Isio’s legs felt heavy but she forced one foot after another; holding the little bulge of her stomach as she ran along. There was chaos as women ran past her clutching the little they could grab from their matted huts. The air smelt of burning thatch and blood as sparks of fire lit up the starry night sky. Isio could still hear the high pitched scream of Agama; the widowed mother of two ringing in her ears – in her mind. She could hear her mangled plea for life as the Ogbús’ sharpened blades hacked down her son, a piercing scream reaching her ears; forlorn.
Isio tightened her grip on the wooden rail of the fishing stall as a pang hit her. The pain seared through her pelvis, clasping on her walls. She doubled over as the stench of salt reached her nostrils. The pain came to again more intense than it had been earlier. She could see familiar feet running towards her. Feet the distinct color of red mud the Ake tribe were known for. She shook her head crazily as the woman tried to pull her up. There was no point helping her; she would only slow the pack down and she could already hear the war drums drawing closer. The warriors were close, wreaking havoc in their wake. The woman persisted, beckoning on a few others to help. They helped her into the closest stall afar right. Isio let out a muffled scream as the pain pierced through her again.
The women worked fast, one clearing the work table set in the middle of the stall; removing fish blood and grime just in time for another to lay a woven wrapper atop. Isio struggled through the pain as they laid her onto the table. She prayed to the stars; a silent hopeful prayer and through gritted teeth she pushed as hard as her strength could carry. The women supported her, urging her on in unison. Sweat stuck to her brows, tears ran down the sides of her cheek; the long cut in the middle of her forehead folded in a painful furrow as she pushed again. The air filled with the shrill cry of the new born.
Isio collapsed, staring into the single orange light of the lantern hanging from the stall’s thatched roof; the voices of the women just a faint sound in her ears. In the shifting glow of light, Isio could swear she saw Her. Somewhere far and distant, surrounded by mangrove and moss, she could hear the steady shake of the shekere. Amidst the thick of trees, in the burst of sunlight; the divine lady of Ake, clothed in white cotton – a thin coral bead etched in the middle of her temple. She mouthed words to Isio; soothing words that calmed her heart and gave her strength to move on. Isio swelled with thankfulness. The stars had heard her prayers and victory was born. The hushed prayers of the women permeated the still air. They were familiar ritual words of prayer but in that moment she held onto every word, lacing each meaning to the birth of her son.
Like red mud, your life would hold magic
May the divine lady watch over you
May your erhi fulfil its power
May your life be prosperous just as Oghene ordains
Let your breasts suckle the weak and give hope to the helpless
May you live long young child
From tired eyes, Isio could see Mama Ibe drawing lines and loops with a white chalk onto the wooden door. She spoke rapidly, casting the incantations in hurried breathes. Dark shadows thick as smoke from a raging fire rose from beneath the door’s ledge, hovering inches below the thatched roof. Isio knew the charm all too well. The úhoho would shield them from the warriors providing only a temporary relief for the refugees. It would cover the fishing stall in a thick black shadow giving the women time to clean after the newborn and mother.
Isio burst with gratefulness – thanking each woman as they wrapped the baby in an old cotton wrapper. They paused when they heard the drums reverberate through the doors. The beats were fast paced powerful thumps that spoke of blood and war. The women held their breaths, a collective fear of being noticed hanging in the air. When the drums faded and the pounding feet of the warriors were but a distant sound, the Ake women urged Isio to her feet. In no time the charm would fade and who knew what next. They were a haunted tribe. Hated for their powers and the colour of their skin by Ovie (King) Nefe II of Rhie. Once they were a revered people, then they were feared and now they were subjected to tyranny. It was these reasons that fanned the women’s courage to step out unto the wooden shack and into the unknown.
A gust of wind pushed back the tight coils of hair from Isio’s face. Their plan was to make for West as far as the Ethiope to Urhié; the land of many rivers. At least there they would find allies; non-enemies of Ake. Isio felt sore all over as she walked slowly amongst the women. A fever was taking over her small frame, her vision was blurry; her legs cramped but in a time of war – safety came first. She shivered at the thought of what could happen if any Ogbú caught her. They would first defile her before hacking her as was their custom – No they would certainly do worse. She forced the thought to the back of her mind. She was alive and so was her child. The chosen one. She smiled at the thought. One day this would be over and peace would come clothing her people in comforting hands. Yes. Peace. Now they had nothing; tomorrow they would have everything.
They trudged down the wooden steps that led to the open docks by the sea. Stilt houses surrounding the water were alight with wildfire that crackled madly in the dark as smoke filled the women’s nostrils. Isio could see a body bobbing in the water; she dared not take a longer look for she feared recognition. They congregated by a small boat decorated with circles of native white chalk and charcoal. The women hurriedly filed into it, cutting the ropes that held it to the dock. Somewhere above them, the drums resounded and the Ogbús shouted – they’ve been spotted. It would not be long before the warriors – dressed gallantly in the mask of the warrior spirit – would take them hostage. The wildfires bounced the imposing monstrous silhouettes of the warriors off the water’s surface. Isio could make out the imposing shape of their infamous masks. Wooden masks shaped with a large forehead and a thick protruding hump at the top. In its large mouth were jagged shark teeth. Blood stained the rough surface – human or animal – Isio couldn’t tell. They were making the bend now, their arrows ready and lit with erhare (red fire) – the one that killed her kind.
It happened in a slow dragging motion. The Ogbús raised their bows above their heads, firing with zest and hatred. The arrows flew steadily through the thin air at the boat that was slowly heading towards the middle of the river. Isio knew what would come next if the erhare hit just one of them. She feared what it would be like but something else caught her eyes – an angry bubble that broiled and swirled into a monstrous heap high above their heads. It spurn and spiraled violently like a crazed masquerade in a dance battle, gathering with it a strong wind. High up in the thundering sky, Isio could see the gigantic camwood red encrusted mask that made its head with two elongated horn-like features protruding from the top; tilt like an angry bird. In the light from the lightening sparks, Isio sighted huge pigs’ teeth dangle from its headband. Lightening stretched and thunder rumbled into the night sky.
“Edjo r amẹ” Isio gasped. The water spirit lashed at the warriors, its force shattering the wooden docks so that wood and splinters tumbled into the depths of the water – carrying with it a good band of the warriors. The women on the oars paddled faster trying to get distance as yet another flock of arrows were shot. This time one missed the mighty hand of Edjo r ame and pierced Omẹ in the neck. Isio stared horrified as the woman screamed painfully. Her skin was alight with red flames that spread rapidly, charring her flesh. The women cried and screamed knowing they could do nothing for if one of them touched her, they too would roast. They watched as Omẹ screamed and choked under the writhing erhare until there was nothing but a lifeless reddish-black flesh that toppled over the boat and into the river.
The water spirit gathered a mighty sheet of water that rose just as high as its head. It was a thin sheet so Isio could see the warriors push back in a frenzy, falling over each other as they struggled back to the stalls. It was too late. With a force so powerful, the sheet of water crashed over the stalls and matted huts of Ake’s tribal home; flooding the wooden tracks and immersing the small village into its depths. Silence.
There were no sounds of torture or crackle of fire nor the fast paced beats of the war drums. The wind calmed and the river receded from the banks just as Edjo r ame slowed its dance to push their boat farther down the river. Isio stared at what a few moments ago had been her hometown. Her eyes filled with sorrowful tears as she took in the wreck. The day had started perfectly with the sun’s rays seeping through the small holes in her matted window. It was good until the time she had cooked a nice bowl of owho soup with boiled yams and was about setting clay plates for the evening’s meal for Uvo Nefe – her husband. It was good just before the masked warriors had stormed into her house. Images of her husband’s butchered body sprang to her mind; blood and lymph mixing in the mangled pieces. Tears streamed down her eyes and unto the single wrapper tied around her chest. It was the only property of hers that had survived the fire.
Isio fought to stay strong for if she had any doubts about her son, the night’s events had just dispelled them. For why else would the water spirit choose to help them in this time if not to protect the chosen one? Isio unhooked the golden necklace from her neck and dropped it into the water as thanksgiving to Edjo r ame. Even though she was grateful, her heart swelled with sadness at Omẹ’s death. It was such a painful way to die. Too painful for a young woman who was just anticipating her final marital rites due in another week. Her and so many promising Ake were slaughtered. All because of what?! Isio thought angrily. She sighed. She was tired – angry, tired and alone. She stared at her baby’s face and noticed in surprise that a thin cut had appeared right down the middle of his forehead; his yellow skin now red where the cut appeared. She was sure the women had not carried out the markings as was the custom. So how then did this appear and how come her baby slept peacefully despite the cut looking fresh and the chaos from the attack? Isio tucked her thoughts to the back of her mind – drawing the corners of the wrapper over the cut. When she got to Urhie, she would see an Epha diviner for answers. For now she would bask in the thin threads of their escape and bade her farewells to the spirit of Omẹ.
Back at the camp, the General walked as fast as his feet could carry towards the campsite where the rest of the warriors were gathered, ready for the next order. He paid them no mind as their curious eyes followed his strong silhouette towards the Royal tent. The two guards mounted at the entrance knelt as he approached. He took a deep breath, nodded at the guards and entered into the tent. It was warm inside and smelled of banga soup. They must be having a feast, the commander thought as he stood tentatively at the entrance, his eyes falling on clay pots strewn over the mahogany-carved table. Ovie Nefe II sat at the head of the table reading a brown parchment, a sly smile curled at the corners of his lips.
The General coughed and knelt just as Ovie Nefe II looked up. The General watched pensively as the sly smile slowly transformed into a thin line. Ovie Nefe II looked him over – his way of assessment.
“What is it!?” he spat. The General stood to his feet, regaining his confidence. He must try to save his neck.
“Are they all dead?” the King asked, his exotic leopard skin robe straightening as he stood. He was just as tall as the General, just as imposing but where the General was light-skinned, the King was dark. He had broad shoulders and strong thick muscles that stretched under his dark skin. Atop his head was the Royal crown – a beaded cone shaped mound that glistened in the flames from the candles.
“The entire place has been submerged under water” The General answered. The King raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. “Under water you say? But are they all dead?”
The General gripped the hilt of his machete anxiously. He swallowed. “Reports reaching me said a few women had escaped using the fishing boats at the docks”.
“Ahaaa”, said the King – dragging the exclamation slowly. “And did these reports somehow say my brother’s wife escaped? It was a direct hit on the nail’s head.
The General swallowed another lump. “Yes. A warrior reported seeing her get in the boat right before…before” he stuttered. He was trying to avoid mentioning the water spirit. That would irritate the King further and he could clearly see lines of that irritation already forming at the corner of his eyes. Ovie Nefe’s eyes formed two dangerous slits. Something was off and he did not like the sound of it. His eyes scanned the General a second time. He looked shaken and afraid but not by Ovie Nefe’s presence. Certainly not. The kind of fear he – Ovie Nefe – instilled in people was more menacing.
“Before what General”?” he asked slowly – a muscle throbbing in his throat. The General gulped.
“Edjo r ame” he whispered but the King caught his words. “It…it just rose above the warriors like a…like a..”
“How many men!?” the King asked, his voice shaking with anger. “General how many of my men are dead?”
“A hundred and eighty and still counting” the General responded, casting his gaze downward.
“A hundred and eighty!!” the King bellowed, hitting his hands on the table. “A hundred and eighty of my warriors are dead but the one simple pig I asked you to retrieve from that cursed place has escaped! Do you hear yourself General? Damn the water spirit! Damn the swine!”
“Were they any survivors from the tribe?” he asked after a long pause. His tone was dangerously low and the sides of his mouth twitched as he spoke. “Yes”.
“Gather them at the trenches. And get the erhare!” the King barked. “My mother’s cunt if I let one esi (pig) live!”
The General moved swiftly through the muddy tracks of camp, bellowing orders at the frenzied warriors who worked at the camp’s prisons. They released the frightened crowd of Ake – the aged, the young, the women and frail men – beating them with long whips so that they walked in a file towards the trenches. They were covered in dirt, blood and shit. The General wrinkled his nose as the stench reached his nostrils. He stood straight beside the King who equally looked on at the crowd with disgust.
The remainder of the Ake tribe filed into the trenches, wailing and pleading. Ovie Nefe II thought how he hated them. From their skin right to their charms, he felt nothing but disgust for them. He hated that the water spirit would favor such an accursed people. The mysterious and glorious Ake tribe – he mocked – now reduced to nothing but beggars hinging unto his mercy. Where’s their charms now?
“My King, the warriors are ready”
“Muegbe” he said. The warriors raised their bows, drawing the arrows tight. The people in the trenches cried out, their eyes wide at the sight of the red fire writhing from the arrows’ tip. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman raised her son. He was two years old with a dirty matted hair. Tears streamed down their faces as she mouthed pleas for his life. Ovie Nefe II raised his hand in the air and with one sweeping look of hatred he screamed “Esi!”
His hands fell to his side just as the warriors released their arrows. Blood spattered on the muddy walls of the trench as the people screamed in horror. Their skin was alight with red ire that cackled wildly. The smell of charred flesh filled the air as the screams of the crowd reached their heights. One body tried to struggle up the muddy walls, but the General released an arrow, engulfing it in flames. Soon the screaming quietened to muffled coughs until there was nothing but ashes.
“No more fuck ups.” The King said, staring into the eyes of the General “Or next time, it would be you and your kin under fire”.
“Yes your majesty”. The General said, bowing his head.
“And get me that esi!”