The night air was icy cold. The moon hid behind a moving curtain of thick dark clouds as the heavens opened and poured down, heavily. Thunders rolled and lightening flashed across the sky, striking down several trees within its reach. The wet cold night was silent, save for the heavy rain and the distant howling of hounds in the dense woods.
Deba, clothed in a red velvet wrapper, knelt in the rain. Even in kneeling position, her hands were stretched out on both sides and chained to the big trees flanking her. The rain fell mercilessly on her. Not even her red cape, made from the same velvety material as her wrapper, could prevent her from getting wet. The hood covering her head was no different.
The cold ate into her flesh, causing her teeth to make a continuous rattling sound. She tried to understand why she found herself again, in the same position she had found herself several times.
For Deba, being in the rain didn't bother her as much as being chained in it. However, being chained in the rain didn't bother her as much as the foot steps approaching her spot. Her breathing became rapid with the closeness of each step. As her assailant drew closer, he held down his sword against the body of the huge stone by the side of the small clearing, dragging it along so that it scrapped at the hard surface. His actions got Deba scared even more. She knew her death had finally come and she was ready to face it, even though she knew deep in her heart that something was not right.
The man stopped in front of her. Deba raised her head slightly to look at him. He was tall, bare chested and had rippling muscles underneath his dark taut skin. His hair fell long over his shoulders. They seemed twisted. He wore dark pants over dark sandals that looked worn out. It was the little her eyes could make out in the dark.
"Please." Deba trembled as water dripped from her face and soaked hood. The cold wasn't helping matters either. "Don't kill me. I haven't done anything wrong."
"No, you haven't." The man spoke. "But then, the person who sent me didn't say you did anything wrong. This is a lesson you should not forget, Deba. Never trust anyone."
Somehow, his rich baritone reminded her of her father and she wondered why.
Without another word, he raised his sword and swiftly brought it down. Deba closed her eyes and cried out. She screamed until she jerked out of the nightmare. Her mother, Pawo, and her cousin, Yuwa, were sitting by her side when she woke up. Worry creased their foreheads as they tried calming her down.
"Its only a bad dream." Pawo said, patting her daughter's hair backwards in a rhythmic pattern and saying soothing words to her ears. All through the night, her Deba had been restless, drifting in and out of unpleasant dreams. Unfortunately, it was the same dream occurring over and over again. She wondered if this was the same or another, because her daughter had never cried out from her nightmares before, no matter what. "Relax my baby. You are safe." She said, pulling Deba's head to rest on her shoulder.
"But he was going to kill me, mama." Deba shivered visibly, more from the cold, as heavy rain lashed out against the earth. The rumbling sounds of thunder greeted her ears and she knew lightening would soon follow. It was quite clear that the heavy rain storm raging outside had followed her into her dream, making her already bad situation worse.
"Who?" Her cousin, Yuwa, asked. She had actually agreed to spend the night with Deba but with the situation, she too was very worried. "Who was going to kill you, sister?"
"The same man I've been seeing in my dreams." Deba replied, remembering the scene she had just woken up from.
"Was it exactly the same dream you had again?" Pawo asked, pulling back to look at her daughter.
"Yes, mama." She said, almost in a whisper. "But this time, he talked. He said I should never trust anyone. He said that the one who sent him to kill me knows that I am innocent. I can't help but feel like someone I trust so much is about to hurt me."
"As long as I am alive." Pawo reassured her. "No one will hurt you. I have lost your father and your brother. I won't lose you too. That person will have to kill me first."
"You can count on me too, Deba." Yuwa said. "I won't allow anyone hurt you either. You mean too much to me. You're the sister I should have had. Not that annoying Izogie." She pulled Deba into her embrace and Pawo joined them, placing comforting hands on both their shoulders.
Deba relaxed a bit. She had wonderful people around her who were willing to protect her. But she couldn't shake off the fear. Ever since she lost her father, and then her brother, things had gone south. Her life and that of her mother's was never the same again. If only her father had not gone back to the farm in that heavy storm, all for a royal sword. If only her brother, Ere, had not sneaked out of the palace and followed him. Maybe, just maybe, her life and that of her mother's would be different and better. But it was not so. The two men in their life had disappeared, leaving them all by themselves.
At first, knowing the kind of husband she had, Pawo was sure Ezodo would return, and with Ere too. Ezodo was a strong man who had led the Bini warriors, and later on, the warriors of Utho Era, into many victorious battles. There was no way a mere rain storm was going to kill him. But after Ezodo and Ere didn't return the next day, and the day after, Pawo had knelt before Oba Ezomo and begged him to send some warriors to find her husband and son.
He agreed. He sent five foot warriors to the farm lands. But they returned, saying they didn't find Ezodo or Ere. Not even Enoma, Ezodo's body guard was found.
Pawo dropped on the ground and wept bitterly. So great was her grief that she passed out. Deba cried and rolled on the ground. Not only were her father and brother gone, her mother had plans to leave her too. Lucky for them, Oba Ezomo sent for his best medicine priest to care for Pawo. A lot of herbs were applied, accompanied by inaudible incantations. He succeeded in reviving Pawo and keeping her stable.
The days and weeks that followed were only for mourning. At one time, Pawo had insisted on going to the farm lands with her daughter, so as to look around very well. Oba Ezomo refused, saying she was only going to cause herself more grief.
"There is nothing more than what I'm feeling already." She pleaded. "It would be good to find their bodies at least, and bury them properly, with all the rites befitting to men of royal status."
Oba Ezomo knew she was right. After all, Ezodo was royalty in every way; so was Ere, the first prince in the kingdom. He agreed to her plea and allowed her go to the farm lands, accompanied by four palace guards and five foot warriors. With swords hanging in the scabbard around their waists and a long spear in one hand, they set out. Pawo and Deba were transported on a wooden carriage that was carried by the palace guards; two in front and two behind.
They arrived at the farm lands at noon, having set out late in the morning. A long search was immediately carried out. Pawo joined the search, and so did Deba. During the search, little Deba came across large foot prints. Her father had taught her how to read prints on the ground, be they human or animal foot prints. And from the ones she saw, it revealed that they belonged to a man. The owner most definitely threw his weight on one foot, more than the other. The distinctive decline of sand around the foot prints showed that it was possible the owner staggered, due to injury or weariness. But then, what if the owner was her father? What if he was wounded or tired? She followed the trailed of the foot prints and it led her to a nearby bush. But that was her dead end. No more prints to follow and nothing of human, dead or alive could be found in the bush.
The long search was fruitless. Both mother and daughter cried all the way back to Ede, the main city.
"Is it possible they were attacked and eaten by wild animals?" Her mother asked once, during the journey back home. She was far in thoughts and definitely, her thoughts were running wild. Deba only cried some more.
Oba Ezomo did his best to comfort his brother's wife and daughter. He didn't kick them out of his brother's compound in the palace and he didn't let anyone treat them bad either. He was nice and way more accommodating than Pawo had ever given him credit for. But sometimes, the way he looked at them gave Pawo goose bumps. It was almost like he was mourning, but feeling guilty too.
"You look guilty. Do you know anything about my husband's death?" Pawo asked him one hot afternoon, under the mango tree directly in front of Ezodo's personal quarters. Oba Ezomo had come to check on her and he had that expression in his eyes again.
However, he was taken aback by her question. He stood up from the bench she had offered him and frowned at her. "I left my royal stool under the meeting tree, and my palace seat in the royal court, all to come and check on you. Is that my crime? The only reason I feel the way you say I feel, is because I do feel that way. If I didn't allow my brother have a farm, all this would not have happened. But it doesn't explain why you asked such a question, woman. Are you saying I had a hand in his death? Have you lost only your respect for the crown, or have you lost your head too?" He barked.
"Please forgive me, my Oba." She prostrated, not daring to look up at him. "Its a mistake I won't make again. I swear by all our gods. Please forgive me. My mind runs wild these days and I keep suspecting everyone."
Oba Ezomo softened. He didn't wish to treat her badly as she had already been through a lot. Losing a husband and a son in the same day was truly painful enough. "Get up. You are my brother's wife. That makes you my family. I will pretend like none of this happened here today."
"Thank you, my king." Pawo slowly sat up on her mat and Oba Ezomo left, never to return to his brother's compound again. Instead, he sent his head wife to check up on the widow and her daughter. Also, he ensured they lacked nothing.
The years had gone by. 8 years, actually. They still missed their father, husband, brother and son. But they had moved on. Pawo didn't seem to have aged much. She still wore her hair in short braids and still maintained her aura of dignity as Ezodo's wife. The only difference in her appearance was her hardened expression. Throughout the eight years, she had faced a lot as a single mother. She had made decisions she once left for her husband to make. She had put up with insults and unfriendly stares from people. And not wanting to depend solely on Oba Ezomo's generosity, she went to her husband's farm everyday with Deba and some of her servants. But Oba Ezomo always sent one or two palace guards along to look after her and her daughter.
The worst part of her ordeal was with her sister in-laws. She had heard enough gossips from Oba Ezomo's wives, especially the third, fourth and fifth. All they did was gossip about her. They managed to convince themselves that Olokun must really be displeased with Pawo or Esu was truly at work. They couldn't find any other reason why a healthy father and son could just die in one night. And to think that Ezodo pampered his wife? He made every woman in Utho Era jealous of her and wish they were in Pawo's position. Now he was gone, and she was left to suffer alone.
So yes, they believed their theory was right. Either Olokun was angry at Pawo, or Esu was dealing her some serious blows. The third wife made an addition. Pawo was a coven member. She was one of the witches in the kingdom and it was possible she had sold out her husband and son to her coven.
It was Oba Ezomo's first wife, Yetu, that stepped in several times and warned her mates to watch what they say, else she would report the matter to their husband.
Pawo was grateful for her intervention. But she tried her best to stay away from them. All she cared about was her daughter, as she was the only family left for her. Her parents were long dead, even before she married Ezodo. And being the only child, she had no siblings.
As the years passed by, Oba Ezomo noticed Pawo everyday. He sent her gifts; gifts that only prospective suitors sent to the women they had eyes on. This act of his made his other wives more jealous of their sister in-law, and their hatred for her increased daily.
"She has killed her husband, and has now set eyes on our own." The fourth wife complained one time, to Pawo's hearing. "If our Oba marries her, he will die!"
"Don't worry." Pawo replied. "I have no wish to marry your Oba. I respect my husband's memory too much to do that."
"Good! So get your evil eyes away from him." The fifth spat at her.
Pawo has become too heart hardened to care about what they did or did not do. They could stone themselves on the white washed wall for all she cared, it was their business. The reasons she wouldn't marry the Oba was because she was not interested in letting go of her husband's memory and she couldn't just think of Ezomo as a husband.
Deba, on her own part, had grown into a beautiful young lady. Her carriage was of grace and respect. But then, she too had hardened, as she was also forced to face hard circumstances with her mother. Going to the farm used to be once in a week for her, and she did very little work there. But since her father's death and her mother's resolve to continue with the farm, it had become an everyday affair. Then she had her chores to face, as well as putting up with her Uncle's wives and their unruly children.
All the girls her age, and even less, had long married and had children of their own. But not her. She wasn't interested in such things yet, neither did she like the fact that Oba Ezomo had taken an interest in her mother. He ought to respect her late father. But who was she to tell him so? Deba was only glad that her mother rejected the gifts he sent and made it clear she had no desire to remarry. Besides, who could ever be like her father? No one. So her mother was not interested. Eight peaceful years had passed. If her Uncle wanted the peace to remain, then he had to look elsewhere for a new wife.
Over the years Deba and Yuwa, Yetu's second daughter, had gotten really close. Unfortunately, she didn't seem to blend well with her other cousins. But she was happy with Yuwa. They spent most time together visiting the market place, fetching water from the palace stream and attending history classes at the palace history room with Uzar, the historian. They accompanied their mothers on ceremonial visits, attended the moonlight-play festival and several other festivals together. In Yuwa, Deba found the sister she always wanted. But she still couldn't accept her uncle as her father. She was glad too, that her mother took the same stand. However, the one problem she had put up with over the years, were her nightmares. The nightmares started exactly 5 years after her father and brother had gone missing. At first they were irregular. But as the years progressed, they became constant. The dreams used to come in different forms and with different people, but lately, it was just one man. However, the message remained the same - she was in danger and she was to trust no one. She couldn't help but feel that whatever evil hunted her, was now very close.
If only her papa was alive. She thought, several times, as she now did in her cousin and mother's protective embrace, He would kill anyone who so much as thought of hurting her.
"We should go to the river later today." Yuwa said, pulling back to look at her. "Maybe we can make some sacrifices to Olokun for protection."
"Yes. You do that." Pawo supported. "I will pour some libations here to easy the spirits of our ancestors."
"I would love to, but there is no time. I have to go to the palace for preparations." Deba said. "I volunteered to be the chief maid for Izogie's oronmwen."
"You did what?" Her mother asked, shocked. She slowly pulled back to look at her daughter. "What are you talking about?"
"I volunteered to be Izogie's chief maid, mama. Her oronmwen comes up in a few days."
"How could you do such a thing? You want to kill me?" Pawo broke down. "Now I see why your dreams are persistent. You are close to your death because you're calling it with your own hands."
"Mama its not so, please relax."
"Your mother has a point." Yuwa supported. "You know what happens to chief maids. You've seen some of their mutilated bodies."
"I know." Deba admitted "But I can't die. No one will kill me."
"You just had a nightmare. One that has been on for years and is suddenly persistent." Pawo complained. "I see you're really trying the patience of the gods. You are not going to be a chief maid, you hear me? Not for Izogie's oronmwen or anybody else's. You're not!"
"Don't you dare mama me! You want to kill me?" She cried, "When you know you're all I have left? All?"
"Mama." Deba got out of bed to hug her mother.
"Don't touch me." Pawo pulled away. "You're not going to be a chief maid and this discussion is over. You better tell your cousin to go find herself another maid with a death wish." She stormed out of the room.
Deba turned pleading eyes on Yuwa.
"Don't look at me." Yuwa threw her hands up in frustration. "Izogie might be the most annoying person in the whole of Utho Era, but she is my sister. I should be happy that you are the one who will care for her because I trust you will do it well. But I don't want you to. Your mother has a point, Deba. Chief maids hardly make it out of the ceremony unscathed. You can't do this. Consider your mother. Do you really want to have curses placed on you! Or evil witches hunting you?"
"Yuwa, its not like I wish death on myself or that I want to kill my mother. I'm doing this because it will help me change environment for a while and clear my head. Besides, it's not all the time witches or evil medicine men or bounty hunters have evil plans for brides."
"You chose the wrong idea to help clear your head. This decision will kill you, and your poor mother. Tell me. How do you expect her to survive if you die?"
Deba sighed and dropped heavily on the soft bed. Thank the gods it was stuffed with fresh feathers. Her flesh, hard against the wooden frame, would have hurt badly. Not that she would notice. Her running emotions wouldn't let her. She never really thought about how her mother would feel if she volunteered to be her cousin's chief maid. True, they were living in dangerous times and a lot of chief maids had either been killed or cursed, so much so that they ran mad. But those chief maids were maids to commoners. Izogie was no commoner. She was Oba Ezomo's eldest child, a true princess about to be married to a really handsome Prince all the way from Gao, the Songhai capital. She decided she was going to have to find a way to ease her mother's fears. But no, she wasn't giving up the idea of being her cousin's chief maid. That was totally out of the question.