over to him immediately. “Why would a commercial rider knock in such a Northern way?” the angry wizard asked. The woman crossed a finger over her lips. “Shhh! I saw them coming this way. Their discussion was on how to take a child so I hurried to deliver your words and to warn you in case you have a child. I’m leaving before they catch up.” “Thanks and goodbye then,” he said and stepped downward. The woman left on her horse while three men approached from the dark passage that was formed with plants. Their uniforms had decorations -- a star that reflected the torchlight that burned in front of the house. They were not ordinary foot-warriors so Kudor was meticulous in approaching them in case they had come with more men; but the wizard had hope that their greed won’t let them bring more men.


They walked straight to the door, taking no notice of the old man that greeted them. Kudor smiled and followed. The three men walked into the house and were about to the dining table when they saw the warriors that were seated round it, with a woman they could not recognise. The first place their mind went was on the ranks of the warriors seated; it was the symbol of a crescent moon that was on the arms of Echendu and Lota. The first warrior came nearer and said, “What is a private warrior doing here, when he ought to have joined in the search for the Starlady of Kpando?” He took another step and asked, “Are you not aware of the great task at hand?” As Kudor came in, the second warrior turned to him. “You’ve followed us from the door, why?” he asked. “Who sent you after us?” His hand rested over his sheath. “The owner of this house,” replied the wizard. Putting his hands on his chest, he said, “Who is... my very self.” “Then your wife must be a very good cook,” the warrior smiled. “There’s now a problem.” The third one took over. “We had a mutual repayment deal, but she breached it by serving these men dinner... before us.” The first turned immediately and asked, “What are you doing here anyway?” Echendu rose and came forward. “We should be asking you that -- because you are in our home; that’s our father.” “You’ll be fined,” said the first warrior, “for leaving your post; again for insulting me, and again for eating what is ours.” “You don’t fine my son for eating my food,” said Kudor. “Tell us what you want and leave us alone.” The warrior wanted to unsheathe his sword but the second held him. “Let’s opt for our money and the fine before prosecution,” said the second. “That will be nice,” said Lota. He rose from his seat and asked, “So, how much does she owe you? -- Our mother, I mean.” The second warrior laughed and stepped nearer. “It’s as if much droppings came your way today-” “Name your price and leave!” said Kudor, getting impatient. The first wanted to speak but, upon seeing the face of the woman around the table, kept quiet. He pointed at her and turned to Kudor. “Your daughter will bear the consequences if you insult us again. Let me see if you can escape our price now.” He thought for a while, and then called the rest together for a


brief exchange of words. He turned back with his hands folded and said, “Your wife owes us a hundred silver coins.” “What?” Kudor asked and plucked his ears to make sure that he heard him right. Lota sat, smiling. “What’s the equivalent in gold?” he asked. “It seems your head is dull,” said the first warrior, and was looking at the second warrior for answer. When he got none, he turned to Lota and said, “You will pay for an assessor if I tell you that it’s...” He counted his fingers and toes. “...ten gold coins, but now eleven -- the extra is for my thinking.” Echendu frowned. “You must be-” Lota held his mouth. “You’ll be putting his family in trouble,” he said in a whisper. He opened a bag that was under the table and counted out the eleven. He gave it to the third warrior, who after counting it turned to leave. “Wait!” the first said. “We shall forget the fines and insults, but our duty we must do. It’s over a month we left the silver coin for your wife so we ought to get the figures right.” “But you agreed on hundred,” said Kudor. “We just chose a random figure. Now that your son wants to show us his riches, we shall drain it to the last.” “Yes!” the others agreed. They were at least convinced that they could get much more from the house. “How much is enough?” asked Lota. He looked downward and smiled. “Or, what could the right figure be?” The first warrior bit his finger and thought. “I wish Keleta Yaya was here,” he grumbled. “Oh,” said the second, “you’ve heard of that intelligent assessor?” “Let’s try,” said the first, “we can do this and earn at the same time as assessors. The first day was one. Two on the second-” “Four coins on the third day,” said the second. “Eight on the fourth,” said the other. “Sixteen... thirtytwo... sixty-four...” No one could get the next, no matter how hard they tried. They started counting their fingers and toes, yet no answer came. “Let’s stop wasting our time,” the first said. “Just give us the amount you’ve given before. Any noise will double it.” Kudor looked at Lota who nodded. The hunter squatted again under the table, causing pieces of metals to jingle when they touched one another. Two of the warriors began to draw near. “You have no business there!” Kudor said.


Lota rose immediately with the coins, but the three warriors unsheathed their swords and came nearer. The whole room went dark, and then sounds were heard under the table and beside the seats. Slowly, the sounds died out, bringing in a reign of dead silence. The torches relit, illuminating only Kudor, Dilichi and the three warriors. It seemed to the warriors as if Echendu and Lota had disappeared magically when the light had gone off. “Where are those crescent warriors?” the first asked, going nearer to Kudor. “I’ll kill you, old man, if you don’t provide them.” The room went darker this time, but the second warrior used his instinct to trace the direction Dilichi was. Before he could reach the table, a glowing star approached him. He thrust his sword towards the direction but it plunged into the table. He pulled it and struck the plate; the sword only glowed with the plate. When the rest heard a scream from the warrior, they struggled for the door. On reaching the exit, the torches relit, but the outside had gone into absolute darkness. They nevertheless rushed forward, but a scream thwarted them. They turned back; two large stones brought them down. Their heads and necks were gushing with blood. In the midst of the absolute darkness that now ruled within, footsteps were heard running back into the house. Then the whole torches started burning again. Everyone was seated as if nothing had happened. “Oh yes, what we’ve done is nothing,” said Kudor. “Silence would mean something. Get rid of the remains and get set for tomorrow! No quantity was enough for them, but this rest is enough.” As Lota and Echendu took the first man outside, Kudor went towards the passage. “I think I heard them say something,” said Dilichi. Kudor halted. “That thing you heard is true. I’m coming.” He went into a room. Lota and Echendu came back into the house when Kudor was coming out of the passage. “How are they?” Echendu asked, expecting the wizard to disregard the topic and talk of what they had done. “She saw what happened and was delighted in her dream. It’s late so she’s gone to bed. Are you ready to sleep?” “We can’t go to bed now,” said Echendu. “Why?” “Second battalion marching to Kpando only means that the first has already done something -- which is why the Starlady is been searched for.” Kudor smiled. He came to Echendu and held his shoulders. “Do you want me to fly to Kpando to confirm your suspicions?”


“If you can,” said Dilichi. Lota dropped his bags on the table and cleared his throat. “How long might that journey take?” “It shouldn’t last until morning,” said the wizard; “that’s if I don’t get distracted by a mackerel. I must show you to your rooms.” He pointed at Echendu. “You’ll share my room with the rich fellow while the lady takes the spare room.” Kudor showed them to the rooms, then they followed him back to the sitting room where he left an instruction and left. One question that had left Echendu pondering came out immediately the door was shut by the exiting wizard. “What is a fluted-pot?” he had asked. “I was about asking that too,” said Lota. She waited for minutes before answering the question. “It’s a clay pot,” she said, “that has two hollows at both ends. It was used mostly to communicate in the ancient times, especially during the Battle of-” “Is it a magical device?” Echendu asked. Her nodding excited him so much that he did not know when he started smiling. He had been dying to get this knowledge; and you know that knowledge gives vision to a man. “There was a time,” she continued, “when many of such pot were in the world. They kept dwindling because of the cost of maintaining its magic, which could be used for many purposes. In the first day of every year, a thousand gold pieces is melted into the pot by the bearer; failure to do this would make the pot drain the blood of the last user; apparently claiming the life, with the pot destroyed. This was the main reason most of the pots went into extinction, and the few that was left stayed with noble and rich people and families. Two of such pots left in Kpando belong to the family of the Grand and that of the Starlady. The Royal treasury in the land is used to redeem its magic every year. There is none currently in Alanta, because they are not all that keen in magic and war, except a few like...” She had forgotten that she was telling a story so was taken by sleep. Echendu tapped her and she continued, “The rest of the pots are in the possession of the Northerners. The usefulness of its magic in fast communication could be attributed to their vast success in battles years back...” Echendu dreamt of the pot all night, though he had never seen one. He was used to imagining things; some of his imaginations were always the replica of the real ones when he would see them -- deja vu was his second name. He dreamt of a time his father was in quick need of gold coins to redeem his life and the pot, then he got news that Scythe had stolen the pot, so when the year ran out, his father got drained like a stockfish. He woke up and shook his head. Falling asleep again, he dreamt of his father doing the same to Scythe; he was happy, laughing and rejoicing that his mission had finally come to an end. He woke and started wondering when he accepted to go against Scythe’s life.


In the morning when everyone was awake, except Echendu, Dilichi was sweeping the sitting room with a long broom when she saw a bird fly across the window. She moved quickly to take a look, but halted due to what the bird reminded her of; her heart was deeply perturbed in expectation to the sad news that the wizard might bring. Kudor’s wife came into the room carrying her baby boy. She was greeted. She sat the boy on a seat under the care of Dilichi and left through the passage. Lota came in with a long chewing stick and, “What about Echendu?” he asked. “Still as you left him,” she replied. “How?” “How?” Lota hissed and, as if something had happened, hurried towards the passage; the baby started crying. He came back, and the child paused, but was stretching his hand forward and his lips prepared to start crying again. He tried to carry the baby but he cried more. The boy finally got hold of the chewing stick and kept quiet. Lota left it with him and hurried into the passage. The room was by the left, and its door half open. He saw Echendu kneeling and gazing out through the window. There were men in the distance hurrying over their daily works, almost worshipping the Northerners along the way. A man was slapped by a warrior which almost made Echendu want to jump out, if not for the sudden hand of Lota that drew him backward, and to his senses. At the same time, a bird hopped from the window-pane to its frame, and that caused Echendu to shake. He fell on top of Lota and pointed at the bird. “Kudor?” he asked. “You are not used to such life,” said the bird. “Very soon, you will get to know them more. I’ve watched you from afar, and had decided to nest beside the window to see what your actions would be.” Echendu was still on the ground. “How can I be spied from both sides?” he asked. Lota pushed him. “Get up! I’m not your bed.” Kudor leaned on the window trying to keep his eyes open, but it closed on its accord. Echendu touched him and he shook his head. “It was a nice flight,” said the wizard, realising himself, “but not a nice sight. Ordinary people in Kpando are very safe, but the warriors are in a safe dungeon. The Northerners seem to be everywhere; their main aim being to capture the Starlady.” Echendu kept his hands on his head. “She must not hear of this, else she’ll try to get back.” Lota nodded. “Her mother would be their next target --we must do something.”


“What?” a voice said, and stepped in. “I was going to the kitchen when I heard you.” She did not hear the actual news; only the plan to conceal it. “What are we going to do?” she asked. Kudor who had expected her to say something related to her mother suspected that she might not have heard the actual story. “Do that which must be done,” he said. “Let’s go then,” she said. Kudor laughed. “Where?” “Kpando... of course!” “What for?” the wizard asked. There was a while silence after which Echendu spoke up. “Whatever it is, Kpando is not safe; we must help move your mother.” “My mother is safe?” she asked, and shook her head. “I didn’t want to hear what I was thinking.” She took a deep breath which expressed relief. “If you weren’t discussing about my mother’s problem, then it must be Emerie’s weakness.” Kudor hissed and staggered out of the room. “Let me eat and sleep,” his voice muffled from the passage. “We are going to take her mother and brother down to Alanta,” said Echendu. Lota shook his head. “I can do that alone. The both of you should get hold of this chance. If you lose this man, the turnip and your father may be unreachable.” “But he’s only interested in killing the Northerners,” said Echendu. Lota held his shoulders and nodded. “Making it safe to that camp in Etiti must involve killing, likewise to the palace in Mbaofu; but it means nothing to him.” Dilichi knew that it would not be better for her to go back to Kpando; it would mean going to watch her mother suffer and die, and herself captured by the Northerners. The wizard whom she was hopeful might help was at least worth more than a thousand baseless strategies. “I can accept that,” she said. “You must also be careful not to annoy the man,” said Lota, looking at Echendu. “Accept every quest he takes you to, then slowly lead him from the camp to the palace.” That reminded Echendu so much of his father again; he never thought Lota to be this wise. “When are you leaving?” he asked. Dilichi looked at Echendu like one who had committed a taboo, and truly, his question was foolish since the possibility of the success of the assignment strongly depended on time. But, he had his reasons of asking; the room was so near to the kitchen and the aroma very strong.


“Now!” Dilichi said. Lota shook his head. “After breakfast,” he said. “Just grant me this, and I promise to make this task perfect. I’m of no use being hungry.” She hissed and turned to leave. “With exception to yesterday,” she said. Lota remembered his bags that were under the dining table so off he ran to the sitting room. Kudor who was about swallowing his food spilled the content of the spoon when Lota bumped in. Lota apologised but still searched around the feet of the perplexed wizard. He heaved a sigh when he had found the two bags. He weighed them with his hands, and then gave the one with tints of dark ink to Kudor’s wife. The other he divided into three equal parts -- keeping one for himself while the rest he left for Echendu and Dilichi. Thanks were thrown to Lota from every angle as he hurried over his meal. When Kudor heard their plan, he praised them for making such a quick and intelligent decision -- capable of keeping everyone busy. The strongest horse was chosen for him and the wizard dressed him on a Northern suit. He was complete from hair to toe, starting from the dark crest helmet, a woven chain worn like cloth over his neck and the red leather that had a star on its arm. He buckled his wrist guards, belt and sheen guards. The sheath was tied to his waist, but the shield was too heavy so it was left out. All the uniforms were conjured from the ones they had brought when they arrived the previous day. The last was his beards -nicely brushed wisps of hair from a pony tail, hanging down from his jaw which made his face look devilish, as if the pony had been the devil. “Good!” Kudor said, clapping his hands. “Ride on, Captain Munesa. Though he’s dead, I’m the only one aware.” He stepped backward for the others to offer a word or two. As Lota rode off, Echendu’s face darkened. He was beginning to love his cousin’s way of exploring the world; wanderer, he used to call him. He wondered if he could ever pay him back for this help. “I don’t need to know his past,” said Dilichi, “before I can be able to tell you that he is a changed person.” Echendu turned to her and nodded. “Sceptical, annoying... and stubborn! Though all of us.” Kudor smiled and turned towards the house. “I am going to sleep, after which we discuss your pressing needs.” Echendu looked at the house and its comfort; he shook his head. The cry of Kudor’s child was heard outside the house while the scent from his gardens travelled all over the air, beyond the surroundings. “I don’t want to implicate your family,” he said, looking bitterly at Kudor. “We bear our burdens alone!” “That won’t do us any good,” said Dilichi.


Kudor nodded at her and turned to Echendu with a face still smiling. “You can go if it so pleases you.” He moved towards the entrance door. “I’ll see which you’ve chosen after the sleep.” Dilichi never liked the sentimental behaviour Echendu was putting on. She tried to stop him, but found herself believing that their presence was a great threat to that family. They would take Kudor away from his family again, and the wife would complain all over again. They got ready, and as it began to get real, despite what Lota had told them, the woman herself pleaded with them – but futile was the effort. They had gotten ready to ride when they noticed some cobwebs on their horses. As they got brooms to clear them with, a voice came. It said, “I spent my entire life searching; you think I can just let it slip.” Echendu turned and saw the wizard who he thought should be asleep. “But you asked me to do what pleases me.” “Now my pleasure until you are good enough,” said Kudor in a commanding tone. He pointed at Dilichi and said, “She will stay here with my family while we go for your father, right now!” “You don’t want to sleep again?” Dilichi asked. The wizard laughed. “I don’t trust the two of you. I’ll know about your own problem once we return. And... one more thing...” He waved his finger and said, “Never mind!” “What is it?” Dilichi asked. “I said you should not mind!” “But your family needs you,” said Echendu. “You are too old for what you-” “My grey hair is your problem?” the wizard asked. He held his head and used his fingers to brush down his hair, then he scrubbed his face and his beard. The hairs turned dark immediately and he smiled. Echendu smiled back. “I can’t tell if you look older.” “Whichever,” said the wizard, “my family will go down to Alanta when I must have solved all your problems.” With that, they all went back to the house in preparation for departure. Kudor dressed up in his yellow cloak and brown cord. “What’s our plan?” Echendu asked. “We have no plan,” replied Kudor, “or that our plan is to rescue your father if we find him alive.” The woman gave a scream immediately she entered into the sitting room. “This is my husband,” she said; “not that bag of rat hairs.” “Thanks for your patience, Marihe,” smiled Kudor who now looked younger, “but I may leave again.”


She picked up a basket and smiled back. “At least, I have something to hold unto.” “Something more,” said Kudor. “Your uncle added some money in reply to a letter you wrote. I got it last night.” She took the letter and read. She shook her head and crumpled it. “I’m sorry,” she said, “for taking our personal problems outside us.” “Thanks for your understanding,” said the wizard. “I will always be at your service.” The woman smiled and, with the basket right over her neck, moved back into the passage. “Your wife’s name is Marihe?” Echendu asked when the woman had left. Kudor nodded. “She was named after her grand-mother. I wish to do the same to my grand-daughter if I ever live to see that day.” “You will,” said Echendu. “My sister’s name is Marihe too.” “Keleta didn’t tell me that,” said Kudor. He was smiling with his eyes wide open. “Is she as nice as mine?” “I’ll answer that,” said Dilichi. “She is better than anyone -- just like your wife. Everyone over there is, including a woman I killed her son.” Kudor shook. “I can’t wait to deposit my family there.” “Who gave Duru stick to eat?” the mother of the child shouted from within. Kudor rushed towards the room. He turned to Dilichi and, “You must take care of them... until we return.”

*

They set off late in the morning. By mid-day they were in the outskirt of the village. Kudor led him through a road, though harsh from the sun and worse under cover; it was for a lesson. The land sloped downward into a dark gulch; its trough was buzzing with unknown sounds. The path was dark with shadows caused by the shielding trees that were high; branches also wide. There were nests stuck to the branches, and they were extraordinarily large. Echendu wouldn’t have believed that they were built by birds, if not for the two or three vultures that came hovering around; one at last settled on one of the nests, causing large sticks to tumble downward. Some leaves were dark: looking further upward, bats could be seen hanging downward from those leaves.


As they slowed along this area, Kudor covered his ears without uttering a word of warning or command. His horse managed to cross through the trough whose ground was indeed a quicksand; and would have absorbed the horse if not that the rider was fast. Echendu, who was behind, halted, gazing at the colony of ants that had erupted from the ground. They were larger than the ones he had seen in Alanta, and were crawling out from the holes Kudor’s horse had made. Kudor turned back after he had reached a tree with a low branch and, “Be quick before the flying ants rise,” he said. Echendu closed his eyes and covered his ears, but the buzz still shook his bones, spreading goose flesh like mechanical waves all over his skin. When his eyes opened, there was a tree branch before him. All he did was grasp it while the horse continued moving. There was never a tree as low as he had now seen. That was not all; the ground now boiled with the black and blonde coloured creatures. “That’s what cowards do,” said Kudor. “Only goodness knows where eternity will lead the horse to.” Meanwhile, the ants had already spread themselves around the tree Echendu was hanging from. The way they moved was really the source of the buzz. Echendu moved with his hands, towards the tip of the branch; when it was safe for him to jump to a clear ground, the branch weakened and swinged downward, towards the trunk. He then climbed with his hands. Kudor only laughed at him from a distance. The ants were crawling up, which he noticed, but then the real buzz came fluttering in the air. They came up in swarms, whirling like wind, singing like bees, and possibly, their bite won’t be any different from sting. “Make a decision fast,” Kudor said; “whether to remain there, climb, or jump down.” Echendu looked down and saw them piled over one another. He looked forward; they were coming, though slowly. He made a decision. He started climbing, and at a point saw that the crawling ants had made it up already. Soon, he would be cornered. The flying ants, like warriors that had received an order to attack, whirled round and converged towards the tree -- towards him. He let go of his hold on the branch... so downward his body fell with his eyes closed. He quivered in anticipation for the first bite he would receive, but his body was just cold. The place was as it was when they had first arrived, and that made him flush when he opened his eyes. “You still need to learn a lot,” said the wizard, moving nearer with his horse. “I told you that the flying ants were coming, yet you waited for them. Get this: Don’t be afraid to jump into fire that you know must eventually meet you!” Echendu hissed in annoyance. “That’s the most stupid advice I’ve ever heard.” He was also grumbling in his mind for such an expensive joke which almost took away his heart. “How was I to know that it would meet me?”


“I told you that the winged ones were coming, and even common sense would have let you know that ants could crawl. Get the rest: If you give fire a chance; it will consume you, if you jump into it; luckily, you may quench it.” Echendu rose and moved nearer to the wizard. “Now,” he said, clapping his hands, “the fresh-stone is gone!” He was blaming it on the wizard. “Do not grumble over it. It has done its work -- by leading me to you.” “My bow?” Echendu asked with an intention to prove the wizard’s lesson wrong, or that the extent he went was ludicrous. “You can always get another; that’s if my spell went wrong.” He gave him a hand. Echendu touched his sheath and made sure it was fixed before joining him on the horse. They rode through a field that had no path, it led them down into another gulch that had less light. The upward riding which did not take up to an hour brought them into a vast plain. The plain then ended in a cliff. This was not the cliff that falling from its edge would take one to another solid ground; it was a harsh splashing river -- the river that separated the Amaato land from its neighbouring Etiti. They would have to change direction to meet the bridge which was no longer a threat since the two lands were under the Northern powers. Kudor still rode northward, taking no notice of the cliff ahead until Echendu was about to warn. “Are we going to fly?” he planned to ask, but the wizard said something. Echendu frowned because he did not understand. “Surely,” said the wizard, “it never went wrong, I told you.” “What?” Echendu asked. “My spell,” Kudor said and halted. He was smiling. It was then that Echendu took notice of something beyond the cliff; his horse was standing at the edge of the cliff. Further step would mean death, except if a pair of wing would spring out. “I was about to ask why you were riding into this cliff,” said Echendu, smiling. He climbed down and hurried forward. “That should be another test!” said the wizard. Echendu halted to give it a thought. He turned and said, “If you are ready to lose me to the river...” He was unsure whether the threat meant anything to the wizard. “How can I stop this wizard from carrying out any further mischief?” he asked himself. He was at least hopeful that the wizard was not going to harm him, so he moved forward. He stopped at about three paces before the edge, stretched himself and took the bridle. Quickly, he pulled it before an avalanche would slide and leave them all swimming.


“Perhaps, we won’t fly,” said Kudor. “I was about to say that.” “Say this either,” said the wizard, spreading his hands wide. “Right or left?” Echendu laughed because it was no riddle to him, his father had told him countless stories where one would get confused in a road that split into two. The right would always be the best option, although some had been wrong, but the moral remained that the right must be the first attempt. “East,” he said; they were facing north. Kudor nodded. “You are right, but you must be conservative to be seen wise. The language of the Old used less words to hide meanings.” He moved his horse towards the east and said, “Long live whoever that considers right first. Ha ha ha...” After the east ride, they crossed the bridge (which was the same with the one between Kpando and Amaato) and rode upward, into the first village along a hill. Etiti as a whole was the centre of every activity along that longitude; from tailoring to shoe-mending; blacksmithing, smelting and mining; building and manufacture of household equipments, weapons and tools. The area had in fact become too busy that Northerners often forget about trouble-making; most who bribed their way to be posted to this region knew that it was business as usual. The sound of smelting, quarrying and mining had deafened the birds around the hills so that one could be so close to them, yet they won’t fly. Around the middle of the village, they came across warriors that were riding up and down with their assessors while some other groups talked with some herdsmen that were still about selling their cattles. “They must be negotiating on the bribe that would grant them a tax escape,” said Kudor. “Good for the two parties,” said Echendu. “They must be good at least to know how to dialogue.” They kept riding while the night threatened. The nature of the road twisted from that of encountering working people to that of those that were hurrying home. At last, it was in a lonely path that they found themselves. It took nothing more than a spell for Kudor to be transformed into a warlord of huge bodied physique. Echendu wanted to speak, but the man’s cold finger crossed his lips. He was sure that it was Kudor because of the horse. Wizard! Wizard! he thought. The path where they passed was now risky for anyone without the Northern uniform. There were tens of torches burning at a distance; they almost formed the fence of the camp. Warriors were heard chanting; others were seen patrolling. Some were on their complete outfit while some others had no cloak. The wizard smiled with his fearful face. “It would have been easy for me to get into this camp invisible if I still had Kahluka’s wand.”


It was then that Echendu felt the gravity of his action. “I’m sorry,” he said. “How will this wand ever be back?” “After this task,” said the warlord. He climbed down from his horse, his grin widening as he looked deep into Echendu. “For now, I remain Warlord Uruani,” he said. Echendu began to grow suspicious of him. “I’m not crossing that fort with you,” he said. “I’ve once been caught there with Lota... and Haruni of blessed memory.” The warlord sheathed his sword and growled. “Not when you are Uruani’s prisoner!” Echendu’s head started shaking mechanically; what he heard himself saying under the bondage of a clenched fist was, “You need to know what really happened to Haruni.” The strange warlord that now held him indifferently moved his hand into his upper pocket, near to the breast-plate. “Joking with Northerners can greatly alter planned events,” Echendu kept saying, but a whistle was already on the man’s mouth. The strange reverberation in the night betrayed the singing birds. Consequently, the heavy thuds of black boots silenced the crickets that supported the birds in their night chorus. As the cold hands dragged Echendu along, he could hear them talking to themselves. The best of the words he grabbed were, “Warlord Uruani thought to be dead, and like a moon being shielded by the cloud shines again.” Those who had not been ordered became the best at that time, mounting on their posts like sculptural exhibitions. The death-camp became active immediately because their leader had returned. As four men dragged Echendu inward, he looked around foolishly; he was rather flummoxed than just pretending. The main gate that was built with thick semi-logs had spikes at the top. When it was opened, the community it exposed could only be compared with the ants Echendu had encountered at the gulch; it was indeed a tight death-camp. They treated him as he had once experienced. Everything was just to him like one on a bed, waiting for dawn which must surely come. From a broad sandy square that was fenced with high logs, they moved down a steep tunnel that led to different rooms. He was then led into a room where green marks, that could only be removed with oil, were imprinted on his fingers. He was shivering because it was at this stage that he was moved down to Amaato, alongside Lota and Haruni. Whatever the wizard might have up his sleeves was not amusing to Echendu any longer. This next stage he awaited would separate them; maybe forever because from a dark carriage, he would be sent into a dark dungeon until the appointed time for his death. The only saviour would be another offer such as that which had led him to this. Echendu was pushed to another table where his hands were bound in chains by a warrior. There were many of such chains in a basket behind the man; it waited for other prisoners. Echendu’s eyes still searched for Kudor or whoever he was impersonating as. The chain was pulled; and that frightened him.


He moved into another room and was taken straight to a table where he was left alone with a grim man who looked into his eyes with great interest. The man’s eyes were sharp as he went through a scroll. He wetted his fore-finger on his tongue, opened another scroll and took a quill. “Your name, please,” he said in a calm tone, “and don’t lie because you are going to swear with the earth.” Echendu was not just surprised that a stage had been skipped, but that the adjutant was polite; that left him wondering the intention of the man. It could be a trick to give him hope, he thought. “Fast,” the man said, causing Echendu to shriek at the harsh tone his delay had brought. “Echendu Dera,” he pronounced slowly. The man nodded in a way that made Echendu fear that he had heard the name before. The man dipped the quill in ink, after he had carefully inscribed the name, he pushed a clay cup -- that was filled with dust -- forward to Echendu. Echendu touched it with his fore-finger, then onto the middle of his tongue before the same finger pointed upward. He was about to move backward when he noticed that the man still held the chain. “I’ll complete the rest,” the man said to a warrior who waited behind Echendu. The warrior nodded. “Thanks Beno,” he said, “and don’t forget to put him in the last room; so that the odour doesn’t reach the warlord’s chambers in case he contacts...” His voice faded as he marched out of the room. The adjutant brought a lamp to the table and pushed it towards Echendu. “I think I’ve seen you before.” Echendu shook his head. “You’ve taken an oath not to lie; remember,” said the man. “I’m Beno, the only Northern adjutant in this province, but with a human heart. I’ve helped men escape from this death-camp, especially those convicted for useless offences, until I was almost implicated... so I withdrew my helping hand.” He reclined on his seat and, “Tell me where I saw you,” he said. Echendu knelt and thought for a while. He crept nearer to the table and said, “I was caught with my friends, paces away from the gate, by some warriors returning in an evening. We were put in a dark carriage-” “That was around the time the camp oozed with too many dead prisoners,” said Beno. “I’ve remembered; that’s the time I saw you. You said that you came for Keleta Dera and Kubwa Faniyi?” “Yes! Where are they?” The adjutant leaned forward on the table and rushed over his words in a very low tone. “I tried my best to help -- waiting for the time Warlord Uruani would be away so that I could help them escape -- but the


warlord was very active. All I did was smuggle writing materials to Faniyi and help him give the letter to a commercial rider.” “Take no more risk,” Echendu said. He was somehow unsure whether to trust this man. He stood and said, “All I want is for you to put me in the same cell with him.” “I can’t grant you that,” said Beno, and that brought disappointment to the face of Echendu. “In fact, I will take the risk of saving you, no matter what it will take. I’m tired of this work and will just run away after this last deed.” Echendu began to feel that Beno was giving him false hope. He rose and said, “Can I, at least, see him?” “You can’t,” said the man, and after a while added, “because, I don’t wish you that.” He bent again and began to rush over his words. “The very night you accepted the offer to abduct the Starlady was the night Scythe Shangah stated that he cannot make deal with hunters.” “What?” Echendu asked, already bearing something in mind, but just wanted to hear it. “Yes,” Beno nodded. “That night, the bodies of those two men left this land to Mbaofu province. The final destination was the Northern palace, which by every means is worse than the Hades.” Echendu knelt in such a ridiculous manner that the chains sounded like a death bell when it kissed the ground. It was a stupid idea to trust a Northerner, but he had trusted Beno, though not all that he said. He believed that Kudor must have been up to something; maybe they could go to the palace and save the men -- the wizard must be looking for clues to the palace. Kudor in the image of the warlord had come with a prisoner. He passed through a hallway and branched into another where Echendu was. He was shocked to find the hunter leaning foolishly on a table. When he paced towards table, the adjutant pretended to be hitting the prisoner with a chain, and that made Echendu spring to his feet. Although the prisoner was not in the image of Echendu’s father, the sight of him beside the wizard gave him hope. He hated Beno for feeding him with lies. “Have you taken his name?” the warlord asked the adjutant. “Yes, I just drew the last letter now.” Echendu looked intently at the prisoner -- a middle-aged man with rugged features, his clothes were dark and some parts torn. “I’m taking the two down to Amaato,” said the warlord; “a measure against the last disaster.” He took the two prisoners by the chains and strode out of the camp. He later added a horse’s bridle to the chains that had rested in his palms. They moved towards the direction the other two horses had been kept: it was then that Echendu realised that the extra horse


was apparently for the prisoner who might be his.... Well, he was guessing, and also guessing that Haruni’s father might have been unlucky. As they moved, this was what the warlord said in a low tone, “I can only wear the image of those that I’ve spelled; and that can only be once. The living will undo the spell once they see me in their image, but the dead can never see me, so I wear their image as long as I can, since undoing the spell won’t give me such an opportunity again.” He looked at Echendu and saw that his explanation was not impressive to the anxious hunter. “I’ve searched the chambers of the warlord, but the things I saw are... unspeakable.” He hissed and went on. “When something is of no use to you, find someone who needs it. I decided to take this friend so that I wouldn’t have worn this body for the sake of nothing-” The momentraily pause after which Kudor tried to hit the nail by the head was as if it had existed owing to some unknown sound that came from the bush. The night was chilled with cool wind, and the cloud was clear with stars that shone very bright. The strange coolness might have been Echendu’s personal experience. “You understand what I’m saying,” Kudor said to the other prisoner. The rugged man nodded. “Who you came to save is gone, so you helped me.” The warlord was nodding when a strange figure leaped from the bush. He pounced towards the warlord with a knife, and would have slaughtered him if not for Echendu who pushed the strange man from the air. Before Echendu could scream, it was invalid; the other prisoner was strangling the strange man with the large chains that were on his hands. Kudor had returned to his real image. “This is Beno!” Echendu cried and tried to stop the bleeding on his nose. When the prisoner noticed that Echendu might react strangely if he stayed near for an extra second, he took to his heels, pretending to be running from the present sorcery -- warlord turning to an old man in a yellow cloak and brown cord. Echendu bent, trying to resuscitate Beno; it failed so he sobbed, bitterly. He had moved from a state of complete confusion to that of partial. He had thought that a spell would transform the other prisoner to his father, but now that the prisoner was gone, he waited for the wizard to break the news. There was a while silence after which he bent and closed Beno’s eyes. “It’s not always wise to jump into fire,” Echendu said. “May the Almighty guide your spirit to the underworld. May you enjoy your love for justice over there. Go in peace Beno....” He then told Kudor about the man. “Another problem,” said the wizard, “is telling the difference between a growing fire and a melting ice: he just trampled at once. Fire gets worse with time, but ice gets better as it melts. If he had come a minute later, I must have changed by then and it wouldn’t have been this-”


“Don’t defend your analogy,” said Echendu, angrily. “No rule is flawless. Didn’t you reveal that you will be in the form of the warlord for long? Why then do you talk about the next minute?” Kudor agreed. He then went further to tell Echendu that according to the records he had gone through in the warlord’s chambers, that Beno’s words were true. Kudor climbed onto to his horse and pretended not to observe Echendu’s drunkard movement. At a stage as they rode, he felt it would be better to kindle the fire and let the rain fall at once. He stopped and sat down, telling Echendu everything that he knew about his father. The young man only wept. Kudor told him that it was Scythe who specifically requested the men to be brought and slashed. The mood Echendu was would not be described enough if his heart was referred to as depressed, even dead. A depressed person should bleed, but a sharp cut passing through his flesh, bone and marrow would not let a blood drip. He was drained to the core, shrank to the cell and darkened to the teeth; the only hope left in him was revenge. The rage that blazed in his eyes was enough to set a green field in flame. His gasp was just as weird as the hurricane, but there was no other person he could pour them upon, other than the one who he had least willingly intended to meet. “My father’s death has been predestined,” he thought, and as if Kudor was reading his mind, replied. “If you go on this way, your father might resurrect for your sake, but your mother and your sister, and the entire world would be under a potential threat -- eternal death to be precise.” It reminded Echendu of something. “I’ve heard that sort of-” The wizard interrupted him. “And if you keep silent over what you’ve heard, one day the fire will consume you.” Echendu shook his head. “So, you mean I can easily quench it now?” he asked, with his face expressing a bit of jest, and another of sorrow; they were mixed in a proportion that meant bravery. That was Kudor’s aim -- motivation that would ready him, despite the fate that might await them. He had now seen that Echendu had developed the hatred necessary to launch an attack, and the thing left was faith to annul the fate. “Keleta never wanted that,” he said, “but destiny can only be delayed.” He rose and held Echendu’s shoulders. “Long, long time ago in that woods called Amaato grove, I saw you doing what you were meant for; maybe unaware and prematurely. It is time for you to do it as a duty.” Echendu shook his head in sorrow, but did not know when he chuckled. He rose and moved to his horse. “Tell me where he is,” he said, “and I will shoot him down.” He was already plucking the string of his bow. “Not that way,” said the wizard. “One thing must be done as I was instructed. We need to confirm if our intention is just to the spirits.” “But you never believed in their existence!”


Kudor smiled. “There are just spirits that hover in this world. Most are the fallens caused by Scythe’s wickedness; others are those who have died before their time.” “You said they are in Northhead!” Kudor realised and admitted. “You see, son, these things are confusing; I’m not even sure of what I believe; we just have to have faith. The spirits will love to fight on our side.” The wizard had already started an incantation that Echendu would not interrupt. He just observed his wrinkled hands that flowed in a sigmoid. After some seconds, it produced a ray of light that spun in the same sigmoid pattern. Kudor’s palm spread horizontally while the light settled upon it; the right palm. He took it with a finger and it stretched elastically. As he blew it with his mouth, the glowing lines it produced in the dark engulfed Echendu’s neck, and slowly disappeared. “Our fight is justified,” said the wizard. “I’ve given you the wisp amulet. It will help you make decisions in times when there is no time to think.” He unsaddled his beast and sat. Echendu made fire for warmth. He had gotten feverish after the ride through the chill night. It was still his personal experience because the wizard was faraway from the fire. The sleep took away every sorrow. Early in the morning, they got up and prepared to ride home. “All the time you’ve spent in that palace,” said Echendu, “what did you get out of it?” Kudor, as if he had waited for this, left the horse he was saddling and came very close to Echendu. He cleared his throat and began, “When one talks about the past Shangahs, the first thing that comes to mind is magic, for in this world, there has never been any magic of protection more powerful than the Coat of Armour; though with some flaws. Nothing is flawless, you remember?” “I do, but I don’t know what this ‘Coat of Armour’ is,” said the hunter. Kudor nodded. “It’s a coat made from an ancient mammoth hide. It is the symbol of kingship in the Northern palace.” “Is it magical?” “Of course,” replied the wizard. “Scythe himself is a devout in the dark side of magic, therefore, this is not going to be an easy war, but we can work on those flaws. Stealing the Coat of Armour is a threat to his life, for in anyone else’s body the magic would destroy the immediate past wielder and that of the current person, if he is not of the bloodline of Shangah -- for whom the coat was sewn. The next flaw is that it offers no protection if the attacker is of the same bloodline and gender with the wearer.” Echendu closed his eyes and tried to make sense out of it. “So, you mean that our mission will either be to steal the coat, or to find the heir to the Northern throne.” Kudor shook his head. “Throughout my stay in that palace, I’ve never heard of the prince-”


“He’s clever-” Echendu said suddenly, and seemed to be impressed by the king’s wisdom. “Cleverer than anything,” growled the wizard. “He’s a fool! A king who thinks his own child as a potential threat: how will his kingdom live forever?” As if he had been angered by the hunter, he paced to his horse and said, “Our quest is the Coat of Armour, but that’s after we’ve moved my family.” He sped off without listening to what the young man was saying. Echendu kept what he had said in mind. It was late afternoon when they arrived at Kudor’s vegetable passage. They rode through, but Echendu barricaded the wizard when they were around the doorstep. “I didn’t tell you the main reason why we came riding North,” he said and, seeing that the old man had put forward a listening ear, continued. “A very bad illness gripped Dilichi’s mother -- that is a curse from Scythe, I’m sure. Whoever that had come to heal her would say a particular thing about the cure being a turnip that grows only in the Northern palace, which if not gotten, she would die on the twelfth day.” “Were the words transferable?” Kudor asked with great interest. “I mean-” He was about to explain further with finger demonstration when Echendu nodded. “I understand: they were!” Kudor smiled. “Then we’ve won, if I’m right,” he said. “But... did you say her mother?” “Yes!” replied Echendu. “Well, nothing goes for nothing, but I must tell you the truth: that was the spell against warlocks; it is deception itself to warlocks. We’ve waited for it because this year will make it a thousand years since it was last used, as recorded in the Gifted cave. I suggested its use but Kahluka threw it aside because meeting Scythe was impossible, and even the blow itself might cost other lives. Now, I can see that Kahluka has found a way to deceive him. He never wanted to get me involved for sacrificial reasons-” “I don’t understand any of these,” said Echendu. “Scythe might have cast the spell; the consequences are that if he or the victim -- that’s her mother -didn’t take the turnip or whatever Scythe has meditated to be the remedy before the twelfth day: he will die, the last person who attempted to heal the victim will die-” “That’s Opa -- their chief priest-” “And worst,” said Kudor, “the sorcerer who initiated the magic, and the victim herself will die.” “Then we go for the turnip, please,” said Echendu, reversing his horse. “As I told you, nothing goes for nothing. You might lose people so beloved to you at the end if we take another course.” “We are losing them for no cause! As you said -- Scythe has the most powerful magic of protection.”


Kudor came down and demonstrated with himself as he spoke. “Putting on the coat shields him against physical attacks only -- that’s the third flaw!” “Then the wisp amulet has decided justice. I’m going to the Northern palace to search for that turnip. Your ever trying to stop me will thwart me from you.” “I can’t stop you,” Kudor said. “Your decision is right, but if Scythe takes the turnip, everyone will be healed and-” “He may not even know that his life is endangered.” “Then, why would he kill Kahluka? It’s fire you’re riding into; perhaps I will assist you, but we need raise no voice.” Kudor then gave him a hand, and he came down from the horse. “He will be expecting someone to come for the turnip,” Kudor reminded him once more. Echendu understood, and then awaited the plan that Kudor would put forward. Someone opened the door and the kind of look the person gave left Kudor bewildered. It was Dilichi. Echendu also understood that she had overheard the conversation. He was now passionate to pull her up the well now that his own personal quest had ended, though sadly. He kept his father in mind, but didn’t let that weigh him down. He moved forward, took her hand and marched inward, as though the door had become an aisle. Kudor cleared his eyes and followed closely.

* PHASE ONE ENDS * Buy Here at http://www.lulu.com/content/e-book/tale-of-the-high-spirits-rule-of-void/13375221

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Rule of Void