The gold flame from the burning lamp was steady, swaying only slightly in response to the soft breeze coming in through the open - near ceiling window.
In the room, Mekani stood back, watching father and daughter reunite. He swallowed. Both father and daughter had come to mean so much to him. But still, he knew blood was thicker than water. He would have loved to stay, to be by Deba's side when the revelations come. But he already knew all there was to know. Juba had made sure that he knew the history and secrets that Utho Era had thrived on. Knowing Juba as he did - a man of few words and more action, he wouldn't waste time about Deba finding out the truth of things.
Mekani didn't want to be a distraction. It was better they were alone, having some special father and daughter moment. Reluctantly, but quietly, Mekani retreated the same way they came - up the stairs and out of the underground room.
Juba knew his adopted son had left, Deba didn't. But all the same, Juba appreciated being left alone with his daughter. It has been eight seasons since he had been with her. Although he watched over her, he had never revealed himself. She had no contact with him until now. He wished he could hold her close and spend every day of his short life catching up on lost times. But it wouldn't be so. Time was the one thing he didn't have. It was better to go straight to the matters at hand, including the explanation he knew she craved for. She was still crying and he comforted her.
Flashes of pleasant memories ran through Deba's mind in their numbers. She remembered what her father used to be like. She remembered how she loved that he was a well built man; one the other warriors feared and respected. She remembered all the happy times they shared, when he'd whisk her over his shoulders and swing her around or run through paths down the stream for an afternoon relaxation with the men that guarded the river. They would talk about anything and everything, even boys. Her father would tell her boys are bad when young and good when they become adults. He'd tell her to stay away from them. She'd laugh over it, knowing he only wanted her dignity kept, hence the lecture. But all the same, Ezodo was her father, her friend, her everything. To be torn apart from him was one of the worst blows she had ever received. Her cries subsided after a while. It was then she realized her father had been patting her gently on the back. With her head resting against his chest, she listened for his heart beat and the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest that had the magic of calming her nerves. But it was not there. His heart was not beating, neither was he breathing. Now she knew. He was not only invincible, he had no heart beat and he couldn't take in air. What did he do? What happened to him? Why was he like this? Could his situation be reversed?
"Oh papa!" She broke down again in tears.
"Shhhh..." Juba pulled her closer and patted her head. He planted soft fatherly kisses on it. His hand then moved up and down the length of her back. "Try not to think too much, my dear girl. I can hear all your thoughts. Just be rest assured that your questions will all be answered."
"I can't help it papa", she pulled back to reveal tear soaked eyes and tear stained cheeks. "What happened to you?"
Juba wiped her tears with his hand. He pulled her up to sit on the bench beside him. "You should rest before we talk about this. But since you've asked, I'll tell you. We have a war to fight, a serious war."
"Against Utho Era and the people of the Songhai".
"I don't understand. The Songhai, yes. But why our home? We should return instead and celebrate".
"No. We shouldn't".
"What happened to you, papa?" She cleaned her eyes. Of course, she couldn't see his face. Just the silhouette of him. "We should be celebrating, not starting a war. Yes, we could face the Tuaregs. They have Izogie."
"Yes they do - another great evil that was done to us."
"I don't understand." Deba dropped on her knees again. "What happened to you papa? What evil are you talking about? Mekani told me you lost your son at the fighting pits. Was that Ere? My brother?"
“Yes." He turned sad eyes on her. "It was one of the saddest days of my life, to watch my son die like a rat. Something I can never forgive Ezomo for.
"Oba Ezomo? How? Was he the one who killed Ere? Was he the one?"
Juba sighed, running his hands over her head. "I went to get my ada. Enoma came with me”,
“Yes, I remember”.
“We made it safely to the farm. But we didn’t find my ada. One among the servants had carried it along, secretly. It was all part of a plan Enoma and I didn’t know about. We searched the farm. We didn't find it. Ere joined us sometime later. I was mad at him for taking crazy risks. But since he was already with us, I had to let him be. It was late when we decided to return. But we couldn't. Your uncle, my brother, sent his warriors upon us. It was two options, go and never return. Or stay and die. And they threatened to kill you and your mother too, if we tried to resist them. Apparently, my brother had heard rumours that I was planning to take his throne from him. Our quarrel two nights before, and my threat to take away the kingdom from him, didn't help matters. He held it against me.
The servant who took my sword was among the soldiers sent by Ezomo to finish me off. They gave me back the ada and ordered us to leave. We had no choice. But I vowed to sneak back into the kingdom and try to get you and your mother out. I couldn't. Ezomo sent the chief priest to perform rituals around the borders. That kept us away. No matter how we tried to enter Utho Era, we couldn't. It was like an invincible wall kept us out. Some days later, we came in contact with slave catchers. We fought, Enoma and I. But we couldn't defeat them. They were skilled fighters and they totally out numbered us, seven to one. We were captured and taken to the Songhai. Enoma was sold at Gao. Till this moment, I haven't set eyes on him. I learnt he died at their fighting pit.
Ere and I were taken to Mombasa. I pleaded that we be sold to one house. But they sold us separately. They turned us into gladiators, fighting meaningless fights for the pleasure of rich men and women who had nothing else to spend money on but fights.
Then one day, I was at the side waiting for my match, when I saw your brother in the pit. My heart sank. It had been over one season I last saw him. He had grown and it seemed like his master had really been training him. Ere made me proud. He fought well. He was a champion in his house. I was in my own house. Seeing how good we were, the slave masters pit us together. I wouldn't fight my son. Ere knew it. I would have let him kill me at the pits. But it wasn't so. Ere saw I wouldn't fight him. And the rule was abundantly clear - one man had to die. Ere killed himself. He said he was tired of the abuse. His slave master had taken a liking to him. He had him bundled up by the bigger gladiators in his house. They chained him every night and the master raped him." Juba swallowed.
"Rape? A man on a man?" Debate felt disgusted. Her brows creased.
"The bloody pervert." Juba replied. "Ere didn't want to go back. What was the use of winning and returning to a pervert? He killed himself, right before my eyes. I grieved. I mourned. But of course, the masters didn't care that I had lost my son. They kept sending me back to the pit and with the anger in me, I killed every man I came against. I felt life was useless.
Then one day, new arrivals were sold to my master and brought to the house. Mekani was one of them. He reminded me so much of Ere, an innocent boy turned gladiator. I took him under my wings immediately. I wouldn't let any one hurt him. But I was sure he may not last out in the pit. I trained him personally. I thought him all there was to know about fighting. And when he had learnt well, I planned an uprising. We carried it out together, with every gladiator and slave in Mombasa. Then we went to Goa with them to find Mekani's brothers. I tried to find Enoma too. But no one had heard of him.
I took the slave and set sail for a new land. We found Gor and we grew the kingdom. Here is where we are." He looked down at his daughter's sad face and patted her cheeks. "I'm so sorry my child. For having not been able to come to you and your mother soonest. I had to device a way to get you out of Utho Era. I had to get both of you out before I strike back at Ezomo and his traitor of a wife and daughter. I went away from Gor, leaving it in Mekani's care. I needed to be more, if I was going to get my family back. I needed to have certain powers in order to reach you and your mother. So I left Gor and went back to Gao. Then I made my way though the desert. That was where I met men and women who were seeking what I was seeking. I joined them and together, we visited dark caves and buried cities. We got what we all wanted. But we paid the price. You can see what I am now. I am not dead. But I am not living either. I am both man and spirit. The rituals performed to keep me out of Utho Era no longer works. But I couldn't strike without first getting you and your mother out. I know you're a curious sort. Your nightmares came in handy. I seized upon it and worked your feeling, so you find your way out of the kingdom. What I didn't expect was the fact that Ezomo would have eyes on your mother. He will pay, you know. For banishing me, for ruining my life, for making me and my family go through all we have endured. Ezomo will pay. I will raze Utho Era to the ground."
"Papa!" Deba placed a hand on his knees. "I can't say I understand all you went through. But I know well all the pain and suffering mama and I went through. In those times, we had friends and they gave us help. Ezomo is a bad person. Kill him. That's one less evil in the world. But not the people of Utho Era. They are good hearted people there too, people who helped mama and me".
"What people? Your friend?"
"Yes. Yuwa is a good person."
"Did you know she's behind Izogie's marriage to Prince Daoud?"
"No. Its not what you think. Prince Daoud would have married Yuwa. But she was willing to let Izogie have him because she's eldest. Yuwa is that nice."
"No." Juba objected. "Yuwa made a deal with Daoud and sold Izogie out to him. The price for taking Izogie out of her way is something special, something that has been in the palace of the Bini kings since the time of Ogiso Igodo. It has powers. The Tures want that power. And Yuwa, being a direct descendant of Ezomo, will have access to it. If she give is to them, which she will soon, Utho Era will stand, she will rule with her mother and son in peace. But the Bini kingdom and all other surrounding kingdoms will fall, even as far as the east and the north. The Tuaregs will take over and then we will all be in chains.
"No!" Deba pulled back. Why will her father just make assumptions without first knowing what he was talking about? "Yuwa won't do something like that. I know her." Deba protested
"You do. Did you know she was glad you agreed to be Izogie's chief maid? She wanted you out or her way too. So no, she was never your friend. Neither was her mother. You and your mother were also a threat to them, hence she was glad to not tell her father about your mother's escape plan. Telling him meant having your mother back and if she finally conceived a son for her father, Yuwa would have no access to the throne."
Deba shook her head. "That is not true. I won't accept it. Yuwa is my cousin and my best friend. She is a good person."
"It is not about accepting it, Deba. It is about knowing the truth. Come." He stood up, took her slender hand in his and gently led her to the closed door at the west wing of the room. He opened it and the duo walked in. It was a shrine room. Several small lighted lamps made a wide circle on the floor. In the middle was a huge boiling pot of concoctions. The steam from it hung in the atmosphere just above the pot. The woods underneath it burnt without being consumed. Together, they stepped into the circle and stood before the boiling pot.
"Look at the smoke screen". Juba instructed, waving his hand over the steam. Subsequently, it cleared to reveal Utho Era, back in the days when Deba was only ten years old. It revealed the events of that fateful evening, when Ezodo returned to the farm under the rain to get back his ada.
True. Her father, her brother and Enoma, the guard were surrounded by Oba Ezomo's warriors. They were threatened and asked never to return. Duefe was there too, but he wasn't on Ezomo's side. And he was warned, as well as threatened, never to speak about what he witnessed.
The smoke screen went further to show how Pawo and Deba wept for the loss of a father, husband, brother and son. It revealed how when Pawo begged that warriors be sent to find her husband, Oba Ezomo, to look innocent, sent warriors. But their secret instruction was to ensure Ezodo did not return. They took along the chief priest and he re-enforcemed his charms at the boundaries.
Ezomo feared his brother. Ezodo was very effective in expanding the kingdom. He had skills and even the warriors were starting to listen to him more than the Oba. The people loved him and sang his praises.
Two nights before the day of his disappearance, Ezodo had a bitter quarrel with his brother, Ezomo, due to his uncontrolled desire to exercise his power. He gave orders as he liked and without thinking of the consequences. One of his careless orders caused the death of a young couple and their new born child. Ezodo was very bitter about it. In his anger, he faced his brother and threatened to throw him off the throne if he continued to toy with the lives of their subjects. That threat didn't go down well with Ezomo. He decided that before his brother kicked him out, he would do what he had to do to be rid of him.
And so the plot started. He paid one of Ezodo's servant to steal the ada at the farm or burry it somewhere it won't easily be found. Then he gave him something with which to touch his master, so he didn't remember his ada until he was almost back home. Ezomo knew how much importance his brother attached to the ceremonial sword. However, Ezodo wasn't the type to carry his ceremonial sword to the farm and it was the only thing that was important enough to make him go back to the farm. To ensure that the plan worked, Ezomo met him early that morning at his quarters and pretended to be remorseful for his actions. He apologized to his brother and Ezodo bought his pretense. It was then he mentioned to Ezodo that it was a day to honour the ada. Every warrior who had the ceremonial sword was to carry it. It signified dignity and loyalty. Hence, Ezodo took his sword.
Deba boiled as she watched Ezomo's treachery. "After all he did, he had the guts to want my mother?"
"He wanted a son." Juba said, moving around the pot. "And he felt only your mother could give him one". He stopped at the opposite side to look at his daughter.
"I hate him..I always have".
"If you hate him, you'll hate Yuwa and Yetu even more. Look." He waved his hands over the smoke screen again. The scene changed to reveal a younger version of Yetu in labour. She screamed, even as one of the midwives dabbed at her sweat with wet cloths and encouraged her to keep pushing. She was weak. It was her first delivery. In a second room in the birthing hut, Pawo was in labour, screaming and cursing and pushing. She too was surrounded by midwives. But she was weak too. Pawo eventually gave birth to a girl. But she passed out, too weak to know what was happening around her. Yetu, in her own room, birthed a boy. But it was a still birth. The child was dead. She cried and cursed and wished. How could her first son, her pride, be a boy and die?
It was her loud wailing that attracted the midwives from the other room. They came in, carrying Pawo's bundle of joy. On seeing the child, Yetu requested to hold her. Holding the little happy bundle close to her bosom gave her ideas. She wouldn't release the child. She wanted her. The midwives didn't agree. It was a crime against the king's brother. But Yetu, in her determination made them understand that their refusal was a crime against the Oba. She threatened them to silence.
Pawo awoke, a long while later, to a dead child; Yetu's child. She wept and blamed herself for being too weak to push the child out in time. She feared Ezodo would be angry with her. But Ezodo turned out to be understanding, being that he loved his wife.
Oba Ezomo on the other hand, was mad at Yetu for giving him a girl, instead of a boy. He disregarded her and the child. The girl was never truly loved from the beginning. For Yetu, returning the girl to her rightful mother was impossible. It meant exposing her crime. So she kept the child and did her best to care for her, of course, until she had her second child, Yuwa.
Deba was dumbfounded. She was short of words as she watched the screen, mouth wide open.
"I lived in that land, without knowing her as my child", Juba spoke and sadness engulfed him. He moved to stand by his daughter's side. His eyes remained fixed on the screen.
"Is that.. ? Is that...." The stunned Deba finally found her voice. Still, she couldn't bring herself to make a complete sentence.
"Yes. Izogie is your elder sister. First before Ere".
"Oh... Papa..." She broke down in tears again. "The Tuaregs have her. She may be dead".
"They have her. But she's not dead. I know what they are doing to her. But they don't know she's my child. My blood runs in her. When its time, I will have her back".
Deba looked up at him, wide eyed. She certainly was confused and felt bad. She had never liked Izogie. The girl was mean and full of trouble. How come she didn't even know that they were sisters?
"Don't blame yourself. None of us knew." Juba placed a comforting hand on her shoulders. "Yetu later had all the midwives killed, quietly, in their sleep. It is one of the reasons our land is plagued with terrible deaths, especially that of chief maids. The evil in the land is much. Look at this", he waved at the screen again and a new scene came up. It was the arrival of Askia Ture and Prince Daoud with their entourage. They had a secret mission. Unfortunately, the quarrel in the Bini kingdom made them unable to find anyone to penetrate. No visitors were allowed anywhere near the palace. They later learned about Utho Era from a drunk farmer who sat in front of his hut and answered all their questions, in exchange for a few cowries. Then they headed for Utho Era. They decided to come as suitors, not visitors. It was the only way they could be taken seriously.
The first person Prince Daoud met was Yuwa. He was fascinated by her. She too was in awe of him, but she knew better than to accept his proposal. Her mother had secretly left Utho Era a few weeks back to the next village where she consulted a powerful oracle. She was told about the arrival of the Tuaregs and what they wanted. She shared the information with Yuwa. And so when they came, Yuwa knew what they wanted. She offered to get the bronze image of Ogiso Igodo from the Bini palace and give to them, if Daoud married Izogie out of her way. For if Izogie married from the land, she would have a throne that wasn't hers in the first place.
Yuwa and Yetu's joy increased when Deba volunteered to be Izogie's chief maid. Their plans were working perfectly well. All the while Yuwa pretended to be sad about Deba's chief maid decision, she was actually celebrating in secret with her mother.
"Yuwa...." Deba whispered as the scenes continued to unravel all that had been done behind her.
"I haven't told your mother about Izogie yet." Juba spoke, his eyes still on the screen. "She needs to rest first. I will talk with her later."
"Later?" Deba looked up at him, surprised. "Mama is here?"
"Yes. She's resting with Duefe. They arrived early this morning."
Deba's eyes widened with excitement. It was the first good news since the unraveling of the deceits she had lived through. Excited, she ran into her father's embrace. "Thank goodness. I'm sure you brought her here, right? Just like you sent Mekani to get me?"
"Yes." Juba hugged her back. "But before you see her, there is something very important I need to tell you. It is about your mother and Duefe."
To be continued...
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