KINGDOM OF TUNJAR
In the mysterious tongue of my homeland
Three words spoken, so pure, so sublime.
Continuous whispers haunt me night after night
Ni wakati wa… It is time. It is time. It is time.
The scent of smoke wrenched Nabii from a deep slumber, stirring her dark brown eyes to open with a start. She propped her body upright, rousing two books balanced on her protruding belly. They slid upon a mass of others and scattered across the ground beside her bed.
Terror unfurled in her chest as she cast a long look around the tent, which reflected the blaze outside its thin walls.
She crouched to the floor, her large belly combing the ground as she crawled toward a small opening at the bottom of her tent’s southeast wall. A waft of smoke entered from underneath. The rancid stench of blood and charred flesh assailed her like a punch, traveling down her throat and burning her lungs. She peered through and choked a gasp. Pandemonium stormed throughout the campsite: a melee of searing fires, pained cries, and clashing steel.
Tears clouded her vision as she wrapped her arms around her midsection. She was never without protection. But the mlezi, long considered the world’s most elite guardians, were nowhere in sight.
Nabii crawled toward her bronzed trunk, drawing in deep, controlled breaths. Breathe, Nabii. Breathe… Panic could not block her ability to make her next move.
Trembling, she opened the lid and peered inside. The scrolls and red velvet pouch lay within its corner, safe from the marauders’ hands. She choked out a cry of relief.
The scrolls and orb were still there.
She shoved the scrolls into her leather satchel, tied the pouch around her waist and crawled to the front entryway. She peeked outside to see her most loyal guardians, Kofi and Assan, sprawled in front of the tent’s entryway surrounded by a pool of blood. Several dark-skinned foreign men—bare but for their indigo skirts and white markings on their arms—lay slain throughout the clearing of the jungle.
“No, no, no.” Her Mlezi Guard and Iberian Guardians had fought to their deaths as she lay asleep. Her stomach heaved, overwhelmed by guilt. How could she sleep so deeply amid such chaos?
Kofi coughed and released a strained, gurgled moan as he struggled to lift his head.
Nabii crawled toward him and eased his head in her arms. Her tears blanketed him as she stroked his face, silently cursing the blood-red moon that watched the gruesome scene below. “Sweet Kofi.”
“Princess,” he murmured as the fluid in his lungs suffocated his words. “The scrolls...”
“I have them,” she said breathlessly. “They’re with me now.”
Kofi’s expression relaxed as he gazed at her with pride. “Bleda? Bohdan?”
She prayed that Bleda and Bohdan, her key protectors, were alive, but she had to get safely to the ship and could not think of that now.
Kofi released a forced cough, blood spraying past his lips, before mustering the strength to utter his final word: “Run.”
She stumbled across the jungle until her legs, burdened with two additional souls, grew too heavy to carry her any farther. She entered a campsite flattened by fire—its only evidence of life buried underneath a shallow haze of ash and smoke.
Nabii fell to her knees and scanned the clearing. More death, more fire. This was not the doing of random, desperate marauders seeking jewels and gold. These men were mercenaries with death in their sights, and they were skilled, precise and ruthless.
Her body began giving way, but now was not the time. Breathe, Nabii. Breathe. She gripped the trunk of a palm tree and hoisted herself up when she felt it—a warm sensation ran along her legs to the ground. Her water had broken. “No, no, no…” She slid her hand underneath her belly and cradled it with her palm. Her babies would safely make it to the ship. No harm will come to you—not now. Not like this.
“Princess Nabii Akachi.”
The man behind the voice appeared from the darkness of the trees. The light of his torch revealed distorted features and a flash of hatred within his deep-set ebony eyes. She had barely lifted her gaze when the man strode toward her, grabbed her by the hair, and pulled her to the ground.
The chief marauder narrowed his eyes. “The prodigy,” he said in an Igbo dialect. Several men emerged from the foliage and gathered close. “The child scholar.”
At nineteen, Nabii was no longer a child, but a young woman with the weight of the world nestled in her belly. She breathed deep, gathering in the thick damp air, and in a gesture of humility, crouched to her knees, her swollen belly straining her back as she struggled to right herself.
Her heart rammed against her chest as she lifted her eyes and faced her assailant. “Please,” she murmured, “the human race is in danger. Do what you will with me after they are born—but my children must live.”
The marauder snatched a large tuft of her long, spiraled hair and jerked back her head before thrusting the flat of his dagger near her throat.
“I beg you,” she croaked, hot tears brimming her eyes. “My children are the key to unlocking a lost message. If they die, my people, your people—everyone—are as good as dead.”
The mercenaries fell silent, exchanging questioning glances among themselves as their unsettled hush overtook the clearing. Waiting for a merciful sign, she swallowed in the thick air, a carnal blend of humidity and the ash remains of her men.
A low chuckle cut through the silence, prompting an explosion of laughter. The men howled as they slapped their sides and doubled down in hysterics.
“You see?” called out their chief, using his free hand to wipe the tears from his eyes. “She’s a lying witch and arrogant!”
The mercenary’s mood shifted. He narrowed his eyes at Nabii and leaned in close. “I’ve had enough of your entertainment,” he muttered. “Now lower your head.”
Nabii clasped his arm with her trembling hand. “Please,” she pleaded. “I can pay you. My grandfather is a powerful man. If you spare me, he will make you rich beyond imagination.”
The marauder yanked his arm from her grasp, evil flashing behind his eyes. “Look at me.”
Nabii shrunk back as the light of the torch revealed a long, contorted scar skirting his cheekbone.
His face hardened. The fire in his eyes dimmed to black as he caught sight of her recoiling. “You don’t even know who I am.”
Nabii’s gaze flickered beyond the light of the torches. Any moment, Bohdan and Bleda would emerge from the jungle’s blackness and reveal themselves. Any moment… any moment. But the moments lingered, stretching long and thin before time revealed her truth. She blinked.
It’s just me.
Rage coursed through her. She jerked upright, reached for his face, and gouged her nails into his flesh as he struggled to fight her off. If she was going to die, she was taking him with her. Two men joined him in the struggle before he managed to shove his hand against her face and bear down until her head was level with the ground.
When her assailant pressed his knee against her stomach and jabbed her babies, a newfound fury boiled from within. She shifted her head and sunk her teeth into his hand.
He cried out, struggling to wrench free, but she clamped harder, rage fueling her determination. He reached over his shoulder and removed an oversized machete from its holster as the men pounded their spears against the dirt floor, taunting and leering with cruel roars of triumph.
Tears blurred Nabii’s eyes. Her babies had chosen her—entrusted her—to bring them safe and whole into the world.
And she had failed.
Two men flanked the mercenary as he lifted his machete and braced for a sharp downstroke. His weapon was above his head before the roaring cheers of his men devolved into a collective gasp.
Nabii blinked before the marauder sunk to the ground with a spear through his back. Descending from the darkness, Diran burst through a thin curtain of smoke. A storm of mlezi trainees followed. Diran, positioned at the lead, thundered across the clearing with fire in his eyes as a volley of arrows rained hell on Nabii’s enemy.
Diran turned to her, his eyes—one deep brown, one sky blue—both steeled with determination. Nabii’s heart flooded with gratitude as the young trainee strode toward her and helped her to her feet.
Diran and his comrades—all mlezi trainees who were no more than eighteen—surrounded her. He squeezed her hand and murmured, “You’re safe now. You and your babies will make it to the ship… we promise.”
The babies shifted downward, hardening fast upon Nabii’s pelvis. She leaned against Diran and placed her knapsack in his hand. “P-promise me,” she stammered, bearing contractions through gritted teeth, “that the scrolls will make it to Karacen.”
“You have my word.”
Through the thick of the brush, flickers of light from the incoming torches drew closer. The initiates fell into formation, their spears aimed forward and their swords unsheathed as they awaited their enemy.
Diran summoned two of his comrades. “Grab two men and carry the princess to Iboro port.”
His comrades obeyed, carrying Nabii into the brush, and disappearing into the darkness of night.
Diran turned to face his fellow initiates and drew in a deep breath. “We’ve trained in scorching heat, watched comrades die, and endured pain beyond any reach of our imaginations.”
The initiates nodded, their eyes widened, yet their expressions stoic.
“All that we’ve been through was for this moment. Tonight, prove your worth.”
Diran began chanting the mlezi credo. The initiates joined him, their voices cresting like thunder with every word.
We uphold light in a world filled with darkness
We never tire, protecting in the glory of night
We uphold knowledge, for it is our truth
We protect the truth, for it is our light.
A thin glaze rimmed his eyes. Against death, we will be victorious.
With their weapons at the ready, the initiates formed a wall—a tapestry of spears, swords, and bows. With long strides and the hope of conquest, they marched forward in rhythm, leaving behind the fallen and the remains of chaos.
Diran stepped over Nabii’s slain assailant, moving forward with little thought of whether the man was alive or conscious. His step, seemingly small and meaningless, had done far more than slow his gait and rhythm. He had roused the wrong villain. He had roused evil incarnate into a newfound determination. He had roused a fiend, unnatural and disfigured by burns from the boils of the deep.
Evil. Evil. Evil … marked by the misshapen scar of a Sarmatian blade and emboldened by rage—