The fish was tasty. The most delicious she had ever eaten. Never in her life had she eaten fish the way she ate that morning. She was sure, as she ate the last fleshy part of the fish, that the men didn't just catch a fish and roast it. They definitely added some spices. She licked her lips while her eyes wondered to the fire place. There were some leaves below the spot the fish once hung from, leaves that also happened to have been roasted with the fish but fell off when it was turned. There were other bigger leaves, wrapped neatly. One of the men took his precious time arranging the wrapped leaves inside a small animal skin pouch.
"What are those?" She asked, licking her fingers.
The man looked up at her, "Spices. You don't expect us to eat tasteless meals, do you?"
"No." She wiped her lips with the back of her hand. The other men had since left after eating. She heard them say something about going to spy the road. But for this man to have stayed back and taken care of the spices, he was certainly not in the team to fight or hunt, just to cook. He was more calm and more relaxed than the others. She felt she could make friends with him and by a stroke of luck, get some information about the team. "My name is Deba. What is your name?" She asked.
"I'm Mayo, the team's cook."
"I thought as much. Thanks for the fish, Mayo." She smiled at him. He smiled back.
"So, where are you from? And how did your friends find me?" She asked.
"We are from a far away land and we just found you in time." He said.
That answer wasn't good enough. She asked more questions. She needed to know who they were, where they came from and where they were going. Did she have to go with them? Or would they take her home first? But Mayo said nothing. It was like he had been instructed not to talk to her. He smiled at her lightly, bowed his head in her direction and then retuned to keeping his spices in his pouch.
Deba knew she wasn't going to get anything out of him. When a man decided to be silent, nothing could make him talk; save for a naked woman in his arms or a jar of palmwine to his lips. She didn't have any of that to offer. She got up, dusted the sand off her body and walked to the river. She stepped in and washed the fish off her hands and her mouth. Her clothings were still wet and heavy. She felt uncomfortable. But again, she remembered her situation. If only Askia Ture had been kind enough to throw out her belongings too. She sighed. Izogie came to mind. She couldn't say how far they had travelled, but she feared for her cousin. She wondered how Yetu and Yuwa would take the news of how their daughter and sister had been treated. She didn't care how Oba Ezomo would feel. He could die of heart attack for all she cared. But not Yuwa, or Yetu. They were kind souls and bad news shouldn't have any business with them. But then, they all knew Esu respected no one. Kind or not. In fact, he seemed to favour the wicked more.
If only she could get hundreds of warriors and storm the Songhai. Askia Ture and his crazy Daoud of a son would know for sure that they messed with the wrong chief maid. But where would she get warriors? She could not return to Utho Era without Izogie. Yetu would die of heartbreak. Just like her mother would have, if the dada man hadn't been a rescuer, instead of a killer.
"Where are you mama?" She asked out loud, wondering how far she had gone with Duefe. Were they at Nala already? Were they received well? Was her mother at peace? No. Not peace. Even if her mother arrived Nala safely, she would still worry day and night over her only child.
"We need to move now. The road is clear." Her thoughts were disrupted as the other men returned to camp. The dada haired man addressed Mayo, while the others picked up their pouches and swords housed in leather scabbards.
Deba stepped out of the water and from her distance, admired the objects. Those were not cheap scabbards. Only wealthy men had such. But again, who was to say the men had not ambushed rich merchants and stolen from them?
"Are you going to stand there all day? Or are you going to get moving?" The man asked, his eyes fixed on her.
"I will move. But first, I need to know where you are taking me." Deba said, moving to stand in front of him. He seemed to be their leader so definitely, he had the answers to all her questions. But she didn't like the soft looks he gave her. Like he had known her carnally or like he owned her. Something was definitely wrong. If the longing she saw in his eyes ever resulted to even a thought of rape, she'd bite off his manhood and render him useless forever. "Where are we going? I need an answer." She demanded sharply.
"I'm taking you home." He finally answered. Her razor tongue and sharp demands reminded him of harsh queens in distant lands. Queens he'd rather not think about.
"Home?" Her eyes narrowed. "Do you know my land?"
"Not your home, Princess. My home. There is someone there that wants to meet you."
A voice screamed in her head. Don't go. It could be a trap. Don't go! You're free now, just run home. "I thought you were taking me to my home?" She asked instead, ignoring the voice in her head. Oh don't just stand there and ask questions. The voice continued. Run Deba. Run for safety.
"You will go home." The man replied, "But first, someone wants to see you."
"I will go home. But first, I need to find my way to the Songhai, not your village. I need to find my cousin and I need to..."
"You'll die before you even get close." He said, sternly. "The Songhai borders are heavily guarded, so is the capital, Gao. You can't just walk in without Askia Ture knowing."
"I could sneak in." She remained determined.
"Not even an earth worm can sneak into Gao unnoticed." He insisted. "Besides, if you really want to help your cousin, then you will come with us to see this person. But if you don't feel up to it," He stretched open palms to the forest path, "You can be on your way. My orders did not include forcing you against your will."
Deba looked in the direction he pointed. The path led into the dark forest; a forest she had been rescued from the night before. Then there was still the issue of the bald Ture guard who chained her last night. If he was truly dead or still alive, she did not know. And she didn't want to take stupid risks. She knew if she ventured into the forest, she could get killed and no one will look for her. Besides, she had no idea where she was or how to find her way back.
"OK," She swallowed, turning back to face him. "I don't have a choice but to go with you. But I will need a bath. I need to change clothes, these ones are too heavy for me. They are wet and uncomfortable."
"Look around you, Princess. We're in the forest. Not your palace." His eyes mocked her.
She frowned. He seemed to know too much about her. Only that she stopped being a princess after her father died. And since then, no one had called her that. Maybe this person he wanted her to see was an oracle. Maybe the oracle sent them to find her. Maybe the oracle also told them all they needed to know about her. She sighed. But that didn't give him a right to mock her. "You don't have to mock me." She told him.
"I do." He insisted, the longing in his eyes gone. "You're sounding like a spoilt Princess. "Instead of whining and carrying on like a horse crying for freedom, help Mayo gather the rest of the fish. Its good food and we can't let it go to waste."
"Where are your horses?" Deba asked, ignoring his suggestion. She wouldn't be their maid. They helped her. Thanks. But that was it. Nothing more. After all, no one could tell what her fate would be in their hands.
"There are none. We can't risk drawing attention to ourselves. Now be a good Princess and help Mayo." He walked away from her and approached the other men, certainly to discuss some issues.
It was past mid-day. The sun blazed down on the five of them as they made their way to wherever their home was. Since morning, they had walked quietly in bush paths and talked in low tones, looking around carefully to ensure they weren't followed or that they not mistakenly run into slave catchers.
Afternoon soon arrived and met them walking through paths that snaked up and down a variety of wooded hills and valleys. Out side of the snake path and tall trees, the rest of the land was usurped by low shrubs and a few tall grasses.
Deba was finding it very difficult to continue. She was out of breath just trying to keep up with the men. Unlike her, the men were agile, light on the ground and climbed the hills like it was nothing to them. Unfortunately, her ankle length wrapper prevented her legs from moving the way she would have loved. Her chief maid clothing turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. Well, it was no news to her. Chief maids were always cursed. Deba, although almost out of breath, did her best to keep going. What provoked her was the fact that the men saw her distress but did nothing to slow down.
The party were at the foot of the fourth hill when she finally voiced her discomfort with climbing another hill. The men chuckled.
"Please .... Mekani." She was totally out of breath. "We just came down from one hill. At least let me rest. I can't take another step." She had spent her quiet moments learning all their names as they talked among themselves.
"I thought you were brave and strong." Mekani, the dada haired man teased. "You nearly ruined my chances of being a father in the nearest future. Any woman that brave should be able to climb hills without complains."
Deba eyed him from where she stood, bent. Two hands rested on her thighs, supporting her weight. "I'm a woman used to going to the stream to fetch water, clean house and cook decent meals. I don't go running up and down hills."
"Ok then." He smiled mischievously. "I think I have a solution. Dogo!" Mekani called. The bigger man amongst them with unkept afro answered, stepping forward. "Is it mid-day yet?"
"Yes" his deep bass was low and threatening, even though he was smiling. He seemed to know what his leader was up to.
You think you can manage with a little weight lifting till after sunset? You know time isn't on our side and home is still very, very far away."
"You know I'll do anything you ask me to do, brother." He grinned, flexing his muscles.
"Don't even dare!" Deba looked at him wide eyed. Slapping and kicking Mekani was one thing. Dogo was another. He was huge. One slap from those wide palms could send someone to the great beyond. There was no way she could fight him and there was no way she would allow such embarrassment. She turned to run but he caught up with her and whisked her over broad shoulders like a sack.
"Put me down!" She screamed, raining blows on his broad back. When he wouldn't bulge, she sank her teeth into the flesh on his upper back.
"Ahhhhh!!!" Dogo screamed, surprising the other men as they didn't know what had happened till they noticed he was struggling to get her off him. They moved to help and by some serious pulls and slaps, were able to get her teeth off Dogo's back. Dogo threw her down and used one hand to touch his back. He bled a little where her teeth marks were.
"You human eater!" He was going to slap her but Mekani blocked him.
"Don't dare. Let us help you slap her." He told Dogo. "You could kill her. Kubu!" he called the third man. Help me hold her down."
"I'm going to hold her down myself," Dogo insisted. "Its my back she almost chewed off." He knelt on the ground beside her and turned her face down with her hands held together at her back.
Deba struggled and cried and begged to be left alone. But Mekani only took out a small knife from his pouch and ripped off three pieces from her cape. He used one piece to tie her hands behind her. The second tied her legs. The third, which happened to be a little bigger than the others, was used around her mouth, turning her cries and plea into muffled curses. Who did they think they were to be treating her the way they now did? If her father were alive, no one would dare touch her. Let alone manhandle her.
Her muffled rants and curses meant nothing to the men. Dogo simply carried her over his shoulders and headed up the hill. Kubu and Mayo tried not to laugh at her situation. Mekani on the other hand, remained expressionless.
By night fall, they arrived at a hill top bordering two villages, one on both sides. It was the seventh hill they had climbed for the day. The moon was out in it's full glory. But thanks to the shadows of the surrounding trees, they could not easily be spotted by man or animal.
While Dogo and Mayo went ahead, taking an alternative route that led to an old hidden cave on the hill, Mekani and Kubu proceeded down the hill to the first village. They were going to try to get food from the villagers.
At the cave, Dogo put Deba down and went about assisting Mayo to gather sticks for a camp fire. She felt uncomfortably, not being able to move. And she felt terrible about the way they had treated her like a common sack. To her, it showed they lacked respect for her and she decided it was best to leave. An escape from their tough and rough ways would do her good. She tried to undo her binds, not for the first time, but they wouldn't come off. She was still at it when Dogo and Mayo returned with roughly chopped woods. They set up the woods and were starting to light the fire when Mekani and Kubu appeared.
"No. Don't!" Mekani stopped them.
Dogo looked up at his leader. "What happened?"
"We can't afford to be noticed. There are riders in these parts. Slave masters." He answered. Deba froze. If there were really riders around, her escape would not be as easy as she had planned in her head.
"In the villages?" Dogo frowned
"They are slave villages." That was Kubu, "Not free people."
"The riders brought in more slaves and they seem to be preparing them for something big. A battle, I think." Mekani reasoned. "We have to make do with the left over fish and thank the gods for the full moon."
The idea of eating left over fish didn't sit well with any of them, not after a whole day's journey on foot. But there was no better option. Mekani moved to undo Deba's binds. After the binds were undone, the men sat and ate in the dark cave. Deba ate too, but her eyes lingered at the moving shadows outside the cave. She had to escape. She wasn't going to give the men a chance to humiliate her again.
As the night progressed and her companions had slept, Deba lay still in her position, watching and listening. Crickets sang outside and night birds whistled occasionally. Aside from that, the atmosphere was quiet. After their quick dinner, two of the men had gone out to patrol the hilla and keep watch. She didn't know which two left, but she was set to go too.
Quietly, she got to her feet and then tip toed out of the cave. The moon was overhead in the clear sky and surrounded my countless dots of stars. Its light was a source of encouragement for her stupid plan. Although tall tree shades reduced the moon's light, casting shadows in the sparse woods. Soft wind blew and Deba thought she heard noise in the distance. Her thoughts went to the slave masters Mekani had talked about earlier. She didn't know if they would help her or take her captive too. But she would try her luck with them. Better still, she could just steal one of their horses and run off.
Inhaling sharply and gathering her courage, she turned west and had only take two steps when she bumped into a hard figure. She cursed under her breath for not looking where she was going.
"And where are you going?" A voice breathed against her ears. It was Mekani.
"To....to ...to pass out water." She lied, pulling back gently.
"You fancy being captured and taken as a slave?" He placed his hands on both her shoulders and pulled her back to him, holding her firmly against the length of his hard frame.
She could feel the steady rise of the bulge between his legs. On a normal day, her senses would run wild. After all, he was a fine man. But the day was not normal, and neither was her situation. "Get your hands off me!" She ordered, trying fruitlessly to pull away. "Let me go. A slave here or a slave there, it doesn't make any difference."
"So you admit you were trying to run off." His hands didn't relax, they tightened.
"After the way you and your men treated me today, I have every right to run off."
"You were tired, we helped you. You're the one who has treated us badly." He lowered his head to her neck and inhaled the scent of her dried sweat, causing her to shiver. "You nearly ruined my balls and then you sank your teeth into Dogo's back."
"I wouldn't have done that if he had treated me with more respect." She said, pulling her head away and forcing him to look up. He's eyes glittered in the dark and for a brief moment, she remembered he was half man, half hound. "I have every right to leave."
"When you chose to come with us, you chose to be under my care. Now being a Princess under my care, I am responsible for your safety. You will go back in the cave and sleep." He ordered, softly, as his hands relaxed.
"I won't." She pushed him back and with a well calculated knee jerk, got him again between his legs. Mekani cried out. His hands flew to cover the space between his legs. Deba took off, running blindly through the woods.
Mekani's cries got to the other men. For they woke up and came out. Only to see their leader on the sand, writhing in agony. They tried to help him but he pointed in the direction Deba took and asked them to go after her instead.
The men hadn't gone too far when they saw Dogo approaching with Deba slung over his shoulders. Sure, he had ripped off pieces of cloth from her cape again and tied both her hands, legs and mouth with it.
To be continued...
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