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The Malice of Beast-Men and the Chalice of Appeasement Part One: Pawn of Malice

Novel By: CC Chuks
Fantasy



The Owaro Ajodun, an annual festival to ward off angry spirits, goes terribly wrong. The festival brings peace and order to the realm by appeasing two diametric, hellish spirit races, the impenitent and the vengeful, by rallying offenders for the sake of seeking forgiveness from spirits of the dead. The great incidence of dark forces in the realm is traced to a sham Owaro Ajodun. The prophecy of an impending, epoch-making battle between warring gargoyles—vivified abodes of the two spirit races—is beginning to take shape, starting with the birth of a child. Atinuke is a young girl who goes from princess to pariah. Unknown to her, she is the pawn of one of the gargoyles in its bid to supplant order with anarchy and bring about an era of aberrant mortals called beast-men; people without the spirit of goodwill or self-improvement—without a destiny determined by the gods. She is the child who should never have been born.

The story is set in the ancient Oyo Kingdom of West Africa and is redolent of ancient Yoruba beliefs and mythology.
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Submitted:Dec 6, 2013    Reads: 6    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


The Malice of Beast-Men and the Chalice of Appeasement

BY C.C. CHUKS

C.C. CHUKS: THE MALICE OF BEAST-MEN AND THE CHALICE OF APPEASEMENT

While Enamel parties and masquerades in white, Pulp endures the cavity and pain-filled bite

To my father, my mother, my 2 siblings

To the fond memory of Benjamin Magaji

And to Olisaebuka Maduka for spurring me on by reading my early manuscripts.

PROLOGUE

"Gods serve a purpose. Demons too.

The reality many forget is… Demons are gods. They are kinds of minor gods called undergods.

Just like gods, they have axes to grind with those who cross them or take them lightly. Yes, even gods can be malignant at times. But unlike them, demons can be petitioned by men to punish other men, just or not.

When a person swears by a demon, he submits to something harsher, more flexible, less critical, much speedier, and more demanding in terms of sacrifice. Pacts signed by invoking demons are dire. No one trifles with it. The gods would rather settle our rifts, when they arise, than get involved in dealings, which have no transcendental significance. By their greater involvement, demons eliminate rifts-eliminate risks that may arise by making sure those who renege are punished. I, for one, would not trust even my own blood brother, unless he swore by a demon.

For their ability to share our grudges, demons are not only pettier than gods, they are preferred, especially when it comes to settling disputes because their punishments are swifter and crueler-the way we would like it done. The gods do not understand our anger, our hatred, our bitterness, our wars-not the way demons do. They expect us to conform to lofty standards-to ideals. They preach neighborliness and care little for the intricacies of our fallouts: whether we are the aggressed or the aggressor. They judge all according to the substance of their hearts, according to the perfection they expect us to mirror.

But men have long come to realize that sometimes we must first be enemies before we can be friends; sometimes we must go to war to find peace. Or, do I speak falsehood?

A great war has already begun. After it comes peace. It is a war of demons-of demons doing the bidding of men. Or vice versa. No one knows for sure which. I'm certain of this, though: if we hope to survive it, we would be wise to embrace the malice of demons, wait till the war passes, then return to the ideals of the gods."

PART ONE: PAWN OF MALICE

CHAPTER 1

Witches.

Beauts at first, but then they transmogrified. Every fine feature exaggerated until it repulsed; every delicate detail aged until it was coarse. The flesh around their eyes crinkled. Eyeballs turned the color of curd. Noses broadened until they were large and disfiguring, with nares that dilated assiduously. Filthy mops of hair-jagged like gorse-crowned heads and stretched down napes like manes. The creatures frisked about, amazingly sylphlike for ones so old.

Flicking tongue over teeth, they thrust their heads forward, and pulled it back, almost as quickly. They did this repeatedly-inching closer and closer, loving the unthinking cringes and unmanful screams it brought.

Aurrwk!

In a flash, a tongue that seemed to come from the mouth of a giant toad, lashed out and gouged the eye of one slow to react; punching a hole, hooking it and pulling it right out its socket. Torches, held up for light, turned into batons, swinging in all directions to ward off the night. In the transience of illumination, the night's obscurity roared. Necrotic tissue, skin diseases, moles with long facial hairs, closely packed homodont teeth, still smeared with their last blood meal, screamed for attention in flickers. The night shrieked as if in pangs.

The trees replied in tenfolds.

Like lithe monkeys, the hags ran up trees, glided over torch and blade and landed back on their feet with the faintest of taps. With their prey cornered, they snapped and retreated from every angle-like a pack of wild dogs-avoiding the bludgeoning of machetes. Their shrieking never stopped. Not even when their heads were severed from their bodies with a well-struck blow to the neck. Every dismembered body part had a life of its own. It was then it dawned on those trying to fend off the night to-run. One warrior struggling with a detached limb trying to strangle him ran headlong into a trunk and blacked out. The others milled about, brandishing their machetes in a blind careless fashion.

Machete against sickle, warrior against witch, one-by-one, the machetes fell and those who wielded them met their end.

The sickles were handy in harvesting something slender and dark; something the hags greedily amassed and put inside sackcloths; something they found delightful and viciously contested. It was shaped like a cucumber. And when they took a bite of it, it bloodied their teeth. They sucked it with glee and tongued it with gusto. They overcame a one-eyed warrior and held him still; sea of taloned hands, withered but strong, holding him like a vice. He could do nothing but watch as they avulsed his member. And fought over it; his loud screams delighting his mutilators, his low moans in the aftermath-sheer ecstasy. With Horror over, Agony was now peaking slowly. He writhed in pain and pleaded for his life, helplessly watching his testicles in the mouths of his attackers. Sharp sickles dug into his stomach, tearing it open and gutting him with speed and skill.

A fire was near. A big black cauldron bubbled over it. They dragged the warrior to their banquet and threw him into the pot. One last harrowing cry, as he fricasséed in steaming-hot water, evinced he was not dead yet.

The trees lent a tenfold chorus.

The shrieking of the woods only dulled when mouths sank into pounds of meat or licked odious consommés from small gourds.

Playing with their food, like cubs honing their hunting skills, the predator ran circles around the prey, corralling them and taking them down when they pleased. Greedily, they fought over their favorite body part. Their shrieks were loudest whenever they brought their catches to the cauldron, squirming or lifeless.

A late afternoon of vagaries saw twilight in a fight to unseat day. The overhanging clouds, now gravid with rain, frowned and resisted the sun. The half-lit sky darkened and brightened continuously, as if a child were playing with the wick of a bush-lamp.

The auspice of the first rains spurred saltations of glee from women and frolics of utter frenzy from children. It went without say, it was that time of the year again. Beginning tomorrow, the moistened fields would be plowed, and seeds sown in them. In spite of this, there were still those ill at ease with the day's growing and abating.

The storm in gestation incited gusts. Strong winds ruffled tall obeches hampering them from the hamlets they tried to reach, until they gave way. Thatch from roofs flew up in the air, and so did flocks of barbets, viciously rousted from their tree perches; livestock ran amuck in their pens.

Gust soon turned to gale and imperiled roofing gave way. The obeches, which formed a scrappy pale around the chiefdom, nodded oddly to one side. In their leeward lean, they appeared to be in the path of the hard sweep of a large unseen broom. Those the winds found dancing now ran helter-skelter in search of any place that gave shelter. Mothers ran into each other looking for their young, yelling their names at the top of their lungs. Children, driven out of their minds by the glimmering sky, succumbed to all the crazy antics in their heads. The gale waned as mysteriously as it rose. Disheveled obeches returned to their upright position, but not fully. The unnerving peace lasted a while before the winds returned, slower. A light drizzle zigzagged in the air as it came under the ambush of coursing winds.

Atinuke was apprehensive. She, like some others, found the sky's blinking and the storm's cawing in the shadows of a downpour rather unusual. When she learned from small groups who met to discuss it that oonis were saying there were voices in the storm, she wasn't surprised. Baba Shotunde, the head of the council of oonis and a man many considered the wisest in Modekun, would surely have answers, she thought. She left the discussants, ran past those doing a rain dance, and made her way to Baba Shotunde's hamlet.

On getting there, a large crowd was spilling out of the gates. Apparently, others had thought in the same way, and she had been a little late in hers. To get past the crowd, she lied that she had a message to deliver from her grandfather-the bale of her clan, Baba Fola, for his fellow ooni, Baba Shotunde. The lie came naturally, as she had, in the past, gone to Baba Shotunde with messages from him. Nevertheless, that ploy only got her as far as the doorstep. She was told that Baba Fola was already inside. He and the council of oonis were sequestered in the hut and trying to figure out what was going on. Everyone one else was barred from entry and asked to be quiet because Baba Shotunde was in deep meditation and ought not to be disturbed.

There were secrets the heavens were keeping. Shotunde was sure of it. In his sleep, he tried to unravel the paranormal-mysteries beyond human perception. Baba Shotun, as fondly called, was an ooni whose ori inu gave him necromantic abilities. He had experienced the swirling winds in a dream-long before their surfacing-but it didn't stop him from being overwhelmed by their sheer intensity when they finally arrived. The strangeness of the heavens gave hint there was something looming besides rainclouds. It was why he followed a gut feeling and returned to his repose to investigate. The council of oonis, seated around his bed and equally concerned, looked on as he snored loudly on his raffia mat. It was no ordinary snooze. It was a seer's late afternoon siesta.

Something had happened to the army. Something bad. The warriors, frightened out of their wits, were now making a hasty retreat home, and weren't far off. Baba Shotun could feel their panicked spirits scurrying ahead of them in the deep forest. The turbulent skies told him they were returning in scatters. Awaking from his trance, he explained to his fellow oonis what he learned.

"The mother hen is needed," Baba Shotun finished. "It is time for her to go out and nestle her brood."

A towncrier announced to all what the ancestors revealed through an ooni. Rescue teams began assembling. They had to hurry. Darkness would soon be upon them. And that wouldn't be good.

Never in the lives of the Modekuns had their army been defeated in battle. Never had there been a time when their warriors returned home without a conquest, however small. The news, as worrisome as it was, came with some delight for Atinuke. These were desperate times. And women would, for the first time, be allowed to join makeshift rescue teams since only a few warriors had been deployed to guard the chiefdom-the rest had traveled with the army. It was Modekun tradition not to allow women into the army or be put in harm's way. Women were baby makers. Their survival meant the survival of the whole tribe. They were the ants you had to kill if you wanted to extinguish the colony. Baba Shotun assured all that the mission at hand was a safe one; rescuers would find a wounded army in retreat and an enemy nowhere in sight. The only challenge they would face was navigating their way through a tricky rainforest. They were lucky it was still dry season, though in its latter stage. Only nightfall stood in their way.

Opportunities like these rarely ever came to Modekun women. They seldom left the kingdom except for when they were leaving to join their warrior husbands in their billeted homes, somewhere in some newly conquered land. Most times, they took the new homes for themselves and sold the original homeowners to the wealthy elite, who turned them into servants. For women, the ones who were still young and unmarried like Atinuke, they were even more sheltered. Their virtue served to preserve their family name and their marriageability. It was trollopy for a girl to leave the comfort and protection of her hamlet without first being married. Atinuke, at nearly the ripe age of sixteen, was like a fettered heifer. She couldn't wait to be free. She had never been outside her chiefdom let alone her kingdom. Now, here she was, on the verge of an adventure in the deep forest and relishing the chance to see what lay beyond-a chance for an adventure she could someday tell others like the ones her father and his friends used to tell her.

Her father was the next in line to the kakanfo. His situation was the same with the army. He and his superior would have to explain why the army had shambled back in disgrace when they returned. For the moment, his predicament, whether he was alive or dead, wounded or sound, was his family's only pre-occupation.

As she watched the agitated straggle of her colony from her bedroom window, Adeola tried to be as optimistic as her young daughter was. However, having lived more years and experienced more pain, she had lost most of her naïveté.

Atinuke's optimism soon turned to sadness when she realized her fretful mother would not allow her leave with her team. She explained that her leaving her would only compound her troubles by giving her something extra to worry about. One was bad enough as it is; she didn't think she could survive another.

"We ought to stay together and support each other through all this, Tinu," Adeola, said. "I need you." She could have just stopped there but she didn't. "For many years, I was called a log of wood: a woman only fit for warming your father's bed, before I had you. I cried so many tears then because I was without child. I won't be rendered childless now. Oshun has long dried my tears and she promised me I will not cry over a child again."

Tinu had heard this story several times already that it now began to pall on her.

Her mother's disposition to fear the worst whenever she heard bad news had never gotten to her until now. Adeola was a compulsive pessimist whenever she was deeply worried. She preferred to idle in pessimism than build hope and have it eventually dashed. For her, until her husband reappeared, he was as good as dead and she would not speak of him in present tense. It was why she could never be around her mates at times like these. They would slap her mouth shut. It was why she chose to seclude herself with her daughter. She had poor Tinu to express her woes to, to wallow in self-pity around-to punish with her thoughts. And she did just that. Here she was, worsening Tinu's misery.

"Tinu, have you considered that if you scar yourself while you're out there in the woods, no one will want to marry you?" her mother informed as she gathered firewood, bent over.

"I don't care about that," Atinuke said in an infantile gruff.

"Well, boys do. And you should too."

Adeola, noticing her daughter was not responding, looked up and saw the pleading expression on her face. "I said: no! There is no way I will let you go into that forest and that is that. It's enough for me that I have already lost a husband."

Those words dared Tinu to a further protest.

A labyrinthine network of tortuous footpaths surrounded hamlets. They merged into a long winding stretch that bore through bushlands on its way to the village square. Hamlets, compounds with rectangular perimeters, enclosed homes with people of close ancestry, called kindreds or clans. The outer walls, most times, comprised mud huts with no separation between them, formed ramparts with small, elevated windows. Kindreds had several nuclear families living side-by-side. A family could own several huts, often turning them into living quarters, kitchens, and lavatories. Huts used as pantheons or shrines were shared by the whole kindred. It was common for the elderly to be looked after in separate huts. Depending on whether the kindred were smiths, potters, or weavers, some hamlets had foundries, potteries, basket-weaving or sartorial studios equipped with locally made looms. Modekun culture was deeply ingrained in agrarian roots; all kindreds farmed regardless of what other trade they did. Most hamlets had inner courtyards where meetings were held and bonfires were lit during festivities, or the more usual night-time gatherings. During Harvest, the open courtyard served as a store for crops, which were gathered into proud heaps that showed visitors how hardworking the kindred were.

Tinu left her hamlet and made her way to the village square. She only had to follow the torches and bushlamps that lit up the sandy path, hovering close to the faces that held them. Children were constantly stopping to inspect any curio they found lying around before realizing they were lagging behind and scuttling after their wards. Whenever palm fronds were not blocking her view Tinu could see a slice of the moon peering down at her through tall palm trees.

Tinu, like most children, lived in a patriarchal hamlet that belonged to her father and his brothers. The women in her clan had to abide by whatever the men in their community decided. Clans-or kindreds-lived in hamlets and every one had a head or chief elder called a bale, who was usually the oldest man in the clan. He ruled on clan matters, especially those pertaining to their future. Clans came together to form chiefdoms-or villages-headed by an oba. Chiefdoms came together to form kingdoms, also headed by an oba or kabiyesi. Some kingdoms had unique titles for their obas. When kingdoms were conquered, they were merged with other kingdoms to form empires. All communities made up the Aye, presided over by Olofin-Orun through intercessors called Orishas to help him maintain order. The Oyo Kingdom was a budding empire. Only the Borgu and Nupe Kingdoms were nearly as mighty. Wars were fought to prevent chiefdoms or kingdoms from breaking away, but most times, they were fought to gain new land and expand the kingdom. In spite of this, rulers were first spiritual leaders before administrators and warlords. It was why oonis were given preference over great warriors as leaders.

The path to the village square, usually lonelier at this hour, was alive with activity. Tinu no longer shared in the excitement. Her head was drooped and her ears were ringing with her mother's warning to make sure she returned as soon as she was done. She ambled to the village-square, where all the rescue teams were told to assemble. She found her team posturing over the stuff they planned to carry along, and expained to them why she could not go with them. They understood her reason but didn't quite understand her gloom. Tinu helped a few of them heave large sacks containing tools and assorted relief materials onto horse-driven carts, before bidding them goodbye.

For a while, she stood rooted to her spot, looking in the direction her team had disappeared, poring over their specters. As if waiting for their departure to dawn on her, she stood forlornly mulling over what could have been. When her thoughts regained their focus, she fought hard to keep tears from rolling down her cheeks. She thought anyone who saw her would think she had just received the news of her father's passing. She took a moment to look round the large pile of alms assembled for the army by other rescue teams. There was food, medicinal herbs, firewood, kettles, and kitchen utilities-some of the stuff her team went with. Besides kitchen knives and cutlasses for clearing thick bushes, there was nothing intended as a weapon. She watched the gestures of a team as they plotted on how they would share their load between them.

Quickly, she wiped her tear-stained cheeks with the back of her hand when she saw some kids she knew approaching. Wale, Wunmi, Ojo and a boy, whose name she wasn't quite sure-could've been Dele or Deji-were heading towards a team of mostly women, and were not very far. They were four youngsters from her neighborhood who often gathered around her, along with some other kids, to hear her stories: the ones from her father's memoirs. The knowledge that they were on the verge of an adventure, like the ones she used to tell them, made her green. Her gloom returned when she imagined herself sitting to listen to their stories.

Yepa! No way!

They were still too young to be telling her stories from their own experiences like her father and some of the elders used to. It would simply be ludicrous.

"Aburo Tinu, are you coming?" Wunmi, the only girl in the group, called out to her.

Saddened and embarrassed by the truth, she found the guile to appear anything but crestfallen when she assured them that she would be leaving with her team soon. The boys simply gawked at her and said nothing-not even waving back when she waved to them.

She often smote adolescent boys in Modekun. It wasn't unusual for them to be uncouth around her. It never bothered her, though. She never minded the fact that they would sometimes gather in their flocks just to ogle at her as she told her stories.

For a fifteen-year old, physically, she looked mature for her age. She had already developed a woman's hind end to the point some of her friends even joked that if it didn't stop growing, she would waddle like a duck. Besides Tinu, Remi and Eniola, quite a number of their peers were still gamine and flat-chested. It was why the three of them, swans among cygnets, were so influential in their clique. Tinu now exuded a facial charm that banished her cherubic youth and made her delectably and consummately feminine. The exquisiteness of her features made some others appear caricatural. The major differentiator was probably her nose. It was delicately elegant with a fair amount of sculptural relief and not broad and flat as was common. The elders in her community often commented that Obatala had carved it meticulously right down to the minutest detail.

The proud contours of her peach of a woman were now beginning to show. More and more people were stopping to stare at her dumbfoundingly. In their dumbness, sometimes, they looked like they had just spoken to her. Elderly men loved having her around to gaze at. They knew their stories delighted her and so kept her captivated with any recollection in their heads, until her mother sent for her. Her impeccable, perfectly occluded teeth and even-toned, glowing skin were the crowning glory of every smile she made. A pair of thin, arching eyebrows complemented her long tapering eyes. Her full lips and her eyes, when partially closed in amusement, combined to create luscious lips appearance. Men found her erotic whenever she smiled, speak nothing of when she laughed.

Tinu could hardly believe her ears when, on her way back home, she heard the sound of chanting and clapping close to Remi's hamlet. She retraced her steps in the direction of the singing. Like a lioness stalking a prey, she paced forward slowly-readying herself for a foray. Creeping closer and closer, hoping to find children at play, maybe the ones who had toddled not long ago, she heard voices that made her doubt very much. They had too much lung.

She hid behind a chicken house and peeked. She was right in her suspicion: four of her peers were vamping up and down, practicing for their big performance on carnival day. The faint glow of a bushlamp, set on the ground-probably so the could see their feet as they danced-limned the figures of Remi, Eniola and two nondescript girls.

Otio! At a time like this? How could they be practicing at a time like this? Tinu inched closer, startling the chickens. The squawking that followed didn't distract the girls. They were in a world of their own as they practiced their routines.

It was tradition for young Modekun women to welcome a victorious army with a carnival of song and dance. Carnival time was a period when the whole chiefdom feasted her eyes on a colorful parade of young virgins in full bloom. Surely, the carnival would not hold on this occasion. After all, it was a celebration of victory and from what they came to learn, from the two envoys sent ahead of the army, Baba Shotun had been right: the army was returning in disarray, probably from defeat.

But then again, maybe the event would hold.

The carnival set the stage for warriors to pick helpmates for the forthcoming farming season-the ones with whom they would start a family.

Whatever the reason for the army's retreat, the oba would certainly see no point in depriving the newly turned nubile of husbands, Tinu felt the girls must have thought. Marriage unions were too important to cancel. True. The chiefdom grew through them. The carnival was simply a facilitator. All true. Except, her friends were foolish to think such unions could not take place without pageantry. Of course, they could. Modekun won't celebrate her warriors when they return. Not this time. Each one of them would have to make marriage overtures in private, she concluded. She watched her friends jingling up and down in their trinkets, for a while. They sounded horrible They were hiding behind a chicken house and just like chickens themselves, they squawked and flapped to the songs they knew.

She began to monologuize the words she hoped would thoroughly abash her friends.

You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for being peacocky at a time like this. Just imagine your remoteness from all that is happening around you, your vainness, and your egoism. Your actions speak volumes about who you are. And right now they are most abhorrent.

"Have you girls lost your minds?" Tinu gave them all a small start when she jumped out from behind the chicken house. "How can you be practicing at a time like this? Do you not worry that our men could be dying at this very moment?"

"Tinu, you scared us! It's not funny!" a girl Tinu now recognized as Bukola complained. Apparently, she thought Tinu was playing a prank to scare them.

"How could you be so uncaring-so aloof to what's going on…?"

"That's your opinion! For your information, they said it was okay for us to sing our songs and do our dances to put the village in good cheer," Eniola cut in.

"Who said? Is that why you're all hiding out here?" Tinu's face wore the picture of incredulity. "If that's true, then why not come out into the open where everyone can see you, like the village square?"

"Who says we're hiding?" Remi said in a truculent tone. "You know as well as we do that our performances are secrets to be unveiled only on carnival day."

"Oh? But I thought you said you were permitted to sing for all of Modekun-to put all of us in good cheer, remember?" Tinu scorned.

The girls stopped dancing and gathered around Tinu.

"People will get a sense of normality when they overhear us but we don't have to…"

"Shut up, Bisi. Don't explain yourself to her! Who does she think she is?" Remi shushed the fourth girl. "You can think what you want," she said condescendingly to Tinu, "we don't care. Go away! Scram!" She turned her back on Tinu and began walking away in a svelte manner that didn't hide the fact she was conscious of every step she took.

"We've never rehearsed here and I've never heard us singing in such dreadful low voices. You girls ought to be ashamed of your…"

With that, Bukola and Bisi, the two girls closest to Tinu, lost their tempers and pounced on her with slaps and punches before she could finish. It happened just as Eniola was making a contumelious riposte. The other two joined in. Tinu fought back as best she could but it was useless. She was outnumbered. She bent her head low and cradled her head in her arms as they hit from every angle. It took the intervention of a few mothers, who rushed out of their huts as soon as they heard Tinu's loud screams, to separate the girls and stop them from doing serious harm to her.

Tinu whinnied to her feet, scraggly and half-naked from the fray. She laughed wryly to disguise her hurt. She was clearly the most battered of the lot but she didn't want to give Remi and her cohorts the satisfaction of seeing her tears. She examined her torn wrapper before checking her body for bruises. She saw a few cuts and scratches she hoped Adeola would miss. Her mother would be furious if she discovered a scar on her body-especially at a time like this: with the all-important carnival approaching. Her face throbbed. It felt damp and bruised. Fearing there was more injury than she could see, she licked her gums and carefully lifted her hands to feel her face. There was blood on her fingers when she examined them. She felt a cut below her right eye. Her gum was bleeding too. She knew Iya Adeola would go over the top when she saw her. She began to cry softly-not from the hurt she felt but from the punishment she knew she would face.

"What's the meaning of this?" a woman everyone fondly called 'Aunt Abi' asked the girls. She was the grand-matron of the Modekun dance-troop, being quite a dancer herself in her younger days. Her full name was Abiodun. She was Remi's mother.

"Tinu doesn't want us to practice. She came over here to dampen our spirits," Remi sputtered.

"Hah!" Tinu exclaimed with a clap of hands. "Look at what you're saying? If your spirit is not damp right now then you couldn't be from Modekun."

"Shut your foul mouth!" Aunt Abi snapped at Tinu, making her quail. Up until then, Tinu had been sure her intervenors would take her side.

"So that is what this is all about, eh? So that is your grouse, isn't it?" Aunt Abi looked very hostile as she fastened her wrapper around her waist and made bouncing movements to free the over-sized 'melons' on her chest from the tightness of her wrapper. She came very close to Tinu and, for a while, looked like she would strike her. "That Remi and the girls are rehearsing without you is what is upsetting you, isn't it? So that is it, eh?"

"No, Aunt Abi, I don't care…"

"Shut up! You're a spoilt child." Aunt Abi's eyes were fiery as she spoke. She was a corpulent woman with most of her bulk showing in her arms and chest; her hips were not as wide as her upper body would suggest. "We see you for what you are. Don't think we don't see how you like to be the envy of everyone: how you always like to take the lead in everything you do. It's because you think you're better than the rest. You crave attention! You want to be the center in everything. And when you're not, you're not happy. Don't think we haven't noticed how you bring the younger ones to your side to tell them your useless stories. This entire ruckus is happening because the girls were rehearsing without you."

"It's not true! I'm not like that! Oh, Aunt Abi, is this how you see me?" Tinu wailed. Tears were starting to trickle down her cheeks and she was now fighting hard to keep from weeping. She was stung by Aunt Abi's vehemence-her conviction. She was even more shocked that the other mothers with them agreed.

"I don't think it's right for us girls to…"

"And who cares what you think? Let them be!" Aunt Abi snapped, once again cutting off Tinu as she tried to speak. She spoke her last sentence with emphasis.

"Tell her, mother!" Remi supported.

"Besides, what else can we do besides what we know best?" Bukola contributed. "I'm not a warrior. I can't go into that mamba-infested forest. And certainly not at this hour."

"Is that so?" Tinu asked. Bukola's admission brought her back to life. Her question sounded like an 'aha'. Surely, the older women would certainly take her side now, she thought. Bukola's honest remark had finally exposed the girls for what they truly were. "Oh? So you love yourself so much that you are unwilling to make any sort of sacrifice-any effort at all for our men, who could very well be dying at this moment?" she asked priggishly.

"I don't see you going anywhere?" Remi countered.

"My mother wouldn't let me and so I'm going to the shrine to offer prayers to Ogun for our army."

Aunt Abi mimicked her last utterance with the exact same cadence with which she said it. Everyone burst out laughing.

"And I bet you want the girls to go with you to the shrine, don't you? So that you can again take the lead," Aunt Abi reasoned. "It's so typical of you. Now get out of here! Get out of here, my friend, before I slap you! Go on! Go to your shrine and pray! Get out of my sight this very minute!"

Without another word, a beaten and ridiculed Tinu fled in tears.

CHAPTER 2

The army returned to a muted reception. Starting with the first returnees, tongues had wagged tirelessly and were now at fever pitch. It was customary for the kakanfo to first meet with the oba before addressing the public, but he was conspicuously absent from the arriving delegation. Some said he had taken his life for shame-hung himself on a tree somewhere out there in the forest-and, in the process, done Modekun a favor by bringing his own life to an inglorious end. Suicide was the norm for any kakanfo whose army was defeated in battle. There was more honor in either that or dying on the battlefield than in returning home in defeat. There was no place for a vanquished kakanfo in any chiefdom-not even in his own hamlet; his kinsmen would find his putrid dead body better smelling.

Not known to many, the kakanfo had indeed returned. He was alive and well, simply lying low for fear of an attack from anyone who thought he had brought dishonor to Modekun, and ought not to show his face in public. He knew there had to be a number of his tribesmen with seethes directed at him over the army's inexplicable and reprehensible retreat.

Modekun waited impatiently outside the oba's palace. The large crowd complainingly endured the scorching midday sun in their wait to hear the deputy's public address at the end of the closed-door palace deliberations.

The story carried around was that the kakanfo had chosen to call off their mission after most of his men had woken up in the night after having the same bad dream. They woke up from their sleep, sweating profusely-some peeing on themselves-and frightened out of their wits. The kakanfo, fearing that if he forced his craven men to do battle they would surely be defeated, decided to call off their mission. Waves of panic broke out in the ranks and soon their retreat became too restive to manage. Like the scatter of a colony of bats in a cave, beginning with one disturbed member, his troops were soon out of control, after some mischief-maker claimed he had seen something gliding in the shadows. In the ensuing stampede, some warriors lost their way and injured themselves against brambles and rocks. Some haplessly fell inside in ravines and deep valleys. Fortunately, the rally they left behind in their panic, caught up, and rescued them. Contrary to what many had initially thought, the army had not been defeated in battle. Hence, the reason the kakanfo was still alive.

It was a mystery: what happened in the forest. Why nearly all the warriors had had dreams of being chased through the woods by packs of hideously haggish women after their manhoods.

A real mystery it was.

Still, it didn't stop the know-alls from coming to their own conclusions. Some said the army had run into egbére burúkús, spirit vermins that inhabit the woods, and somehow escaped them and thought it all a dream afterwards. The doubters to this theory faulted it on the grounds that: if truly the army had run into egberes, they could not have escaped-could not have returned; no one who ever encountered those creatures was ever known to escape. Avoiding them was best.

Egberes were vagrant spirits that wandered through the woods in search of bodies to annex. Their poor unfortunate victims became mindless mutes after having their souls flung out of their flesh and their physical bodies taken over by rogue spirits. In order to succeed in waylaying their preys, egberes migrated, making one home after another. Oonis, with their spirit sense, were able to sniff out their homes-called Black Forests. For this reason, one or two often traveled with the warriors to act as beacons. Baba Jide, a renowned ooni and longtime lookout for the army, swore that they had not run into egberes. However, he didn't refute the theory of a second group of know-alls who said the nightmares were the doings of an Ajogun, who had somehow infiltrated the army and gone undetected. From all the talk it could be deduced that everyone found the concurrence of similar nightmares by nearly all the warriors very strange indeed and, most likely, the work of something sinister.

"Unless the culprit is found, the army cannot go out on war-mission," were the somber words of Oba Balogun that echoed the thoughts of Dayo, head of the delegation.

Tinu had not gone with her kinsmen to wait at the palace. Adeola forbade her from leaving the hamlet after she came home with bruises the previous day. Happy to hide her savaged face and heal in seclusion, she knew the decisions made at the hearing would become common knowledge anyway. She had barely seen her father since he returned. She even heard that he would briefly return home before setting off again for Oyo-Ile where he would meet with the Alaafin and his Oyo Mesi. As the deputy, Baba Dayo had taken over the reins of a winless kakanfo.

It was a palace messenger, and not Dayo, who appeared before the crowd at the end of the closed-door deliberations. Whenever a person of low birth stood before the crowd to make an announcement on the oba's behalf, it meant the oba was not proud of the news he had for his people.

"Omo Modekun! Omo Modekun-o!" the messenger shouted. He was charcoal dark-so dark the white of his eye and his teeth contrasted with his skin in such a way that made them seem fluorescent. He raised his arms in the air, spreading his hands apart and holding them up so their backs were showing. His shot agbada, patterned like those worn by jesters, followed his arms' upward movement, exposing his navel.

On seeing him, the crowd surged forward and swallowed him, jostling for positions to be nearest. One man, deciding to make himself a pedestal, crouch down, stuck his head between his thighs and lifted him up on his shoulders so he everyone could see the speaker.

"His Royal Highness, the Kabiyesi of Modekun, Oba Balogun the only Igbake of our land, is deeply disturbed, greatly saddened and regretfully announces that the army returned home yesterday… without completing its mission," the messenger shouted with a lilt.

The crowd exclaimed in keeping with the common practice of expressing shock to appear humane rather than actually feeling it.

"Nearly all our warriors experienced similar nightmares out there in the forest."

Once again, the crowd cried out, feigning their surprise at a piece of news that was already stale.

The messenger went on to inform them of the kakanfo's decision to return with the army. He didn't elaborate on the nature of the similar dreams and refused to comment on it even after someone asked. Messengers had their tongues cut off for saying what they weren't told. In the end, everything he said confirmed the rumors. There were no reasons put forward for the strange dreams, no mention of egberes or an Ajogun. All cheered at the announcement that the Song and Dance Carnival would still hold. The messenger added that, on this particular occasion, a wrestling contest would precede the carnival to allow warriors to display battle skills and score personal victories in order to earn their brides.

"As you all know, it is Modekun tradition for the prettiest women to be won by a show of bravery, usually on the battlefield, but as the Orishas would have it, a wrestling contest would have to do this time around," the messenger announced.

CHAPTER 3

Dele dispersed with the crowd feeling a little deflated. He had hoped the oonis, wise they were, would have an explanation for the army's nightmares but instead they had all listened to an announcement that only provided fodder for their suspicions. With no reasons put forward for the strange dreams, he knew everyone would be on the lookout for an Ajogun. That bit troubled him. There was always the likelihood of some overzealous people sparking off trouble with their finger pointing. If it weren't for the ability of oonis to say, with a fair amount of certainty, who was an Ajogun and who was not, many would have been accused and persecuted. Even for his young age, Dele knew well how these witch-hunts became tools for settling personal grudges. His worst nightmares were the ones in which he had seen himself accused of being an Ajogun, dragged out of his mother's hut and severely beaten.

His nightmares resulted from having witnessed those kinds of events, nearly all his life. One in particular, his first, had struck him so hard that it left an indelible blotch in his memories.

It happened when he was four.

Three men stormed into their courtyard where he and his cousin were playing and seized his playmate. They began questioning and rebuking him angrily as if they were speaking incantations-as if they were talking to an adult. He had never seen a little boy spoken so harshly to before. His cousin was just a year older. He remembered getting over his initial shock and standing there in a nonplus, watching him being beaten and dragged away. He remembered his mother coming over to cover his eyes and whisk him away so he didn't see the brutality before him-but he could hear it. He still had vivid recollections of the look of astonishment on his cousin's face and the sound of his unheeded cries for mercy. He clearly had no idea what the men were asking him; to him, they were stark raving mad: the way they badgered him with all kinds of questions. He thought so too. Initially, he thought they were about to be punished for the time they inadvertently pelted a hut with stones, trying to pluck some ripe mangoes from a tree. They fled the scene as soon as the angry owner of the hut came out.

His cousin's name was Adewale. That incident happened six years ago.

"Iya, why are they beating Adewale?" he had asked his mother while she covered his eyes and led him away.

"Because he's an Ajogun," was his mother's reply.

"What's an Ajogun?"

"You are still too young to understand but some day you will."

In the days that followed, he pressed her for more information and she finally gave in and did her best to explain it in the best way a four-year-old could understand.

"An Ajogun is someone who makes bad things happen to other people without knowing he is the one making those things happen."

After years of seeing a number of young lives ruined by accusals of accidental witchery, he now lived each day in fear. And always felt fortunate to be spared. He now knew enough about Ajoguns to explain it to the younger ones around him.

An Ajogun was a jinx, a child that brought misfortune. So many of these children vanished-became history-once they took them away. The doctrine that Ajoguns were seeds sown by evil forces and there was a need to weed them out so nobody loses their good fortune was one Dele now accepted.

It had been a much older girl from his part of the chiefdom who had clarified the Ajogun phenomenon for him and a few other children. He could still remember how she explained it to them.

"Ajoguns are children born with disruptive spirit-energies that bring misfortune to those around them," she had said. "They cause things like: crippling accidents, sicknesses, barrenness, impotence, poor farm yields, madness, stillbirths, blindness, untimely death and many more to happen. And as such, these children must be taken out of their homes to a faraway land where we cannot feel the effects of their spirit energies anymore."

Even though everyone felt their havoc, Dele knew then oonis were the ones who ascribed the disasters to certain children. His mother told him oonis were the eyes and ears of the chiefdom when it came to matters of the spirit world. Not everyone could see what they saw. Or feel what they felt.

"Why not just take them there? Why do we beat them?" one girl, roughly his age, had asked. Before the older girl could answer her question, she quickly added, "I saw a girl being beaten by many people once. Her mother even joined in the beating but she was crying at the same time. Why was she crying?"

"Ajoguns are beaten so they never think of returning when they are taken away," the older girl answered. "It's not something we like to do but it's something we must because if we don't, they could come back and we will suffer all over again. The mother of the girl was crying because she loves her daughter but, still, she knew she had to do what she did. She had to make her think she hated her, even though she did not. Doing this broke her heart. That's why she was crying. It was something she found very unpleasant. But, like I've said before, it's for our own good that we make Ajoguns feel very unwelcome here; make them want to flee and never return."

"My father said Ajoguns can't be killed. Is that true?" another child asked. "Does it mean they can't die?"

"No. That's not what your father meant. I'm sure he was trying to say that they shouldn't be killed. Whoever kills an Ajogun is cursed for life. That person, together with his clan, will suffer the anger of the Orishas for the rest of his life. This is why no one dares kill an Ajogun. They carry evil, yes, but they are innocent of it. So, just like the rest of us, they are protected by the Orishas. And they can die."

"Why did Olofin-Orun create Ajoguns if nobody wants them?" Dele had summoned the courage to ask.

"That's a tough question. I don't know really." She paused to think hard. "I don't think he created them. I think they are accidents of nature that just occurred, aberrations. Accidents do happen, you know. It is not the Orishas that make them happen. They happen because many of us are doing things we shouldn't. We are choosing our own ways and foresaking the way Olofin-Orun wants for us. As a result, we lose his protection and his guidance. It is we who are to blame for these things."

"Where do they take Ajoguns when they remove them?" Dele asked again.

"To a faraway land called Ile- Jáde, where no one is allowed to go. Now, no more questions. We have to practice our dances. Where are my drummers?"

The name of the older girl was Atinuke but everyone called her 'Tinu'. She was then a twelve-year old, who had taken up the role of dance-instructor for girls aged between five and eight. Dele and his friends often came by to help with the beating of drums. On that occasion, they had taken a long break and chosen to ask her questions that no one had quite answered to their satisfaction. Usually, during those breaks, they just listened to her stories but that day had been different.

Tinu was from a different clan. That was a huge relief for Dele because kinsmen were closely related and never allowed to marry one another. Even though she was five years older, Dele, like many other boys, harbored dreams of making her his wife someday. Dele had other secrets too besides his feelings for Tinu-things he hadn't shared with anyone.

He had a special gift. And he had used it to do some things for which he wasn't proud.

There were times he wanted to share his secret with someone but could never bring himself to. Right around the time he turned five, he noticed he was able to do what others couldn't. He always thought it strange that the things he dreamed about were things that actually happened and not something he had imagined. That was until he realized he could eavesdrop on people in his sleep. The events he witnessed happened in the not too distant past-at about the time he saw them in his dreams. He came to know of things he wasn't privy to and couldn't have known. He listened into conversations where people talked to one another as if he wasn't there. It was strange-at first.

He was confused as to what he was-how he came to know the things he did-how he could be in one place and, at the same time, be in another. The fear of persecution was the reason he chose not to reveal his mysterious 'dreams' to anyone. Often, he had to watch what he said and be careful not to let slip the fact that he knew something secret.

How couldn't it have crossed his mind? Since the day he was aware of his unique ability it was only natural for him to wonder whether he was an Ajogun. Did he have a negative spirit energy that the oonis were yet to detect? Everyone said Ajoguns were not conscious of the things they did, they, just as everyone else, observed strange occurrences around them, without knowing they caused it. He constantly wondered whether the things he saw happened because of him. Whenever he witnessed incidents like someone falling off a tree or people fighting, he wondered whether he had caused it. Even though he didn't think he was capable of hurting anyone with his ability, deliberately or otherwise, he wondered all the same.

As he grew older, he soon realized that in seeing what he saw, he had done so by leaving his body and traveling mentally to those places. His 'gift' gave him the ability to transport himself to various places in an immaterial form; it allowed him to have an out-of-body experience. This became apparent to him when he started seeing his room, his dormant body, and those of his siblings while they were all sleeping. He found he could peer at his own body and even try to touch it as if it were someone else's. It was spooky at first but he soon got used to it. Whenever he went to 'dreamland', images wobbled in front of him and sound became a deep drawl, pretty much the same as what he saw and heard whenever he dove underwater and saw the legs of other swimmers, but, unlike being submerged in water, both sound and image got clearer with time.

When he was six, he couldn't stay out of his body for too long. As he grew older, he developed greater stamina and found he could stay out for much longer-long enough to travel to any part of the chiefdom. On his 'trips', he left behind a lifeless body that still showed all the vital signs. He could always tell when someone touched his body because he felt their touch. He could smell his father's prayer incense even when he was very far away from his hamlet. It was like being in two places at the same time. His sense of sight and sound traveled with his spirit while his other three senses remained with his body.

There was a time he experienced a sharp pain while his sight and hearing were not with the rest. He woke up to discover it was his younger brother pinching him. It had been such a relief. Since then, whenever he felt someone's hand on him he knew it had to be someone touching his physical body, not his roving spirit-as if they could. No matter how far he strayed, his body and soul stayed glued together. He often returned to his body of his own accord: before he ran out of 'breath'. Whenever he failed to, he was yanked back with such a mind-numbing, spiraling, and dizzying suction.

Once, someone had tugged him but he had been too preoccupied to return. When he did, a while later, he was surprised to find his body drenched. His mother and kinsfolk were crying over him. Apparently, they thought he was dead since he had been unresponsive to all they tried-including slapping and splashing him with a bucket of water. What a great relief it had been when he woke up. He had been so absorbed with his visions to the point he became insensible to the sensations of touch, smell and taste-even pain was subliminal. Starting that day, his clan began calling him 'tortoise' because they said he slept deeply, like someone inside a shell. To his relief, the moniker didn't last. That was the closest the cat came to escaping the bag. Dele made sure that the incident never happened again.

What was it that had taken up so much of his attention at the time? What was it that so engrossed his psyche that it became impervious to pain? What had been responsible for toning down his physical sensations and stopping him from returning to his body when he knew all too well that he ought to return to avoid giving away his big secret? It was something that had quickly become his favorite pastime. Still was.

Watching Tinu.

Over the years, he made a habit of trailing her and her closest friend, Eniola, to the creek at sunset to watch them bathe. He would stay close to them as they tore off their wrappers; nothing gave his adolescent mind more pleasure. Tinu and Eniola were often in the company of another boy about their age. His name was 'Wande'. He would stand guard while the girls splashed about happily.

The girls would wait until it was dark enough before taking off their clothing. They would swim out into the shallow creek, where they couldn't be seen by anyone standing at the banks. The creek was a valley in dry season but when they rains came it became suffused with the overflowing Modakeke River. Sometimes the water in the creek would rise high enough to submerge the lower third of the trunks of giant obeches and irokos. The girls loved to hurl themselves up the trees and jump back down, making a big splash as they did. Dele loved watching their leggy silhouettes sprawling, straining, and twisting as they gripped cracks and hurled themselves up trees. Sometimes the moon would be gracious enough to throw some light on their small teated cones, quivering stiffly, or their soft shiny buns, fluttering with every jolty movement they made.

Wande was a warrior-in-training at the time. The girls felt safe around him. Dele thought him gallant and rather puritan. He never joined the girls in their swims, even when asked to. Dele never caught him trying to peek at the girls either. He was always more concerned with their safety and would ask them to keep their noise down when they were getting too loud.

Dele witnessed Tinu and Eniola growing into young women; he witnessed them becoming more conscious of their developing bodies. Like typical Modekun girls, they loved to admire, compare, and even ask others to judge.

There was another incident Dele could still recall, one in which he felt his secret had had a close call: the time he brushed past Baba Shotun, on one of his spirit jaunts. The old man had whirled his head round in puzzlement, as if someone had charged into him. He remembered being so alarmed at the time-nothing like that had ever happened before. He had always been as passive as air-always the watcher, not the watched. He remembered skulking away as quickly as he could; not waiting to find out if Baba Shotun's darting eyes would finally come to rest on him. How could he ever forget that incident? It had given him the fright of his life. Oonis like Baba Shotun were responsible for exposing Ajoguns. That incident confirmed what his mother had always told him about oonis:

They are people who can sense spirits better than most. We are all somewhat spiritually blind and deaf but they are not.

An ooni's ori inu was said to be at an advanced stage because they were really mortals in the final phase-their last lifetime-of their cycle of reincarnation. At the end of an ooni's life, it is believed that they done not reincarnate but become immortals who are allowed to join the ancestors and the Orishas in Orun Rere. This was why they were much closer to spirits than any other mortal was.

Dele was now a warrior-in-training himself.

He knew yesterday's strong winds and light drizzles meant the onset of another farming season. Soon, all attention would shift from war training to the farms. Wars were fought during the dry season. The wet season was the farming season. It was a time when all warriors became farmers; many would return from their military stations to join their families in working the farmlands.

This year's wet season was set to be a little more special than the ones before it. As announced, the chiefdom would be given the extra treat of a wrestling contest, besides the usual Song and Dance Carnival. The carnival had been put back so it fell in the wet season instead of the end of the dry season, when it was usually held.

Over the coming days, Dele and his friends took a break from farm work to watch the older boys-the real warriors-train for their wrestling contest. Modekun was agog with activity. While young single warriors honed th





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