They walked and walked, till it was noon time and the sun now appeared just above them. Its blinding rays were not as friendly as they looked seeing them from the bottom of the hill.
It stung at their exposed skin and threatened to cut off their sight if they dared to look at it.
In the heat, their thirst soared. Anene raised the water gourd to his mouth again.
‘Give me that!’ Ngeli jerked the gourd away from him. ‘Finish it and refill it with your urine for us, goat!’
‘Even my urine is too good for your kind,’ Anene murmured.
‘Fool!’ Ngeli’s face swelled with a frown.
‘Can we have some music?’ Ebubedike’s voice interrupted the squabble.
‘Sure, master!’ Anene quickly brought out his flute and put it to his lips. Ebubedike’s demand for music obviously excited him.
He glanced at Ngeli; she returned the look with a big frown.
Anene blew into the small wood object twice to clear it and then he started. He played a known tune—Inine!’
Tum tuulum tum tuululum
Now Ngeli stared at Anene. Something had leapt off her face as soon as Anene started the tune.
She was suddenly charmed by the sweet music of the flute, but fought to show it.
It was a song she knew well and had always loved. A song she grew up with.
It was sung by a lonely little girl who encountered scary spirits on her way to the lake at night. Her stepmother had forced her to go to the dangerous Eze-ogba Lake at midnight.
Please, good spirits of the night, you must hear from me, the song went.
My stepmother is a bad woman.
I had only drank from her pot,
A little petty cup not enough to satisfy a baby.
I’ve grown stomach smaller than a baby’s.
I’ve known hunger, thirst and sadness, but still, I served her…
After the sorrowful song, the head of the spirits blessed the girl with a pot of fortunes.
Now the sun has abated, but the distance ahead still appeared unchanged. As though they had only been in one place, raising their feet and down.
But they were moving. It’s a really great distance across the hill. Exactly the reason why not many has undertaken the task before.
‘Where did you learn to play the flute?’ Ngeli asked Anene. She was now by his side.
Anene looked at her and said nothing.
‘I grew up with a hunter who played for me,’ Ngeli went on. ‘He was a nice man.’
‘Good for you!’ Anene walked past her.
Ngeli followed him in slow gentle steps. Her eyes were soft as she stared at Anene’s back.
Ebubedike took one last step and brought his bulk onto the very top of the hill. He heaved a great sigh and turned to his back. He waited for his companions to get to him.
Ngeli joined him first before Anene. The three stood on the hilltop staring down at the wide prospect in awe.
‘A story I shall gladly tell my kids,’ Anene said, looking as though grateful.
‘That what?’ Ngeli enquired, staring curiously at him.
‘That I stood this day on the very top of the hill that met with heaven with the great warrior himself.’ He glanced at Ngeli. ‘And a very brave woman from Nta,’ he added.
Ngeli smiled at him. ‘They’d sure be proud,’ she said.
Anene was smiling back when suddenly, his features wilted in sadness.
‘What’s wrong?’ Ngeli asked.
Anene turned to Ebubedike. ‘Great warrior, if it happens that I am not to return to Aban with you, please you must—’
‘Still your tongue, melody man,’ Ebubedike cut him off. He dropped one hand on Anene’s shoulder. ‘I tell you now that the story you will tell your kids and them to theirs will be the one of strength, honour and courage.’ He gave Anene’s shoulder a small shake. ‘Uforo awaits us.’
They picked their things and walked off.
Climbing down the hill was not as tough as toiling up it.
But it was night already when they got to the bottom of the other side of the hill.
A great cliff blocked the road off; the separator of the New World from The Old.
‘The Great Cliff!’ Anene produced, riveted by the sight.
‘We will lie here and continue in the morning,’ Ebubedike said. ‘The gatekeeper likes not to be disturbed in darkness.’
‘Oh well, master.’
They spread the extra wrappers they carry and sat. Ngeli gathered small sticks and made fire.
Anene was hitting a coconut on a piece of rock on the ground to break it.
‘Throw!’ Ebubedike said to him.
He threw the coconut and Ebubedike caught it in the air with one hand. He broke the hard fruit apart with his bare hands and gave each of them a piece.
‘You know,’ Anene started, mouth rotating as he chewed, ‘my great grandfather made a journey like this once.’
Ebubedike smiled. ‘Tell me again, Anene, who is your great grandfather?’
‘Ihekanazu, the greatest dibia Odu knew.’
‘I’ve heard of him,’ Ngeli said. ‘But never of a time he migrated to Aban from Great Odu.’
‘My grandmother married a farmer from Aban,’ Anene said.
‘Oh,’ Ngeli said. ‘Who could have believed a maiden from Odu would leave the great land to marry a man from Aban.’
‘My grandmother did.’
‘Oh well. So have you been to Odu before?’
Ngeli shook her heard. ‘No. But I would like to someday. The land bring forth beautiful stories.’
‘Nothing is beautiful about a land that worships a goddess!’ Ebubedike said. ‘One day a woman will be their king.’
‘Don’t their moon priestess carry more respect than their king already?’ Anene said and threw the last of his coconut into his mouth.
Ngeli turned to Ebube. ‘How is your wound, warrior?’
Ebubedike turned to his shoulder where the wound was. ‘Had you not said, I wouldn’t have remembered it was there.’ He untied the bandaging.
The wound was still alive, surrounded by darkening blood.
Ngeli stood. ‘I must burn it now before it gets infected.’
Ngeli walked to the fire and picked one of the burning sticks.
Ebubedike clenched his teeth as Ngeli burned the wound.
He said thank you after she replaced the bandaging.
Ngeli gave him a small nod and compressed her lips. ‘You are a strong man,’ she said to him.
Ebubedike turned his eyes to the ground, as if embarrassed by Ngeli’s words.
Dawn was cold and quiet. Except for Anene’s snores, you could hear the sound of your breath.
Ebubedike kicked at Anene. ‘Rise now, my man, it is morning.’
They rose and gathered their things. Ebubedike walked to the front of the cliff and knocked at it four times.
Soon there were rumbling noises and a large hole cracked off from the great cliff.
They rushed past it and it closed up, back to normal again.
They came out to a wide, rounded valley surrounded by tall rock masses.
The ground was dry and gravelly. Different-sized boulders lay scattered all over the place.
They stood in the round valley and waited for the gatekeeper to appear.
And it wasn’t long before he did.