“I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.” Deuteronomy 32;42
“Favor us with a tale, storyteller,” Ghana Menin asked in his way of implying a threat if disobeyed. His lanky frame slumped in his high backed seat, still unused to the power at his command. The celebration of their latest trade agreement had gone well. Soon, more treasure would be flowing to them, insuring Wagadugu’s place as the pride of the continent. The central fire roared before them. The tall flames danced wildly in the night, holding the ghana’s court of counselors, ministers, interpreters, and treasurers in rapt attention.
The scarlet robed griot approached. Djobo had served as the village’s memory for almost a generation. Even now, he had three young men undergoing the rites of passage to become the village’s next griot, to preserve the “heritage of ears.” Kumbi Saleh had grown fat with her wealth over the years, now serving as capital of the land. Though small of stature, Djobo moved with a lithe grace that bore a near regal air. He nodded first to the ghana’s advisor, Okomfo, then to Ghana Menin himself.
“Is there a particular tale you would like to hear?” Djobo asked.
“Tell us a tale of the first ones. How we used to be,” Ghana Menin said.
“The descendants of the Hamite, the sons of Kush, traveled toward the west and crossed the Nile,” Djobo started, without missing a beat. All his tales began with a recitation of their origins; providing him time to recall the stories. “Some--the Nubians, the Beja, and the Zanj--turned between the east and the west. The rest followed the setting sun. They were the first ones, the original settlers of Wagadugu. There were 144 ghanas leading up to the great Ghana Menin, but there was a time before ghanas, a time before the Soninke clans united.”
“You want to tell us of Dinga Cisse?” Okomfu asked. Djobo didn’t glance toward him, feeling the bristling waves of hate emanating from him.
“If you will permit me,” Djobo asked the ghana.
“Please do so. I know so little about him. Tell me of his first adventure.”
“I don’t know about his first, but this is the earliest tale that I know. It began with a raid.”
The women shrieked when they heard the crash through the underbrush. They had been down to the river to collect water for the village. Tales of the black-hooded raiders swooping down on caravans, stealing anything of value and kidnaping young women--especially girls--had spread far and wide. Things had gotten of such grave concern that most of the villages warriors accompanied any transport of salt or gold. All that remained were the old, the young, the infirm. And the women. Never had the women been bothered along the short trek to the river. However, though so close to the village, they knew their screams would go unheeded.
If only they could make it to the clearing, within eye line of the village, surely a watchman would see them.
Their hopes died as the men overran them.
No one knew much about the raiders. Some feared they were agents of the Kushites to the west, or worse, wandering Berbers who knew no allegiance to any village save their own necks. Not much larger than the women, the raiders cut them off along the trail that led to Jenne-jeno. They bayed, little more than jackals. Their squat bodies scuttled about in something approaching triumphant glee. Their awkward musculature made every movement a lumbering effort.
“Soft,” the smallest one circled a woman, taking long exaggerated sniffs, though still skittish as a monkey. His black, open-faced hood flopped against the back of his head, revealing flat features that only rendered him more monstrous than his slight bulk would’ve allowed.
“Fun,” a lean figure brushed up against another woman, relishing the startled yelp his presence elicited.
“Red inside.” The largest of the three commanded intense, fear-filled stares from the lot, his fellow raiders included. The brute raked his gnarled nail along her face, drawing blood.
“No, we take, we take. No time for ... games.” The lean one rushed to him, holding back his arm. The brute stared at him, then back at the girl, before shrugging him off.
“Not all have to go. Some play,” the brute’s lascivious stare sent a shiver through the girl.
One of the women proved more than the small man could handle. Wriggling to loosen his grip, she reached behind her and clawed at the man’s eye. She elbowed him in his belly while he grasped at his wound. Turning to face him, she kicked him in his groin, sending him to the ground. The brute lost interest in the woman he held and snatched the feisty one from behind.
No one knew what to make of the figure who stepped through the underbrush.
A young man, barely a man at that, with a thinly muscled frame burned dark by the sun. A wild man, of a sort, he tramped along, as if oblivious to the scene, yet making enough noise to draw everyone’s attention. His curiosity, alerted by the screams, led him there; that and the scent of bloodlust that wafted along the air like the stink of a week-old kill. His wide eyes took in the scene with a willful nonchalance. He cut a striking figure with his small nose ring and brass armlet. The left half of his body was tattooed: his leg and shoulder, in the pattern of lines, like a maze, the pattern broken by dots. He wore a belted loincloth--a dagger’s hilt jutted from one side--the belt mainly supporting a short, heavy sword. Using a spear as his walking stick, he paused, staring at the horizon not making eye contact with any of the raiders.
“Carry on stranger. It’s healthier to mind your own business,” the lean one took a step in his direction.
He turned to them, perturbed at the intrusion into his thoughts. “Come to make sport of women. Surely they cannot make for fair game. Come. Play with me.”
Demonic caterwauling, anticipating their thrill at the possibility of an easy kill, raise their blood. They charged him, yet he stood his ground. He spun his spear above his head in a dancing whirl that brought it to bear and slashed the first man. Blood oozed from a gash in his side, cautioning the men to be wary of the range of his weapon. They spread out to encircle him, but he didn’t wait for their simultaneous assault. Listening to the footfalls of the lean man behind him, anticipating his placement, the stranger jabbed him with the blunt end of his spear. The pop of splintering teeth sent the man sprawling to the ground. The boy-man pivoted, the blade of his spear carving a precise strike across the man’s throat. The man clutched the frothing rictus of his neck, choking on his blood as he fell.
The boy-man sprang up, glared wildly, searching for the man’s companions. Ignoring the women’s frantic terror, he spied a large black bird. He heard the snarl before he saw the man. The man hurled a dagger at him--to kill him at best; throw him off balance and into the path of the second dagger he’d drawn, at worst. The boy-man ducked, stepping into the stride of the charging man, to catch his wrist. Wrenching it with his left hand, his spear still in his right, he snapped the bone loudly, driving the small man to his knees. The boy-man snatched the dagger from him and plunged it into his chest. The man crumpled, though the boy-man had already turned his back to him in an effort to guard against the brute.
The brute had retreated to near the women, preparing to use them as shields if need be. The brute, though twice the boy-man’s size, must have sensed something about him. An untamed spirit, a warrior’s fury. The boy-man let loose a frightful cry of his own. The brute brandished his dagger, the size of a small sword to anyone else, and leapt. The boy-man slid to the ground and drew his spear up. Off balance, the brute impaled himself on it, his momentum carrying them into a tumble. The brute uttered a death scream as the boy-man, now astride him, plunged the spear into his belly and ripped it to the brute’s groin.
The boy-man stood, his arms streaked with blood, his hands frozen to the spear. Studying the crimson-soaked dust all around him, he brought the spear to the ready at the sound of the approaching soft footfalls.
“Warrior,” a gentle voice said. He turned violently, blood-frenzy still in his eye. She continued in a soothing tone. “Come with us to our village. Let us celebrate your arrival and rejoice in your victory. Many will sing of your deeds.”
The black bird regained his attention. Feeling its withering gaze, almost human in its hatred, he watched as it took off on large black wings.
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