Dedicated to the most self-less man I ever knew and the few stories he could tell me
In Africa, the sun rises and sets without warning, and the winds blow through the old forests with the songs of legends, the marks of their passing staining the blood-red sands.
And some of those legends are true.
In the old Edo, the first true black civilization, the empire was home to many tribes and cultures. Bound together by the Obas who ruled after the era of the Ogisos, the sky kings, it stretched almost five thousand miles in either direction; from the steppes of the Dahomey to the swamps of the Niger Delta. Within were the Itshekiri, the Etsako, the proud Ijaws and Urhobos, the noble Esan, the big and powerful Binis and the Igbos both west and east of the Niger River. All paid homage to the Oba and in turn were blessed by him, for the Oba was more than just a man, the Oba was king, the Oba was god on Earth.
Oba ghato kpe e!
The Bini empire was called Edo and it was powerful, the envy of the neighboring kingdoms to the west and the north. Their trade guilds employed the most skilled of artisans; blacksmiths and hunters, their warriors, soldiers from birth, trained in the knife, spear and hand-to-hand combat, and also in the finer arts of war and strategy and juju. It was strategy that led to the building of the Bini moats and high wall which surround the capital of the Edo Empire at Benin City, till this day. Moats that were built with the aid of giants enslaved and brought from across the deserts. Strategy and wisdom, both physical and spiritual.
The warriors who came from all over the kingdom, all swore allegiance to the throne of the Oba, and whether Esan or Ijaw, all spoke the lingua franca, a bastardization of the Bini language, known as the Edo language. Within this military were special cadres, the strategists, the juju priests and the elite warriors. This is a story of one of those elite warriors, and as with such tales, it began at night…
The palace of the Emir was brightly lit despite the moonless night. Nearly a kilometer from the village centre, it was a big complex with several conical shaped huts surrounding the main structure which was a 500x500ft edifice made of mud, thatch and bamboo from the west. Around the palace was a ten foot high fence and at regular intervals, spaced roughly 30yards apart, were watch-posts mounted on wooden stilts from which a pair of guards stared into the gloom surrounding the palace with keen eyes washed in agonti, the devil nut. Their hands rested lightly on their bows belying the fact that if they wished, they could whip up the bows and fire three arrows into a moving target in the time it took a man to blink.
Inside the complex, an air of calm activity pervaded the atmosphere, with servants mucking out the stables and grooming the Emir’s horses in preparation of the next day’s festival. In the harem to the north of the main building, the nubiles, young beautiful damsels, selected from the neighbouring gida, hamlets, danced to the sound of banjos, their waist beads clinking as they swayed and laughed to the dusky beats. In his room, the Emir unwrapped his turban slowly, his attention split as he listened to his vizier rant about the growing unrest in the village and the appearance of a religious man called Usman, from across the desert, who preached idiocy. His major concern lay instead in the young nubile who lay across his lap on the bed, fondling with his naked testicles.
In the shadows between a stone silo filled with yams and the perimeter fence, a figure dislodged itself from the darkness. He was a big man, yet he moved with the fluidity and grace of a slimmer, very flexible athlete, so silent were his movements, he seemed to merely glide from place to place. He was dressed in a short leather kilt, woven in and out with cowries, blackened with age and dust and oil. Across his bare chest, which was black and thickly muscled, stretched a bandolier also made of leather into which was fitted an exotic array of small knives and sharp blades. Another strap held a quiver of arrows against his back. His bow also stayed strapped to his back. It was a thick bow, made of very strong wood, into which the very forces of death had been poured into. A band made of lion hide and sewn with charms encircled both his arms. On his waist, he wore a short sword and in his hand he carried a wicked looking knife. Blackened with poison oil, but retaining its sharp edge, the knife flashed briefly as the dark warrior plunged it into the neck of the guard he had just subdued. Dragging the body into the barn, he deposited it behind a stack of new yams. The warrior’s face caught in the light of an oil lamp revealed gray hairs and a face lined so deeply and eyes that gleamed with so much malice and foreboding, one was convinced he stared into the face of the devil.
In the distance an owl hooted. Moving silently, the warrior slid from building to building undetected, till spying a door he had seen left ajar, he entered into the main building. Moving quickly through the corridors as though he were intimate with the surroundings, the warrior entered one of the rooms on the female side of the building.
It was a tastefully furnished room, the floor laid in soft raffia matting, with a mown grass underlay, the walls were bamboo and mud, and billowy silk curtains of the softest hues of purple and blue and green adorned the walls. But the warrior took no notice. As he entered the room, the female guard sitting beside the door made to raise alarm. Moving swiftly, the warrior knocked her out with a heavy fist to her temple, flinging the knife in his hand into the throat of the guard across the room in the same motion. Both guards crumpled to the floor. The warrior retrieved his blade and made short work of the unconscious guard at the door, then he turned to his prey. Sleeping on a pallet in the middle of the room, her long hair streaming over her soft shoulders, the princess dreamt of baobab trees, horse races and the odd feeling that she was being restrained.
Getting out of the palace was no problem. The princess was neutralized, her senses swimming in the waves created by the scent of the leaf tied around her mouth with a piece of red cloth. For further insurance, her hands and feet had been bound tight, with knots of the sort used to hold goats right before slaughter. They flitted through the corridors of the palace, a humped shadow, the princess on his shoulder about as heavy as a sack of cassava.
“Where is she?!” screamed the Emir, the jowls in his face wobbling as he turned from one person to another.
The grand Vizier kept silent. The Emir had just been informed that his daughter was missing, attempting to state exactly where she was missing to betrayed the earlier statement.
“We are looking for her,” replied the Captain of the guard.
Good man. It was his place to reply, and his fault too if one decided to be picky.
The outskirts of Edo
The old man swayed in the night, his arms flailed to the sides, his eyes wide. He muttered some words as he came to a sudden still and then he stamped on the ground, bit the leaf and tried to make his soul light. Making his soul light: that was the only way to describe the feeling of what he did.
The leaves swayed in the night’s breeze, the air whistling through the branches of the trees seemed to call to him. To mock him. In the distance a cicada drummed against itself, the sound a cackle at Nwin-Nwin’s helplessness.
Oh poor Nwin-Nwin, greatest of warriors, now an old senile man, incapable of a simple teleportation. The old man hissed.
Wrapping his robes tightly about himself, as a ward against the sudden night chill, the old man walked away from beneath the pawpaw tree, his bare feet shuffling angrily through the leaf-strewn forest floor. The thick George wrapper flapped against his knees as the wind grew stiffer. It was worn in an odd fashion, first wrapped around the waist in a loose gird, then over the left shoulder and under the right armpit as a toga, then over the shoulder again and across the right shoulder. It was red with a silvery kind of white striped across it. Agroashungbe, an Ishan flycloak.
Perhaps it was too old he thought, worn out over many years of use, he thought. Or maybe that’s just me. The forest quieted as he walked further out, the elements calming as the wind slowed to a murmur. Above him, tall palms blended with thick branched irokos to give a dense canopy that blotted the stars, leaving all in shadow. The old man flitted through the forest, his steps all but soundless now, in the sudden quiet that had descended. In front, at the edge of a grassy glade loomed the dark shadow that was his hut.
As Nwin-Nwin walked into the hut, he knew instantly he wasn’t alone. It wasn’t what he saw, for the insides of the hut were dark as pitch, darker even than the shadow of the forest behind him, and he had not left a light before leaving. It was more like a smell, the instinctual sense of a predator perceiving the prey that had wandered into its lair. Eyes closed; his form a tall dark silhouette against the doorway, he whipped out his right hand from the folds of his robes, making a fist, he drew back the hand before flattening it out and plunging into the shadow to his side. The shadow coalesced into a young man who yelped as Muemuen grabbed him and tossed him over his shoulder and out the doorway, his eyes still closed.
“Iye men! My mother!” the man yelped as he landed.
The old warrior turned, his eyes shining in the dark as a knife appeared in his hand. He took a step towards the man, scrambling to prostrate on the floor.
“Oba ghato kpe e! The Oba requests your presence, there has been a breach of the contract with the North and only you can solve it,” the man blurted in rapid-fire Bini. His face prostrate to the ground.
If he saw the smile that curled on the old man’s wizened face, he may have soiled his clothes further.
Even without the ogume Nwin-Nwin would have run the distance from Ewohinmi to Benin in less than a day. When he was in his prime he would have done it in thirty minutes. But that was over thirty years ago and he was a ninety year old man now. The warrior leapt over the Ikpoba river in one bound, the white cloth ripping and flapping in the wind as his form swept over the water. He landed on the other side before the water even rippled, the cloth settling back on his body as he stared at the arrow shafts nocked in the trees above him, held by hands as steady as a rock.
Watchers. Spirit or man, the Watchers of the Rivers and Moats, protectors of the realm showed no care and gave no quarter. If one did not pass through the gates and decided to come over the moats, the great trenches dug since the time of the Ogisos, or through the rivers that circled the city, he had to answer the Watchers or receive his due.
“I am Nwin-Nwin, the stone which does not break. The Death-dancer, the runner of the walls. I have been summoned, let me pass,” he intoned.
He waited three heartbeats, then sprang forward, dancing through the trees.
THE STORY CONTINUES….
- A lot of this is fiction. There is some truth though.
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GOD bless Nigeria