The way was quiet.
She could hear the gentle murmur of the trees as their branches answered the wind’s command. She made out sounds – the chattering of monkeys, the flapping of wings, the scuttling of rats.
Dare walked ahead of her. They stayed parallel to the main road but walked in the forest, so that they would see long before they were seen. Night had begun to unfold herself and Lara could feel the cold settling into her bones. The weather was always drastic out here – either the sun threatened to burn your skin off during the day or the moon had your teeth knocking at night. And she was not dressed for cold weather. She wore a crop top made of heavy lace and a wrapper that was tied firmly around her waist and reached the ground. Her feet were bare and tired.
She leaned against a trunk and rested her head. Even with her eyes closed she could tell that Dare had stopped walking and was looking at her. It occurred to her that it had been years since they had been like this – just the two of them. He was always with her, but she rarely ever saw him. Six years ago she had been convinced she was in love with him. He had been a handsome boy. She opened her eyes. He was a beautiful man. His eyes were grey, his skin was dark like mahogany. His dreadlocks fell all the way to his hips. His bare chest sectioned by lines that seemed to dig deep into his skin. He wore only the Sokoto and they fitted his legs in a snug manner that bordered on the indecent. His eyes met hers and she looked away. He was a stranger now.
They both looked up when they heard the snapping of twigs on the ground. Dare unsheathed his dagger and walked into the darkness. She held her breath. He returned moments later with a man in tow. He held a knife to the man’s throat. The man’s eyes were wild with terror, she felt a wave of pity for him and she did not want to see another man die.
“Dare. Release him.” Dare removed the dagger from the throat. She walked over to the man. “I’m sorry. You startled us.”
“Wetin? Wetin?” he mumbled as he rubbed his throat and threw angry glances at Dare. He was of the Akute tribe. The sister to her own. His tongue and skin tone gave him away. “I just dey piss and dis man don come and attack me.”
Lara apologized again.
“Madam wetin you dey do with this kind man?”
“He protects me.”
Choosing not to respond to his question, she said, “I hope you can forgive us.” She smiled at him gently and began to trail Dare again.
“Wait!” the stranger called out. She turned to face him and waited, “Where u dey go? My friend and I, we are going to Ayu. You can ride on our donkey.”
She glanced at Dare and he gave her a curt nod. So she walked back towards the man.
“No problem. Fine girl like you should not be walking so far.” He told her his name was Lanle.
“I’m Lara and this is…” but Dare had disappeared again and so she let her voice trail away into nothing. They headed to where he said he had left his friend. It was deeper into the forest.
“We stayed the night here. We no wan meet armed robbers. We have valuable goods we go sell,” he told her.
Lanle’s companion was kneeling on a mat, bent over with his forehead also touching the mat. At first she thought he prayed but then she felt a pull. He was sleeping and his dream called to her. She took a step backwards.
“Your friend is asleep. Wake him.” She knew her voice sounded harsh but she did not want to enter this stranger’s mind. When a person dreamed within close proximity, she always found herself pulled in. A witness to the person’s greatest wishes or worst nightmares. She didn’t have this issue with Dare, for Dare never dreamed. His mind was like a void.
Lanle looked at her and then shambled over to his friend to wake up. He shoved him to a side and the sleeping man woke with a shudder.
“Yume, we have a guest.” Yume looked about him until his sleepy eyes settled on Lara. He grinned and she counted three missing teeth.
“Yes o! You don find me wife!” Lanle hit his companion’s back.
“Ode! Get up joh and greet the madam properly.”
Yume stood up with a bit of a struggle. His pot belly swayed in front of him. Beside him, Lanle was skinny and short. They were certainly quite a pair.
“Madam you must be hungry.” Her stomach rumbled as a reply. Yume dug into his pouch and tore off some bread for her. She kept a little for Dare should he decide to come out of the shadows and eat.
“Where is dat your friend?”
“There is another woman?” Yume asked eagerly.
“No. She was with dis man who don try kill me.”
“Ah abeg o! He should stay where he is. I be too fine, to die.”
Lara listened to their exchange and was thoroughly entertained by it. They did not stay still as they spoke, but waved around hands and waggled eyebrows and hit one another. She yawned
“Ah! Our madam is tired o!” They flew into a scurry of activity and she was directed to a mat where they had laid a cloth. She closed her eyes and slept, comforted by the kindness of the travelers and the knowledge that Dare was somewhere close by.
Dare watched the men huddle together and whisper.
“Did you see her hair?”
“Plenty woman would kill for that hair. But what of dat man wey u say try kill you?”
“He leave madam comot as I tell am, make she follow me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes na. Can you see him anywhere?” The two men looked around their surroundings. Dare relaxed knowing their untrained eyes would never spot him. He crouched low, resting on the balls of his feet. The one called Yume pulled out a knife from his waist.
Dare considered stepping in and slitting their throats, but the truth was Lara’s hair stood out and would ruin any hope of anonymity they had. Anywhere they went, they would be remembered. The colour of her hair was rare and it was too full to hide beneath any sort of headscarf. He would have had to suggest she cut it at some point but he had always known she would fight his suggestion. Now these foolish men would do the job for him.
“Do am jeje, make she no wake,” said Lanle. Yume crept up to Lara who unsmiling, seemed otherwise to be sleeping peacefully. Dare was used to hearing her groan or cry out, used to seeing her shudder and toss. It was impossible to wake her when she was in this state. Another impediment to their smooth escape. Tonight, her chest rose up and down slowly, unaware of the evil around her. She had always been more afraid of the world he could not see than the real world with its real dangers.
Yume held a tuft of Lara’s hair and Yume nodded vigorously to encourage him. Dare felt his heart freeze as Yume made the cut. Or tried to. Lara was sitting up now, having forced Yume to jump back. Her movements were stiff and awkward and when she turned to face him, Dare saw that her eyes were closed. She was sleeping still! She grabbed the knife from Yume’s stunned hand and stuck it in his arm. Yume yelped in pain.
Yume stumbled back, shouting and clutching his arm. Lara on the other hand had returned to her original position, lying on the mat. Lanle, who was shaking, cursed her and brought out a knife.
“Witch! Demon!” he cried, over and over, but Lara continued to sleep. Lanle approached her slowly. Dare walked out from his hiding place and first drew his knife across Yume’s screaming throat. The silence caused Lanle to turn, but Dare was already behind him and he ended Lanle’s careless fear and existence. When he had disposed of them, he returned to her and found her sleeping still but now she dreamt. She was murmuring and Dare glimpsed tears.