It was just as she described.
They got to the junction of three roads and followed left.
Oye-Nta market, as usual, boomed with women. It was a market for women, after all. You see majorly wares like cocoyam, wrapper heads, beads, peppers and silver dust.
Men of Nta go to Nkwo-Nta with their yams, gourds of palm wine and iron castings.
Ngeli told them the things to buy. They were things they already know they needed to buy; mmimi, uziza, ehuru, uda, and other things hot and peppery.
These things the desertlings crave and cannot resist. They bought them first before buying some loaves made from yam flour and dried meat and fish for themselves.
They were leaving the market when Ngeli halted. ‘We need salt too,’ she said.
The men’s eyes ran to her. ‘We cannot enter Uforo with salt, you know that,’ Ebubedike said to her. ‘It is deadly to the desert creatures.’
Ngeli smiled. ‘For what I will eat, I will give you what I want. But for fear of death, I will give you all I own,’ she said.
Ebubedike and Anene were silent.
And they remained so till Ngeli returned with two big lumps of salt and said, ‘Shall we go now?’
She handed Anene the basket that contained all the items they bought and this time, Anene took it from her without a single word of protest.
At Iyi-Ogba, they filled their water gourds. They were leaving the lake when Anene asked them to wait.
Ngeli and Ebubedike turned back to him.
Anene dropped the basket he was carrying on an old stump on the bank of the lake and ran back down to the water.
Ngeli and Ebubedike watched him, thinking he had dropped something.
Anene screamed and threw himself into the water. ‘A quick bath before I visit the land of dust!’
Ngeli and Ebubedike turned their front and started off.
Anene rose from the water, held his wet cloth and ran after them.
It is early evening now, that time of the day you can finally say the sun is defeated and is retreating back to its abode.
‘So much for the mad woman’s shorter route,’ Anene muttered, face crumpled. His feet hurt from steady walking.
‘Still your tongue, weakling!’ Ngeli said. She did not look at him.
‘Mad outcast!’ Anene mumbled.
Ngeli swung to Anene and thrust her palm to his cheek.
Ebubedike who was far ahead turned back at the sound of the slap.
Anene appeared lost, as if he couldn’t understand what just happened, why he was holding his cheek and why it has turned warm.
Ngeli put one hand on her waist and cast vicious eyes at him.
Anene’s lips parted to say something, but he finally couldn’t. He sucked in his lower lip, his eyes hooded in fury. He dropped the basket to Ngeli’s feet. ‘I will not touch that again!’
He turned his front and ran after Ebubedike.
‘Hey, come back and carry the basket!’
Anene showed her five fingers through the back of his neck. ‘Chili ise!’
‘Ebube, do you see what this wretch has—’
‘Carry the basket, woman!’ Ebubedike’s voice resonated with authority.
‘But I am holding my bow and cannot carry anything else.’
‘Carry the basket!’
Ngeli had no other choice than to lift the basket, muttering to herself.
It is the late hours of evening now. The sun has since retired and the moon is late.
The bush path they were on has gone thinner and the grasses surrounding them taller.
Night-loving insects buzzed and droned from the thick bushes around. Bird sounds came from the high trees ahead. The good birds sang gentle melodies, the bad ones emit harsh, ominous screeches.
Ngeli halted. ‘We are entering Agu-ogba now,’ she announced, her voice hushed. ‘We must tread quietly. Disturb nothing and nothing will disturb you.’
‘Are you saying we will walk this forest in darkness?’ Anene sounded more scared than angry.
‘Yes,’ Ngeli said. ‘But you can choose to sleep here and continue in the morning, but we won’t wait for you.’
Anene turned to Ebubedike. ‘Agu Nnaa, I advised at the beginning that we never listened to this strange woman. Who knows if she is the daughter of Agbala-ohia, the dreaded goddess of the forest, and has been sent to lure us to her?’
‘No petty goddess is powerful enough to thwart my journey to Uforo,’ Ebubedike said.
Just then a rumbling noise came from the sky above.
‘Be careful what you say, warrior,’ Ngeli said, looking up. ‘No human must call a god petty.’ She brought down her face and turned to Anene. ‘Anenechi, if I am indeed servant of Agbala-ohia, do you think I will need to bring you this far to consume you?’
Anene said nothing. He appeared frightened by this statement.
‘Follow me closely, men of Aban. Agu-ogba is a peaceful forest.’ Ngeli walked to the front to lead the way. She walked with a great confidence than would have been expected of a lady.
‘The good forest is not as terrifying as the stories carry,’ she was explaining to them. ‘Hasn’t it always supplied wives with their cooking wood, and husbands, big fat game? Don’t our children used to come here to pluck tasty berries?’
Ebubedike followed Ngeli.
Anene looked ahead, then to his back. An owl hooted from a tall tree nearby and he quickly followed them.
But Ngeli was wrong.
Agu-ogba has not remained the peaceful forest it used to be. The stories indeed hold some truth.
There was a reason the people of Nta and other neighbouring villages suddenly stopped visiting the forest.
No one would agree easily to walk Agu-ogba in bright daylight, least of all in darkness.
The dreaded Eke-ogba python that can swallow a person whole came out to hunt in the night!