BY ISRAEL USULOR
Ikenna had deliberately expelled sleep from his eyes. He had also made sure Mimi went to bed early so that he could leave unnoticed. Like a baby, he had lullabied her to sleep and then slipped off the noisy bamboo bed like a hen escaping from a chicken hole. He walked out of the compound in tip-toes taking care not to wake Aunt Adaku who was sleeping in the second hut in the compound. That night, the moon was at its best as it had put darkness in its proper place. The village was quite unlike other moony nights when children played at the village square. Ikenna had met no one on the road as he walked to Eze Ekechi’s palace located at the center of the village just behind the village square. In Agu-Ukpaka, the king’s palace was located at the extreme end of the village at the boundary with Alikeme, another neighbouring clan. Mkpume, the first settler that arrived in the village who was also the first clan head had built his first hut at that spot and lived there with his household. Since then, all his successors had used the place as official residence.
As Ikenna got close to Eze Ekechi’s palace, he heard loud, impatient voices. The voices became clearer as he got closer. The palace was like a market square as young men gathered in the cycle, leaving a large space in the middle for a smoldering fire that burned like hell to light up the entire palace. Eze Ekechi who sat at the right end with his chiefs was being fanned with two large hand fans by two attendants who stood by his left and right sides. The village ikoro was being gonged in the background. The Ikoro was a big wooden gong that was only played to announce the death of an important person or to herald an important event. That particular night, it played more sorrowful notes. Ikenna maneuvered his way into the crowd and found himself in a comfortable position. He looked searchingly around the cycle, hoping to see any of his comrades.
‘Are Icheku and Uchendu not here? Were they killed too?’ He asked in a voice that was a bit loud but was not directed at anyone since the place was rowdy.
‘Icheku is here,’ someone who heard him answered. Ikenna was shocked. He couldn’t recognize the fellow but didn’t bother to enquire either.
‘Where is he?’ He asked, extending his hand for a handshake.
‘Look over there,’ the fellow said, pointing and directing Ikenna’s eyes to the direction where
Eze Ekechi was seated. Ikenna saw Icheku, seated behind the king. He looked slightly different, dabbed in war regalia.
‘What is he doing there?’ Ikenna asked curiously.
‘He has been made the Commander of Warriors of the two clans,’ the fellow announced to a bewildered Ikenna who stared agape. He was not shocked, for he knew Icheku was strong and ambitious. His presence at the apex of the war efforts was more than a morale booster for Ikenna. Now, he had more reasons to participate in the war and save his clan from the eminent annihilation it faced in the hands of Herders. Ikenna moved briskly out of the crowd and found his way around it. He soon stood behind Icheku and tapped his shoulders gently. He turned, with surprise written all over his body. He stared at Ikenna as one would look at the ghost of a relative who has been long dead. He came out of the crowd and followed Ikenna to a corner that was a bit far from the noise.
‘Ikenna!’ Icheku called.
‘Icheku Oku!’ Ikenna responded.
‘Is this you?’ Icheku asked in a loud voice. He moved closer and pinched Ikenna to actually confirm he wasn’t a ghost. It was believed among the villagers that if one pinched a ghost, it’d disappear. No one knew how true this claim was because no one had ever pinched a ghost.
‘Stop it!’ Ikenna shouted as they hugged each other. ‘I’m not a ghost!’
‘Hmmm!’ Icheku exhaled. ‘I’m just shocked that you’re alive considering what Akubundu narrated to us when he came back.’
‘Aku who?’ Ikenna asked in amazement.
‘Akubundu, Oduburu’s younger sibling,’ Icheku retorted.
‘Is Akubundu alive?’ Ikenna asked still bewildered.
‘He was before the Herders invaded two days ago,’ Icheku responded, dropping his head in sorrow.
‘You mean he escaped death in Zaka City only to be killed in the village? Hmmm! There is really no place to hide in this country,’ Ikenna said sorrowfully.
‘Yes! No place to hide until we defeat the marauders and send them packing,’ Icheku responded punching the air.
‘Ehen! That’s why I’m here,’ Ikenna said. ‘That’s why I’m here. I want to avenge my mother and niece.’
‘Hmmmm!’ Icheku sighed. ‘I’m so sorry over the death of your mother. Our village lost it all.
Did you know that the Crown Prince who was supposed to replace our late Eze was also killed?’
‘What!’ Ikenna exclaimed. ‘Please tell me it’s not true.’
‘Unfortunately, I can’t.’ Icheku said in a low tone. “Somehow, I feel responsible for what happened to my clan.’
‘What do you mean?’ Ikenna was taken aback.
‘Hmmmm!’ Icheku sighed wearily. Ikenna was uncomfortable with the suspense.
‘Talk to me,’ he said impatiently. ‘How are you responsible?’
‘You remember the cattle herder we killed just before you left for the city?’ Icheku asked.
‘No! It’s “the cattle herder you killed” not “we killed.” So count me out of it,’ Ikenna said, stressing each word.
‘Yes! You are right! But the thing is, I have the feeling his brothers mobilized and attacked our village in revenge. I refused to listen to you. It was my fault” Icheku said remorsefully. Ikenna was quiet and for a moment looked away from Icheku and focused his gaze at the frenzied crowd instead. The palace had become rowdier as more young men arrived. Many jumped over the smoldering fire in the middle of the cycle in a sheer display of youthful agility. Others who came with their cutlasses paired themselves and practiced fighting skills, filling the air with the sound of clinging metals. Two medicine men were seen at one end preparing charms. While one chanted incantations, the other, hung amulets on the waiting necks of bare-chested young men who had formed a snaky long queue. Ikenna saw as Eze Ekechi rose to address the crowd.
‘The mistakes we made in the past no longer matter” Ikenna said, turning to face Icheku. ‘What matters now is saving our clan. Remember, they trampled on our farmlands too. The fate of Agu-Ukpaka rests on our shoulders. Let’s go and listen to the Eze,’ he said as they hugged and walked back into the crowd. The once gregarious crowd of youth had quietened as soon as Eze Ekechi rose to his feet and cleared his throat. The ikoro too had sounded its last sonorous note, this time around less sorrowful but ginger-like.
‘We are going to kill all the Herders tomorrow,’ said the Eze without greeting or any formalities. Eze Ekechi was not talkative as he talked straight and rarely made use of proverbs. He was the stubborn type that never pleased his audience with a sweet tongue. Many times, people had said his style was unkingly, yet he was a good king who had the good of his people at heart.
‘Come tomorrow night, we’ll take the war to the Herders who destroyed our farms, raped our women, and killed our brothers like rats in Agu-Ukpaka. We shall avenge our brothers and sisters. I urge you to gird your loins. The government people can’t save us. We must save our land or die fighting. We wait for the government, we perish. All of us” he barked. The crowd cheered with a thunderous voice. Many, like Ikenna have never seen war. But Buoyed by anger and the spirit of revenge, they cheered on. Eze Ekechi waited for the noise to die down, then continued.
‘As you go home tonight, do not doze off and snore as if all is well because all is not well. You must wake up in the morrow with a new determination to defend Agu-Ukpaka and Okpokoto from the Herders” he concluded as he made for his inner chambers. His departure was greeted with a thunderous cheer such as would rupture the eardrums. Ikenna left the palace in a hurry. Icheku wanted him to stay.
‘I stole myself out of bed. I have to hurry back,’ Ikenna explained to a shocked Icheku.
‘What do you mean?’ Icheku asked.
‘I’m married now’ Ikenna answered.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’m married?’ Ikenna repeated.
‘Hmmm!’ Icheku exhaled. ‘Well, I know it’s a long story I’d eventually hear one day.
‘Yes! Definitely, but not this night.’ Ikenna agreed and left. As he slipped back to bed that night he prepared himself mentally for the battle ahead.
Read part 15 HERE
Israel Usulor is a journalist and short story writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael and [email protected].
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