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TALE OF AN AFRICAN PRINCESS (EPISODE 8)

Wednesday, 30 May 2018






Pawo walked casually through a bush path in the forest. Duefe followed behind, looking about and ensuring there were no bad surprises around.

From up the tall trees, birds chirped. Rabbits scurried here and there. The journey had been a long one. Pawo had obviously forgotten how far the distance from Utho Era to Nala was. She had been on the move with Duefe since the morning of three days ago. As they went, she thought of Deba and how the marriage ceremony was going. She also thought of Ezomo and smiled at the surprise disappointment waiting for him after Izogie’s marriage. If he wanted sons, he had to go find other women for that, and respect his late brother’s widow. She only prayed Deba would be safe after the marriage. Tradition demands that the bride and chief maid stay thirteen days at the bride’s parents’ house, before being taken to the groom. But she knew Ezomo won’t wait thirteen days for his daughter to leave before coming for her. And the moment he discovers that she’s gone, Deba would pay dearly for it.

“Please guard her.” She whispered, hoping her late husband would hear her. “We can’t let our daughter suffer at the hands of your brother.”

“I don’t believe she will.” Duefe answered. He had heard her pray and thought it wise to comfort her the best way he could. “I watched her grow, although from a distance. Deba is tough. She can take care of herself.”

Pawo didn’t miss the affection she heard in his voice. Neither did she miss the sadness. Duefe didn’t just watch her as he said, something else was up.

“You love her?” Pawo stopped and looked him in the eye. She was good at reading people just by looking into their eyes. It was a gift she passed on to Deba.

“I love her as a father would love his daughter. Nothing more. I’m old enough to be her father.”

“Yes. But you don’t need to be afraid to tell me the truth.” She persuaded.

“Deba was only 10, I think, when her father, your husband, disappeared. My brother disappeared too. He was my only family. We both made loses that day and I vowed to look after both of you. I may not have been close, I couldn’t be. Oba Ezomo forbade me. I noticed that after you rejected his advances, he stopped sending you food in good quantity. I never stopped watching either of you. I sneaked food from Oba Ezomo’s store room and added to what the messengers were to deliver to you. I simply told them they were from the Oba. I didn’t want suspicion. So yes, I love Deba. But as my daughter.”

Pawo’s mouth dropped open at the revelation. All the times she had thought Oba Ezomo sent her good food, the food was actually from Duefe. Other wise she and her daughter would have starved a lot.

“Duefe… I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You don’t need to.” He smiled “I swore an oath to remain in your husband’s service till death. I’m only keeping that oath. I’m sure he would want me to take care of his family.”

Throwing caution to the wind, Pawo threw herself forward and encircled him in her embrace. “Thank you.” She said, her eyes wet.

Duefe stood, shocked by her action. She was a queen he dared not hug. Besides he didn’t think he deserved a thank you. He knew too much, but he had no idea how to tell her everything he knew; starting with Ezodo and Ere’s disappearance, as well as his brother’s.

Peeling her hands off his neck, he stepped back. “Your highness.” He bowed slightly. “We have to keep moving. I am only your servant.”

“Yes, we have to keep moving.” She cleaned her eyes. “I’m sorry I was really carried away. But I don’t regret the hug. And you’re not my servant, just my friend. Thank you for being loyal to my late husband, and now his family.”

He bowed again. At the same time, he made up his mind to tell her the truth, as soon as they got to Nala.

The walk for the rest of the day was hard for Pawo. Duefe allowed very little rest. They had walked all day and all night, sneaking in shadows and bushy paths. Once, she had to shout at Duefe to slow down.

“We can’t slow down, my queen.” He said. “What I have done is treason. I don’t know what the Oba will call what you have done. Either way, if we are caught, we are dead.”

“But we are far away from…”

“We are not far, your highness. Look around you. Everything here is part of Utho Era. We are still within reach. All Oba Ezomo has to do is send five rider warriors after us and they will catch us. They will smell us from a far distance. I want you to rest, my queen. But we have to get to safety first.”

Pawo knew he was right. He had risked his life for her. He was very loyal, but she had no right to bring him death. Although her legs ached and begged for rest, she moved on. It was the following afternoon they got past Sowe, the last village in the kingdom, and stood in view of the hills bordering Utho Era and Uzema.

“I had forgotten how large our kingdom is.” Pawo confessed, shielding her eyes from the sun so as to look at the hill. It was a high one, full of trees. “We have walked fast for almost two days with very little rest, and we still haven’t reached the border.”

“Reaching the border is one thing. Preparing for any surprises is another.” Duefe said, eyes on the road.

“You think the people of Uzema will turn us away?” She was scared.

“I know someone there. One of the border men. I’ll speak to him and see if they will grant us safe passage. But still, the Uzemas are in alliance with Oba Ezomo. If they let us pass through and the Oba’s warriors come, they will seize us and hand us over.”

Pawo stopped in her tracks to catch her breath and think. The hill bothering the two kingdoms also lead to other places. Climbing and going over meant going into Uzema. Climbing and going either west or east meant going somewhere else. Pawo thought it through before facing Duefe.

“What if we find another route? Is there none?” Fear was evident in her eyes. “I’d rather die than be married to Ezomo or let him lay with me. I won’t bear his sons. I refuse to.”

Duefe sighed. “I understand.” He nodded, then looked around. “There is another route, west of the hill. But it is lonely and very dangerous.”

“But we can try it.” She insisted.

“As you wish my queen.” He agreed, reluctantly. How could he tell her that slave catchers and a lot of people seeking innocent souls for rituals always lay ambush in those parts. No, he could not. All the same, if Ezomo ever found where they were, the Uzemas won’t think twice before handing them over. They would take the lonely route. He would only do his best to protect her and pray that their ancestors watch over them.

He led her to the foot of the hill and the climb started. They were mid way up when the sound of horses, galloping in the distance, caught Duefe’s attention. Pawo continued up the steep hill and Duefe turned around. What he saw confirmed his fears. In the far distance were riders from the palace, five of them, galloping at full speed. They raised their spears and rode on in silence. If they had been seen, he didn’t know. But the earlier they got to the top of the hill and camouflaged among the plants, the better their chances of survival.

“My queen,” he called. “We have been found.”

Pawo turned around. Her eyes widened in horror as the saw the approaching riders in a cloud of dust.

“Don’t stand and watch. Come with me.” Duefe took her by the hand and continued up the hill, his pace increased.

Deba, after making her way down the hill, walked gently through the bush paths leading up to the spot Makeni had pointed out the last soldier.

“Distract him.” He had said. And to her, distract him meant seducing him. How in the name of the gods was she going to do that? She had never been interested in men before. She never learnt how to attract them. She had never even been aware of the opposite s-x, until she met him. And now she was out to seduce a warrior?

What god or goddess was she going to pray to for assistance? Olokun? Yemoja? Oya? Deba sighed. She would do what she can. But if things didn’t go well, Mekani could go on and hit his head against a tree. She wouldn’t care. She winced as the image of Mekani hitting his head against a tree flashed before her eyes. Of course she would care. So like it or not, the plan had to work.

Her face was blackened with charcoal from the fire place where Mayo prepared breakfast. Her hair was a scattered mass and rid of all bridal adornments. Mekani said it was best that way. She had to been seen as one of the slaves, not a princess. But there was nothing she could do about her clothing. A good thing she had cut it into a different style. It was a good disguise for her too.

Down at the village, Almost every where she turned, there were dead bodies in twos or threes. Dead animals were not left out. The entire village smelt of smoke, blood and death. How could people be so wicked? At one spot, a man’s headless form lay. Blood oozed out of the neck. At another spot, arrows pinned down several children. Some mothers lay on top their children in a fruitless effort to protect them. A mother’s love. She thought, remembering her own mother. Pawo would die before seeing her in a place like the one she was in, let alone dying because of some stupid distraction plan Makeni and the men had in their heads.

Taking her mind off her mother, she walked steadily until the warrior of their interest was within sight. But she didn’t dock. She stood and let his eyes rest on her. The man’s ebony skin shone under the blazing sun. Up close, Deba could see he was light bearded, had bushy hairs and carried with him huge muscles underneath taut skin. Upon sighting her, he pulled out his sword and started in her direction.

“Ngakho wena bazifihla?” He spoke in a tongue she was not familiar with.

“Please, please don’t kill me. I only want water.” Deba begged.

“Izimpethu abafana nawe akufanele bavunyelwe ukuba baphile.” His pace increased.

When she saw he wasn’t backing down, she turned and ran. So much for seducing a warrior who looked determined to kill her. He chased her. Of course, she was only a girl. It would be stupid for him to call the attention of his men over a girl. So he carried on with the chase alone.

Deba ran toward the east wing of the hill and started to climb. The warrior reached the foot too and was about to join her when two strong hands seized both his hands from behind. The warrior struggled, but Dogo disarmed and slammed him hard against the hard ground. The man yelped. Before he could regain himself and draw out another knife, Several swords pointed at his head and neck.

“I won’t think twice before cutting you.” Mekani threatened

“Idiots.” The man spat. “Abanye ngeke ningithole futhi abulale nonke. Awazi ukuthi ubani wena obhekana nakho.”

“General, Basuke kade laphela futhi wena ekupheleni kude iphiko entshonalanga.” Makeni replied.

The warrior looked a bit surprised that a stranger would speak his language.

“You speak his language?” Deba asked, descending the hil again.

“Yes. It is Zulu language. I wonder what Zulu warriors are doing here. They’ve never brought their fight this way before. This is new.” Mekani examined Deba with his eyes. Are you ok?”

“Thanks to your timely intervention, I am fine.”

“What did he say?” Kubu asked, still looking at the warrior.

“He says the others will find him and kill us all. We’ve messed with the wrong man.”

The men chuckled at the threat. “You should tell him we’ll kill him first.” Dogo said after he recovered.

“I already told him that. But all the same, before his threat comes true, let us leave this place.”

Dogo took out twines from his pouch and tied the prisoner’s hands to the back. He was then shoved as they made their way further east, the opposite direction of the rest of the Zulu warriors. They had absolutely no more need to climb the hill.

It was well after noon. The sun was setting at the horizon. Red patches of clouds had taken over the sky. Evening was here. Night was to follow soon. The party had walked many miles, from hills to forests and rivers. Along the way Mayo caught a rabbit that had gotten stuck in a trap, close to a farm.

“Is that necessary?” Deba had asked, wondering why a rabbit was so important at the time.

“For dinner? Yes it is important.” He smiled, admiring the animal.

After a long time under the scotching sun, and with sweat streaming down their bodies, evening had arrived. The party stopped at the banks of the third flowing river they came across. It bordered a small village on the other side of it.

Mekani strained his eyes across the wide river, trying to make out activities in the small village. There were activities alright; children playing in circles and women at the banks washing clothes. Some hard looking men, probably the village’s warriors, guarded the river as the women worked. Colourful kentes hung from their shoulders and wrapped their bodies. As soon as they noticed the small party at the other side of their home, they stood up and walked to the edge of the bank, looking across with stern faces and calculative eyes. They talked among themselves.

“We rest here.” Mekani announced, after watching the village people a while longer.

“It is an open spot. We’re exposed.” Mayo remarked. “And from the way those warriors look at us, I don’t think they like our presence.”

“When I said here, I didn’t mean in the open.” Mekani corrected. “We find a hidden spot in the forest behind. The important thing is we are close to the river. We need some cleaning up. Try to ignore the villagers. We are not trespassing.”

They moved away from the river bank and into the forest. Kubu found a spot under the tall trees. It was still open though, but not as exposed as the banks.

“What will you do to me?” The captured Zulu warrior asked Mekani as Dogo sat him at the foot of one tree and tied him against it.

“Whatever pleases me. But first, I want to know why you bring your war here. You murdered a whole village. The women and children too. Have you and your warriors lost your hearts?”

The warrior’s hard eyes stared at Mekani with disdain. Then he spoke and he spoke harshly.

“What is he saying?” Deba asked, coming to stand behind Mekani.

“Let’s talk later. I’m not done with him yet.”

Deba nodded and stepped back. Mekani continued his interrogation. A short distance away, Mayo set up a camp fire, cleaned up the dead rabbit with water from his drinking bag and started to prepare dinner. Kubu stood close by, watching the interrogation. While Dogo patrolled the surroundings, ensuring there was no danger lurking in the forest.

With nothing to do, Deba joined Mayo. Although her eyes were focused on Mekani and the Zulu man.

“If you are going to cook, you should focus on the food.” Mayo smiled knowingly at her.

“I’m just trying to follow their discussion.” She defended, wondering why he was smiling the way he did.

“No. You’re not.” Mayo sighed and returned his eyes to the rabbit roasting in front of him. Again, it was a big rabbit and Deba noticed. “Your eyes haven’t left him since the journey started.” Mayo finished.

“And who are you talking about? The warrior? You can’t blame me, I don’t trust him.”

“I’m talking about Mekani.”

Deba froze. She wondered why Mayo would say something like that. What was so good about their leader that she couldn’t take her eyes off him? Anyway, maybe he was gearing up for an argument. She wouldn’t give him the pleasure. “How come the rabbit is big?” She changed the topic. “When we saw it at the farm, it was not so big.”

“I use my special ingredients on it, so it is big enough to go round everyone. A handful of roasted rabbit with the left over yams, and you will see we will all be well fed.”

“In other words, your ingredients are not normal ingredients. You use magic to cook?” Her brows shot up and realization hit her. “How do you do it?”

“Observe.” He said, then unwrapped one leave from his pouch, scooped a few of the powdered ingredients and sprinkled them on the roasting rabbit. Gradually, its size increased.

Deba’s surprise knew no bounds. She went on all fours and crept closer to inspect the rabbit. “Wow!” She exclaimed, unable to hold her joy. It was the first time she was witnessing magic. She had only heard of it in folktales before. “Mayo, you should have said something right from the beginning. This is like an invention.”

“Yes. Juba’s invention.” He smile broadened.

“Juba” she said the name, tasting it and trying to decided what next to say. “He must be a very useful god. He has a lot of qualities, I can see. And inventions too.” She admired the robust rabbit.

Mayo chuckled. “Yes. Don’t worry. One day, soon, you will meet him.”

“So I was told.”

They all sat around the camp fire later that night, eating the roasted rabbit and left over yams. Mekani offered some to the Zulu prisoner. But the prisoner wouldn’t eat. Mekani tried to convince him that the food was not poisoned, by taking a few bites from it. But still, the prisoner wouldn’t eat. He then retuned to the others by the camp fire.

“What next?” Dogo asked, having observed what transpired. “He won’t eat and we can’t have a man die in our camp.”

“He hasn’t given me any useful information.” Mekani sighed. “I know abit about the Zulus. They don’t bring fight for no reason. And to have come all the way here, something big is really happening.”

“Must we make their business our business?” Deba asked. “We could let him go.”

“That, is risky.” Kubu countered. “He can easily get his men and bring them after us.”

“But we can’t kill him either.” Deba argued. A short silence followed.

“You do what you think is right.” Dogo said to Mekani before taking a drink and getting up.

“And where are you going?” Mekani looked up at him.

“Patrol.”

Mekani nodded and faced the fire again. From across, where Deba sat, she observed him. He looked thoughtful, like he was seriously trying to decide the next best move. He ate his meat quietly, and his eyes remained on the flames from the camp fire. Her eyes traced the lines on his face, down to the muscles of his shoulders and chest. Mayo was right. She had spent most of the day watching him, memorizing every part of his body. And now there she was, staring again, shamelessly. How he had showed up from nowhere and stolen her heart was a mystery. All he had said was that he dreamt of her too. She didn’t even know if he was telling the truth or lies. But still, she had taken to him so easily.

“Maybe I’m going crazy.” She thought.

As if in response to her claim, Mekani looked up. His eyes caught hers and he smiled; a warm smile that reached his eyes. She smiled too, although she wasn’t certain why they were smiling at each other.

Later that night Dogo, Mekani and Kubu patrolled the environs. As far as Deba knew, Mayo was the cook in the team, not a fighter. She wasn’t too comfortable with the fact that she and Mayo were left alone with the Zulu warrior. What if he tried to escape? What would they do? She decided she was going to stay awake and watch him. If he loosened his binds and attacked them, then she would scream. It is the best she can do.

Not long afterwards, she wasn’t going to do anything. Sleep came and carried her on its wings, even before she realized it. Her red cape hugged her body, keeping the cold away. It was a wet sticky sensation on her right foot that woke her up. It was dark, although streaks of moonlight invaded the forest.

She was about to take a sitting position and look around, when she felt the wetness and stickiness again. Something or someone was licking her foot. Slowly, she raised her head to take a look at her visitor. The fear started from her heart and spread to her head. She opened her mouth to scream, but firm hands closed them from behind.

“Shhhhhh… Just watch.” Mekani said against her ears.

Glad it was him, she calmed down abit and watched the white hound licking her foot some more.

“Do you have any injury on your feet?” Mekani asked, also watching the animal.

“No.”

“Good. As long as it does not taste blood, it won’t sink its teeth into your foot. Just breath. Try to relax.”

It was a while later that a distant cry of another hound in the forest caused the one before her to abandoned her foot and run off. Mekani chuckled lightly when he felt Deba sigh in relieve.

“You should have thought it was me. Then you wouldn’t have been so scared.” He said.

“You’re a black hound, Mekani.” She said. “Not white.”

“Yes. That is true. Come, I want to show you something.”

“What about Mayo?” She was worried, “We will be leaving him alone with the prisoner. It is risky.”

“Mayo is the last person you should worry about. Worry about us instead.” He smiled. “Come.”

He led her away from the camp and further into the forest. They climbed several steep parts before emerging at the edge of a rocky cliff, the forest standing behind them. The night sky was clear and the twinkling stars surrounded the bright moon in their thousands.

“When you stand here and look below, you see a whole kingdom.” Mekani said in awe.

“Yes. But it is dark below.”

“Not entirely. Look.” He pointed at a small village where camp fires were set up. Some huts had their lamps on too. “They might be celebrating a festival.”

“It is nice” She tightened the cape around her shoulders. The cold was getting to her.

“It is nice? That is all you will say?” Mekani asked, the moon light revealing his raised brows accompanied by a smile tugging at his lips.

“I don’t believe the view is all the reason you brought me here, Mekani.” She smiled back. “Is it time for us to start acting out your dreams?”

His brows went even higher. He loved her boldness. Some other girls in his kingdom would shy away and pretend not to notice any thing. “I would love the entire dream acted out. But Juba will strike me dead before we even begin.” He laughed.

“Will he strike me too? I need to know how soon I’ll die.”

“Stop it. Don’t joke with such things.” Mekani took her left hand and pulled her to him. His other hand slid around her waist, holding her firmly against his frame. He bent low and planted a soft kiss on her bare shoulders. She shivered. “You are right. The view is not the only reason I brought you here.” He whispered against her cheeks. Her nearness had caused his breathing to become rapid.

“I thought you are scared of Juba.” She whispered back, pressing her b---m to his chest and enjoying the bulge she felt against her abdomen.

“No. I’m afraid of what I might do to you.” Her actions had caused him to hardened some more “You should be afraid too.”

“Of your love making?” She chuckled.

He inhaled deeply. Even her chuckle was affecting his reasoning. “I want you everyday Deba. Every time.” His hands moved to rest on the swell of her back, and then squeeze. “I want you.” He whispered, before his lips descended on hers. She kissed him back. Her passion surprisingly matched his own as her hands slid up and found their way through his dada. She pulled him closer. Pleasurable currents flowed between them. To her, this was heaven. No man would ever have been able to make her feel like this. Besides, if his kiss was this wonderful, she wondered what having the rest of him would be like.

Mekani knew he shouldn’t push things. But home was far. How long would he wait to marry her and claim his prize? Her softness, her passion, the power she had over him were driving him nuts. If he didn’t do something, he knew he was going to go crazy with unfulfilled desires.

He scooped her into his arm and carried her a short distance away where an animal skin cape lay on the ground. He put her on it and joined her. Lips remained locked. His hands went for her upper covering and with some gentle tugging, it loosened and started to slide down. Deba caught it and pulled back, pressing the red velvet wrapper to her almost exposed b-----s. Mekani swallowed.

“I will understand if you have second thoughts.” He said.

“Not second thoughts. I want an assurance that this is real. Not a mere physical activity for you.” She needed to be sure. For some unknown reasons, ever since Mekani made mention of his dreams, she had found herself drawn to him and yearning for him in ways she never thought possible. If what he felt for her was not real, she had a right to know she was about to throw her dignity off a cliff.

“Deba.” His voice was hoarse and his eyes glittered as they peered into hers. “You are never just a physical exercise to me. You’re my heart. And if I don’t have you, then I don’t have a heart. And if there is no heart, then there is no me.”

Deba chuckled. “You sound like our palace historian when he’s narrating a love story.”

Mekani laughed. She joined him. They never thought they could laugh about anything when passion and desire was about to consume them. Silence followed. They stared at each other, wondering what the other was thinking and how they would continue what they already started. Mekani wasn’t so sure anymore, if making a move on her at the moment was the right thing to do. She was scared he was a fake. She had every right to. But what was going to happen to his already hardened length?

Deba wanted him to continue. She wanted him to take the lead, just as he had done earlier. She would have taken a bold step to continue, but she didn’t want to come across as cheap. One bold step at a time was enough. Too much boldness could scare him off.

“Deba…”

“Mekani…”

They had only said their names when distant cries of hounds greeted their ears. Mekani’s head shut up. His senses were alert and he cursed.

“Relax.” Deba placed a hand on his shoulder. “It could be the other normal hounds.”

“No.” He disagreed. “I recognize my men when I hear them.” He sprang to his feet, trying to shake off the haze that had formed in his head. Deba tied her cloth back and joined him. “The camp is under attack. We need to go back.”

Breeze whooshed past their ears, heart beats doubled and several scary thoughts flashed through their minds as they ran back, hand in hand, the same way they came.

Had the Zulu warrior escaped? Had the villagers from across the river launched an attack? Or was there something dangerous in the forest? Mekani couldn’t choose one line of thought to follow. What demon drove him to seek privacy far away with Deba? Why did he have to choose a wrong time to seek comfort in her warmth? Why couldn’t he just keep his feelings aside at least until they returned to Gor?

Deba was no different. With every step leading back to camp, she couldn’t help but worry more about Mayo. She hoped he was ok. Kubu and Dogo could take care of themselves. They were the least people she’d worry about. She prayed in her heart, silently mentioning all the gods she should think of. They needed help, and there was nowhere else to get it.

Having raced through bush paths and several small hills, they were close to camp when Mekani saw the red and gold flames. It was fire; meaning a far worse problem than he had imagined.

“No!” He paused, panting. Deba saw the horror in his eyes and followed his gaze. Camp was a not-so far distance away. But there was fire; a moving giant fire. And there seemed to be someone burning in it. Yet, it had the form of a man. She saw the other men try fruitlessly to engage the fire. Deba’s eyes grew wide, fear evident in them.

“What is that?” She managed, after recovering from the shock..

“Mayo.” Mekani said, almost in a whisper.

“Mayo?” She tried to understand what he was talking about. But of course, time was not on their side.

“Come. Let us hurry.” Mekani took her hand again.

They swiftly covered the distance to the camp and true, the person in the flame was Mayo. But no, he wasn’t in the flame. He was the flame. His body had become one giant rock in human form, cracked in several places as the fire burned.

Dogo rounded the corner to Mekani’s side.

“What happened? What aroused him?” Mekani asked the big man.

“I don’t know. I came back here to ensure the prisoner was intact and all was well. Then I saw him. What do we do?”

“We kill the prisoner.” Kubu said, coming up from behind. His face was grim and he had burns on his chest and arms; injuries he sustained from trying to engage Mayo.

“Kubu!” A frightened Deba ran to his side, examining the burns. “What… What…”

“The prisoner.” He said again, disengaging from her touch. “We kill him.”

For the first time since the commotion, they looked at the Zulu warrior. He wasn’t asleep. His eyes were wide open and he laughed at them.

“What have you done?” Mekani asked, his brows creased.

The warrior replied and afterwards, his laughter increased. Whatever he said sent Mekani into rage. He pulled out the sword from the scabbard around his waist and started for the prisoner. But Mayo stood in the way. He towered over Mekani and roared like a wild beast.

“Mayo, Mayo. It is me. Mekani. Don’t let him use you.”

In response, Mayo raised one big hand and swung it against his leader.

“No!” Mekani heard Deba’s voice as the force lifted him off the ground, his view of Mayo replaced by trees and moonlight, before crashing hard against the lower trunk of a big tree. He groaned, writhing in agony. His contact with Mayo earned him severe burns across his chest.

Deba and Kubu reached his side in a flash. “Mekani! Mekani!!” They chorused randomly, while making sure he was ok.

Kubu turned him over gently and examined him, to ensure no bones were broken.

“Mekani, Mekani please stay with me.” Debate begged, trying to keep him conscious.

The prisoner laughed even harder. He was obviously enjoying what was happening.

Trying to put Mekani’s condition out of his head, Dogo stood face to face with Mayo. “Mayo! We can’t fight you. No one can. But you have to try and control it. You can control this. You have controlled it in the past. Please try.”

Mayo took two steps forward and bent low, “Arrrrrrrr!!!” He roared, releasing black fumes all over Dogo’s face and challenging him to a fight.

A short while later, Mekani, with assistance from Kubu, got to his feet. He staggered forward to join Dogo.

“You should rest, Mekani.” Dogo said.

“No. I want to know how the prisoner found out about Mayo. I want to know how he triggered his power.” He turned to the warrior and asked. But the warrior kept laughing.

“Maybe if we kill him, whatever he is doing will stop. Mayo will be Ok.” Kubu insisted.

“He will not.” A female voice emerged from the surrounding darkness, a short distance away from camp

Scared, Deba moved quickly to join the men. They looked around the camp. Dogo drew out his sword and so did Kubu. Surely they were not alone. And whatever was happening with Mayo was caused by someone yet seen.

“Who are you? Show yourself.” Dogo ordered.

Gradually, men dressed the same as the Zulu general emerged in their numbers from the shadows, into the light. They formed a large circle around Mekani and his men, totally out numbering them. Their leader however, was a woman. Rafia covered her shoulders down to her abdomen and from her waist down to her knees. A gigantic structure rested on her head. At closer look, they noticed it was the head of a dead Shumba. She stood with so much authority, holding on to her spear. Its sharp head dug firmly into the ground. She could pass for a warrior queen.

One of the warriors made his way around and started to untie the Zulu general from the tree that had become his companion. The prisoner laughed some more and spoke in his native tongue. Mekani eyed him angrily. Deba and the men knew nothing about what he had said, but one thing was sure. The prisoner was right. His people truly found him. And now they had to fight to the death or be taken captives.

“I will rather die in battle. than let you take me prisoner.” Mekani said to the queen.

“That is not your choice to make.” The woman said, laughing wickedly. “You should have thought about these consequences when you decided to capture our general. No. Their general.” She gestured at her men, “My son.” She hit her chest.

“How was I to know he was your son? I only wanted to know why you bring your war here.” Mekani said. “We have not harmed him or treated him bad.”

That is good to know.”

“Let Mayo go free.” Dogo demanded, as he was totally uninterested in their argument about who did or did not do what, even though it was a comfort that the supposed Zulu queen could speak their dialect.

“No. I won’t.” She replied, daring him to take action. “He is coming with me, after he has killed all of you. When I discovered my son missing, I searched for him, spiritually. The gods were kind enough to not only lead me to him, but to also reveal what you have in your party. A fire breathing monster who can be controlled simply by manipulating his head. You knew this all along. So why didn’t you control his mind and use him for your protection? Instead you let him lie dormant like a nobody in your camp.”

“I let him be a free man. To do as he pleases.” Mekani spoke. “I will never control him. And be warned, the flames hurt him. The more you leave him in this state, the more he hurts.” He raised his voice a notch higher.

“Good. I’ll use him for my battles as quickly as possible, before he dies.”

The prisoner’s binds soon came off. Being free, he moved first to hug and thank his mother. Then he turned to face Mekani, while speaking his command to his soldiers. But his mother stopped him.

“No need to shed even a drop of blood that belongs to our men. Not when our new friend can do it.” She turned her eyes on Mayo and began to chant some inaudible incantations. The chant started at a slow pace, but the tempo gradually picked up. The queen mother’s iris and pupils rolled off, making her look like a god with white eyes.

Mayo, whose flames had leaped to the surrounding trees, thereby burning them and lighting up the camp, turned to his men, roaring. His roar soon became grunts coming in short pants. Then he raised both hands up, ready to give each man a final death blow.

Deba was scared and confused about everything that was going on. Mayo was after all, not just the team’s cook. He was more. He was powerful than all the others put together. He had enough fire to consume whole villages and kingdoms. But no, he had not done so. In fact, he had chosen to pass himself off as a simple man who enjoyed preparing special meals.

She ought to be saying her last prayers to Osanobua and olokun. She was supposed to start imagining what life after death was like. She was supposed to start planning an after death reunion with her father and Ere. But it was not so. For some unknown reasons, her thoughts went to the discussion she had with Mayo earlier. He had said that his magic ingredients for increasing the size of their meal was invented by Juba. Somehow, she believed Juba must be responsible for his fire power too. There just had to be a connection.

With his hands still raised, Deba moved from behind the men and stood in front of Mayo.

“Deba… What are you doing?” Mekani tried to pull her back behind him but she slapped his hands off.

“Juba” she called out to Mayo. “Juba invented your magic for good reasons. Not for you to slaughter your own.” She looked at him, determined to get her message across. “Juba wants us alive, Mayo. You can’t go against him. He is your god.”

It took a while. But the grunting stopped. Mayo stopped. His eyes lingered on the delicate figure before him for a while longer. Then his hands came down, slowly.

“Kill them! Kill them!!” The Zulu queen ordered. She took few steps forward, trying to conceal her surprise and disappointed. Obviously, she was angry at Deba’s intrusion and Mayo’s sudden reluctance to strike. She controlled him. She was in his head dishing out her commands. He was supposed to obey only her commands.

Mayo groaned loudly and mentally fought the voice in his head asking him to kill. The mention of Juba had ignited something in him; something that made him remember where his loyalties lay. But still, the voice in his head was strong. It was over powering. When he could not fight the queen’s orders anymore, he raised his hands up again.

“Juba.” Mekani called, following Deba’s example. He had seen the effect the name had on his monster friend and he was determined to follow that line. “Juba! If this is the end of us, then let it happen. If it is not. Then stop it. Deba lies at risk too.”

To Mekani and Deba, it felt like forever. But it was only a few minutes later that Mayo put his hands down. The fight was gone from him. He fell heavily on his knees, raised his gaze to the night sky and then gave a very loud cry. The fire quelled and gradually, he retuned to size. He was naked. The fire had dissolved his loin cloth. Without a moment’s hesitation, Deba rushed to his side. She took off her cape and covered his nakedness with it.

For a moment, there was absolute silence.

“I see Juba is on your side.” The queen spoke first. “Even though you called his name, I never thought that he would hear you, let alone answer. I serve Juba. It was he who gave me the gifts I used in re-building our kingdom and the one I used in controlling your friend. He is our god and we serve him. But here, he turned against us, for your sake. Who are you really?”

“Me? I’m just a man.” Mekani spoke, moving to stand in front of her. His fist tightened around the hilt of his sword “But that woman behind me, is more.”

They talked a while longer. Mekani did most of the talking and most times, in their language.

Deba, with Kubu and Dogo’s help, carried Mayo a short distance away from the scene. Already burnt leaves and tiny branches fell from the burning trees. Even the Zulus had to move backwards.

Mayo’s burnt rocky body had started to heal and return to normal. But Deba didn’t want to leave him alone. She sat by him, patting his head. Since Mayo didn’t kill them, the Zulu warriors will attack. She was almost sure of it. But if by some stroke of luck they survive the Zulu attack, she was going to find out more about Mayo the cook, now Mayo the fire giant. How come she hadn’t seen that he was more? She never saw how he lighted the camp fires, but he was always so efficient with it.

“Princess.” Mekani’s voice cut into her thoughts. She looked up to see him standing before her with the Zulu queen.

“He said your name is Deba?” She spoke, a little more subdued than expected.

“Yes.” Deba confirmed.

Words fail to describe her surprise, when she saw the queen go on her knees before her and bow; her head touching the sand. All the Zulu warriors, including the general, once held captive, followed their queen’s example.

Deba’s brows creased. Her breathing and heart beat stopped, temporarily. The same people who just tried to kill her and the men, were now bowing before her.

She looked up at Mekani for an explanation. But he said nothing. She could read nothing from his expression, save for a grim face and something that looked like guilt.

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