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Saturday morning was a beehive of activities at the palace. It was the day set aside for Izogie’s oronmwen. The elders were beginning to gather, women came from far and near to help with food preparations, while the youths swept and arranged the venue.
However, the morning met Pawo grinding vegetables in her kitchen. Smoke rose from underneath the big pot sitting over the fire. On a wooden bowl, yams, sliced into small pieces and washed, sat. Other spices rested on a tray, along with one giant smoked fish; all washed and ready for use.
While her hands moved to and fro the length of the grounding stone, flashbacks of recent events took over her thoughts. She didn’t want to think too much but she couldn’t help herself.
Ever since the breaking away from the Bini kingdom to form Utho Era, a lot of unusual things had happened. Too many bad omen plagued the land from time to time. It was almost as if esu wanted them destroyed, or he was expressing his disappointment at the twin brothers’ rebellion against their father, Ogiso Ibioye.
One of such bad omens was for newly married brides. Witches, evil medicine men, slave catchers and many more evil doers came after new brides. They either placed deadly and irreversible curses on the brides, or capture them for slave trade. Another option was sickness, mutilation of the bride by dangerous men or wild animals, under very strange circumstances. Then there was also sudden death.
Different medicine men from each part of the region had been called to intervene in the issue. But none had an absolute solution. It was then decided that to reduce the problems brides faced, there needed to be, among her maids, a chief maid. For security reasons, only the immediate families of the chief maid were allowed to know who the second bride was. The chief maid was to be of the same size and height with the bride. She was to be dressed in exactly the same expensive material with the bride. She was to be dressed in the same hair style and make up with the bride. Her face was to be veiled, same as the bride. No one was allowed to know the difference between the two, not even the husband to be. The husband would only now his true wife after he had taken both the bride and her chief maid home. Then he could unveil them. By then, the bride was already out of harm’s way.
Very few chief maids made it through the ceremony. Among those who were cursed, only few could be cleansed. The rest were a hopeless case as they either ran mad or died under strange circumstances.
To avoid more harm coming to the young ladies of Utho Era, the elders met with the Oba. After a series of long talks, it was agreed that the warriors would hunt slaves, by capturing travellers from other kingdoms. These captured female travellers were then used as chief maids. All had been well since then. A lot of the slave maids returned well and sound; completely unscathed. It had been long since any chief maid died. But it was still a risky decision if done by an indigen of the kingdom.
The night after Pawo learnt that her daughter had volunteered to be Izogie’s chief maid, she was truly furious. She didn’t want to talk to her daughter anymore. But how? When the girl was all the family she had.
The following morning, she was getting set to visit the palace chambers so as to appeal to Oba Ezomo to not allow her daughter be Izogie’s chief maid. But before she could finish preparing, Deba had stepped into her room and locked the wooden door, preventing her from leaving, at least, until issues were cleared up.
“Mama please.” She begged, getting on her knees.
“Are you hearing yourself? You are begging me to allow you go to your death.”
“It is not like that mama. I am actually doing this because I feel its time to face my fears.”
“I don’t understand. What fears?”
“The fear of my nightmares. I don’t know what will become of me afterwards, but I assure you I’ll return to you alive.”
“Your father said the same thing when he went out in a storm. He told the servants to assure me he would return.” Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Mama….. Mama this is different.”
“How?” She threw her hands up in frustration. “What does being a chief maid have to do with your dreams?”
“In each of those dreams, mama, I was dressed as a bride. Only I wasn’t marrying anyone. Chief maids are the only ones who dress as brides, but are marrying no one.”
Deba stood up and sank on the feather stuffed bed, legs crossed. How else was she going to convince her mother? She didn’t want the woman to suffer. But she had made up her mind. “Papa used to say, its better to face your fears and conquer it once and for all, than allow it eat you up.” She reluctantly looked away from her mother’s tear soaked eyes. It was too painful to see the pain she was causing her mother; a woman she had come to love so much. “I believe whoever wants to hurt me is out there, not here. I have to face them. Its the only way I will have peace.” She finished.
“My father never taught me to run from my fears.” She continued. “He may not be here but his teachings remain with me, mama.”
“You are taking a big risk, Deba.” Pawo knelt in front of her daughter and placed comforting hands on her thighs. “What will happen to you? How will I survive it?” She whispered.
Deba took her hands and knelt before Pawo. Then she held her in her embrace. “I won’t die, mama. That I promise you. Somehow, I have this feeling that papa is watching over us. So is Ere. Please mama, don’t deny me this opportunity to face this nightmare and clear it out of my life.”
“What if this is not the solution to it?” What if this actually leads to your death or madness or something even worse?”
“If this is not the fear I should face, then nothing at all will happen to me. Besides, I will make series of sacrifices to Olokun before time. Have trust in me, mama. Your daughter will come back alive and whole.”
Her mind was made up, Pawo knew that. Whenever Deba set her mind on something, it wasn’t so easy changing it. Since she knew this, she decided on the second best thing to do. See Oba Ezomo.
In the afternoon of the same day, while Deba and Yuwa visited the river with everything they needed to make sacrifices to Olokun, Pawo made her way to the royal court and requested a meeting with the Oba.
Oba Ezomo was truly surprised by her presence. The last time she visited the court was when she ran in, weeping profusely and requesting that warriors be sent to find her husband and son. She never visited the court again after that. So he was sure that whatever brought her to him was serious.
Ezomo was simply dressed in a white wrapper, crossing under one arm and tied on top of the shoulder of the other. Gold beads along with the red local beads graced his neck and wrists. His hair was trimmed only at the back, while a small portion at the front grew. Sitting on the royal chair, he looked truly magnificent. But magnificent was not Pawo’s reason for visiting.
“Excuse us.” He sent the court guards and physician out, as Pawo prostrated before him. “Get up, Pawo.” He said, moving to pick her up. His hands lingered on hers longer than they should, making her brush them off. He relaxed and stepped back a bit. “You are family, there is no need for that. Tell me, what has brought you here?”
“Is she missing?” He frowned.
“No. But she will be, or worse, if you don’t do something.”
Oba Ezomo didn’t understand what she was talking about. “Sit” he gestured to a bench by the side of the royal chair, and she sat. “Now talk to me.”
Pawo explained everything. She told him about her daughter’s decision to be chief maid for Izogie. “Ive tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t change her mind and you know what happens to chief maids.”
“Yes I know. But frankly,” Ezomo paced a bit, “I am glad she’s the one doing it. I trust she will take good care of my daughter. But don’t worry. I promise to get the best medicine priests from these parts, I don’t care if I have to send someone to Idah to find one. Be rest assured, Deba will be protected. You have my word.”
“Thank you.” Pawo knelt down again, feeling a little relieved. Although she had expected him to offer up one of the female slaves in place of her daughter.
“Its Ok. Get up.” He helped her up. But surprisingly and without warning, he pulled her firmly against himself, completely taking her off guard.
“What…what are you doing?” Pawo struggled fruitlessly to pull away from his strong arms.
“You know I’ve wanted you for a long time.” He said, looking at her struggle, as he had expected she would “Why do you deny me what I want?” He brought his lips down, forcing kisses on her cheeks and was moving to her lips. Pawo turned away, still struggling to be free.
“Please stop.” She begged, already feeling his hardness against her abdomen. “This is not right. I’m your brother’s wife.”
“Late brother.” His said, before using one hand to force her head in his direction. He brought his lips down hard on her clenched lips, probing with his tongue and trying to find a way in. He gave her no space to escape him. After a not so long while, she got tired of struggling. She parted her lips for him and then seized the opportunity when he took them. Grabbing a large chunk of his lips, she sank her teeth in, biting hard on them.
“Arrrrgg!” Ezomo cried out. But she wouldn’t let go. He drove a punch to her abdomen, making her eventually let go of his lips as she cried out and bent low, holding her middle. Unfortunately for her, a back hand slap followed and sent her crashing on the bench. Her cries increased. Ezomo reached for his white mouth cover and wiped his lips with it. Seeing the blood that came off with the cloth fueled his anger .
“Do you see what you’ve done to me?” He barked, releasing another slap to her cheeks. Pawo crashed to the floor, crying and holding her cheeks with one hand. “I wonder what my brother did to you that makes you unable to accept me. You’re lucky I still have plans for you, I’d have had you executed right away. But know this, after Izogie’s oronmwen, it will be ours. Whether you like it or not, you will be my wife and I will have you. Deba won’t be here to save you. Now get out! Before I beat you up mercilessly.”
Pawo, who had all the while been on the floor, crying, got to her feet and managed to find her way out.
“I’m going to kill him mama. He won’t survive another night.” Deba flew into range when her mother told her what had happened. She grabbed her father’s cutlass and headed for the door.
“Deba don’t you dare!” She rushed to hold back her daughter.
“I will kill him mama.” She struggled. “How dare he raise his hands to you? My father never hit you. Why will he? And just imagine if he had succeeded in raping you?”
“Well, he didn’t succeed.”
“But he would after the oronmwen. And I won’t be here to defend you.”
“I prefer we are both not here.”
“What are you saying, mama?” Deba gradually relaxed and turned to face her mother
“While you head up north with your cousin, I think I’ll go east.”
“Yes. My mother’s sister stays at Nala with her family. I will have to go there, secretly. I won’t stay here and let Ezomo have his way with me. I detest the man.”
“So then, we need to start planning.” Deba said, calming down some more. “You have to leave even before the marriage is over.”
“Why not after?”
“Because I won’t be here to help you, mama. While the ceremony is on, you should leave. I’ll talk to Duefe to accompany you.”
“Do you trust him? He works for the Oba now and he might let out our secret.”
“Enoma was his brother. And besides, Duefe has been nice to us all these years. I think he will help us.” Deba said, hoping that her assumptions were right.
“Talk to him then.” Her mother supported her. “Let us pray he is on our side. I’m just so sick of this place. I need to leave.”
“Just put a few things together. Its going to have to be a quiet movement.”
Saturday arrived, and Izogie’s marriage ceremony was finally going to hold. Pawo was cooking. She wouldn’t trust the food given to her and Deba, hence she was making their own meal. After the meal, she would be on her way to Nala with Duefe.
Throughout the night, into the wee hours of the morning, Pawo and Deba talked about everything. They cried about everything and comforted each other. Their lives had been hard and now, they were running away from home, only in different directions.
By morning they said their good byes, as Deba was going to the palace and wouldn’t be allowed again to see anyone. No one else could know she was the chief maid. Tradition made it so.
After cooking and eating, Pawo would travel with enough food for her and Duefe. She was extremely glad he had agreed to help her escape. He was family in a way, being that they shared a loss. The rest of the food was for Deba. Witches and evil medicine priests also caught chief maids through food. No way was Deba going to eat poisoned food. So while the women sweated it out in the royal kitchen, she sweated it out in hers.
The palace ground was a beehive of activities. Servants worked, putting their backs into carrying heavy logs wood to make large sheds for the gathering. Others decorated the already made sheds with palm leaves and kentes of different colours and styles. The drummers arrived earlier than usual, entertaining the hard workers with fantastic rhythms from their drums, sekere and gongs.
In the royal chambers, Oba Ezomo had long prepared for the ceremony and sat with the elders of his council and other elders of his family. They were discussing the bride price list and hoping that their In-laws to be would meet all traditional requirements. They talked about how the ceremony should proceed and what everyone’s role would be. While they talked, a servant rushed in, bearing news that Askia Ture, Prince Daoud and their entourage had arrived Utho Era. They were now heading for Ede, the capital city.
For Izogie, things were going very smoothly. She was at long last getting married to the man of her dreams; a prince from the Songhai capital, Gao. To her father, however, her marriage was primarily to form an alliance between the Songhai people and the people of Utho Era. Both kingdoms being proud, rich and a force to reckon with, only thought it wise to remain strong by bonding and encouraging trade and commerce between both kingdoms. The Songhai people had a lot to offer. Well, so did they.
Oba Ezomo was sure his in-laws to be would have a smooth journey. Trade routs had long been re-opened after the brief quarrel between the Bini and Eriase kingdoms. The quarrel, which almost led to a full scale war, affected trade in Utho Era kingdom, as well as other surrounding kingdoms. Oba Ezomo and his chiefs had to intervene for their good and the good of all surrounding kingdoms. It was during the move for peace that Askia Ture, ruler of the Songhai, came visiting. He obviously came for business reasons. He came with his son, Prince Daoud and a handful of horse men in armor. They were to visit the Bini kingdom and make camp there. But seeing that the kingdom was in disarray and had no Oba at the moment, due to the last Ogiso king’s inability to have a male child, they decided to settle for the second largest kingdom in the region. It was during their short stay at the palace that Prince Daoud set his eyes on the beautiful daughters of the Oba. He first set eyes on Yuwa. He liked her, but she was younger than Izogie. From enquiries, he learnt that the Oba had made it compulsory that his eldest daughters married first. Oba Ezomo had no son though and he was truly in need of a successor. Every night he had gone to his personal shrine, as well as paid the medicine men in the kingdom, to find a solution to his wives’ inability to have a son. But nothing the medicine priest did helped. He was left with only daughters from different wives, as well as his late brother’s wife and only child.
Talking about his late brother’s wife and child, to hell with the child. He didn’t really care for her. But of course, he wanted the wife. She was able to give Ezodo a boy child; a son who would have been heir to the throne if he was still alive. Pawo had a good womb for boys and he wanted his seeds in her, so she could produce all the boys he needed. But alternatively, he met with his council chiefs and king makers who then agreed that if his plans with Pawo failed, then the first son of his eldest daughter would be the next king. However, if Izogie failed to produce a male child, then Yuwa’s male child would be the next Oba. Whoever produced the first male child would automatically be established as Iyoba; Queen Mother, so that she could teach and guide the young child the ways of the royal court and his duties to the people of Utho Era.
If either of the daughters were ambitious for the position of Iyoba, no one knew, for they didn’t show it.
They did show something else though. Oba Ezomo’s daughters were obviously thrilled by Prince Daoud’s handsome features as well as his expensive royal regalia. Seeing how persistent his son was about wanting to marry any of the daughters, Askia Ture talked with Oba Ezomo and it was agreed that the prince would marry Izogie, the eldest daughter. Yuwa didn’t like that Izogie was chosen, but then, what could she do?
In Yetu’s private quarters, Yuwa stayed in the room with the maids helping to dress her sister and cousin up. The red velvet royal wrappers and hooded capes were spread out neatly on the feather stuffed beds. Two maids dressed the hairs of the bride and the chief maid, while another two, with the aid of tiro, beautified their bodies with drawings of the royal staff, the insignia of authority among the people. When they were done, with the hair dos and drawings, they beautified their faces and moved to dress them up.
“Beautiful!” Yetu spoke, helping Deba put on her cape over the royal wrapper around her chest. “You look prettier than the bride. And she’s supposed to be the pretty one. Just don’t let Prince Daoud see you. He may end up leaving my sister to marry you.”
“Shut up, Yuwa!” Izogie barked from where she sat, also being dressed. “Today is my day and for that reason alone, I am the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom. Take that and swallow it.”
“Common sister, relax!” Yuwa smiled mischievously at her. “I’m just talking, nothing more.”
“It better be so. And keep your voice to yourself.” Izogie hissed and looked away.
Yuwa bent low and whispered into Deba’s ear. “You’re still more beautiful dear cousin. I’m sure after today, all the single men in our land will come begging you for marriage.”
“Stop having silly ideas in your head, Yuwa!” Deba whispered back and playfully spanked her. “You’re going to get your sister angry.”
“Who cares? I only spoke the truth.” Yuwa replied.
A female servant knocked before peeping into the room and bowing slightly “Princess,” she addressed Yuwa, “Please your attention is needed. You have a visitor.”
Yuwa left immediately, wondering who her visitor was. She returned some few minutes later with a wooden plate. On top it, a meal of yam porridge was wrapped carefully in leaves. The aroma filled the room and reminded everyone that they had not eaten anything since morning.
“Is that my food?” Izogie asked. “I’m so hungry.”
“Its for Deba. Yours will be ready soon, I guess.”
“How can they serve Deba before serving me?” She grumbled.
“Because this is from aunty Pawo, not mama’s kitchen.” Yuwa frowned at her sister’s childish behaviour. “Here.” She handed the meal to Deba. “You should eat first.”
Covering herself with a spare wrapper, Deba ate her meal while exchanging eye contact with Yuwa.
“I’m going to get my food.” Izogie announced. “I’m just too hungry to remain like this.” She stood up and left.
Yuwa encouraged the other girls to leave too, telling them it was their break period. They could come back later on and get dressed.
“Has my mother left?” Deba asked, as soon as they were alone.
“I’m sure she has now.” Yuwa replied, sadly.
“I would have loved to see her again, to hold her and assure her all will be well. She’s all my family you know?” She looked up at Yuwa.
“You are all dressed up now, Deba. You know the tradition. No one can see either you or Izogie, until the time when you will be presented to our in-laws.”
“Your mother asked me to tell you to be safe. And that she would wait for your return.”
“Yes.” Tears ran down Deba’s cheeks. “And I will come for her.” She ate the rest of her meal quietly. Yuwa sat by her side, comforting her. She was the only person out side of her mother and Duefe who knew their plans. And as the wonderful friend she was, she kept the secret.
Afternoon met the royal grounds filled up with the people of the Songhai, as well as their king, Askia Ture, and his son, Prince Daoud. They had arrived with so many gifts, far much more than the Oba and his elders had asked for. Also, guests from every part of Utho Era and some dignitaries from surrounding kingdoms honoured Oba Ezomo’s invitation to his daughter’s grand marriage ceremony to Askia Ture’s son, Prince Daoud.
The ceremony started with singing and dancing. Serving of kolanuts and drinks followed shortly afterwards.
When it was time for the bride and chief maid to be brought out. Everyone became silent, leaving the small birds and hawks to do the singing with their chirping. Askia Ture and Prince Daoud stood up, dressed in turbans with gold designs and exquisite royal shirts on bogus trousers. A long glittering robe covered them from shoulder to toe. They watched as both ladies, dressed in the same attire and treated in the same manner, accompanied by four other un-hooded ladies dressed in red velvet wrappers and heavy gold beads, were led to Oba Ezomo. Ezomo beamed with pride. The ladies were displaying his gold in a grand style and wealth was everything he needed to impress his in-laws.
As they approached the royal seat, Oba Ezomo stood up to receive them.
To be continued