Panting above the sound of running feet and the tah tah cries of the horse men behind them, Pawo ran straight up the hill with Duefe. They reached the top and began their search for a hideout.
Their chocolate brown sandaled feet, dried from long hours under the scotching sun, found their way through bush paths that led to nowhere in particular. They just needed an exit; any exit or hideout.
Finding no suitable place to hide, the duo headed west. But then, the warriors were almost at the foot of the hill. Withing minutes, they reached the hill, dismounted their horses and started to climb.
Duefe and Pawo descended the hill extension at the west, down to the isolated Igungun road. They ran across the open road to the other side usurped by tall trees and grasses. Passersby had always called it, the Igungun forest. It was a place very few dared to venture into.
In the forest, they found a spot between the fat roots of an old tree to hide. Duefe would have loved to go on, not leaving anything to chance. But Pawo was tired and insisted on resting. Having made it this far, they hoped the warriors would abort the search and return to the kingdom.
Evening came. And night soon followed. But thanks to the brightness of the full moon, they could see what was in front of them. Duefe, who had been on the lookout, sighted the warriors descending the hills. He knew better. The only reason they took so long up in the hill was because they had taken their time to comb through every spot. They probably got in touch with the border guards at Uzema to ask if they had seen a man and woman pass through. They left no stone unturned, from east to west. If he was on their team, he would do same. It was what they were thought to do. To be thorough.
Knowing their spot wasn't safe enough, he went back, took Pawo's hand and continued the race. There were five trained warriors on their trail. He was only a palace guard. He stood no chance against them.
Duefe was at the fore front. His eyes scouted the surrounding trees and bushes, looking for another safe place to hide. There was none. No cave, no thick bush, no low tree, no nothing.
One of the warriors caught sight of their movement in the forest and raised alarm. They had earlier spotted the duo from afar when they made their way up the hill. So there was no mistaking it. The movement certainly belonged to the culprits they were after.
The warriors called out to them and made threats. They promised that if the duo didn't turn themselves in, they would show no mercy.
Duefe and Pawo knew better. The warriors had no mercy in them, only the Oba's command. They ran until they emerged from the forest into another open road, close to a small wooden bridge flanked by very tall grasses. They headed for the bridge and were about to step on it. But Duefe stopped. He pulled Pawo back.
"What?" She looked at him, bewildered. They were about to escape. So why was he stopping her?
Duefe said nothing. All he did was stare at the other end of the bridge. Moments passed. Then he sigh in resignation.
"What?" She asked again, impatiently.
"We can't cross here." Duefe pulled her further back.
"But why?" Pawo panicked. "Don't you hear them?" The loud threats of the warriors greeted their ears. "They are close."
"The other side of this bridge is a place of no return for the living, my queen. Only the dead may go and come as they please."
"But..bu..but..." She stammered. "Did we not..did we not pass the Igungun forest?" She reasoned.
"That is different."
Pawo's heart raced. She was in absolute fear. Duefe saw her fear. He moved to comfort her. His hands held her in his embrace and she wept with her face pressed against his shoulder.
This was it then. Duefe looked into the sky. The moon shone brightly but rain clouds had started to gather. It was going to rain. Then what? After a long run, they were as good as dead. He had no choice but to face the warriors. Oba Ezomo was going to have his way with Pawo. A son must be born. And him? He would be hanged, if not beheaded.
They didn't know how long they stood that way. But the warriors finally emerged from the forest and laid eyes on them, standing in each other's embrace as only a man and wife should. They were caught in a deserted road, close to a bridge only the dead could pass. Surely, this was their end.
"I'm sorry I failed you." Duefe whispered into her ears. Pawo's cries increased. "I'm sorry, my queen."
"Abomination!" The first warrior shouted at them. How dare Pawo rested easy in a servant's embrace. He walked briskly toward the duo and forced them apart. His action was greeted by a hard punch from Duefe and a fight ensued. Swords were drawn and the clanging of metals followed.
The other four warriors soon joined in the fight. Duefe was out numbered, five to one. But he was swift enough to take down two warriors. After which, the other three overpowered, disarmed and pushed him to the sand. One of the warriors placed a foot on Duefe chest.
"The Oba wants you found." He said. "He didn't insist that you must be alive. You could be found dead or alive. I choose dead." His finished with a kick against Duefe's stomach and another to the head.
Satisfied, he raised up his sword for a final blow, but Pawo, who had fled into the nearby bush since the fight started, resurfaced and to their surprise, threw herself across Duefe's body on the ground.
"If you kill him then you must kill me too." She spat at the man. Her reward was a sound slap across her cheek. She cried.
"Not yet." Her attacker announced. "We will enjoy taking turns on you before we kill you. But first, the Oba needs a boy from you."
The second warrior moved to pull her off Duefe and when she struggled, he rained slaps across her cheeks and head. "You whore!!" He insulted, pushing her to the ground bedside Duefe. "You couldn't even respect your husband's memory, and you chose a guard over the Oba? Insult!"
"And I'll choose him ten times more and even birth his sons." She fired back. "I will rather lay with Duefe than that insolent bastard you call .. Arrrrr!" She screamed as several slaps greeted her face again. The warrior then resulted to kicks.
Duefe couldn't just lay back and watch. His queen was being battered. He crawled to Pawo's side and rolled on top of her. The kicks and slaps landed on his back and they increased in strength.
"You want to save your lover? You bastard! Let us see how strong you are." All three warriors rained kicks on his back.
Duefe made muffled sounds. He tried to be strong, even when one warrior cut him on the back with a sword. He felt the blood trickle down the side of his body as the beatings continued. Pawo wept beneath him. She cried for all she had made him go through.
The warrior was hell bent in his assault. Why give only small cuts when he could drive his blade through the bastard? He raised up the sword and prepared to pin it into Duefe when a vicious cry from one of the warriors distracted him. He turned around to see what was happening. A second cry followed from the second warrior. And before he had time to think about what was happening, he was crying out for mercy too. He soon went silent like the others. The only sounds that remained were from crickets and night birds.
It was a while later Duefe dared to look around him. The three warriors lay dead in a terrible way. One squashed head, one open stomach and one completely headless body. The head was nowhere to be found. The blood of the dead warriors trickled out and soaked the earth. Duefe got to his feet slowly, wondering what animal or devil could gruesomely take out three men in an instant. He helped Pawo up and together, they examined the horrible corpses.
A rustle in the nearby bush caused them to jump, as their fear increased. Duefe picked up one of the warrior's sword from the ground and pulled Pawo behind him, shielding her from whatever was coming. The rustling continued and eventually, an old woman, bent and dressed in a simple red wrapper, emerged. Her grey hair was woven upward and she moved with the aid of a walking stick. Upon seeing the dead men and the living, she smirked.
"My visions always come true." She squeaked and then smiled, a toothless smile.
"Who are you?" Duefe asked. His sword still set.
"Did you know the dead walks with you?" She asked Pawo, ignoring Duefe's question.
"What do you mean, mama?" Pawo asked, pulling closer to Duefe.
The old woman grinned. "You called me mama. I have not heard that in a long time. Come. Night is here and deadly things do crawl about."
"Where will you take us?" Duefe asked.
"To where you can have shelter." She frowned at Duefe. "If it weren't for the queen, I wouldn't let rude men like you into my abode." She turned and proceeded back the way she came.
Duefe turned to Pawo. "It is late. We don't know what or who lives in this place. We have to go with her."
"Do you trust her? She may have killed all these people."
"I don't trust her. But its better we stay with someone familiar with this region."
They followed the woman to an old compound inside the bush. It looked deserted and hunted. Two mud houses stood in the compound, almost crumbling. Pawo was at first, reluctant. But the elderly woman assured her there was nothing to fear.
"You just need to rest for the night. And so does he." She looked at Duefe. "He is badly wounded." She gave them one of the huts to rest and eat in while she made fire and boiled water for their bath. The night was cold.
It was some time later Pawo lightly squeezed a rag she had put in very warm water heated with herbs. She dabbed at Duefe's injuries with the wet cloth, cleaning out the blood properly and letting the herbal mixture soak into his wounds. Duefe winced. He cried out sometimes. But he let her work.
Pawo couldn't help herself. She cried inwardly at every wince from Duefe. After cleaning both his front and back, she began to apply a white concoction also given to her by the elderly woman. The man was in pains because he chose to defend her to the death. How could she ever repay him? And how could she lay with a man like Ezomo after sending his soldiers to inflict pain on a good man? For crying out loud, Duefe was full of cuts. She hadn't realized the extent of his injuries until they arrived at the old woman's hut. She gave them a lamp and insisted that Duefe be attended to. Duefe insisted he was fine. But on closer look, he was not.
"My queen." Duefe held her hand. And although his body hurt, he managed to sit up. "My queen" he called again. The light from the lamp revealed the worry in his eyes. "You're crying." He said.
It was then Pawo realized she hadn't been crying inwardly. Her eyes were soaked and her tears ran freely down her cheeks.
"My queen please." He begged. "I'm not worth crying over."
Pawo patted his cheeks with one hand and smiled lightly. "You're worth more." She whispered. "You saved my life. You risked everything to follow me and you protected me with your body. You're worth more. Its so unfortunate I can't give it."
A brief silence followed as they stared at each other. Emotions rose between them. Pawo couldn't understand why she suddenly felt like hugging and kissing him. He was her guard and she didn't want to pass herself off as a sex starved widow. It had been what? Over eight years? And she had never wanted any other man, not even Oba Ezomo. What she had with her late husband was deep. Why then would she want a body guard? However, the urge to kiss him grew stronger in her. All she had to do was close her eyes and let it happen. But no way. She had her husband's memory to honor. Ezodo would never approve of betrayal. It was the one thing he hated with passion.
"I will be outside. You should rest." She said instead, then left with the soft cloth in one hand and the bowl of water in the other.
Duefe laid back, trying to understand what had transpired between him and his queen. How dare he even look at her the way he had? The gods would strike him dead if he took advantage of her. But what he felt was strange; it was an intense passion he had never experienced before. All he could think of was crushing her against his hard frame and laying her beneath him. But he wouldn't dare the gods or her late husband. He couldn't.
Outside the hut, Pawo threw away the water from the bowl and spread out the wet cloth on a rope tied from one long stick to the other. She wondered if she was sex starved, or just plain stupid. She had been in control of her hormones all these years. Why now? True, she was grateful to Duefe for his loyalty. But to kiss him? What was she thinking? Ezodo was her man, dead or not. He alone knew how to make love to her senses, then her body. How dared she even think of replacing him, of replacing what they had? The gods could strike her dead for being so wrong.
"You didn't do anything wrong, my dear." She heard the old woman's voice from over her shoulder. Turning around, Pawo saw her bent, but without her working stick. "Your dead knows what he is doing."
"My dead." She scoffed. And then shook her head. "You said that before. What dead are you talking about?"
"The dead that saved you from those warriors. The dead that squashed them for daring to attack his woman and the man who was brave enough to defy the Oba, just to protect the person he loves so dearly. You walk with the dead."
"I have two dead. I hope not three." She thought of Deba.
"I was talking about your husband. And don't worry, when things become clear to your daughter, she would happily accept Duefe as her step father."
Pawo frowned and eyed her wearily. The old woman seemed to know too much about her. All she had to do was read her thoughts and see her history. "You know too much about the people in my life." She quarried.
"Does it worry you that I know too much?"
"Yes. And it worries me that you say my guard should be my daughter's step father. That is so wrong."
"The dead is never wrong. Your husband is here with you. He has been with you ever since you crossed the bothers of Utho Era. I can see him because he let's me see him. And all I have told you, is all he has told me he wants."
What does an old woman know? Pawo wondered. She is very old and living alone. She probably is just trying to play pranks, now that she has someone to play it on. She.... Her thoughts trailed off and she inhaled sharply. She felt a cold touch to her right cheek, like a cold finger was stroking it.
She looked at the elderly woman. "What are you doing?" Her voice was shaky.
"Nothing." She smiled. "It is all the doing of your dead."
"That is not true!" Pawo refused to believe. She rubbed an open palm over the spot so as to wipe off the cold feeling and give warmth to her skin. "This is you. You're manipulating my thoughts. You're taking advantage of the..." Her voice trailed off as she felt a cold arm circle her waist from behind and began to pull her into a cold embrace.
"liefde." She heard the words in her head, then her heart. It was Ezodo's pet name for her, meaning love. Her eyes widened and she inhaled deeply. She turned abruptly and backed away. Her eyes scanned the spot she had stood a few seconds ago, but there was no one there.
"Go back inside." The old woman advised, tenderly. "It has been eight years. Your dead misses you. He yearns for you. Your husband wants to be with you, through your servant friend."
"No. It won't be. The concoction I gave you to use on his wounds is also an opening to his body. Your husband can make love to you without a body. But he wants you to have it physically, so you don't became a mental case just by thinking a spirit sleeps with you."
"Yes. Oblige your husband, my child. He is powerful and he knows what he is doing."
"Even if he wants to use Duefe. The man is in pain. He needs to rest."
"Not anymore. The concoctions totally healed his wounds. Your husband awaits you."
Everything the woman said troubled Pawo. How could her husband, after all these years, suddenly want her? Was he playing games with her? Was this really her husband? Although she was reluctant, Pawo went back into the hut. True to the old woman's words, Duefe was awake and his wounds, healed.
"liefde." He called, when he saw her. And then she knew Duefe was not there. Ezodo was.. Only her husband called her that. And it was the second time in a very short while she had heard the name.
"koning." She replied, meaning my king. It was her own name for Ezodo. "Is that really you?" She stopped at the foot of the raffia bed.
Duefe got to his feet and took her hands, planting kisses on them. "liefde." He said again, "Do not fear. It is me, your husband."
"But he is a servant." She protested, almost in a whisper. Tears gathered in her eyes. Not because of what was about to happen, but because here she was, communicating with her husband.
"It doesn't matter." He wiped the tears from her eyes. "I have missed you. You have missed me. And Duefe is a loyal guard. I choose to use him."
His lips descended on her, hands circled her waist in familiar ways and pulled her closer into his embrace. The hands that caressed her body belonged to Duefe. But the skills they possessed belonged to her husband. She could never forget his love making skills. His gentle, yet romantic ways that always made her yearn for more. She kissed him back, passionately. They were both determined to make up for lost years.
Her cape came off. Her wrapper followed. And she stood bare to his eyes.
Ezodo swallowed. "It has been such a long time, liefde." He ran his hands from the middle of her breast down to the skin between her legs. She shivered.
"Koning. It has."
He held her hands and led her to the bed, took off his clothes and then joined her. Hands caressed bodies, moans escaped their lips and their bodies rejoiced at reunion. But when he started to penetrate her, she froze.
"I could get pregnant."
"Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing?" He lowered his lips to hers.
"A baby with the guard?"
"I'm using his body. He is no longer a guard. He will never be treated as such again."
"What will Deba say?"
"She won't say anything."
"Koning. My love." She patted this cheeks. "You are making me his woman."
"You will not regret it." He kissed her again, not wanting anymore complains. When he was done with her lips, he moved to her neck, her shoulders and down to her breast. Even with two children and eight years gone by, they were still firm and enticing. He took one hard nipple in his mouth and sucked. She moaned, grabbed his head and pulled him closer. He soon slipped inside her and began to move, gently at first. The tempo of his thrust gradually increased, along with their moans and panting. The rhythm of their bodies was in unison. Pawo was the first to reach the peak of sexual pleasure, but she waited there for him to meet her.
"Arrrrgg!" He moaned as his seed shot into her sometime later. And when he collapsed on her, She wrapped slender arms around his back, with one hand caressing his head against her bosoms.
"Stay inside me a little longer." She begged. "I just want you to remain there."
"I'm not going anywhere, my love." He planted more kisses on her bosoms. She whispered sweet words to him and he smiled, relishing in her warmth.
The duo didn't know when they slept off. They only knew that it was morning. Birds chirped from the surrounding trees. The golden rays of the sun crept in through the open door and window, lightning up the hut.
Pawo's eyes remained fixed on the thatch ceiling as the memories of the night before came flooding back. She still lay naked beside Duefe. She turned to study her new partner. The rise and fall of his chest was steady. Subsequently, she propped her head up, supported by the palm of her left hand and looked down at him. His eyes were open, but he didn't look at her.
"Koning?" She asked, not sure if her late husband was still in there.
"Duefe." He corrected, then rolled off the bed and stood on his feet, naked.
"Where are you going?" She asked, sitting up.
"I will get dressed and stay outside. I'm not fit to be with you. I have committed an act tha...."
"You did not do anything wrong." She cut him short. "My late husband chose to use you."
"I should have resisted."
"You couldn't have." She grabbed her cape and wrapped it around herself before getting up to stand before him. "Don't be afraid."
"I am. I am afraid. Your dead takes over my body and then I find myself making passionate love to you. Now I understand why you couldn't accept Ezomo, or any other man. What you have with your husband is unique. It is deep, like a soul tie. You can only enjoy his touch. Does that mean he is going to be using me again, and again and again?"
"I don't know." Pawo whispered and then swallowed. "He insisted last night. But if you ever feel you can't take it again, and you want to walk away, I will understand."
He sighed and then nodded. If he couldn't take it anymore, he would leave. But did he really want to leave her unprotected? What about his oath to always serve Ezodo?
To be continued...
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