The chief had not requested her presence in over a year.
The fact that he asked for her now, set her on edge. She had begun to find comfort and rhythm in the monotony of her days. She had not stepped foot in this section of the Kalu in months and was grateful that she was being led by the slave who had summoned her. Dare trailed her silently; she could feel him in the shadows. It was easy to forget sometimes that he was there, always with her.
They had stepped out into the courtyard now. She walked past the princes and princesses who played and laughed. Some of them stopped to stare at her, they were probably unsure of who she was. She heard whispering and turned to see two girls pointing and staring at her hair; she smiled at them and hoped her smile was unthreatening. She was no longer accustomed to being in the presence of people. The girls beamed back. She thought for the moment that she recognized their mothers’ unsmiling faces in their smiling ones. On the other side of the courtyard was a long corridor and they walked past several doors which she knew belonged to the current favourites of the Chief.
It was a little like a maze – lots of corners and very little light got into the Kalu, so that even in the daytime it was hard to see. The walls were engraved with ancient Adure writings. She couldn’t read or speak Adure, another reason for her alienation from and isolation in the household. The slave, a tall skinny boy, pushed the doors open and she walked in to a room buzzing with activity. She remembered this room, it was where she had first been presented to the Chief. Her presence caused the activity to lull and everyone seemed to stare at her.
Rather than look left or right, she walked into the center of the room where the Chief sat on his chair with a wife seated on either side of his feet. She knelt down briefly, took the hand he offered her and kissed it. Then she raised her head and met his eyes.
“Obirin, you have grown more beautiful,” he said this to her in her tongue and she bowed her head in acknowledgement of his praise. He, on the other hand, was not ageing well. His face was plagued with lines and folds. His lips were turning black due to his liking of smoking tar. His dark eyes were dull – he did not appear to be sleeping well. She looked up to see him wave his hand “Oya kuro. Tete!”
His wives stood up, throwing her looks of puzzlement and annoyance. They were followed out by the Chief’s advisors and attendants.
Before long, she was alone with him. It was the second time since she had been brought to the Kalu two years ago.
“Sit beside me.”
She obliged, taking the place of one of the wives. With her legs tucked under her, she looked up at him and waited.
He coughed for a bit, adjusting his agbada a number of times. He seemed even more uncomfortable than she was. She used this opportunity to look around the room, whilst he gathered his thoughts. The room was circular, the only one of its kind. It was filled with sculptures of animals and barely clothed women, sculptures of men in battle ready poses. The earthy ground was covered by the skin off the back of two cheetahs, cheetahs, it was rumoured, the chief had caught and killed in his youth. There was a painting of him as a young man hanging on the wall – he was once handsome. She thought she saw a flicker behind the sculpture of a young virile man; it seemed Dare had entered the room. The chief cleared his throat.
“Have you been treated well? You get enough food?”
“Yes, your highness.”
“Excellent. Excellent. I am going to ask something of you, but it is between you and I. If I hear a word of this spoken outside these walls, it will mean your life.” She said nothing. She understood his message and she saw no point in revealing Dare’s presence. Dare was the equivalent of a ghost, he hardly spoke at all. “I have been having the same dream for over a month now and I do not know what it means.”
Lara squirmed uncomfortably. She did not like what he seemed to be asking her to do.
“Bring me that concoction.”
She followed the direction of his finger and stood to collect a huge mug from the table. The chief drank it down quickly though she could see from the look on his face that it was not a pleasant drink to drink. “This drink,” he told her “will put me to sleep. Then you can figure out the dream.” He looked at her expectantly and dared her to say otherwise. Lara sighed
“Yes, your highness.”
In response he closed his eyes and she waited for the sleep to set in. In the quiet, she could hear the sounds of his children playing. It was an angelic sound like the ringing of bells. Their laughter was pure and young and fresh and it gave her the feeling of hope. How long had it been since she had been in the midst of laughter?
The chief’s snoring brought her back to the present. Asleep, less lines afflicted his face and she was able to see the remnant of the man he once was. She laid to fingers at the centre of his forehead and closed her eyes, willing herself to sleep. The sound of children began to fade away and in the darkness she began to make out an image.
At first she saw nothing except a white fog, then as the fog began to clear she could make out figures. The figures appeared at first to be statues, statues of animals. She took a few steps forward and marveled at how cool the grass felt beneath her feet whilst the sun seemed to beat on her bare back. She looked about her carefully, even the littlest detail could be important and she didn’t want to miss a thing.
She could see the animals more clearly now and they were not statues, though they may as well have been – they stood so still! The animals stood in a now more distinct circle, seven of them – a lion, a cheetah, a hyena, a panther, a snake and two bears. She hesitated, these were not beasts that would think twice before killing her, and they would have already sensed her presence. She waited and she seemed to be waiting for a long time. The sun went down and it was night and the animals had not stirred.
And then she heard it, a whimper. It was coming from within the circle. She walked closer, softly, careful not to startle the beasts. But they paid her no attention, they did not even look her way. The Chief stood in the centre of the circle, naked. This was what had the animal’s attention. They all stared at him, in hostility. As she got closer, she could see the hairs on their bodies standing, their claws out, their ears up as though they would pounce at any moment. Yet they remained as they were, tense but still.
The Chief had not seen her and she could see how afraid he was. He was brandishing his sword about but rather than looking menacing, he looked vulnerable, and fat, and old, and afraid. He shivered as he called out obscenely and dared the beasts to fight with him. He promised to kill them, to skin them and cook their bones. He assured them he would make a stew out of them. He laughed but his laugh was hollow, she felt a wave of pity wash over her. She called out to him but he did not turn her way. She began to walk over to him but the cheetah leapt in front of her
“Don’t. What will be, will be.”
“He suffers. Why do you let him suffer so?”
“What are you doing here, dream walker?”
“This dream has troubled him for many nights. What message is he to gain from this torture?”
“What will be, will be. You cannot save him.” The Cheetah turned his head away and became still again but he was still blocking her from the Chief and she had a feeling that if she moved, he would come alive again so she stayed where she was and called out to the Chief. But still he did not hear. Then she saw a movement from the corner of her eye. She looked down and watched as a wall gecko began to scurry between its larger counterparts. She followed its path towards the Chief and felt a rising curiosity. The Chief on the other hand did not notice the creature; he continued to brandish his weapon and shout his threats. He grew bolder as he realized that the animals made no move towards him
“You cowards! Odes! Foolish illiterate animals! You dare to come at me?! You dare to come at the Oba of the Adure people?! You must be mad!”
He did not see as the wall gecko crept up his leg, but then he cried out and she saw blood trickling down. Her eyes widened in shock, as she watched the gecko appear to take bit after bit of the Chief’s body. The Chief scratched and pulled at his skin but the creature was always one step ahead
“Help him, please.” The Cheetah remained still “Take pity on him.” She tried to move forward but then a bear blocked her path. “Ejo, help him. Give him mercy.” The screams of the Chief haunted her as she tried to get to him but found herself continuously blocked. She watched helpless as the Chief cried out in pain and the gecko tore him apart piece by piece until there was nothing left of him but bone.
Then the animals began to walk away, one by one and she realized that she had been caged by them.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the Chief staring at her and she found herself blushing. No wonder he had been embarrassed about the dream; but he wasn’t looking at her now with shame. It was anger than bolstered him.
“Well, what does the dream mean? If you cannot tell me, I will have you torn apart by lions!”
“I will tell you what it means, but I must ask one thing in return.”
“What?! What do you want?!”
“My life.” He looked at her with narrowed eyes and she did not look away. She did not want him eradicating her when he learnt the meaning of the dream.
“You can have your worthless life! Tell me!”
“Those beasts, they are your enemies. They are the people who you keep an eye out for because you know they are patiently waiting for a moment of weakness. But they are not the ones who will be the cause of your demise. Your demise will come from someone who you do not expect nor anticipate. Someone who is beneath your attention.”
“And how do I stop it, how do I stop them from getting to me?”
Lara didn’t think it would be worth the risk to tell him that she did not know how to prevent the impending doom, so she said nothing. She could smell the fear coming off of him in droves.
“Where does the dream come from? Who sends the dream?” Her silence seemed to be angering him and so she took a step back. “Answer me!”
“Perhaps one of your gods sent it to you, as a warning.”
He stood abruptly. The sweat was dripping from his face and the lines and folds seemed to have multiplied. He was breathing hard and he tugged at his agbada.
“Who is the gecko?”
She said nothing. She did not want to appear cowed or scared so she looked at a spot just above his head rather than below it. He grabbed her neck and began to squeeze it. “Are you mad, girl? Answer me.”
“I do not know,” she gasped. She remembered how she had been grateful that he could speak her tongue. Now he merely seemed to her a chameleon, a beast of all colours, all moods, all skins. “Let me go!” she grabbed his wrists and tried to pull his hands from her throat but he merely stiffened his grasp. “Please…” then she saw Dare appear behind the Chief as if by magic and he grabbed the Chief’s head and pulled it back before he sliced his throat. His hands fell away and she could hear his gurgling as she caught her breath. She sank to her knees beside his writhing body and gulped the air.
“You shouldn’t have killed him.” she managed to say, once she got her breath back. He didn’t respond but she didn’t expect him to. Instead he wiped his dagger on the Chief’s clothing until his weapon shone again. The body of the Chief was still now. It had happened in a matter of seconds and she heard the voices of the children who were now without a father. How long would it be before a guard, slave or wife sought entrance into the room?
Dare offered her a hand and she stood up. There were two entrances out of the room. One led out the way she had come in, the other led out into the passage that led into the Chief’s bedroom. She had been inside his room three times in total and knew that there was a trap door beside his bed. She passed on this message to Dare.
“Perhaps if we can make it there unseen, we can actually make it out of here alive.” He headed to the door and she followed him quickly. Her skirt trailed in the blood as her bare feet avoided it. She felt a pang of sorrow for this man who had provided her a home, albeit a solitary home, for a while, and who had died in fear. As they stepped out of the room and into the passage, it occurred to her for the first time, that she had been the instrument of death. She was the gecko.