So, here are the opening chapters of Queen of Zazzau. Pulling ancient Zazzau and Queen Amina from my imagination onto paper has been a gargantuan undertaking and, at times, rather overwhelming.
As I said on the main page, my aim is to compel the reader forward. I hope these three chapters are doing that.
Queen of Zazzau--Chapter 1 8/19/2014
Rizga, Eastern Mountain Kingdoms, Southern Hausaland. Circa 1557 CE
As I said on the main page, my aim is to compel the reader forward. I hope these three chapters are doing that.
Queen of Zazzau--Chapter 1 8/19/2014
Rizga, Eastern Mountain Kingdoms, Southern Hausaland. Circa 1557 CE
The smell of smoke wafted towards us like a malicious spirit. Burning grass—a field afire or the burn of thatched roofs—and something else that I did not quite recognize. When at last the city gates came into view, they were sundered, ripped from the wall, and crumpled on the ground like a pair of tattered mats. Grey pillars of smoke rose from the city beyond. The odor, which grew stronger as we neared, filled me with revulsion. Its sharp taste constricted my throat.
“Bodies,” Jaruma said quietly. My companion or my bodyguard—I was unsure which role she filled at the moment—looked at me. “The smell. Burning bodies.”
Aghast, I covered my mouth with my hand.
The Madawaki raised a fist above his head and the steady clop clop clop of one thousand horses ceased as the bowmen drew to a halt behind us. Vulture calls pierced the silence.
“Stay with Gimbiya Amina,” the Madawaki said to Jaruma. Then, turning to his troop, he gave orders.
Twenty or so men galloped into action, leaving the rest of the Kuturun Mahayi behind with Jaruma and me. Those who stayed formed a living barrier around me and my companion. Each man on his mount sat alert, bow at the ready, as the waiting dragged into endlessness. Aside from the sounds of the circling scavengers and the occasional snort of a horse, all was quiet.
Jaruma peered out from between the men.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Her fingers tapped impatiently on her thigh, as though aching to have a weapon in their grip. Over and over, she drummed a nervous rhythm, while straining to see past the Kuturun Mahayi blocking her view.
After an interminable amount of time, the Madawaki exited the city with his men, and we rode forward to meet them.
“Rizga is devastated,” he said, his horse fidgeting. “Very few remain alive. Mostly the aged and infirm.”
“Who has done this?” I asked, trying to conceal my mounting fear.
“You must be taken to safety.”
“Who did it?”
My heart dropped. “Kwararafa?” I could not keep the quiver from my voice.
A newly risen kingdom, methodical in their subjugation of nations, the Kwararafa were, collectively, an efficient killing machine. They plundered city after city to increase the reach of their empire. Of those who stood against them in battle, none survived as a people.
Something evasive in the Madawaki’s manner, the way he looked past me, his eyes scanning the distant peaks, told me that he hadn’t been entirely forthcoming.
“What are you not saying?” I asked.
He ignored my question. “Jaruma, take the Gimbiya to safety.”
“Tell me!” I commanded, grabbing his horse’s bridle.
His quiet scrutiny, which was difficult to endure at the best of times, fell on me now. My time as a soldier in his cavalry had been short-lived. I traveled this day as a representative of my mother, the queen. Still, I shrunk under the intense gaze of those coal-black eyes.
“Tell me, Madawaki. Please.”
An internal debate played across his dark face, deepening the furrow in his brow. Unlike most of the Kuturun Mahayi, he wore no headwrap, only a small white cap. After more than a week of travel, a layer of bristle covered his usually smooth head and face. The black hair, interspersed with grey, softened his stern features and made it easier for me to hold his gaze.
At length he said, “They’ve made for Zazzau.”
“Go with Jaruma.”
“But how can that be?” I asked. “We would have seen a war band on our way here. Who told you this?”
“A man dying in the streets.”
“Where is he? Let him tell me himself.”
“He is dead, Gimbiya.”
In tune with my tension, my horse drew back. As I had not released my grip on the Madawaki’s horse, his also shifted in agitation.
“They must be moving across the hills,” he said. “And they possess powers we’ve never encountered.”
“What powers?” My eyebrows rose in realization. “You mean magic?”
“Call it what you will. The Kwararafa attack like biting flies—invisible until they strike. They came down on Rizga without warning. No one saw them before the raid. No one knew they were near.”
A cold panic began in the pit of my stomach, but I kept it under control. “Then I must return to Zazzau.”
“You will not.”
“No!” The Madawaki’s voice thundered through the air. Even the tall savannah grass seemed to bow at the sound. “You will be kept safe.”
“You no longer command me, Madawaki.”
“The queen commands me, and I am commanded to protect you. You’ll not return to Zazzau.”
“I will not stay in this wilderness!” I moved my hand from the bridle to grasp his arm.
My mother had sent me here on a mission of friendship. As the chief administrator of two provinces in Zazzau, I was well versed in conflict and diplomacy, but I wasn’t prepared for this. My role here was to extend an ally’s hand to our neighbor in the east, to negotiate fair tariffs and the exchange of goods. Thanks to the Kwararafa, that neighbor no longer existed. I did not wish to linger amidst the carnage.
“The city is safe,” he said. “You and Jaruma, along with the men I can spare, will go into the city. The Kwararafa have finished their business.” His nostrils flared in disgust. “You’re safer here.”
“No!” My grip on his arm tightened.
Without a care for whom he was manhandling, he seized my fingers and wrested them from their hold. “Do as I command.” The tone in which he had spoken the words, the purposeful intensity with which his eyes penetrated mine, made me fear the force moving toward Zazzau more than their reputation alone had ever done.
As I looked on in impotent rage, the Madawaki doled out orders. If my time serving under him had taught me nothing else, it had taught me that once he made a decision, he would not be swayed. He would never allow me to ride back with him, and now I dared not go on my own.
He huddled with Jaruma, lips moving, forehead pressed against hers. Even on horseback, his height made Jaruma’s six feet look small. Seeing him with his sister, I realized I might never see mine again. Zariya and I were not close like Jaruma and her brother, but we were fond of one another. She was my blood, a part of me, and I was powerless to help her.
The Madawaki pulled away from his sister, and it occurred to me that I might never see him again either, that I should say something, offer him a prayer, wish him all speed and safe return... anything. But I did nothing, merely hung back as the bowmen rode off, kicking up stones and dirt.
“Come, Gimbiya,” Jaruma said, riding toward me. “Let’s go into the city. There are people who need our aid.”
“My mother needs my aid,” I said dully. “Who will help her?”
“The Kwararafa are on foot. It will be easy for the Kuturun Mahayi to intercept them.”
“Easy to intercept them?” Incredulous, I looked at her.
The Kwararafa Empire lay beyond the impassable mountain ranges, but clearly, they had found a way to march an entire military contingent through those peaks. Their mastery of the mountain crossing was only one small aspect of their impressive skill. That they traveled unseen by the plains dwellers was yet another.
When rumors of the Kwararafa had first surfaced, I had tried to convince my mother to expand our military force, but we hadn’t seen eye to eye in that regard. She was always so determined to meet hostility with diplomacy. The Kwararafa, however, met diplomacy with slaughter. They didn’t war for slaves or profit. Spreading like locusts, they fought for territory, for the expansion of their people. They fought to ensure their own immortality and wipe out any culture that was not their own.
It was the Kwararafa who began the push that forced the Songhai out of our ancient Hausa lands. If the mighty Songhai retreated at the threat of Kwararafa, what chance did the rest of us have?
“Jaruma, they’re invisible to us,” I said. “We cannot intercept what we cannot see.”
She held firmly. “You must have faith. My brother has never failed me. He’s never failed Zazzau. The Kuturun Mahayi will stop them.”
I prayed she was right.
The Madawaki had left me fifty Kuturun Mahayi, including Jaruma, who now took up the command. Whether or not she held the highest rank among them, the others seemed to accept her leadership. We advanced toward the city at her order, and entered in one flowing mass.
Smoke billowed thick around us, the odor more acrid than it was before. Despite having covered my face with the veil of my headwrap, the smoke stung my eyes and coated my throat. Every cough burned. The others, similarly veiled, did not appear so afflicted; they moved quietly through the smoke, past burning houses, past the dead, who lay scattered, flies buzzing about their corpses. The bodies of children, small children, lay motionless among the adults. My stomach retched at the sight, but nothing came up.
“They killed the children,” I murmured to myself. I tried to keep my eyes off the tiny, lifeless forms, but death surrounded me. Men and women struck down, fear forever frozen on their faces. I looked upon them and remembered Zariya’s prediction: The carcasses of men litter the fields. Had she been referring to these carcasses? If so, she had failed to mention the women and children.
“They kill everyone,” said the soldier who rode to my left.
The stories that preceded the Kwararafa said that those who survived an attack were either too old to be bothered with or too well hidden when the enemy swept through their lands. Picking our way through the massacre at Rizga, it appeared the stories were true.
He looked around in disgust. “They’ve neither the need nor the desire for prisoners. They kill everyone.”
“Not everyone,” Jaruma said, as a woman’s wailing reached our ears. She raised her voice. “I need five of you. The rest, find the survivors and bring them to the palace. Gimbiya, come with me.”
I rode through the smoke, telling myself that my people would be safe, that my family would remain unharmed. After all, nine hundred and fifty Kuturun Mahayi would be there in a matter of days. But it had taken us eight days to reach here from Zazzau. The men and their horses were travel-weary. What if the Kwararafa, riding whatever power they rode, reached Zazzau first? What if the enemy made it to the capital? What then?
“There.” Jaruma interrupted my anxious thoughts before they roamed too deeply into darkness. “Palace compound.”
The royal palace stood at the center of the city, much of it destroyed. From what remained, I saw that it had been a marvelous structure built with large adobe blocks. The outer walls were not high, but they were close to two meters thick. On this side, two walls overlapped so that, although there was no gate, the gap between adjacent walls was only wide enough for a single person to enter at a time. We dismounted here, and secured our horses to thick, iron pegs set into the wall. Then we entered.
“Find the wells,” Jaruma shouted over the roar of fire, and five men rushed to do her bidding.
After dousing the flames within the compound, we saw the full extent of the devastation. The iron gate of the main entrance lay partially atop the smashed gatehouse. The Kwararafa had set fires inside each of the cylindrical dwellings. The largest dwelling—presumably the king’s quarters—at the center consisted of several conjoined buildings. The front-middle building was smallest, followed in size by the two flanking buildings, then the rear-middle, which was also taller than the rest. Having never traveled more than a day’s ride from the borders of Zazzau, I had never seen such irregular architecture. The lack of conformity may once have imparted an exotic beauty to the overall structure, but today, it too had burned from the inside out, and, like the gatehouse, its walls were smashed. Only the king’s pavilion, a large three-walled structure with heavy thatched roof, remained intact.
By late day, the survivors of Rizga, silent as the dead, frightened and in shock, clung to each other in the pavilion.
“Who among you is of able body?” Jaruma asked.
A few people looked up at her with empty eyes, but no one replied. Then several young boys came forward. The tallest of them spoke.
“We were in the fields when they came.” The tracks of his tears streaked through the soot covering his face. “Had we known, we would have returned.” He lowered his head. “Before it was too late.”
“If you had returned,” Jaruma said. “You’d be among the dead.”
“I would have died honorably with my father, my mother, my brothers.”
“There’s no shame in your survival. The Creator has other plans for you.”
“What plan does Ubangiji have that my whole family should die? My sister was a baby. Did the Creator not have a plan for her?”
“It is not for us to question the ways of gods. For now, you must help us bury the fallen.”
She spoke privately with a handful of soldiers, who gathered up the young boys and led them out of the palace compound.
“What of me?” I asked. Worry for my people would drive me mad. So, despite my dread, I needed to set my mind and idle hands to some task.
“You and I will attend the living,” she said. “See to their wounds. Prepare food.”
I nodded, and went about my assigned duty.
There were only a few wounded among the survivors, and all the injuries were minor. A bruised face, loose teeth, some cuts and scrapes, but no broken bones. No deep, soon-to-be festering wounds. They were all quickly addressed.
For food, some chickens roamed the city, but the process of feather plucking was too onerous a task for that day. A few market stalls still stood, though the Kwararafa had made off with the edibles. So, we raided all that remained of the Rizgans’ grain stores and made a meal of cooked millet. It was not a satisfying dinner, but fatigue and despair didn’t let anyone complain.
After eating, we took turns washing with water from the palace well. Then, one by one, we crashed onto the earthen floor of the pavilion. Sleep came quickly.
Queen of Zazzau--Chapter 2 8/19/2014
I heard my name and opened my eyes to darkness.
“Amina.” The disembodied voice was like a stream bubbling over a bed of stones.
Looking this way and that, I saw nothing but the blackness beyond. “Who calls?” I asked.
“It is me.”
Grey light filtered into the darkness, cutting through it like the early rays of dawn through a dispersing fog. I sat in a forest of trees unlike any I had ever seen. The trees rose like giants around me, their canopies lost in the heavens.
“Do you see me?”
The voice came from somewhere near my foot. I looked down and saw a tiny spring gurgling from the earth.
“Do you not recognize me?” the voice asked, but there was no one present. It sounded as though the words had come from the spring.
I stared intently down at the water. Small bubbles floated from the bottom of the spring, increasing in size as they ascended and popped through the surface. From each bursting bubble came the sound of cascading laughter.
“Kogi-Ayu?” I asked, tentatively.
Stories passed down through generations told of the temperamental rivergod. As Kogi, he provided life-water to the soil and to the people who toiled it, but as Ayu, he was wicked and drowned any who entered his demesne. Cautious, I scooted away from the water.
“You know me now, Amina?”
“I know you,” I said, glancing around for higher ground. “Why have you come to me?”
“The Kuturun Mahayi have overtaken your enemy.”
My head fell forward in relief. “Then Zazzau is saved.”
“Your enemy is unseen and will come upon your people under shroud of darkness and cloak of magic,” he said. “Zazzau is doomed.”
My breath caught.
“Unless...” Kogi-Ayu paused and the babbling spring went still.
“Unless?” I exhaled.
“Unless you, Amina, save them.”
“Me? But why?”
“Because Destiny demands it.”
Destiny? The Oracle had decreed that I travel to Rizga instead of my mother’s usual representatives. That same Oracle had then decreed that I travel with one thousand Kuturun Mahayi.
“What does the Oracle say I should do?” I asked.
“Destiny,” Kogi-Ayu corrected. “They are not one and the same.”
“Destiny and the Oracle are not the same.” The tight, deliberate flow of words indicated the rivergod’s impatience.
I moved away from the spring. “What does Destiny say I should do?”
“Destiny says you should save your people.”
How could I save them? My swordsmanship ranked me among some of Zazzau’s finest warriors, but in twenty-three years of life, the closest I had ever come to battle was a fight with Jaruma. My mother had long ago banned me from War Council proceedings. Indeed, she’d banned me from everything pertaining to war. My military training wasn’t complete and the skill I possessed was likely stagnant from disuse. What could a single, half-trained woman do that an army could not?
“Destiny brought you here,” he said. “Trust it to show you the way.”
Trust it? I didn’t trust anything the gods offered. But if the Kwararafa went unchecked, they would destroy my people.
Holding my faith together by the thinnest thread, I rose. “I will go to my people.” Madawaki’s command be damned. Then I hesitated. The forest spread out as far as the eye could see. “How do I leave this place?”
And how will I save Zazzau?
“You will leave here when you wake. As to saving your people... that is the domain of War. Ask him.”
Mention of the wargod caught me off guard. First, because I didn’t realize I had spoken my thought aloud. Second, because of a prophecy and my sister’s oracular dreams.
I said, “I would not disturb Ruhun Yak’i with the paltry affairs of men.”
The rivergod’s laughter brought the bubbles in the spring to a boil. “Ruhun Yak’i, indeed.” He laughed again. “I do not blame you for not wanting to be in my brother’s debt. But hear me, Gimbiya Amina. Zazzau is in danger. If you cannot do what must be done, no one will.”
The spring began to dwindle into itself, growing smaller and smaller until it was but a trickle twisting between greenish-brown tufts of grass.
“Wait,” I called. “Wait. What must be done?”
From the diminishing stream came the bubbling voice, “Keep the hills close on your right and follow the flowing water. Now you are in my debt.”
The forest dissolved into blackness.
The place in which I woke felt unfamiliar. Rubbing my eyes, I sat up and attempted to get my bearings.
“What is it?” Jaruma asked, sitting with her back against the wall. She had removed her headwrap. The length of red cloth, a dark contrast to the white of her trousers, lay draped across her knees.
“Where—” I began, and then remembered. I was in Rizga. We had taken shelter in the pavilion with the city’s survivors.
“Are you alright?” she asked, leaning sideways to peer at me in the darkness.
“I had a dream,” I said, trying to recall what remained on the edge of my consciousness. “About a river.”
“No.” I pressed my knuckles against my temples to jog the memory hiding in the mist. “No. Not a river.” The memory came clear. “It was the rivergod.”
“You dreamed of Kogi-Ayu?” Along with weariness, her voice conveyed a distinct lack of interest.
“Yes.” More of the dream came through. I raised my head sharply as the memory surfaced. “He said Zazzau was in danger. That we are doomed.”
“It was a dream.” She leaned her head back against the wall.
“It was more than a dream,” I said tersely.
She angled her head downward to look at me again.
“He spoke to me,” I said. “It was more than a dream.”
The continued tone of disinterest belied her next question. “Did he tell you nothing more?”
“He said I, alone, could save Zazzau.”
“You?” Her response reflected my own doubt.
“So he said.”
“And how did he suggest you do it?” Irritation now seeped into her words.
“He... didn’t. Not precisely.” Grabbing the bunched-up cloth of the headwrap, upon which I had rested my head, I climbed to my feet. “He said to follow the flowing water and keep the hills to my right.”
My eyes searched the night for hers. “Jaruma, we must wake the others. If we remain here, the Zazzagawa are as good as dead.”
“Wait.” She rose, clutching both her headwrap and her sheathed sword in her left hand. “Wait, Gimbiya. It was only a dream. A dream born from worry over Zazzau.”
“It was more than a dream.” My loud words stirred some of the sleeping Rizgans. Lowering my voice, I repeated, “More than a dream.” I shook out the cloth of my headwrap, and began clumsily tying it into place. Several turns around my head, then I pulled the cloth over my face to create a loose veil before taking it around my head several more times.
She continued to look doubtful.
“I know what I know, and I’m going.” Tucking the trailing end of my headwrap into one of its many folds, I tried to walk past her, but she stepped into my path. I pulled down the veil, and said in a harsh tone, “Either help me or get out of my way.”
Without a word, she undid the thick, red sash at her waist, slid the scabbard onto it, and re-knotted. Then she turned and began to rouse the soldiers. Those who had been standing sentry were already up and moving. After she gave them their new directives, they filed out of the compound.
Some of the Rizgans woke as we were leaving, but only one approached us. It was the young boy from before.
“I want to come with you,” he said. “I can fight.”
I looked at Jaruma, who shrugged.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“How old are you?”
Fifteen was old enough to fight. Indeed, it was old enough to marry and have children. The lean-muscled boy was around my height—a few inches short of six feet. He may even have proved adept with a weapon, but I didn’t intend to make the child into a warrior when I was hardly battle-ready myself.
I said, “Zuma, your responsibility is here with your people.”
“But I have no one,” he protested.
“Those who destroyed your city are on their way to destroy mine. We’ll defeat them, and when we do, we’ll come for you. All of you. Until then, you and those who are able must care for your people. Keep them safe. Keep them fed. Help them regain their strength. It’s many days’ journey to Zazzau.”
“But how will I avenge my family?” he asked, looking so downtrodden that I wanted to put my arms around him.
“Your time will come. But in times of despair, there can be no greater honor than putting aside your own desires to do what is right for your people. The spirits of your ancestors will not find fault with you.”
The boy didn’t look convinced. His disappointment, his grief, swirled like a thick cloak around him, but we could do nothing for his family. They were dead and he had to accept new responsibilities. My family yet lived; my responsibility lay toward the mountains.
We moved out on horseback, with me leading the procession of fifty bowmen. Jaruma rode at my side. Had we bothered with protocol, the ranking officer and a select few would have ridden ahead of me. In the previous eight days of travel from Zazzau to Rizga, Jaruma had gibed endlessly that I was gazing at her brother’s back. I would have welcomed any gibe to have the Madawaki now, as we rode toward the dark mass of hills in the east.
Within minutes after setting off from Rizga, the tall grass of the savannah gave way to dry, rocky ground. The terrain made the going rough, and worsened as we traveled further and further east. By the time we reached the peaks and turned northward, the rocks had grown to boulders around which we navigated our horses in near silence. Every now and then, conversation broke out, but the somber mood kept talk to a minimum.
After more than three hours of riding, we stopped to investigate on foot. The barren ground had the consistency of pulverized stone. High in the hills, however, spotty patches of green gave evidence of water... somewhere. I considered climbing the peak, but the rivergod had said to keep the hills to the right, not underfoot.
Jaruma’s loud sigh ended my internal deliberations.
“What?” I snapped, turning away from the hill.
She stood between my grey horse and her dark bay. The once-white tunic and trousers of her uniform, stained with soot in Rizga, were now covered with dust. So were her feet in their stiff leather sandals. No doubt, I was similarly filthy, though the light indigo color of my trousers and tunic held up better than white.
The bay shook its head, jangling the triangular amulets Jaruma had woven into its mane. It was beyond me why she didn’t hang the devices from the horse’s bridle, as did the other horsemen. My horse, untouched by battle, had never needed a protective amulet; perhaps it was time he had one. The amulet my sister had given me hung around my neck. Removing it, I approached my horse.
“Gimbiya,” Jaruma said when I reached them.
She lowered her veil, revealing a face with skin as dark as the darkest soil. I envied her skin. Mine was an uncommon shade that was neither dark nor fair, and glowed bronze in sunlight, betraying those few drops of Arab blood running through my veins.
“Are you certain we’re meant to keep to the hills? Perhaps we came too far eastward.”
The thought had crossed my mind. Our current route took us in a direction away from Zazzau’s capital of Kufena, which lay northwest of here. We had already ridden out the night and come across no running water. On this desolate terrain, we were unlikely to find any.
“Perhaps,” I replied uncertainly, as I looped the amulet’s string through the horse’s bridle. “But I think this is where we’re meant to be.”
“You think?” she said, then fell silent.
I tied the amulet in place and looked at her. Black eyes regarded me down the length of an unusually narrow nose, thoughts playing openly on a face much more amiable, but virtually identical to her brother’s. She believed the prior day’s strain had possibly driven me mad. In truth, my own thoughts toyed with the same idea. Jaruma followed me because she knew I was stubborn enough to go without her, but I knew she’d never let me go on my own.
“It was no dream, Jaruma.” Of that much I was certain.
Another three hours passed. Maybe less, but time was dragging. The earlier smatterings of conversation had died down to silence and the sound of gravel crunching under hoof. Every now and then, Jaruma threw me a sideways look.
She turned to me now. “Gimbiya, the sun has long since risen, and there’s still no sign of flowing water. Not a river, not a stream, not even a puddle. Either we turn back to Rizga or head to Zazzau. Regardless,” she muttered, “my brother will kill me.”
“The Madawaki answers only to my mother, but you answer to me,” I said. “We will not turn back.”
“But, how can you—”
“Don’t question me, Jaruma.” I feigned the confidence I didn’t feel.
“I’m not questioning you. It’s just—”
She shut her mouth.
“You may turn back if you wish,” I said.
She glared at me, her mouth twitching as though she intended to say something nasty. But she held her tongue. The soldiers closest to us exchanged looks with one another. They, too, likely thought me mad. Perhaps I was. A large part of me doubted my sanity at this point, but something in my heart told me to persist. Of course, that was the sort of thing a mad person would believe, was it not? It didn’t matter. We continued forward.
We rode for what felt like ages, but judging from the position of the sun, perhaps only a little more than another hour had gone by. I tried to mask my disappointment as we traveled, keeping my eyes open for even the slightest sign of water, but the soil was so dry, not even a blade of grass grew. I debated admitting the error in my judgment, and had internally begun formulating words of apology, when I heard something.
I brought my horse to a stop. The others halted as well.
“Do you hear it?” I asked no one in particular.
Jaruma, who generally had the keenest ears, listened for a moment. Once the horses stilled, the trickling sound of water came clear.
“Not a dream.” I said it more for myself than for her.
She rolled her eyes and looked toward the green of distant peaks. “It’s probably runoff from a mountain forest. After nine hours, it’s only natural that we find some sign of life on this barren plain.”
“Where is your faith now, Jaruma?”
Belly churning with anxiety, I dismounted and went in search of the rivergod’s sign.
Jaruma joined me, looking thoroughly exasperated. The source of water, when we found it, was not what anyone would have expected.
A puddle of water bubbled from a small hole in the stony ground. When we came near, it rose straight up then fell back to the ground. It rose again, the column higher this time, before falling. The waterspout continued to rise and fall, its base thicker than the tip. Like dripstone growing from a cave floor, except its surface rippled with the water flowing through it. The column stretched higher and higher with each repetition. And higher still, until it was man-height, before collapsing back into a puddle, now twenty-fold its original size. Then it streamed forward.
“Do you believe now?” I asked, and headed back to my horse.
Falling in step beside me, Jaruma said dryly, “Humblest apologies, Gimbiya.”
We rode after the stream, following it across the uneven ground, through clefts in the mountain, and up narrow defiles. If anyone doubted the handiwork of Kogi-Ayu, the fact that the stream flowed from low ground to high made the rivergod’s involvement clear. The higher we went, the steeper the incline and, in due course, we found ourselves ascending a craggy mountain path. Our horses, better suited to even terrain, had a difficult time of it. We had to dismount.
“Gather your weapons,” Jaruma said.
The Kuturun Mahayi wore their bows and quivers whenever they rode. Mine were hanging from my horse’s saddle, along with my sword and the rest of my travel supplies. Despite cavalry training, I was not titled Mahayi, as that was a title earned in battle. Neither my skill nor my level of discipline matched these seasoned warriors. Still, I was Zazzagawa. My archery skills surpassed most. I grabbed my bow and arrows and started up the path.
“No,” Jaruma said, resting a hand on my shoulder. “Danladi, Gambo, you’re at the head.”
“What?” Confused, I regarded her.
The two soldiers—Danladi and Gambo—took the lead, followed by ten more before she finally put me in position, with herself on my left. Another twelve came behind, each identical to the other in his simple tunic and trousers, bow and two quivers slung across his back, scabbard hanging from a red sash.
Not all of the Kuturun Mahayi wore swords. Some of the men who remained with the horses doubled as lancers. These had unfastened their spears from their travel supplies and stood ready for whatever battle might reach them on this uninhabited slope.
“Is this not my mission?” I said to Jaruma, as we made our way up the path. “I’m the one who brought us here. Why am I not leading?”
“Count yourself fortunate that I didn’t make you stay behind with the horses.” The scowl affixed to her face was entirely too reminiscent of her brother. “There may be danger ahead.”
I was aware of that, aware of the nervous excitement crawling up my spine, all too aware that this was precisely the sort of situation from which my mother had protected me my entire life, the sort of situation I’d promised to avoid. But, “Why would I send soldiers to face an enemy that I cannot face myself?”
Brow furrowed by the ever deepening scowl, Jaruma glanced at me. “First and foremost, you’re the queen’s daughter. I’m ordered to keep you from harm. You think I enjoy commanding from the rear?” Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t look at me like that, Amina. I’ll push you off this mountain myself.”
“Oh? Is that how you keep me from harm?”
The scowl grew deeper still. Impressive. “If you insist on riding the path of danger, Gimbiya, the least I can do is finish you off quickly.”
“Pfft.” Beyond that, she ignored the insult.
We climbed a good distance before the forward motion of the tiny stream slowed then stopped. The stream itself appeared to have joined with another, natural stream, but the water was unnaturally still.
“Stop,” I said.
Jaruma halted the troop. “Why are we stopping?”
“The water isn’t flowing.”
I stared down at the narrow line of frozen water. The Arabs brought many tales of travel to lands so cold that water froze, but I had never seen such a thing. The smooth surface of the rivergod’s stream looked like a panel of glass set into the ground. A flawless panel imported from the far north, because no glass produced in Zazzau ever looked quite so perfect. The smoothness of it befuddled the senses. I reached out to touch it, to see if it had somehow solidified.
Without warning or sound, the glass exploded upward. In the ensuing commotion, it took a few moments to realize that the exploding shards were still liquid. They sprayed into our faces, past our heads, and settled into mist above us, before floating into the sky. My eyes followed the receding water droplets.
And I saw them.
High above us, about five hundred meters ahead, a column of men marched steadily through the peaks.
Queen of Zazzau--Chapter 3 8/19/2014
“How many?” I asked.
Jaruma crouched back down behind the wall of rock we hoped would keep us hidden from the war band filing across the opposite peak. “Two thousand? Maybe more. They’re marching three abreast; I can’t see where they begin and end. What does it matter? We’re badly outnumbered.”
As many of us as would fit had crammed into a shallow mountain cleft, the main body of the mountain at our backs and a jagged outcropping serving as a barricade at our fronts. The twelve who could not pile into the crevasse crouched in tall patches of yellow-green grass. The red of their headwraps were impossible to camouflage, though.
Danladi rose to get a better look at the column of men marching through the mountain pass. “Whether there are two thousand soldiers or more, that peak is a good fifty meters higher than this one. How could they have reached it so quickly?”
“You saw what they did to the city we left behind,” I said. “They’re strong and they’re fast. They had nearly a full day’s lead on us.”
“Apologies, Gimbiya.” He dropped back down. “But they are more than forty times our number, and traveling on foot. Even on horseback, it took us the better part of this day. It should have taken them no less than two days.”
I recalled the Madawaki’s words. “They possess powers we cannot fathom.”
Silence fell, each soldier looking to the other. Each one reluctant to accept such a prospect, until a tentative voice said, “Magic?”
To my recollection, Gambo had never spoken a word in my presence before. His resonant voice all but echoed in my skull. He looked at me, then lowered his eyes timidly. It was almost comical to see such shyness in a man who appeared as though he could wrestle a lion into submission.
When no one responded, but continued to glance askance at one another, he continued without looking up. “It is the most reasonable explanation.”
“Whatever the explanation, they don’t need magic to see us.” Danladi gestured at the peaks.
True enough, a number of half-clad warriors had stopped marching and were pointing in our direction. A few more joined them. There was some obvious shouting, then the entire troop halted its descent.
Oh, gods of Jangare.
Surely Kogi-Ayu hadn’t lead us here to be killed? Then again, he had never claimed to know how to defeat the enemy. That was his brother’s purview, and I had no intention of calling on the wargod. Not when I knew what such action portended. Damn Zariya and her oracular dreams. I tried to think, but couldn’t focus.
“They haven’t seen us.” Shy Gambo broke my disjointed train of thought. “They’ve seen the men and horses below. We should attack now.”
Everyone turned to stare at him. Perhaps he was addled as well as shy.
“We attack,” he said again, more confidently. “We can’t escape without being seen, and the Kwararafa won’t let us walk away from here.”
Danladi scratched his scraggly beard and nodded. “He’s right. Better to attack now and attempt escape while they’re confused. Before they re-organize.”
Inexperience didn’t make me entirely ignorant of the logic in the plan, but it seemed prudent to state the obvious. “There are too many of them, and they have the higher ground.”
Gambo spoke again. “From what we know, the Kwararafa fight best in close quarters. They have short-range bowmen, but not many, and no long-range. Any one of us is more than a match for six of them.”
The Kuturun Mahayi were, indeed, legendary marksmen, but Gambo’s words couldn’t be anything other than bravado. The balance was so decisively tipped against us that the likelihood of our survival was virtually nonexistent.
“There are only twenty-eight of us,” I argued. “Assuming they have three hundred blind bowmen, they are still up there and we’re down here.”
“Forgive my insubordination, Gimbiya.” The big man looked me in the eye. This time, he did not lower his gaze. “We have the range.”
“We’ll be hit.” Perhaps it was fear talking, rather than caution. Had I faced death as many times as these soldiers, the idea of dying in these hills might not have caused such sharp pains in my gut.
“Some of us may die,” Jaruma said. “But not you.”
Now, they were staring at me.
She said, “Your life is worth more than all ours put together. We must do what’s necessary to keep you alive.”
Horrified, I looked at the faces around me. “No, Jaruma. I won’t ask anyone to die for me.”
“Do you think you have to ask?”
The coolness of her tone, coupled with stern black eyes, once again brought the Madawaki to mind. He was the coldest, sternest, most disdainful man I had ever met, and if we died here, he would never know it. Before premonitions and prophecies halted my military aspirations, I had dreamed of a warrior’s glory. Where was the glory in allowing fifty good men to die, when it was me who brought them here in the first place?
I said, “If they fight, I fight.”
“You can’t,” Jaruma said.
“I don’t need your permission.”
Rather than waste more time with argument, she conceded. “Very well. Get in formation.”
I didn’t know what ‘formation’ was, so I stayed put, while the soldiers, still crouching, spread out so that they were nearly shoulder to shoulder with one another. Following suit, I moved slightly to Jaruma’s left, positioning myself between her and another soldier. Surely, the Kwararafa saw all of us now.
“Alright then,” Jaruma said. “Ready yourself. You stand, aim, and shoot. The commands will be quick. Empty your quivers fast. We need to take down as many as we can.”
I nodded, my heartbeat pounding in my ears. The excitement, which, earlier, had crept up my spine, now trickled down as apprehension. I nocked the first arrow. After years of target practice, this was the true test of my skill. Closing my eyes, I took several long breaths to steady my hands and said a quick prayer for my arrows to fly true.
“May Allah be with us,” Jaruma muttered.
“Aim!” The command came from Danladi.
Focusing on a target—any target within the ranks of the enemy war band—I rose to my feet and drew back the bowstring.
Danladi had not finished speaking the word before the collective twang of strings drowned out his voice. Twenty-eight arrows whizzed through the air, immediately followed by twenty-four more—somehow the signal had made its way to the men below.
As Gambo had noted, we had the range. Even the arrows from the men below reached the opposite peak. Nothing less than a score of the bare-chested warriors fell, a few crashing down the mountainside.
Without pause, we nocked again and fired. More men fell. Then again. And yet again. The enemy scurried for cover. We loosed volley after volley, each round taking out dozens of their men, before the Kwararafa got themselves together. Then a throng of arrows poured from the sky.
Wind rushed from my chest, as Gambo pinned me to the ground with his hulking body. Metal arrowheads clattered against the rocky edge of our mountain cover. I heard Jaruma’s panicked cry.
Gambo rose off me, shouting, “Take her.”
“Gimbiya,” Jaruma cried again. She grasped my forearm, hauling me off the ground.
“Go!” Gambo yelled.
The Kwararafa did, in fact, have poor long-range capabilities. Many of their arrows either fell short or overshot the Kuturun Mahayi to shatter against the rock above our heads. Those that found their marks, however, were deadly accurate. A soldier crumpled beside me, the shaft of an arrow jutting from his throat.
“Move!” Gambo said, and let another arrow fly.
Jaruma yanked me down the path, behind the row of Kuturun Mahayi, who continued to shoot without pause. These men were here because of me, and soon their quivers would be empty. How could I just leave them here to die? I dug in my heels.
Jaruma turned abruptly. “What are you doing!”
A crippling guilt gnawed at my insides. “I can’t leave them!”
When her hand came up, I thought, for a moment, she would strike me.
Instead, she clutched my jaw and gave my head a rough shake. “They will die for you today! Honor their sacrifice, and live!”
Another Zazzagawa soldier fell. Another. And another. Each death chipped a new notch in my heart. Although I was afraid to die, seeing the men fall around me, I was too ashamed to live. Fifty brave men were paying for my life with theirs. The sacrifice needed to count for something. Impelled by this reality, I voiced no more protests, and scrambled down the mountain path.
We reached our horses and climbed into the saddles. The ascent had been tricky on horseback; the descent was no less so. The two horses tripped and stumbled down the path, kicking up stones in their wake, until we were back on level ground. Hugging the base of the hills, my companion and I rode south to put distance between us and the Kwararafa, before finally turning westward toward the open plains.
Jaruma and I rode until nightfall, the full moon illuminating us like glowworms in the dark. Anyone with eyes could see us out there on the savannah. Whether it was paranoia from our open position or heightened sensitivity from the danger we had left behind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following us. Perhaps the shades of the fallen Kuturun Mahayi.
When we eventually stopped to rest, my heart raced at every sound, jumped at every shadow. An ominous trepidation filled me. It bordered on outright terror.
“I’m uncomfortable stopping here,” I said.
Jaruma was on her knees, filling her water gourd from a small creek. “The horses need rest.” She gestured for my gourd. “They’ll founder if we push them further today.”
Looking over my shoulder for heaven-knew-what, I absently handed her the gourd. The sooner we reached the Madawaki and safety, the better. But Jaruma was right. The horses had been moving for most of a day. If we didn’t give them time to recover, we wouldn’t get much out of them before they went lame or died.
Nodding reluctant agreement, I rubbed my horse’s muzzle. “You’ve done well, Galadima.”
Our dire situation notwithstanding, Jaruma chuckled. “Galadima, indeed. Only you would give a horse such a lofty title.” The contents of her pack clattered when she tossed it to the ground.
“He who rides before the queen.” I tried to ignore the heavy feeling of dread settling in my core. “Or in this case, before the queen’s daughter.”
My horse, once a hot-blooded, poorly-behaved ninny of a gelding, had grown into a fine warrior. He handled as though he shared my thoughts. His step seldom faltered. On the rare occasion that I fell from his back, he came to a complete halt rather than running blindly into the distance. Now, he stood patiently, while I unhooked my supplies from his saddle. He moved to the water’s edge and dipped his muzzle into the creek.
“You should sleep, Gimbiya,” Jaruma said, unslinging her bow and quivers. She tossed them beside her pack. Her sword followed. She unrolled her sleeping mat and sat down.
The place looked as though it had once been a village. If one gazed hard enough, one could just make out mounds of earth that looked like the remnants of walls. The harsh soil of the area must have driven the villagers away. Small fissures in the ground told of fallow land. The only grass grew alongside the creek.
Retrieving my arm-knife from amongst the supplies, I strapped it to the inside of my right forearm. The hard leather of the scabbard irritated my skin, but going without the weapon tonight was out of the question. Scratching my arm, I looked toward the dark outline of the mountain range, and wondered if my Kuturun Mahayi were at peace, whether their souls had drifted to the Crossroads or would linger forever on that peak.
“I cannot sleep.” The dried grass scent of raffia rose into the air, as I unrolled and shook out my sleeping mat. “You close your eyes and I’ll take first watch.”
She started to say something then changed her mind, shrugged, and began rummaging through her pack. “We have little left in provisions.” She pulled a piece of dried meat from a pouch, tore the meat in two, put one half back into the pouch and nibbled slowly on the other.
“Eating it like that won’t fill your belly any better.”
She swallowed. “The slower you eat, the slower you starve.” Digging in her bag again, she pulled out a small sack of groundnuts. These she did not nibble. She poured out a handful and threw them all into her mouth at once. “You’re not going to eat?”
The dark feeling in the pit of my belly abolished any hunger I might have felt. Besides, the idea of food reminded me of the vultures at Rizga, which turned my thoughts back to the dead Zazzagawa in the hills.
“I’m not hungry.” My eyes remained focused on the mountains, my fingers absently undoing my headwrap, but I felt her gaze on me.
After several breaths, she said, “Alright.” Then, past a mouthful of whatever she was eating now, “Wake me in two hours.”
I didn’t wake her in two hours. Overcome by sudden fatigue and, despite my trepidation, I fell asleep during my watch. It was a troubled sleep. Full of nightmares in which I was suffocating, drowning under a pile of dead Zazzagawa soldiers. Even so, I didn’t wake until a muddy, squelching sound drew me from the depths.
Sleep vanished in a rush of nerves. I jumped to my feet just in time to see the dark figure of a man running towards me. The figure was upon me. I veered to the side, just avoiding the edge of a large battleaxe. The half-clad man swung the axe again, and I jumped away from its upward arc. The axe’s momentum pulled him off balance. Before he could readjust, I charged forward, arm-knife in hand. The man gave a grunt and fell backward, as the six-inch blade pierced his abdomen. I went down with him, pushing the blade deeper. We hit the ground. I extracted the blade and jabbed again. This time into his throat.
Something heavy crashed into the back of my skull. I cried out, my body tipping sideways, and fell hard. Dazed, I opened my eyes, then rolled away as another rock slammed into the earth beside me. At the corner of my eye, Jaruma and a second figure tussled. Without a sound, the other man doubled over, dead on the end of her sword.
A third rock catapulted through the air, narrowly missing her. Cursing, she released the sword, let it fall with the dead man, and stooped to pick up her bow. There came the twang of the bowstring, followed by a heavy thud. Another twang, another thud. Silence.
“Four of them,” Jaruma said... I thought she said. She sounded as though she were speaking through a gag. She stepped over me, an arrow positioned in her bow. “Were there only four?” She looked down at me and spat out the arrow she was holding between her teeth. “Are you alright?”
I took hold of her proffered hand, jerked myself upright, and was immediately dizzy. Half expecting to find my skull smashed to bits, I touched the back of my head. It was dry. No blood, only a massive lump.
“Did you see them?” Jaruma asked. “Were there only four?”
“I—I don’t know. Didn’t see them until they were here.” In fact, I had seen only the two. I glanced down at the dead men, whose dark trousers and bare chests marked them as Kwararafa warriors. My feeling of foreboding was gone, replaced by yet more guilt. “I think that was all of them.”
“Can you stand?”
“I believe so.” I got to my feet without assistance, but my legs were liquid under me.
“You can’t walk.” She took my arm to steady me, and helped me into my saddle before gathering up our things and climbing onto her horse. “We have to move, in case there are more of them. We’ll ride at whatever pace you can manage. We’ve covered much distance already, and should reach Zazzagawa territory in the next three or four days. Rest,” she said, tying my reins to her saddle.
“You saved my life,” I said after we’d ridden for a while. My head was pounding. The pain made me hazy. I could scarcely hold myself upright.
“It’s what I’m commanded to do.”
True. She had done her duty. My mistakes, on the other hand, continued to pile up. “I fell asleep,” I said, though she probably already knew.
“It happens to the best of us, Gimbiya. We’re still alive, eh? I am more experienced than you; I should have been more alert.”
I had almost gotten her killed. Her flawless reactions had saved us where my watch keeping had failed so miserably.
“The folly was mine,” I acknowledged, and said nothing more. We rode through the rest of the night without speaking again.
At dawn, we stopped for a short time, then again around midday, after crossing a wide spring. Having regained my stability, I went, unaided, to the water and plunged my head inside. The water ran cool against my throbbing skull. It trickled down my neck and into my tunic when I came up for air. A refreshing respite under the hot sun.
“Let me see.” Jaruma knelt beside me and looked at my swollen head. She ran her fingers over the lump in a gentle, almost soothing manner. “It’s a nasty bump,” she said, removing her hand.
I touched it. It felt bigger than it had during the night.
She bent over the stream to splash some water onto her face, and shivered. The water’s temperature was a steep contrast to the afternoon heat.
“Cold,” she said.
We washed our hands, the blood from our weapons, ate from our provisions, and let the horses be. When the time came to resume our journey, we filled our water bottles then packed up. We were climbing back into the saddles when an arrow whizzed over our heads and buried itself in the ground behind us. Midway to the stirrup, I froze, my foot motionless in air, while terror squeezed the blood from my heart. I looked down at the shaft protruding from the earth.
Vaulting from her horse, Jaruma made for the arrow in a dead sprint. She dropped to her knees when she reached it, and yanked it out of the ground. The long feather of a peacock was bound to its shaft. She gave a breathless exclamation, relief evident in her tone, and threw her head back with a loud, jubilant whoop. Tearing the plume away, she turned to me, brandishing the arrow. “It’s the Madawaki’s scout.”