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.
To be continued...
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