Bala listened to the proceedings with tired but hungry eyes. His thighs screamed in agony; the walk down the valley and up the mountain path was exhausting albeit exhilarating. He had quickly chosen to seat at the spot closest to the thick trunk of the towering tree, so he could rest his aching back. He eyed his ragged clothes and scratched his unshaven chin.
He felt the weight of his eyelids press heavily on his eyeballs. They fluttered lazily; once, twice, and he felt his chin gradually drop to his heaving chest. The breeze filled his ears and soon, all he heard was the faraway voices of his comrades.
“He is asleep again.” Bala heard Ibe’s raucous tone above the rustling wind, which seemed to quieten with every drowsy breath he took.
“Leave him be. He is tired . . . Silas, you may begin the ritual.” Magundu’s voice floated to him. He tried to open his eyes so he could partake of the ceremony, but natures pull on his senses was more than he could ignore. The voices waned and soon, all he felt was the familiar hollowly embrace of the dark void . . .
The bandits were seated around a small fire, looking grim and fearsome in their dark robes. Silence was palpable, save the hooded man whose voice barely rose above a whisper. Night had long descended, swallowing the lengthy shadows that climbed beyond the surrounding mountains and grassy plains. The eerie glow of the burning stick-pile paled their swarthy faces as the men listened with rapt attention to Magundu’s orders.
The hooded man paused mid-speech and looked up at the sky; the cirrus had gathered, dark and bloated, trapping the crescent moon behind an amoebic cloud, plunging the earth into complete darkness. Tonight, no star was brave enough to grace the Milky Way with its shine. The air stood still and only the rustling leaves of the ancient Baobab under whose branches the thieving crowd gathered, could tell the gentle presence of a soughing wind. Magundu drew in a wheezing breath, flaring his wide nostrils to let warm air escape his nasal vestibule. His every gesture exuded mystic authority and every once in a while, his almost non-existent lips rattled inaudible chants and incantations.
He shook his head in an almost imperceptible nod.
It was time.
He cleared his throat with a noisy grunt and stared at the group with his infamous eyes of steel, noting the whitish amulets each man tied securely around his arms. At each pair of feet he could see a dagger and a sword and their empty sheaths which protruded from the corners of the bogus sashes the thieves wore around their waists. The fire cackled. Its golden flames danced gaily, rising upwards to the dark skies. It illuminated the gloom that had settled like a breath of pestilence among the bandits, and as the fire brightened, each could see Magundu’s savage features clear as day; the small eyes were bright and shiny with greed. His brows were knitted together. They gorged out like small horns, mostly hidden by the mass of untidy hair that fell from the corners of his hood. His face was lined with muscle and bone, not unlike a skull, and his thin lips were curled in perpetual scorn. Magundu could have been anything from man to monster. Of his origins not one among the bandits could tell. Like a ghost he had floated into their lives, leading them through one successful heist to another.
He tugged at his goatee as he regarded each man.
“Bala . . .” his voice was a hoarse whisper.
Bala stiffened. He bowed his clean-shaven head and stared at his bare feet.
“The village of gold stretches before us after what we must all agree has been a long and perilous journey. You all knew the dangers, but stayed brave, setting out to this faraway land where gold grows on trees and silver sprouts on every field—”
A loud screech pierced his words. Spreading white wings, a strange bird flew from a nearby branch, disappearing into the surrounding darkness. The silence that followed was total, not even the creatures that roamed the mountains at dusk uttered a sigh. The earth stood silent, bowing to a being the armed men thought was none other than Magundu himself. Such, was his domination.
Magundu clawed through his beards and continued, seemingly unperturbed.
“We are children of the earth, cared for by the earth, provided for by our dares—we take that which the earth provides, that which is rightfully ours. We must stay brave and remember that to the gathering of many riches, there is no end.” His eyes moved from one hardened face to the other, finally resting on Bala’s.
“You may begin . . .”
A long, thin, ominous sigh from the baobab tumbled into the night like a careless note from a pipers flute. Bala sat forward. His eyes were bright. His lips quivered and slowly at first, his words began to fall upon the gathering, invigorating their beings with supernatural courage and strength. Their eyes shone, piercing the darkness into the crater below. The village loomed before them, peaceful in sleep, unaware of the thieves who fortified their will with an evil ritual on their border. Rumour had it that no thief who had ventured into the Village of Silver and Gold had come out alive to tell the tale. Such history would have scared many robbers, but not Magundu and his notorious Five.
His age-long ritual had been a mystery at first. None of the bandits could understand why one of them was chosen before every heist to tell a tale of courage and valour. It took ten flawless victories to silence the lingering doubts and questions raised about Magundu’s peculiarities.
Bala’s voice rose with the wind. He spoke like one in a trance, carried away by the sweetness of his tale. His broad shoulders rose and fell in rhythm with the haughty flames, his head swaying rather mildly as he narrated his tale. While he spoke the bandits picked up their swords and with a stone each tied in a small pouch, they began sharpening the gleaming blades.
“. . . with all the strength Jinadu could muster, he flung the stone into the raging fire. He watched the impasse thaw before the flames, fading into the air in ringlets of thick black smoke. And there it stood—The enchanted vault of Alexander the Great!”
Bala rose to his full height and began demonstrating, circling the gathering with feline steps, cavorting according to the dictates of the character in his tale. His voice rose into the night, a storyteller revelling in the magic of the moment.
Magundu looked up, a worried frown in his eyes. Behind him, the mountains slept soundly, snoring only in the void-filled plunge of the occasional pebble joining the scree.
Of the five men he led, he had long noted that Bala was worse off in everything. But not today, it seemed. Magundu could swear he had never heard a finer tale of bravery and gallantry.
And knowing the rumours about the village below, it meant only one thing . . .
It was too late as Bala’s last words: “Open sesame!” had already begun a cataclysm of strange events.
“What have you done?” shrieked Magundu. He jumped to his feet and tore off his robes. Reaching for a white strip of cloth tied around his waist, he whirled it in the air, chanting countless invocations and spells. The famous five, confused, grabbed their swords, searching with frantic and agitated steps for the sudden presence they felt; it was primal, alive, spreading a chill into their bones.
“What have you done?” Magundu roared. Gone was the hoarse whisper. In its place was the thunderous clap of clashing waters.
Bala stood transfixed. What had he done?
Lightning flashed across the skies, breaking through the clouds in a loud rumble. The earth quaked and along came a whirlwind gulping everything on its way into its pulsating vortex, which seemed to breathe like a beast. It circled the bandits, locking them within its deadly jaw.
The five men turned imploringly to Magundu’s raging form.
“Sai satu melan sai! Oropos atas melan aveda. . .” Magundu screamed his incantations, calling on all the forces he could summon to come to his aid.
Instead the whirlwind blew into a manic fury, raging and surging like a broken dam.
The bandits cowered at Magundu’s feet, their shaky hands thrusting their swords into the air—a laughable attempt to make a brave stand.
Bala saw them first, the two white figures floating in the wind. Compelled by their glow, he fell on his knees in reverential awe. The other bandits saw them too and raised their arms to protect their eyes from the intensity of light that emanated from the pair. One was small and delicate, with luminous eyes, a pear-shaped face and a body wrapped around a strong ray of blue light. Her hair fell over her shoulders in pulsating colours and hues. She held a rose stalk which pulsated in the light, it’s broad petals glowed a blood red.
The lady’s companion was much more aggressive in appearance; his hair though close-cropped shimmered brightly like diamonds. He had eyes whose rays emitted fire, and on his right hand was a sword of flames. On his left, he held a huge black key. His being was cloaked in a silver robe that flowed all around his transparent feet.
When he spoke, Magundu shrivelled before this authority, bowing, not of his will but by the forceful hands of invisible beings that forced him to his knees.
“I am Jinadu, god of War, Courage and Bravery, Whisperer of Valiant tales.” Jinadu’s voice rose above the staccato rhythms of earth and wind. Like a heavenly trumpet, his notes reverberated within the mountains, shaking the earth to its molten crust.
“For years, I have watched your overzealous lot trampling upon an ancient and most revered tradition, misusing the portent power behind the secret of the valiant tale to ungodly ends. For years I have stifled the rage to stamp out vermin like you, giving you countless opportunities to seek better ways of living the good life. Your actions have brought great suffering and pain upon the earth, leaving your scourge upon many a courageous heart. But your time is up. You have come to the end of the road,” Fire leapt from the corners of Jinadu’s mouth, engulfing his being with golden flames. “Coming to the village of Silver and Gold was most foolish, an outright dare to heaven.” The rage seemed to consume his eyes as they became dark as coal.
His companion bobbed up and down, looming before the thieves like a judge but bearing the graces of a queen. She parted her lips and words like music of the finest kind, floated forth. “I am Chenna, Guardian of Silver and Gold.” Her voice was gentle, a singsong, but the severity of her words was a whiplash upon the hearts of the frightened bandits. They trembled where they stood, each awed by the tremendous happening.
“Earthly weapons and potions can never get you silver or gold.” Her voice trailed off, echoing in the distant hills. “Only a heart that serves and a hand that toils, unearths gold and its perks. You earthmen have roamed the earth, gathering stones in mounting tones, heaping debris of guilt upon your feet, all, in your futile effort to own gold. But you must know: gold can never be owned by stealing. It is earned . . . You are but mortal men, fraught with flaws like baleful claws, yet you dare your gods daily with your disgusting actions and thoughts. . . I cannot help you now,” She shook her head sorrowfully. A lone tear crept down her luminescent cheeks. Turning to her companion, she placed a small hand on his broad shoulders. “Do what you must, my Lord.”
Bala wept were he knelt. There were supreme beings after all. Mother was right, he noted sadly. But the lure of amassing earthly wealth had been more temptation than he could resist. But . . . Mother had also taught him the Supreme Beings forgive. If only . . .
Jinadu floated forward until he was inches from their faces. Magundu struggled fiercely with the impossible beings, screaming and wriggling in agony as Jinadu’s radiance tore through his being like a heated sword, slicing through his bones and melting his flesh like a bad wax job flung into a furnace. He exploded into a thousand bits and pieces of flesh and gore. The famous five shook with fear. Their weapons clattered to their feet and they cowered before Jinadu like sick trees in a storm.
Jinadu’s feet landed on the earth with a thud that flung the men to the ground. And he spoke with the voice of thunder: “Let each have his due . . .”
He raised his head to heaven, his voice to the wind, and decreed: “To the City of thieves!” Then he thrust his flaming sword into the electrified air.
Lightning and thunder claimed the dark skies, hurling the bandits into the hissing vortex, down a long, serpentine fall. They screamed, begging for forgiveness, but their voices upon the two immaculate beings held no thrall.
The City of thieves was pitch black night. All the bandits felt were the feverish gropes of putrid bones. And as the clocks of eternity ticked by, their screams rose in unabated wails of long-suffering and distress: “My eyes! My eyes have been stolen.” And another, “My left leg is gone!”, “I can’t find my hands!”, “My flesh has been stolen!” . . . bouncing off the oubliette walls of the lost c—.
“Wake up! Wake up. It is time.” Silas announced. He shoved the sleeping youth.
Bala woke with a start, scrambling to his feet.
“And why were you screaming in your sleep?” Naru, a short, thickset man with whiskers poked Bala’s ribs.
Bala shivered. His hands shook and when he spoke, his voice was laced with terror.
“We have to get out!”
Magundu’s eyes narrowed as he observed the youth’s countenance. Bala’s fear was physical, profound and contagious.
“We have to get out of here, now!” He barked, stepping away from the gang as he spoke. His eyes darted around the mountain top like a wary prey sensing the presence of a predator.
Never had the thieves been witness to such inebriating fear. They looked suspiciously at each other. Cold dread seeped into their beings as they cast their gaze upon Bala’s petrified posture.
From the distance came an electrified bolt of lightning, shrieking across the dark skies, followed by a loud rumble of thunder that shook the earth.
And Bala knew . . . the inevitable was upon them.