Along the river road
The three young girls walked single file along the path that led to their village, Igodi.
They were returning from the river, where they had gone to fetch water for their
mothers. Placed on their heads were clay pots of different sizes with Edafe, who was at the rear of the small group having the smallest pot.
Edafe, who was as vain as a peacock about her looks, hated carrying heavy loads on her neck which she considered one of her best features. The said neck was a nicely shaped one with lovely ‘rings’, that gave her an elegant, gazelle like look.
She believed that objects on the head would ‘deform’ her neck and diminish her beauty, thus reducing her chances of marrying Enifome, one of the sons of Etaghene, the rich merchant whom she was in love with.
She walked with slow steps so as not to spill the water, trailing behind Eki, who was in front and Johwo, in the middle.
The girls chatted and laughed gaily as they walked, their chatter startling the birds, squirrels and other small animals on the dense foliage that bordered the path.
They had passed a major junction and the path that led to Okuetchi, a neighbouring village and were heading towards a bend on the path when a group of men suddenly appeared on the path.
The girls were so engrossed in their chatter that they did not see the men on time. These walked straight into Eki, who was in front and she fell by the pathway with a cry.
Her friends, unaffected by the accident, quickly placed their water pots on the ground and gathered round her.
Her friends, unaffected by the accident, quickly placed their water pots on the ground and gathered round her.
“Ah! Eki! Are you ok? Can you get up?” they asked with concern.
The men, four in number, stood watching the girls at first. Then one of them, who wore a strip of gold-coloured woven clothe round his neck and a string of coral beads on his right wrist, drew close.
“Are you alright?” he asked in an anxious tone, bending down.
Eki tried getting up but a sharp pain shot up her leg making her stagger. His arm shot out to support her back, breaking her fall.
She gazed up at him, her curious eyes nothing the clean lines of his face, his clear eyes that seemed to look deep into her soul.
She blinked and straightened up, putting her weight more on the uninjured left leg.
“I’m fine,” she said shortly. “Why don’t you men look where you’re going? Barging around like wild pigs in the forest!” she said scornfully, glaring up at the man who had helped her to her feet. He seemed to be the leader of the group.
“Watch your mouth! How dare you…” said one of the men who took a menacing step towards Eki.
Their leader held up his hand. “It’s ok.” Then he turned to Eki who was now flanked by her friends as if to protect her against any attack from the men.
“Where’s your village?”
“Why do you ask?” Edafe retorted, a wary look in her eyes. She could tell the men were not from Igodi, neither did they look as if they were from any of the neighbouring villages.
They looked like strangers from a faraway place so one had to be careful. Who knew, they could even be slave hunters! Neither Edafe nor any of her friends had seen one before but there were stories in the village about people being captured from their farms, in the bush and even homes in communities near the coast and hinterland and taken away by sea in big okor (ships) by strange looking white skinned people, who spoke in a funny way through their noses.
“So, we can escort you home because of your injury,” the man explained.
“No need for that… I’m alright,” Eki said.
He did not look convinced.
“The broken pot. It needs replacing.”
He made a sign to one of his men who brought out a small pouch from the raffia bag hanging on his shoulder.
He stretched his hand towards Eki who glanced at the pouch, then up at the man. “What’s this?” she asked curiously.
“Payment for the pot,” said their leader.
Eki turned towards him.
“It’s not necessary. I…” Before she could finish, Edafe snatched the pouch of money from the man.
“Thank you! We’ll get another pot on the next market day,” she said, ignoring the glowering look from Eki. “You know what your mother will do to you if you return home with a broken pot. The money will be useful,” she whispered into Eki’s ear.
The men made to leave.
“I wish you a safe walk home. Good bye!” said the leader. His eyes lingered for a moment on Eki, then with a slight wave of the hand, he turned away.
The men walked quickly away, soon disappearing round a bend on the narrow path enveloped by thick bushes, trees and shrubs.
Back home, Eki’s father, angry that she had left the house against his orders, treated the injury that evening with some herbs and hot ointment as he did not trust Equono or any of his other wives to treat it properly. Esiso did not want any blemish on his beautiful daughter’s smooth skin.
“I’m sorry, Father. I was bored staying at home, that’s why I went to the river with my friends.”
“We are leaving for the capital after the next edewor (market day). You must rest at home so the leg can heal well. No more gallivanting all over the place. Is that clear?” he said sternly as he rubbed her leg with the concoction.
“Yes, Father.” Once again she wondered why she had to accompany him to the capital, since that was usually something done by the sons of the family…
At the capital
The Uyere ceremony or paying homage to the King was the annual gathering of all the chiefs and village heads in Otumara Kingdom. It was held just before the big ‘ore’ or festival, that took place after the harvest.
It was a busy time in the capital, Okor with the influx of the chiefs from near and far-flung places in the kingdom. Esiso, Eki, Brume one of his many sons and their large encourage took up residence in the home of a relative of his Ukrakpor who lived in the capital.
The following morning, before Esiso left for the palace to attend the meeting of the chiefs, he inspected Eki’s appearance.
The months of pampering and special diet had paid off. Her brown skin glowed with health and youth and her clear, luminous eyes sparkled like the sea on a sunny day.
He had given her a new set of coral waist beads which now hung enticingly on her round hips around which was tied a brightly coloured wrapper.
He nodded with satisfaction.
She was ready.
“Let’s go,” he said, leading the way as the group, carrying different packages, made its slow way to the palace.
“How long has it been now, Esiso? You should come to the capital more often! You know I always enjoy your company,” Ovie Agbogidi 11, the King of Otumara Kingdom said as Esiso stepped forward to pay homage to him in the large Audience Hall.
“Your Majesty. Please forgive me. The harvest and other concerns of mine kept me too busy this period,” said Esiso.
After the greeting, and the presentation of gifts and tributes to the King, Esiso stayed a while to chat with the King. They were old friends who had known each other long before the king had ascended the throne, when he was the heir.
As they spoke, the King’s glance fell on Eki who stood quietly behind her father with the others in their group. “And who’s this beautiful damsel? Come forward, my dear,” he beckoned on her.
Eki knelt down in greeting, then stood before the monarch, her head bowed demurely, her eyes not meeting his as it was forbidden for women to look directly at the king’s face.
Esiso did the introductions.
“This is my daughter, Eki.”
“Hmm. Lovely,” said the king, his eyes inspecting her from head to toe like one would look at a very interesting object.
“Is she betrothed yet?” he asked Esiso.
“No, your Majesty. I’m working on it, though,” Esiso, said, uncomfortable at the direction the conversation was going. He did not like the look in the old monarch’s eyes as he stared fixedly at his daughter. It was a look of desire and lust he did not like.
“You should. She’s at the right age. Just ripe enough for plucking,” the king said, with a smile that revealed his tobacco-stained teeth.
“I do not see the Crown Prince in the Hall. I hope he’s doing well,” said Esiso, trying to steer the conversation away from his daughter who had returned to her former position.
The King, whose eyes had been fixed on Eki as she walked away, turned to her father.
“He has been away to Ijere village to mediate in the land dispute between it and the neighbouring community. He returned early this morning. He will be present during tomorrow’s ceremony,” he said.
“That will be nice. I have a special gift I want to present to him.”
The ‘Uyere’ ended and the King together with the visiting Chiefs, and the King’s ministers, settled down to hold a council meeting. It was held at this time of the year to deliberate on matters pertaining to the Kingdom’s affairs and general wellbeing.
Eki and her older brother Brume, a strapping youth of nineteen, left the Audience Hall to wait for their father in the large courtyard.
Brume, who had just spied a friend of his from their village, said.
“Eki, wait for me here. Don’t go wandering about or Father will be cross with you!” And he walked away.
Sometime later, bored with waiting, Eki decided to take a walk round the palace grounds. Near a large mango tree, its branches heavy with fruit, were some statues and sculptures of different figures and sizes.
She stood in front of one of them, a bronze statue of a young girl carrying a clay pot on her head, her slim elegant waist bedecked with large coral beads.
It was so life-like, Eki felt water would splash from the pot onto the beautiful girl’s shoulders any minute and…
“Looks familiar, doesn’t it?” said a deep voice.
Her expressive eyes widened in surprise when she saw him. It was the man she had encountered on the river road about a week before when her water pot had broken.
“You!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?“
Behind him stood three young men that looked like palace guards.
He smiled and drew closer. “I should be asking what you’re doing here in my…” He paused. “Nice meeting you again.” He glanced down at her leg. “So, how’s your leg? Better I hope?”
She nodded, swinging her right foot a little. “Yes.”
“That’s good.” He paused briefly.
“Anyway, you like the statue? You were so engrossed in it,” the man said.
Eki, her gaze fixed on the statue, said: “It is so real. It looks as if she would start walking any minute.”
“You’re right. That’s the work of Igbinosa, the master bronze caster of Bini Kingdom. There are more of his works inside the Palace. Will you like to see them?” he asked.
“Is it allowed? I mean, there are some exclusive areas in this palace outsiders can’t enter…”
“You can go anywhere here as long as you’re with me,” he assured her.
She looked at him a bit sceptically, then at the encouraging smile from him, shrugged and followed him.
They left the large courtyard and walked through a second gate on both sides of which were guards. These bowed to the man respectfully as they passed through.
Eki looked at him curiously. ”Do you work in the palace? Are you a bodyguard?” she asked.
He gave her an enigmatic smile. “Something like that…”
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