The nine year girl ran to catch up with them. “I want to go Father!” she called. “I want to practice too!”
Adegoke, a muscular giant of man, turned to face his daughter. “You can’t go Nandi,” he said sternly, but there was compassion in his brown eyes.
Adegoke took her chin in one of his big hands. “Because my flower, you are a girl. You’re not meant to fight and the ancestors would be angry with me if I trained you for battle. Besides, think of how dirty you’d become!”
“I don’t care!”
“Nandi you’re my daughter, the daughter of a king,” Adegoke continued patiently. “One day you’ll marry a handsome prince, he will take you away to live in a new palace. Your every wish will be granted. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“No!” tears rolled down Nandi’s cheeks. “It sounds horrible! I don’t want to leave you and Mama! I want to stay here and fight!”
Too late her father realized he’d botched the fairytale meant to cheer his only daughter up. Behind them Tomi, her older brother, shuffled impatiently, in a hurry to be off. He’d just turned 12 and his head had been shaved like her father, as a rite of passage. Now he would begin his training as a warrior.
Adegoke sighed. “You’ll understand when you’re older. Now go home. I’m sure your mother’s looking for you.”
Later that day while Nandi’s sisters, Iverem and Effiwat, the daughters of Adegoke’s two other wives sat in the garden playing with wooden statuettes, Nandi tossed aside her own doll and found a large stick instead. She charged at her sisters brandishing the stick and stabbing at them. The little girls scattered, screaming and laughing and threw clumps of dirt at her.
Mariama, tall and dark like a daughter and still beautiful, strode into their midst. “Nandi!” she shouted. “What are you doing?” At her intrusion, the girls fell silent. Mariama was Adegoke’s lead wife, and had a higher rank than their mothers. She was someone to be feared.
She grabbed the little girl’s arm and shook her. “What’s wrong with you? This behavior is unfitting of an Oba’s daughter!”
Nandi hung her head. “I’m sorry Mama.”
“You are a young lady. Ladies do not fight. They do not cavort about in the dust like monkeys. Do you understand?”
Her mother softened. “Good. Now come… ” She took the little girl’s hand. “I have a new dress for you to try on.”
Nandi tossed and turned upon her low bed. The night was cool but she was sweating. Maybe I have a fever.
She hoped not. If she was sick the witch doctor would be called with his effective but disgusting concoctions of herbs. She hoped that if she was sick there was an evil spirit plaguing her instead. That would be more exciting and she wouldn’t have to drink anything.
The little girl slipped out of bed and tiptoed through the ivory castle, past the exquisitely carved wooden furniture and brass sculptures. She stood in the doorway letting the cool breezes dry the sweat on her forehead.
She saw that the two men guarding the palace were asleep – asleep standing up, and holding tight to their spears.
How…? Then Nandi saw long black cat skulking toward the door.
A silent scream exploded in her mind. Panther!
She froze. In a moment he would see her and that would be it. He would crush her small neck between his powerful jaws, before ravishing her home. How many would he kill before the men could corner him? She should run back inside and --
In the next instant he stood before her: gazing at her with his green eyes. Preternatural intelligence stared out of those eyes. And knowing. He knew who she was and what moved her. What she longed for.
The panther vanished.
That night the dreams began.
Sword in hand, she spun like a top swinging it left and right – opening the jugular veins of her enemy. She led a vast conquering army…
And her name would be written upon the wind.
Nandi, a tall young woman with braided hair, high cheekbones and a wide mouth crouched behind thick brush. She followed them everyday, but always from a distance.
She knew how to keep quiet, how to stop when they stopped; although how’d she come about this knowledge was still a mystery to her. The warriors were traveling to the savanna bordering the Bini city, scanning the wide, flat grasslands for signs of the Edo.
If the warriors found signs of violation, they would prepare for war. Perhaps they would go to war anyway. She hoped so.
Nandi was 18 now, and brave enough to even consider following them when they went to battle so she could watch. It would be dangerous -- she risked capture by the Edo even death -- but it would be worth it.
The warriors stopped and she did too. General Chinua turned and looked directly at her hiding place. He singled out a young man who she recognized as Sule with a wide nose, and full lips, his head shaved like that of his fellows; and three other warriors.
“It’s probably nothing, a leopard perhaps.” the general said. He handed Sule a tiny, brown flute. Nandi knew what it was. Her father had one such whistle. When blown it made the sound of the Black-throated Fire finch.
“If you find spies blow this,” Chinua smiled humorlessly, “and we will come.”
Nandi’s heart was pounding. If she was discovered, her mother and father would be shamed and she would be punished. Worst of all, she’d never be able to follow them again.
The young woman shut her eyes. She was trapped. If she stood up they would see her. If she stayed where she was they would find her.
A crackle of leaves just above her made her open her eyes. She looked up into Sule’s face. He put his finger to his lips, and began to tread away from her in wide circles: pretending to search to keep his friends from coming any closer.
At length, he loped over to the other men. “I think the general was right. It was only a leopard.”
“You didn’t see anything?” a brown warrior asked him.
“No. Come on, we’re missing all the fun.”
“I wish an army would attack,” another said. “I’m itching for battle.”
Sule bared his teeth in a predatory smile. “As am I.”
They took off, their powerful legs carrying them easily in a light run. Sule glanced over his shoulder at Nandi and smiled.
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