Adl el-Hasm was said to be more adventurous than his contemporaries, which was why he chose to make his own path, ignoring the usual bargaining in the slave market of Alor, to do raid the unclaimed interiors where he heard slaves waited to be herded into pens.
Adl el-Hasm, a practical man, brought a formidable army of ex-slaves who are fiercely royal to him, having been made to believe that he was instrumental to their freedom, a belief that was not all that unfounded since he saved them from back bending slave labour amongst the sand dunes, and instead of keeping them as bond men, set them free with the option of either working with him for wage or take their fate into their hands – an option many could not bear to think of in a strange land with strange customs. Most decided to stay with him – even after he told them his plan for their homelands in the forest belt.
Some of the ex-slaves Adl el-Hasm hired spoke dialects mutually intelligible to those of the forest lands he intended to raid and most retained the immunity to diseases native to these parts to a large extent, as such greatly reduced the problem of communication and disease to a minimum. Adl el-Hasm, having endeavoured to learn the native lingua en-route, also had the advantage of doing his own talking without resorting to an interpreter, albeit in a highly accented version of swamp river speak, which, fortunately, was mutually intelligible to hinterland dialects.
This band of royal ex-slaves, it was, that raided the Land of the Seven Hills on that bright morning, a market day, when the air held scant scent of the trouble that was to come. Had it occurred on a different day, perhaps, the outcome would have been different. The people of the Seven Hills do not go to war on the Two Market day.
Tul, a large man with the charcoal black compression of the Swamp dwellers lead Adl el-Hasm’s raiding team. Adl el-Hasm trusted him on account of his sound judgments and his extensive combat experience from his days as a Swamp River warrior.
Tul had been sold to Alor slavers by his uncle who wanted to lay claim on his inheritance – a wrong he swore to right sooner than later – and the Alor sold him to the Blue skinned nomads who he somehow managed to find favour with. They set him free after just four years of bondage.
Adl el-Hasm found him loitering in Hamdan city port while awaiting a slave caravan headed for the forest lands. He had befriended him and offered him a part in his enterprise. An offer Tul grabbed with both hands.
Now Tul stood hidden behind leafy bushes, flexing his massive fingers on the hilt of a wicked looking sword hanging from a tiger skin belt on his waist as he watched the market intensely through the few cracks in the foliage.
He and his men had been in position since the second cockcrow. Experience told Tul that women and teenage boys would be the first to the market; the men would be at home then, putting off till the last minute the necessity of selling their yams.
He could see from his vintage point that only a small number of the youths, who were gathered around the market square, talking loudly, obviously bragging about one wrestling conquest or the other, were old enough to strap the customary long cutlass on their waists. He mentally marked the position of these armed ones while signalling to his men to commence the attack.
The raiders attacked as a body, having silently encircled the market. It was their bloodcurdling battle cry that attracted the attention of the young men by the square. Momentary confused, they rushed to see what was afoot, believing it to be a prank, for war are not fought in the market place, and not on the Two Market day, and no clan had sent a war monger to the Seven Hills of late.
They came face to face with the raiders and knew instinctively then that this was for real.
For a tense moment they stood rock still, horrified, as the first line of raiders crossed the market boundary headed straight for the women and young maidens, while a second line followed closely behind them. Then a battle cry from behind told them that they are effectively hemmed in.
It was at this point that Tul, who was walking leisurely towards the youths believing them subdued, learnt a new meaning of respect. Not sooner had he opened his mouth to order his men not to harm the youths but to disarm them, than loud ululations broke out from the other side of the market where the women were.
All hell broke loose.
The youths, until then passively awaiting their fate, seemed to suddenly animate as they too took up the cry and before Tul could make head of this sudden development, they attacked with fierceness.
One, who appeared to be the eldest, rushed an oncoming raider and deftly severed his head from his body before he could raise the battle axe he carried.
The battle was joined, and Tul discovered too late that the previously unarmed youths were not as helpless as he had thought; they easily picked up woods, pestles, a discarded hoes and even the base of an incomplete gong and wielded them with a dexterity that perplexed him.
From atop a nearby hill, Adl el-Hasm marvelled at the scene unfolding before him, it appeared as if the youths, who were outnumbered ten to two, had the upper hand. Then he noticed a remarkable thing, they were not fighting to get away from the raiders but steadily pushing back towards the market square where a knot of people were already assembled, apparently encircling a woman cradling a young boy.
He watched without emotion; as two of his men were cut down under the savage cutlass of the youthful warriors, wondering how they acquired their combat skill.
It would have been instructive if he had paid a little more attention to the tales about the Hill Tribes, then he would have known their fame as skilled warriors and how hand to hand combat was thought to children who grew up acquiring the skill as deftly as they do dance routines.
Though most of his crew had guns, he didn’t want to take the risk of a trigger happy hombre taking pot shots at would-be slaves just for the heck of it, so he had made them leave them behind. He thought it would be a clean sweep, in and out before their presence was felt. Yes, he was told about their ancient bravery, especially in front of their women folk, but he never bargained for this.
Below, it was becoming, more apparent that the raiders were more confused than the villagers who were all heading towards the market square. Some, especially the young warriors, fought furiously through the raiders to get there. Once there, they turned to stand at the periphery of the cluster and appeared to wait.
“But for what?” Tul wanted very much to know.
He did not mind the cluster for it will make his job a whole lot easier. Instead of chasing after wild eyed women and kids; he will get to pick out the ones he wanted from an already gathered circle. He called out to his men to stop forcing the remaining women to a different direction. Those ones were also fighting as hard as the youths to get to the circle, with sharp fingers nails and well placed kicks that dropped many of the men.
He was very surprised when the fight stopped as soon as it had started.
The natives gathered together in a tight circle, silent, watching.
The sudden silence bothered him. No one, not even the children made any kind of noise or movement, none appeared scared, the only noise that broke the silence briefly was made by his men as they barked orders to each other.
Fali, a young raider originally from the nomadic sheep-herder tribe of hul, was disturbed by the silence of the tribesmen too. Earlier he had seen a fierce youth, not past his fourteenth season, chase two raiders down the market road with a large pestle, howling like a mad man, only to break one’s leg before smashing the other’s nose in. these were men he had crossed the desert and swamp forest with, men who fought the war-like river people by his side, men he feared and respected as superior soldiers, running from adolescent youths.
Turning to Tul he said, “Efendi, I do not like this at all” his face looked like that of one who suckled sour grape when he had expected orange.
Tul, on another occasion, would have tried to douse Fali’s fears or even say something funny to ease the general tension, but this was not one of those days any statement he would have made was cut off by a loud roar that seemed to emanate from the bowel of the earth itself.
The raiders turned around as a man, head reverting in all directions, trying to pin point the direction the horrifying sound came from. Had they not, they would have noticed that the villagers did not pay any special attention to it, the only significant thing that happened within the circle, was the child that slide down from his mother’s arm and walked with a big smile to stand at the very front of the circle.
From his vintage point on the hill, Adl el-Hasm was the first to see the lions, two fierce adults, male and female, bigger than he had imagined any lion could be.
They charged in from opposite directions, one heading straight for the knot of raiders while the other went towards the hurdled hill men, only to halt in front of the young child and nuzzle his outstretched palms – Adl el-Hasm did not see that, his attention was focused on the male. He watched as it rushed the band of raiders and tore out the throat of the nearest one with a swift sidelong jerk of his massive head.
Pandemonium reigned supreme; the hunters became the hunted as survival became a race for the swiftest and the luckiest. Adl el-Hasm was transfixed as he stared open mouthed as his men were slaughtered.
He still had the presence of mind though, to note that the female lion did not attack the raiders directly but only seem to act as a guard, attacking only those who had the bad luck of running towards the market square and the now hurdled villagers. Together, the lions brought swift death to the market square.
On his part, Tul had seen lions before and has even hunted them but he has never seen or heard of specie this big or fierce. He still had the presence of mind to call out to his fleeing men, even as he too tried to keep out of the rampaging lion’s way. He tried to gather the few of them who were close by and then slowly guided them away from the market, knowing that lions will never attack a closely packed group – which appeared to be the Hill people’s defence – for lions, once they tasted blood, rarely know foe from friend.
His scheme worked as he had hoped it would for the lion left their immediate vicinity to chase down the stragglers and wounded who couldn’t make it to the circle or were too scared to even try.
The lions circled them, constantly charging but always stopping a few paces away. Tul chanced a look back and counted about thirty dead and dying of his elite raiding band. Surely, he thought, this has being the worst campaign he has had the privilege of been in. not even the bloody revolt of the river dwellers had been this costly.
They were harried by the lions till they reached the foot of the hill where Adl el-Hasm waited with the reserves that never came to their rescue. Not that Tul begrudged them, for who could withstand those lions from Fradry – the land of shadows beyond the sea.
Adl el-Hasm watched his weary men climb up the short hill, each running as swift as tired legs could carry, looking back constantly to see if the lions are still in pursuit. The lions had returned to the cluster of hill men, to sprawl in the dusty earth in front of the mysterious boy; but not before tearing into the throats of the wounded raisers with dagger like canines.
Adl el-Hasm was more intrigued than afraid, though he had heard about the Hill Men and their lions; he did not believe that any unknown force was in play, he just believed that the hill men have found a way to tame the lions while keeping their wild fierceness.
He looked once more beyond his retreating men to the market square and noticed the young child had his hands outstretched and the lions, tail swishing, stepped forward to nuzzle them.
Tul noticed where he was looking and turned towards him.
‘Yes Efendi, that boy is not ordinary; it was to him that the hill people ran when we attacked.’ He said, battling to catch his breath.
‘I think not Tul, It might just be that the lions belong to the boy.’ He said over his shoulder as he moved towards the path that will take them back to his encampment in low lands, two days march away.
Tul did not follow immediately; he stood still for awhile watching the boy play with the lions. He saw now that the hill people had began to move about, though not far away from their cluster. Yes, he thought, that child is special.