The Masked Warrior
By Veronica Nkwocha
*A story loosely set in the 1600s in the old Kwararafa kingdom. All communities are fictional.
Atoo sat under the moonlight listening to Ebilache speak. His eyes were wide saucers glistening in the weak light. He sat enraptured so much so, he might as well be living Ebilache’s words.
What an adventure. He could hear the swords clink and grind as the warriors fought heaving and grunting their attempts to subdue a worthy opponent; the dust wafting and rising as they shuffled and pushed to the edge of their endurance. He could see the midday sun high and orange beating down in hot spears of anger willing the adversaries to find another way of resolving another one of Man’s eternal conflicts.
All around, the commotion created a din that could be heard far and the trumpets and ululating shouts of danger lifted above the village of Kwa reaching the surroundings telling an impending doom.
Atoo felt pride rise up in him for he knew the end of this particular battle as had others would end in victory for the Agomude. Ebilache’s muscular arms bulged as he clenched his fists demonstrating the final blow to the enemy. All around him he said, his men did the same and then there was the silence punctuated by men whimpering as they entered their death throes.
The Imalanyi’s had not always been the enemies of the Agomude people. Once they had been trade partners and competitors in the yearly Uba drum festival, where men with nimble feet danced to the age-old sound of the ancient drums. But they had betrayed the sacred bond that held the two neighbouring communities together. Atoo listened in silence as Ebilache described Imalanyi’s betrayal.
Imalanyi’s king had a trade route which salt from the famous Okp’oma was distributed north to the Nupe people and further on to the Hausa territories. It was a lucrative route and it was not uncommon on market days for at least 5 languages to be heard haggling and bargaining for the many other items on display. Donkeys laden with produce and the valuable salt rested under huge mango trees chewing their cud amidst little children running about playing with their handmade toys. Atoo himself spoke five languages and each Agomude person could speak at least three.
The peace of their corner of the Kororofa kingdom, which they all belonged was broken when Imalanyi preferred cowries to the relationship between him and his neighbours. In the dead of night emissaries from a strange people had snuck into Imalanyi and their conversation with the king had been heard by Oche .
Oche was conflicted. He had been doing the forbidden with the king’s last wife, a lovely damsel with shiny ebony skin and undulating breasts. She had returned to her hut in the dark night of the rainy season and Oche had been hiding in the bushes listening intently for any sounds that would betray his presence when he saw them.
They walked so close to him he could see the marks on their faces. They dressed in typical Imalanyi loincloth and anklet but the marks betrayed them telling their heritage and sent a chill to his spine. He stood frozen and as soon as they were out of earshot he climbed a guava tree nearby. He wanted to make sure there weren’t any more of them before starting the treacherous walk back home to Agomude two hours walk away.
The conversation where it was agreed in return for cowries, a wide berth of Imalanyi when the slavers came was made almost underneath his tree. He was sure they could hear his heart beating, flapping like a bird trapped in a woven basket. Telling the tale to his kindred would mean explaining his presence there. But he had no choice.
Ebilache spoke in whispers at this point. His eyes had a faraway gaze and Atoo felt tears falling down his own cheeks in the dark. It was the beginning; one fraught with pain and death. Agomude was unable to muster support from their larger kindred nation. A standing army was a mere thought away. The time it took to clandestinely discuss this all important matter and summon the other clans with which they had a common ancestry; the Ibache, Abinifi, Itamopa, and Editaje warriors whose ancestral lands were weeks and weeks apart spelt doom for Abinifi. They were a small clan of about three hundred situated at the border.
The strangers came with a message delivered without fear to Agomude three days after Abinifi was sacked. All that remained were bodies of the old. All the young and able bodied had been taken away. Their shouts had rent the air but no aid came to them because if Agomude and Ibache, their closest kin had tried to respond, they knew they would be no match for those who came to take their brethren away. Tears rolled down Atoo’s face freely now and some in the group under the moonlight wept and grunted in a shared pain.
Kwa was the heart and pride of the Imalanyi. They were famed for their costumes made of the pale gold colored reeds growing by the banks of the Isu. The reeds were notoriously fragile and broke with any attempts to bend them into shape. They covered this lush part of the savannah with a sweeping graceful motion and danced in harmony with the harmattan winds. Only they held the secret of the reeds passed down from one generation of Imalanyi women to the next. Women tall and regal would stamp their jewelled ankles and swing their hips barely covered in a specially hand woven fabric embellished with the delicately woven reeds punctuated with cowries during the new yam festival. Men, brown in defiance to any ravages of the equatorial sun, hefty and strong sang of their abilities as horsemen.
And so the silence at Kwa was poignant, sad and yet loud. The interruption of the normal sounds that accompanied daily life was both shocking and dramatic. The birds trembled perched on the branches of the mango trees. Dragon flies quivered as they flew as if aimless. Life carried on for the few livestock that survived the attack on their owners. A lone puppy whimpered and a nanny goat strolled ears trembling and alert through the debris of broken stools and upturned pots with their spilled contents caked and baked to the dry earth. The charred remains of the thatched mud huts stood angry and stoical refusing to give beauty to the landscape. Ebilache and the Agomude did such a thorough job of revenging the sacking of Abinifi, the Imalanyis were thoroughly decimated.
Atoo and the other listeners rose when Ebilache began to hum the victory song of the Agomude. They sang full throated and in unison. At times like this, Atoo knew he would grow up to be a warrior like Ebilache. He noted with particular fascination the attention the loveliest damsels gave to him, he was sure the exploits of which he glowingly spoke was the reason. At sixteen, he couldn’t wait to uphold the honour of Agomude and marry the loveliest damsel of all, Amina, surely she wouldn’t be able to resist the strong and proud man he would grow up to be.
As they sang, he heard the soft laugh and his skipping heart told him who it was; Amina. He would speak to his father tomorrow, he would muster up the courage and if his parents were agreeable, they would in turn speak to her father and she would be betrothed to him. He was sure he had seen her stealing glances at him. Tomorrow…he couldn’t wait for dawn.
The night sounds were punctuated by a scream so loud the heart of every man present melted into a pool of fear, an echo passed like a baton through the ages from time immemorial. It was guttural and unending piercing through the umbilical cord of ancient fears and they instinctively huddled together and then scattered moments later as fires leapt frightened from one thatched roof to the next. A wall of gold and orange overwhelmed the dark and mothers screamed for their children.
The strangers had come. A vicious cycle feeding the belly of a beast, unknown, constant and present had waltzed past them and they were powerless, swept away by its relentless tide. Agomude was on its knees, bowing to the masked warrior. The eternal prince of warfare that gifted victory as he pleased, rearranging destinies and handing out defeat, refusing the earnest entreaties pulsating from the innermost part of the heart of the vanquished.