The rain has stopped.
The bush path was narrow and lonely. The moon was only a dull crescent, its cloudy light barely able to cut a slice of the darkness.
From the bushes nearby, disordered singing of nocturnal insects formed an ominous connection with the dense darkness.
The tall trees with their broad branches looked like huge, big-headed monsters.
But Ebubedike was a man that knew no fear. If he believed it existed at all.
He strode on with the strides of a lion, his heart hard with courage.
He heard noises from the bushes bordering the path and stopped. He turned left, to the direction of the noise. ‘Who is there?’ he asked. His voice was like the rumbling of clouds before the arrival of rain.
‘Great warrior, it is not my wish to upset you,’ an obedient male voice said from the bush.
‘Step out of hiding!’ Ebubedike roared. ‘And do not waste my time!’
‘It is not my wish to do so, my warrior.’ A tall thin man crept of the bush. A broad raffia hat framed his head and a small wood object was gripped firm in his right hand.
‘Anene!’ Ebubedike called.
The lanky man bowed. ‘It is me, master.’
‘What brought you here at this time?’
‘I heard, master, I heard.’ Anene’s voice was sad. ‘I heard about your journey to the dreaded land of sand and dust. I have come to offer my assistance. I indeed wish to escort you to the barren lands of Uforo.’
Ebubedike scoffed. ‘Turn back, young man, this is not a journey for your kind.’ Ebubedike turned his way and walked off.
‘Wait, master, wait!’
Ebubedike turned back, eyes dim with impatience. ‘The ruler of the desertlings, I heard, is a lover of flute music. Allow me hypnotise him with my craft, while you creep behind him and steal that which you had come for.’ He raised his flute to his lips and produced a short tune.
‘The music of your flute can bring back a dead man, Anene, but I do not wish to steal anything from the land I’m journeying to,’ Ebubedike said. ‘Whatever I will take, I will seek permission to.’
‘Ha, master, what you seek is a great precious gift. Never what the desert creatures will give out freely.’
Ebubedike appeared to consider this for some time. ‘Are you sure you indeed wish to follow me?’ he asked.
‘My heart is strong with decision, my good warrior.’
Ebubedike stared at Anene. ‘You can come,’ he said finally.
Anene’s full dentition showed in a large smile. He bowed. ‘Gratitude, my master.’
Anene pulled slightly back.
‘You must agree not to slow me down!’
‘That’s if you’ll ever catch up!’ Anene pulled off his hat, secured it underneath his arm and scuttled off.
Ebubedike shook his head and followed.
Now the darkness is lifting slowly with the coming of dawn. From afar, the distant echo of early roosters crowing is heard.
‘Hey!’ Anene called.
‘Hey, Ebube, wait for me!’ His hands were on his waist as he dragged along. ‘Warrior, wait, please!’
‘You can turn back now, little girl,’ Ebubedike said to him, making no attempt to slow.
Still holding his waist, Anene performed a short forward run but still didn’t catch up with Ebubedike. ‘Warrior, we must rest now. Remember what our elders say that –’
Ebubedike halted and swung back to Anene. Anene snapped still, as if startled.
A few strides and Ebubedike was in his front.
‘Okay, forgive me, great warrior. It’s just that my waist hurt and—’
Ebubedike threw one hand underneath Anene’s arm and lifted him onto himself like a child. He turned and started on, Anene wriggling on him.
‘Hey, warrior, put me down!’
Ebubedike paid him no heed.
‘Please, put me down!’ Anene pounded his back. ‘What will people say if they see me? Do you not know that I am a titled man? Do you—’
‘You can drop him, I will carry him instead!’ a female voice came from the bush.
Ebubedike stopped and turned right. A maiden was walking out of the bush. Her breast and waist cloth were from the same wrapper. Her hair was sectioned into three and plaited with black owu, the thread-covered ends twisted together into one. Beautifying patterns were drawn on her cheeks and below her neck with uli.
Now Anene struggled with all his might and freed himself from Ebubedike.
‘Greetings, great warrior,’ the lady greeted, bowing slightly.
The wall of dawn has now cracked a significant deal and eyes do not struggle so much to get their job done.
‘Greetings, woman of Nta,’ Ebubedike replied. ‘We are sorry to have called your attention. We are only but passing strangers. We shall continue now with our journey, our destination is a long one.’
Ebubedike turned back to the lady.
She slung her bow over her shoulder and cleared out of the bush. ‘I have indeed been waiting for you,’ she said.
Ebubedike’s thick brows pulled together. ‘For whatever reason would you?’
‘I know about your journey to the land of dust and raging sand.’
‘Yes. The gods have destined that I follow, so shall we?’ She turned to lead the way, leaving Ebubedike and his companion still with confusion.
Anene stepped forward to her. ‘Look here, mad woman of Nta, we are on our way to a far land. Step away or have yourself in shreds.’
The lady smiled. ‘The child comes down from an elder’s back and suddenly realizes the journey is far. How very wise.’
Anene scowled at her.
‘Anyway, if you have ranted enough, may we now continue?’
‘Wait, woman,’ Ebubedike called.
The woman turned to him.
‘What are you called?’
‘Ngeli, daughter of Uyala.’
Anene’s mouth flew open.
‘You know the great Uyala-Nta?’ Ebubedike asked.
‘She is my mother,’ Ngeli replied.
‘Taa!’ Anene scoffed. ‘Never will it be! Uyala died childless, we all know that.’
‘Yes,’ Ebubedike agreed. ‘The great seer had died without a child, so the stories carry.’
‘I was born before she was chosen! So the elders kept her secret.’
‘Are you saying that –’
Ngeli nodded. ‘The great seer bore a child.’
‘So are you a seer too?’ Anene asked, taking a step closer.
‘No.’ She touched the bow hanging from her shoulder. ‘My strength lies in the bow.’
The two men exchanged glances.
‘Ha-ha-ha!’ Anene laughed. ‘That means you are no daughter of Uyala. No way you are. No way you can be. You should go and look for the hunter that is your father.’
‘How did you know that you will meet us here?’ Ebubedike asked.
‘The gods led me.’
‘You communicate with them?’
‘I hear voices at times.’
Anene stepped to Ebubedike’s front. ‘Ebube, I say we leave this deranged woman and head on with our journey. Remember we have only two days left to get to the road that meets the sun.’
Ebubedike appeared to consider this.
‘You will need me,’ Ngeli said. ‘I have so mastered the act of shooting that I rarely miss a target.’
Ebubedike stared at her. ‘I’m sorry, woman,’ he said, ‘but our aim of visiting the far land is not for combat. We will not need your bow.’
Anene gave a full nod to indicate his support.
‘I am a woman. The desertlings, I hear, adore female company. With my beauty, I can gain you access easily.’
Anene threw out a laugh. ‘Which beauty do you refer to me, woman?’
Ngeli scowled at him. She has muscular arms and a square head that is more befitting of a man, but her dark skin glowed as if internally oiled.
‘I’m sorry, woman, we won’t be needing you,’ Ebubedike said. ‘Anene, let’s go.’
Anene flicked a tongue at Ngeli and quickly followed Ebubedike.
‘I know a shorter route to the road that meets with the sun!’
They turned back to the woman. ‘You do?’ Ebubedike inquired.
‘Do not mind her, master,’ Anene said. ‘There is no shorter route, you know that.’
‘How certain are you, woman?’ Ebubedike asked.
‘Allow me prove myself!’
Ebubedike steadied his eyes on Ngeli for some time. ‘Tell me what you know.’
‘Further down this road, we will get to the junction of Ikpa. Down the road leading left is Oye Nta. We shall buy all we will need there and depart the market through the Iyi-Ogba road. The concealed path of Agu-Ogba will lead us straight to the sun road. We will be in Uforo by morning.’
Ebubedike looked at Anene.
He was silent now.
‘Lead the way, woman,’ Ebubedike told Ngeli.
Ngeli smiled and strutted to their front. ‘Follow me, men of Aban.’
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