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.
To be continued...
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