The quiet of midnight chilled the air. Above, thousands of stars twinkled in the sky. Yet no moon was seen.
Flapping wings flew across, screeching.
Each owl dropped on a flat stone at the mouth of the cave and in an instant, all four were in their human witch form—hair in long, thread-covered twigs and a black wrapper neatly tied around their body from the chest down.
Around, in the tall grasses and bush, deep-forest insects cackled and droned, and once in a while evil birds shrieked from the high trees.
The good people of Odu feared the cave of Akwalu, the meeting place of the witches of Odu, as much as they did the evil lord himself. Relief to their dismay, the cave stood far in wilderness, beyond any form of human association. King Oduma would have done something otherwise, the tough king of Odu held no mercy for witches, and neither their properties.
The women rose and started toward the gloomy end of the cave. The wavering flames of the fire pots sitting all around the space had only created little light and their half-formed shadows danced eerily on the walls. The smell of dirt and damp and evil hung in the air.
They stood in front of their seats, head lolling down and hands folded at the back, awaiting Ezenwanyi’s arrival.
The two stone benches faced each other, across from the tall seat Ezenwanyi sat on. She was queen, and always arrived later than them.
Ezenwanyi’s black wrapper occupied her bulk well. The long clothing almost swept the ground as she strutted along, in her usual full confidence—head held up straight and eyes steady and daring. With one hand she clutched her black cat to her armpit while the other held her long, shiny staff. The twigs of her hair were longer, fatter, held round with a beaded reddish band.
They bowed as she passed them and climbed onto her seat.
“We greet you, Ezenwanyi!” they chorused.
She adjusted herself into the seat. “Welcome, great wings of the night,” she said, her voice as grating as always.
She flicked her fingers in the air in a gesture for them to sit.
They discussed at length about the coming festival, about their plan. The moon festival, the biggest festival in Odu, celebrated by all of Odu on the first full moon month of each year approached and the witches had started to plan again, like always. Even now that the coming festival was going to be a special one—it had been predicted that the year was going to host an elder moon—a second twin moon in the same year, an event that could only occur four times in a century. This was why the witches would not rest, for they knew what the power of the elder moon could grant them. Their seniors had failed many years ago, but another failure was what they wouldn’t risk this time. The great master must rise. No moon maiden has been named, the moon stone has disappeared; everything now worked to their good.
“Ezenwanyi, but what of the girl,” Didi asked. She was the youngest, and perhaps also the wiliest.
“Yes, Ezenwanyi, the girl,” Ujuaku spoke, “wouldn’t she do anything to thwart our plans this time?”
Ujuaku had the soft and smooth voice required of someone who led the witch song. She was slender with small pitiful eyes.
Ezenwanyi turned to regard her. Then she hummed and began pulling at one of the twigs of her hair. She did that often— pulling and sometimes twisting the long, thread-clad twigs, her reason not very apparent, even to her fellows. But they knew the action indicated anything but happiness.
“The girl knows nothing yet,” Ezenwanyi finally said. She returned her hand back to stroking her cat. “She can’t do anything.”
“But her powers only but grows, Ezenwanyi,” Ujuaku said.
“Then we must drink enough blood before then, Ujuaku. E-n-o-u-g-h!”
They broke into throaty giggles.
“Perhaps the blood of royalty this time,” Ugedu suggested, her voice made hollower by laughter. “It gives unimaginable strength!” Ugedu’s words heightened the amusement and this time their laughter resounded throughout the cave. She was oldest, gangly and giggly, and by far the ugliest—she had jutting front teeth.
“I say we kill the girl before the festival comes,” came the deep, manlike voice of Ajulu. She hardly spoke and sometimes would not even join them in the giggling. She started keeping to herself since the day she lost contest for the title of Ezenwanyi—the leader of the coven who solely held the power to commune with Akwalu, the great master.
“No, Ajulu,” Ezenwanyi said. “Not until we have the stone. Killing the girl would mean our losing the stone forever.”
“Forgive me, Ezenwanyi, but how can we even talk about killing her when our powers are useless against her?” Ujuaku’s voice had gone quieter. She’d always been the jittery one.
Ajulu frowned. “And who said we will be needing our witch powers to kill her, Ujuaku?” Clenching her fingers in demonstration, she said, “We will squeeze life out of her if need be!”
Ugedu snorted with laughter. Ezenwanyi eyed her and she turned quiet.
The witches feared the moon maiden. She probably was the only one strong enough to ruin their plan. Since Azuma, the last moon maiden, died many years ago, they had wreaked havoc freely in the land. Even to the extent King Oduma had to go out of his ways to organize a witch raid himself.
“I say we kill the girl and bother about the stone later,” Ajulu went on. “We should be thankful Ajo-udele has revealed her to us now that she is still without her powers. I see no reason to wait.”
“Quiet, Ajulu, I am the queen here and only I will say what and what not to be done.”
“Quiet!” Ezenwanyi yelled. Her cat meowed.
“She must not live beyond this month!” Ajulu said still. “I, Ajulunuzo-ajulunohia, said it!”
Ezenwanyi fixed her with a scowl. “Ajulu, I bade you remain quiet this moment or leave us!” she said. She would not tolerate any form of rebellious attitude from her again.
“E-z-e-n-w-a-n-y-i!” the others chorused, bowing their heads in respect.
But Ajulu has gotten too upset to grovel for forgiveness. She stood, gave Ezenwanyi an ugly scowl and walked out. She got to the mouth of the cave, knelt and stretched both arms in the air. They became wings as the rest of her body took the shape of an owl and she flew off.
Ezenwanyi turned to the others. “Now listen all of you!” They obeyed. “We all crave for Akwalu to rise again, but we must be ready for him too.”
They nodded humbly.
“He must have the moon stone, he must have that which the goddess had used to defeat him else he won’t be any pleased with us. Or who dares to face the wrath of Akwalu?”
They shook their heads.
“Nobody, great queen.”
“But, Ezenwanyi, how can she lead us to the stone when she doesn’t even know who she really is?” Didi asked.
“And she must not know, Ugodidiyamma,” Ezenwanyi said. “She must not!” She turned to Ujuaku. “Ujuaku, did you hear me?”
Ujuaku bowed. “Yes, Ezenwanyi.” She looked thoughtful. “But my queen, what if Efu named her before the festival?”
Ezenwanyi laughed— a long jerky laugh like a series of hiccups strung together. “The fat priestess no longer holds the power to commune with the white goddess,” Ezenwanyi said in between laughter.
Their eyes widened at her utterance.“How do you mean, great queen?” Ujuaku was first to ask.
“Efu desecrated the sacred temple a long time ago and the white goddess had ceased speaking to her.”
They glanced round each other, eyes glittering with surprise.
“And no one knows?” Didi said.
“Not a single soul.” Ezenwanyi continued laughing and they soon joined her.
“Akwalu must rise,” Ezenwanyi said as her laughter died out. “It is his time now.”
She reached to her neck and caressed the piece of bone hanging on a string there. “All the items are ready. With the moon stone in his grip he will hold off the goddess forever.”
“What is the goddess without her vessel even?” Ugedu said, initiating another bout of laughter.
The thought of Akwalu rising again and taking over the high mountains of Odu lightened up the witches’ hearts. With his rising, they would go from being hunted to become mini-gods, respected and feared by all. It was the great master’s promise after all.
Ezenwanyi relaxed back into her seat. “Ujuaku, music!”
Ujuaku cleared her throat and began the witch song. “Oyo yoyo tili jo, kweze, oyo yoyo tili jo…”—the soft melody of Ujuaku’s voice rippled all around the dark cave.
They squirmed round in their seats, hands with nails like talons floating about in the air.
Ezenwanyi wriggled in her seat, swaying her neck to the rhythm of the song and stroking her cat. In the peak of the excitement she opened her mouth in her usual toothy smile, revealing a set of hideous dark-stained teeth.