Adekunle’s broad chest heaved as he paced the beaten earth floor of the imperial hut. The rattle of his bronze bell anklets was an ominous sound.
“I should go and talk to them,” Adekunle said to the clean-shaven old woman crouched in the corner of the room. “My silence only creates the space for treachery.”
Ologbon shook her head. “Once hunger enters the mind, words lose their meaning.”
“But, it is not my fault that the herds have not returned.”
“You are king, the second-in-command to the gods. What the people want from you are answers, not excuses.”
Adekunle sighed. “I am still a mortal.”
“My lord, if you do not provide them with a timely answer, they will demand your life.”
“What have you heard?”
Ologbon’s eyes darted to the side. “There has been some talk about the black calabash.”
Adekunle’s heart skipped. Once a failed monarch gets the calabash, he must drink the poison it held.
It was not his time to go. “The gods have been silent. Why?”
Ologbon fiddled with her red loincloth. “I know only in part.”
Adekunle clenched his jaw. The part she knew was useless. “What am I to do?”
“The crown lies on your head and not on mine.”
His bloodshot eyes burned. On another day, the words would have cost Ologbon her wily tongue. “Since you have nothing to offer, go.”
As she crawled towards the door, he held up his hand. “Wait. When you get outside, tell the people the gods have spoken.”
Her expression was unreadable. “Yes, my lord.”
By the time Adekunle, dressed in full regalia, stepped out of his hut, the sun was high in the sky. Its blinding glare served as a perfect cover.
A roar went up as the people acknowledged his presence. “Kabiyesi o.”
Adekunle returned their greetings by shaking his horsetail whisk.
A chief spoke up. “Ologbon said you have an answer for us.”
A hush fell over the crowd as Adekunle’s eyes scanned the gaunt faces before him. “Yes. You asked me for a miracle. The gods have spoken. The people of Mesiogo are responsible for the missing cattle.”
The people began to murmur.
“They also cursed our land. We welcomed them, gave them a home, and this is how they have repaid us.”
“Mere lies from a failed king!”
Adekunle narrowed his eyes. The dissenting voice belonged to his half-brother, Aderemi. Even though the oracle rejected him, Aderemi still wanted to be king.
“I, the second-in-command to the gods, tell lies?”
The pregnant woman standing next to Aderemi fell to her knees. “My lord, please forgive my husband’s reckless words.”
Adekunle gave her a tight-lipped smile. “They are forgotten as I speak.” He raised his voice. “My people, do you not see the way the people of Mesiogo laugh as our children die? Are your ears not filled with the songs their daughters sing to lure away the finest of our sons? Will you continue to stand by as your nostrils fill with smoke from the burnt sacrifices they offer to their foreign gods? Our soil, baked hard by their curses, crumples to the touch while despair fills our mouths with the taste of nothingness.” He spat in the sand. “Am I the only one who can testify to their sorcery?”
A woman standing close to the raised ground spoke. “Their decadent singing lured my husband away.”
“It took my son.”
“Me, too. The king speaks the truth.”
“These people are savages who burn living animals.”
“Every day, they taunt us with the smell of their cooking.”
“They breach our borders and steal the little crops we have.”
“Kabiyesi, please, tell us what to do!”
Adekunle nodded. “We have to seize back what rightly belongs to us. Once they leave our land, peace and prosperity will return.”
He swung his head towards Aderemi. “My brother, there is no one else braver in the land. The gods have decreed that you will lead our people to win this battle.”
Aderemi frowned. “The Mesiogo men are bigger and stronger.”
“Are you saying that your obedience demands an understanding of the ways of the gods?”
Aderemi pursed his lips. “No.”
“Then you will honour our ancestors by obeying my command.” Adekunle adjusted the folds of his robe. “But, if you are afraid, you can stay at home with the women and children.”
Aderemi lifted his chin. “Better to die in battle than to live as a coward.”
The foolishness of pride. “You are indeed a man.”
Aderemi turned to the crowd. “My people, the king has spoken. We leave at dusk.”
For several minutes, Adekunle stood with his horsetail whisk raised in the air as his clansmen ran towards their homes to prepare. If the Mesiogo men lived up to their reputation, after the battle, there would be fewer mouths to feed.
© 2019 Yejide Kilanko