He intended to stop in Afryea for the evening, but the chicken would not let him pass.
It was a monster of a bird, nearly the size of a hyena, with a great purple comb and a red tipped beak and black claws that dug into the earth and a magnificent purple-and-black tail. The rooster glared hard at him, eyes yellow and rimmed in angry red. The beak opened and a warning hiss/claaark made him step back. The rooster’s chest puffed out in triumph and it strutted back and forth in front of him, claws digging into the hard-packed ground, preening.
He had been walking for three days. Last night he slept high up on a steep rock where blue-tailed monkeys kept pulling at his hooded cloak and waking him up. The night before, up in a tree to avoid wild dogs. Some days, being a servant of Ampah was a trial. But he refused to sleep with the mosquitoes again. Tonight — he dropped into a crouch, holding his walking stick level — he would sleep in a bed.
The rooster claaaaarked again, head down. It’s claws left deep furrows in the earth, pulling back again and again, digging deeper.
“Ha!” he shouted, hoping to startle the bird. Instead, it leaped forward and up, wings flapping, claws aimed straight at his face. He whipped his staff up, catching the bird under one wing, and flipped it around to his side. The bird squawked in surprise, flapped awkwardly, and hit the ground. It turned immediately, hissed again and charged, this time aiming for his legs. Dirt flew as it ran at full speed. He swung his walking stick down, planting it against the ground. The bird hit it, but the animal’s weight was enough to push him back. He staggered, looking up in astonishment to see the rooster racing up the staff. Yellow eyes glowed in triumph and that sharp red beak reached for his face. Heaving, lifting hard, he raised the staff and flung the rooster over his head, hard, right into the trunk of an acacia tree. The bird hit with a satisfying thump and slid to the ground. A few leaves fluttered down around his head.
Disoriented, the rooster staggered to its feet. It shook its head, staggered again, and finally righted itself. He remained in a crouch, staff at the ready. The bird glared at him for a long moment, the yellow and red of its eyes hot. Then it suddenly turned, tail held high and proudly, and disappeared into the trees.
“Wäye! Wäye!” a female voice sang behind him to the clapping of daggers.
He turned on his heel, staff at the ready again.
She stood perhaps twenty feet further down the road. (How had he not known that she was so close behind him?) A brilliant white smile slashed across her cypress black face. Thin braids were piled high atop her head, intricately woven into a tall crown. A white band around her breasts, the cloth trailing down behind. Loose-fitting white pants tucked into the chris-crossing straps of open sandals, the straps coming nearly to her knees. A belt around her waist, with scabbards, and a barbed spear strapped to her back. In her hands, twin curved daggers, highly polished and etched with … yes, that was definitely writing on her blades.
He straightened slowly, scowling a bit.
“Wäye! Wäye! Ashänafinät!” she shouted again, tapping her blades together. The metal sang. “A magnificent battle! Congratulations on your victory over such a fierce opponent.” Her grin got even bigger as she slid her daggers back into their scabbards. The scabbards, he now realized, had writing on them, too. “Truly, you are beloved of your Gods.”
“Hhmph,” he said, pride stung by her jovial tone. He pointed at the furrows in the hard ground. “Did you see the claws on that beast? I could have lost both my eyes. And my nose.”
“Oh, yes, no doubt,” she nodded emphatically, stepping up beside him. Her clothing was bright in the deepening dusk. She was just as tall as him, though younger. It was difficult to judge, but he guessed her age to be about that of his sister’s child; perhaps twenty harvests. She was wiry and muscled and there were old scars all over her arms — but none, he noticed, on her bare abdomen or her face.
The shrubbery rustled behind him. He threw an annoyed look over his shoulder.
“Perhaps we should go on, before the monster returns.”
“Mmm,” he said, planted his staff in the ground, and continued on towards Afryea.
She fell in beside him. “I am Lishan.”
“Addae,” he said. Best to give a stranger his ancestral name. Their collective wisdom and power would come to his aid if any tried to harm him; his own birth name was not so strong. He wondered at her name …. “You are from the east, yes?”
“My family hails from the Mountains of the Sun, yes. I have been everywhere but the Mountains,” she answered, mysterious. She pointed at his staff. “You are a … what is your term … agyei?” She mangled the pronunciation.
“Ag-yeh-eye,” he corrected. “I am.” He could smell cooking fires ahead. Goat, and definitely peanut soup.
Her eyes widened in delight and she was smiling again. “You are my first agyei! Tell me, do you carry a message from your Emperor? Or your Divine Adoratrice? Oh! Or are you going to the palace? I have never been to Enam — ”
“No!” he snapped, more annoyed with her than the chicken. “I am agyei. The message I carry is for one person only. I will not break my sacred oaths to Ampah by revealing it to you, or anyone else!”
Lishan’s mouth twisted into something like a pout. She turned away, chin high. “I apologize, Agyei Addae. I meant no insult to you or your Gods. I am new to your land. I have been many places, but this is the first land I have visited where people do not like to gossip!”
He sighed, somewhat mollified. If she was truly new to Enam’mana’ka, she could not be expected to know his people’s ways. “It is not … gossip,” he corrected, tone gentler. The smells of cooking were getting stronger. He sniffed. Spicy jollof rice and flavored goat. His stomach tightened. “It is a message, which must be carried from one person to another. And I am bound to carry that message.”
There was a sound behind them, the crunch of dirt.
“It’s not the rooster,” Lishan said before he could turn his head.
“Two men. They have been have been following you since yesterday, at least.”
Now he did turn to look, squinting in the falling light. Two men on horseback, coming down the road at a leisurely pace. One seemed to have a beard, while the other was clean-shaven with a mass of unwashed hair on his head. Addae frowned. They looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps they had passed each other on the road yesterday, or the day before.
“How do you know that?” Addae asked cautiously. They rounded a gentle curve and the road sloped down into Afryea. It was a good-sized village: about a hundred houses, a few hostels, stables, and on the Enyonyam River a few docks, fishing boats, and ferries. In the last light of the sun, the surface of the river rippled with the passage of crocodiles. Downstream, hippopotami clambered ashore in search of fresh grass. Somewhere further down the banks, lost to distance and darkness, an elephant trumpeted.
“I was behind them on the road yesterday. They seemed very interested in you. The men tried to seize you last night — ”
His head whipped around.
” — but they couldn’t get up the rock. That was a good sleeping place.”
“…. Mmmm.” He threw another quick glance over his shoulder, catching sight of the riders as they came around the curve.
“You have been here before?”
“Afryea? Yes, several times.” They were passing the first houses. Children and dogs were running around, giggling and barking, and a few chickens. Hens, this time.
“Excellent. Then you can recommend good food to eat and a good place to sleep.” She peered at him from the corner of her eye. “Preferably the same place you will be eating and sleeping.” One hand fell to the dagger on her left hip.
Now it was his turn to laugh. “Agyei are trained in self-defense, Lishan. If they mean me harm, they are in for a surprise.” He gripped his staff tighter.
“… Perhaps. You can indeed defend yourself against one mean rooster. But two men? With swords and flintlocks …?”
Addae gaped at her for a moment. He had seen flintlocks two harvests passed when he had carried a message to a merchant in Enam. The Ancienne of Orleans, far across the Green Sea, had sent flintlocks and a company of soldiers to use them; a gift to her close ally and beloved friend, the Emperor of Enam’mana’ka. Or, so she hoped. They were strange weapons, loud and stinking, able to kill from a distance. Another example of the depravity of northern peoples, Addae thought; as if writing wasn’t bad enough.
If two of his fellow countrymen had flintlocks …. He scowled ferociously. One of the children running around skidded to a halt in front him and began to cry. He muttered an apology and kept walking. “How do I know that you not an associate of those men? Or that they are innocent and you intend me harm?”
She shrugged carelessly, thin shoulders rolling. “You do not. You have only my word.” They were both silent for a moment as they rounded another corner in the road. “I have not been in your land long, but I understand that to harm an agyei is a great blasphemy. On the other hand, those who come to the aid of an agyei in a time of need earn the thanks of your Gods. I have need of divine thanks now. And besides — I dislike the idea of a lone man being set upon and murdered.”
“They wouldn’t murder me. At least, not right away. They would want my message first.” He slowed to a stop in front of one of the hostels. Two cook fires smoked and danced (pots of jollof rice and peanut soup, spicy goat-stuffed pumpkin leaves, baked sweet potatoes). People were gathered around, talking and joking. Someone was plucking at a kora, the warm notes mixing with bird song and monkey laughter.
“And you would die before you revealed that message.”
He shot her a glare. “Of course.”
She just grinned back at him, smile and white clothes glowing. “Then you do need — Sweet Dawn Flower! This is where you are staying?” She pointed at the sign that hung above the door of the hostel: a rooster with a great purple comb and a wicked red beak. Lishan laughed.
“This here? Jollof rice. Careful, it’s spicy.”
“I like spicy.”
“And the chicken — what are you doing?”
Lishan dipped another piece of chicken in the peanut soup and stuffed it into her mouth. “Is gud thith way.” She swallowed. “That’s how they eat soup in Elishat. They don’t have spoons. They sop it up with meat and bread.”
“You have been to Elishat?”
She nodded. “I have been many places.” She ripped off a piece of fufu and swiped it along the inside of the soup bowl. “They’re sitting behind us, under the shea nut tree.” She stuffed the peanut-drenched bread in her mouth.
“Don’t chew the fufu. It’s bad manners. Just swallow it whole.” She choked a bit, trying to swallow the large piece of gummy plantain dough. “I know. I saw them talking to the hostel mistress. The hostel only has a few private rooms; they’re full. So, we can sleep in the main room or out here on cots. Mosquito netting is extra.”
“Inside,” she said, and patted a dagger. “Fewer angles of attack and no netting to get in the way.”
He nodded and waved over the hostel’s mistress. She waddled over, a pitcher of date wine in one hand, the other pressed to her rounded belly. A quick conversation as she poured them new glasses, some haggling over the price, and an agreement was reached. Other travelers were beginning to drift inside, or curl up around the fires on blankets. Two of the mistress’ husbands dragged out cots and some netting for those willing to pay extra. Conversations dropped to a low murmur.
Addae and Lishan wandered inside. A few lanterns were scattered around, providing just enough light to maneuver. An altar stood beside the door, covered in small idols and offering bowls. Addae instinctively patted the head of the Ampah figure, walking staff in its hand; the head was worn smooth and round under his fingers. The great room itself was filled with more cots, some already occupied, mostly of woven palm leaves. Stairs led up to the individual rooms. In the back were the private quarters of the mistress and her family.
Lishan led him to a pair of cots against the back wall. He spread his cloak over one, laid down, stretched out his legs, rolled his shoulders, and sighed happily. It was a long sigh. “Thank Ampah.”
She pulled the spear from her back and laid it on the floor beside her cot. Then the carrying sleeve for the spear. Then her sandals, carefully untied. And finally her belt. Trying to pretend that he wasn’t curious, Addae watched as she dropped to her knees for a few moments, daggers crossed over her chest, head bowed. Her lips moved, but he could not hear what she said; he doubted he would have understood, anyway. Lantern light flashed off the daggers and his head jerked back in shock: she had cut herself, on her arms. The nicks were thin, just deep enough for blood to bead on her ebony skin.
He leaned over on one elbow, voice low. “Why did you do that?”
She lay down, one dagger across her chest, the other leaning upright against the cot. “A call to the Dawn Lady to watch over me in battle.” She shifted her hips a bit and closed her eyes. “Go to sleep. I will watch them.”
Eyes half-closed, he rolled his head. Their two shadows had indeed come inside, settling on cots near the door. They were muttering to one another. The clean-shaven one with the nasty hair threw a quick look in Addae’s direction.
Perhaps he should have kept going and slept on another rock.
The hostel cleared out shortly after dawn. A few travelers continued down the road, on foot or horseback, towards Afua farther south. The vast majority headed to the ferries to cross the Enyonyam and continue on towards Mawusi or Ozigbodi.
Two of the ferries filled up before they reached the shore. They waded into the line for the third ferry. Their shadows followed, leading their horses. Downstream, Addae caught sight of hippopotami frolicking in the shallows. A few long-legged storks and egrets stood on their backs or in their open mouths, picking off bugs.
“You did not sleep much,” Lishan accused. “I said I would watch over you.” There was an undertone of hurt in her voice.
He twisted his mouth, feeling oddly guilty; like he had disappointed one of his nieces. “I … apologize.” He kept his voice low. “I am not used to having a protector. Agyei may be trained in self-defense, but it is still rare for us to be threatened. As you said, it is blasphemy; an affront to the Gods.” The line crept forward. He pulled out a coin for the ferryman. “We will have to make a choice. The safest route to Ozigbodi is the southern road. It goes around the Swamp of Thema. The other choice is the direct route: through the Swamp. I imagine everyone here is sane and will take the safer route.” They handed over their coins and stepped onto the ferry. It rocked gently. Across the river, the other two boats were emptying of passengers, slowly rising in the water as the weight decreased.
A grin sliced across her face. The hurt note was gone, replaced by excitement. “Everyone except us — and them.”
It was only a few minutes to cross the Enyonyam. Once on the other side, they followed the other clumps of travelers heading south-west down the hard-packed road. Conversations rose and fell around them. Birds and monkeys called back and forth to one another. One of the few children began to whine that his feet hurt. A cart squeaked badly. Lishan plied him with questions, one after another. She was, indeed, new to Enam’mana’ka to be so ignorant of such basics as the ingredients of fufu or why writing was forbidden.
“Each of our Gods gifted us with two commandments: one to do, one not to do.” He ducked around a low-hanging date tree branch. “From Ampah: You shall write the tales of your kin on your heart, where they shall live forever. You shall not write the tales of your kin on stone or wood or paper or skin, for these are finite things, and the words may die or be changed or forgotten.”
“So you remember every story you ever heard, every message ever entrusted to you?”
“Yes, absolutely. Why are you frowning?”
A rolling shrug. “I will not ask you again what message you carry or to whom. But it does make me wonder: are they after this message, or an older one? Or something else entirely that you have written upon your heart?”
Addae batted away a fly. “It could be the new message I now carry,” he finally answered. “Though there is one message I was unable to deliver, two moons ago. The recipient died before I reached him. Drowned in his bath ….”
Just shy of noon, the road branched. Most of the travelers veered off towards Mawusi (including, thank Gods, the whiny child). A few, perhaps a dozen, kept on towards Ozigbodi. Their shadows remained at the rear of the troop. The bearded one had pulled on a floppy hat. The jungle slowly changed around them; fewer acacia and shea trees, more mangroves and sedges. Fewer monkey cries overhead, different bird songs. Less than an hour later, the road branched again — in a manner of speaking. The road that cut directly through the Swamp of Thema was barely a trail, a narrow track of hard-packed earth raised above the wetland. They would have to walk single file.
“Whatever you do, do not leave the trail — ”
“Ay! Agyei!” The man driving the squeaky cart pulled to a stop. “Where are you going?” Some of the other travelers slowed, curious.
Addae straightened his back and glowered at the man. “I am carrying an urgent message. You have no right to question me.”
The man tucked his chin down, embarrassed. “Asomdwee, asomdwee,” he muttered, flicked the reins, and rolled away.
Lishan ducked around a mangrove and followed Addae. “Do not leave the trail,” she repeated. “I see why.” Only a few steps off the main road and they were surrounded by water, mud and blankets of floating, rotting vegetation. One blanket nearby heaved up suddenly and then settled down with a dull ploosh. Nearby, a soft splash and a bird’s song was cut off.
“You fall into the mud, you get stuck. Or sucked in. You fall in the water, you get eaten. You drink the water, you die of disease. It takes a full day to walk the trail, and it is already passed noon. Traveling through the Swamp of Thema is night is not … advisable, but neither is stopping on the trail to sleep.” The trees blocked quite a bit of the sunlight, providing shade. But it was much more humid in here than it had been on the main road. He wiped at the sweat beading on his head. The air was thick with the smell of moss and decay.
His head came up at the sound a horse whinnying in fear and consternation.
“They won’t be able to ride their horses,” Lishan surmised, tilting her head.
“No. They’ll either have to lead them or leave them behind.”
“Good. Is there a bend in the trail? Does it curve back anywhere?”
He gestured. The horse had stopped whinnying. “There is a curve to the left through the trees just ahead.”
Lishan pushed her hand into his back. “Go faster.” She propelled him along, so fast that he almost tripped over his own feet. If it had not been for her hand between his shoulders, he would not have even known she was there: her feet made no sound, nor could he hear her breath. “Stop at the far end of the curve. We need to remove the advantage of their flintlocks. They can hit us from a distance, but they only get one shot. Then, it’s hand to hand.”
And they were at the curve and then around it. Mangroves towered overhead and birds chirruped. He skidded to a halt and turned to see her sliding down the right side of the embankment towards the water.
“What are you doing?!” he hissed in alarm.
“Remember, one shot.” She slipped into the inky-green water. It was above her hips. An invisible cloud of stink rose up out of the water around her. She grimaced, then grinned up at him — and started to scream. The loud, frantic, awful cries of dying prey. “Ahhh! Crocodile! Help! Help! He —” And she dropped below the surface.
Addae stared in shock as the ripples faded and the water quickly stilled. Suddenly, footsteps, running, thudding down the trail towards him. He whipped around, leveling his staff just as their shadows came around the corner, Nasty-Hair to the rear, the Bearded One in the front. The men pulled up short. Each held a flintlock. The Bearded One with the floppy hat held his sword, too. The metal of sword and guns glinted dully.
“Aawww.” A mock pout crossed the face of Nasty-Hair. “Lose your bodyguard, agyei?”
“Too bad,” Bearded One mocked. “We were looking forward to having a dance with the little girl. Now,” he extended the flintlock. Addae’s eyes narrowed; not within staff range yet. “You’re going to give us a message. You were supposed to deliver it two moons ago, to a healer in Osei.”
Nasty-Hair inched forward. “Tell us the message.”
Addae crouched lower. “I will die first.”
Bearded One stepped closer, face twisting. “Tell us!”
Bearded One pointed his flintlock at Addae’s belly. “Tell us or die slowl — ”
Swift and silent, Lishan erupted out of the swamp. Her daggers slashed, twin arcs of light. The Bearded One had a moment to scream as both his arms were severed below the elbow. The smell of blood mixed with the moss and decay in the air. And then his cry was cut off, so abruptly that Addae’s ears rang, as Lishan swung a dagger around and took his head. It bounced and rolled into the water. The hat followed, drifting down. The body crumpled.
Nasty-Hair yelled, screamed something unintelligible, and scrambled backwards. His flintlock sparked and exploded. A wild flapping of wings overhead and screeching. Sulphur mixed with the blood smell. Addae winced as something hot cut across his arm. He leapt forward, over the decapitated body, swinging his staff down hard across Nasty-Hair’s wrist. Bone cracked. The flintlock clattered to the earth. Still yelling, Nasty-Hair turned and fled.
Heels digging into the slippery side of the embankment, Lishan pulled the spear from the sleeve on her back. One foot braced against the trail, she hurled the spear, straight, silent. The barbed head slammed into Nasty-Hair’s back, sank deep, and he fell. A twitch and gasp and he was still.
“The temerity,” Lishan muttered, clambering the rest of the way back onto the trail. “Threatening me with rape.” Her once-white clothes were stained a greenish-black. Dripping slime and water, she turned to Addae. “Are you well?” She braced one foot against the headless body and shoved it down the slope into the water. The arms followed.
Addae almost retched. He watched as a snaky coil curled around the body and pulled it under with a sickening schluup. Another invisible ball of stink. “Aba, watch over these men’s souls. Let them return again, wiser,” he whispered.
Both daggers in one hand, Lishan walked over to Nasty-Hair and pulled her spear from his back. A hard push and he rolled down into the swamp. Addae didn’t look this time to see if anything claimed his body.
“I am fine,” he finally answered. Then his arm hurt. He looked down, suddenly remembering the slice of heat. There was a gash across his upper arm, bleeding and singed. Grimacing, he pulled off his cloak. The hood was only attached by a lacing woven through a few holes. He pulled it free and tossed the cloak to Lishan. “Dry yourself off.” He wrapped the hood around his wound, just tight enough to stop the bleeding, and tied it off.
“Weapons first.” She wiped his cloak back and forth across the daggers, in and out of the holsters. “Do you think they wanted that message for themselves? Or were they hired?”
With his staff, Addae knocked first one flintlock into the swamp, then the other. They sank without a sound. Detestable weapons. “I don’t know.”
She slipped the blades back into their scabbards. “If they were hired, more will come for you.”
The whiny of a horse drifted through the trees, than an answering call. Perhaps they would not have to walk all the way to Ozigbodi after all.
“Kpodo,” he said.
She blinked over at him as she wiped down her spear. “Kah-po-doo?” she mangled.
“Kpodo,” he corrected, straightening his back, planting his walking staff firmly against the earth. “It is my birth name, given to me when I was presented to my family and to the Gods. Now, I entrust it to you, as well.”
She smiled. “K-po-do,” she managed, a bit better. “It is my honor to know you.”
And they set off down the road, together.