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 impressively balanced on her protruding belly to slide upon a mass of books on the ground beside her bed.
Terror unfurled in her chest as she scanned her 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, bringing the foul stench of charred flesh that traveled down her throat and burned 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 strained to muster one word.
She choked a sob and wrapped her arms around her belly. As the descendant of an ancient royal bloodline, she was never without protection. The mlezi, long considered the world’s most elite guardians, were nowhere in sight.
Panic blocked her ability to make her next move. Her hands nestled her belly as she closed her eyes and drew in deep, controlled, breaths. Think, Nabii. Think!
Nabii turned her attention to her bronzed trunk and crawled toward it. She pulled several scrolls from the chest and shoved them into her large leather satchel. Her hands shook violently as she felt along the bottom lining within the trunk until her forefinger landed upon a nook. She lifted it, grabbed her red velvet pouch, and pulled at its gold-spun drawstrings. She peered inside and exhaled with relief. The orb was still there. She hastily tied the pouch around her waist and crawled to the front entryway.
Nabii peeked out to see two of her most loyal guardians, Kofi and Assan, right outside of her tent lying in a pool of blood. Several foreign men, mortally wounded or dead, lay near, scattered among them.
"No, no, no…" Her Mlezi Guard and Iberian Guardians had fought to their deaths as she lay asleep. How could she sleep so deeply amid such chaos? Her stomach heaved as guilt overwhelmed her. Protecting her as she lay, they had battled true, fighting to their deaths.
Kofi, a young mlezi, lay next to the tent’s entryway, releasing strained, gurgled moans. She crawled toward him and clasped his hand. “Kofi…” she whispered. He struggled to lift his head to speak. She gently placed his head in her arms, her tears blanketing him as she stroked his face. As she comforted the young mlezi, she glanced toward the sky, unable to overlook the irony of the blood-red moon that watched the gruesome scene below. "Sweet Kofi.."
"Princess," he murmured as the fluid in his lungs slowly suffocated him. "The scrolls."
"Yes, Kofi," she said breathlessly, "I have them. They’re with me now."
Kofi's expression relaxed as he gazed at her with pride. "Bleda? Bohdan?" he moaned.
She silently prayed that Bleda and Bohdan, her key protectors, were alive. Kofi's lips quivered as he released a rattled stream of whispers. She slowly leaned toward him as he strained to speak. He 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 clearing - a campsite flattened by fire.
Surrounded by a shallow haze of ash and smoke, Nabii fell to her knees and looked around. More death, more fire. This was not the doing of random, desperate marauders seeking jewels and gold. These men were mercenaries paid to kill her, a princess whose privilege and safety allowed her to emerge as one of the world’s greatest scholars - and biggest fools - likely to die without mercy. Her body began giving way. Breathe, Nabii. Breathe. She gripped the trunk of a palm tree and hoisted herself up when a warm sensation ran along her legs to the ground. Unable to see beyond the blocked view of her extended belly, she lowered her hand to feel warm liquid trickling down. "No, no, no…" she moaned, shaking her head with disbelief. She could not allow her babies to enter the world like this…
A man 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. He strode toward her, grabbed her by the hair, and pulled her to the ground.
Several men emerged from the foliage and gathered behind him. He narrowed his eyes, studying her as if she weren’t human. "Princess Nabii Akachi…" He spoke in the tongue of the Igbo. "The prodigy. The child scholar."
At nineteen, she was no longer a child, but a young woman with the weight of the world nestled in her belly. Nabii closed her eyes and drew in the thick damp air.
In a gesture of humility, she crouched low, her swollen belly straining her back as she looked up to face the man. "Please… the human race is in danger." Her assailant raised a brow." Do what you will with me after they are born - but my children must live."
The man clutched a large tuft of her spiraled hair, jerked back her head, and thrust the flat of his dagger against her throat. "You must listen to me," she croaked. "They are the key to unlocking a lost message. If they die, my people, your people - everyone - is as good as dead."
The mercenaries fell silent. An unsettled hush overtook the clearing. The men shifted nervously and exchanged questioning glances among themselves. Nabii’s heart rammed against her chest. She gulped in the thick air - a carnal blend of humidity and the ashed remains of her men that felt like bile drowning her lungs.
A low chuckle cut through the silence, prompting an explosion of laughter. The men howled, slapping their sides and doubling down in hysterics. "You see?" called out the mercenary, using his free hand to wipe the tears from his eyes. "She's a lying witch and arrogant!"
In a flash, 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 raised a trembling hand and clasped his arm. "Please- I can pay you handsomely,"she pleaded. "If you spare me, my grandfather will make you rich beyond imagination." He yanked his arm from her grasp and glared into her eyes. "Look at me," he said, pulling her chin toward his face. From up close, the light of the torch revealed his gnarled skin and the jagged, unnatural texture of his hand.
"LOOK AT ME!" he bellowed. With a jerk, he twisted her head by the chin, choking her from the shock of it. Through clenched teeth, she hissed, "No…"
His face fell as he caught sight of Nabii recoiling from his appearance. "You don’t even know who I am…" His features were unreadable as he regarded her at length. His eyes remained fixed upon her as he dragged in a deep breath and murmured, "Riches I can do without. Payment in gold may mean everything to my men, but for me - payment is your head."
Her eyes 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.
She jerked upright. Madness raged through her as she thrashed and screamed like a feral animal. If she was going to die, she was taking him with her. She reached for his face and gouged her nails into his flesh as he struggled to fight her off. 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 the marauder pressed his knee against her stomach, he released a newfound rage. She shifted her head and sunk her teeth into his hand.
Her assailant cried out, snatched Nabii by the hair, and slammed her to the ground.
Bloodthirst raged among the men. They pounded their spears against the dirt floor, taunting and leering with cruel roars of triumph.
The marauder reached over his shoulder and removed an oversized machete from its holster.
She fought against the man, struggling to wrench free from his determined grip. She touched her belly and wept. 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 machete was suspended in air when the roaring cheers of his men devolved into a collective gasp.
Nabii blinked before the marauder plunged to the ground with a spear through his back. Descending from the darkness, Kwame burst through a thin curtain of smoke. A storm of mlezi initiates followed. Kwame, positioned at the lead, thundered across the clearing with fire in his eyes. A volley of arrows rained hell on Nabii’s enemy.
Kwame walked over to Nabii and offered his hand. He was no more than seventeen years of age with large, gentle, brown eyes. "Princess…" He said as he leaned down and helped Nabii to her feet. "Your babies will make it through this night."
The babies shifted downward, hardening fast upon Nabii’s pelvis. She leaned against him and placed her knapsack in his hand, clasping her fingers around his. "P-promise me," she moaned through gritted teeth, "that the scrolls will make it to Karacen."
"You have my word."
Through the thick of the jungle, flickers of light from the incoming torches drew closer. The initiates fell silent. Several clung to weapons that shook unwillingly as their spears and swords rose into the air. Kwame took Nabii’s hand and squeezed it before summoning two of his comrades with a nod. "Moshi. Suli - grab two men and carry her to the main port at the Great Lake." Kwame gently guided Nabii toward Moshi, and demanded, "Go! Now!"
Kwame drew in a deep breath and turned to face his fellow initiates. "If the Scholar dies along with the unborn within her, we mean nothing. Tonight we will prove that the past year of trials and sacrifice have shaped our worth."
Kwame began chanting the mlezi credo. His voice crescendoed into a bellow as his fellow initiates joined him.
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 covered 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 remains of chaos and the fallen.
Kwame stepped over Nabii's slain assailant, moving forward with little thought of whether or not 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