A SET of brass sounded out loud from atop the fortress wall.
And with a long, jubilant blare that commanded the large border gates to be flung open, for the returning heir of Jaiye kingdom.
Shao’s eyes parted open.
He’d slowly drifted to sleep when he buried his head in the coastal sand, and cried at the peak of despair and a hopeless waiting.
He’d slept off at midnight, but he knew that sound so well. The Crown Prince had return.
Shao shot up his head at once. He hastily brushed his eyelids awake with the back of a hand and dusted his sandy forehead, too.
The young retainer raised his gaze. And there in the far distance a large iron gate – built within the high wall before the open sea, was raised skywards by levers of a giant pulley.
Shao could see it all. A decorated army of soldiers rode out through the open gates and charged towards the dock far away; the loud flourish of the trumpets echoing after the hasty fleet.
The young servant’s heart raced up some wildly beating pulses, as the tensions ran down his chilly frame. His heart couldn’t help marking the horses’ thudding steps to welcome his hero’s arrival.
Soon the sound of the galloping party was swallowed up by the distant rumbles of sea waves across the sky-high wall.
The gates were shut after the departed horsemen. And Shao saw everything going still and quiet again as that hopeless forever before some idle trumpets had announced the birth of hope.
The servant boy waited for as long as eternity would dusk. But the prince wasn’t coming up with the entourage.
Yet Shao dared not approach the border gates to enquire about it. He only got up to his feet and aimlessly paced about, where he lurked at a distance from the wall.
The young retainer glanced up to the starry skies above and observed the departing thickness of night. It struck him right then that it was early dawn already.
But it hadn’t taken so long since the crown prince’s return was heralded on the wind pipes, Shao realised. Prince Àla would necessarily be receiving a ceremonial welcome at the dork now. It was Shao that couldn’t afford to be so patient, the servant boy admitted.
Yes, Shao realised it must have been that he slept for so long when he dozed off at the initial time he waited for the prince. And it was the earliest dawn now. Shao couldn’t bear to wait a moment longer. Yet he couldn’t dare to do anything stupid.
The young man looked up with all frustration. And he mouthed a desperate soundless cry for help.
Just then the giant gates were lifted open. And there came cantering into it a glorious entourage of horses and their riders, with burning touches in their hand. They were the troops that had gone over to receive Àlà.
And yes, they formed a bright and flaming circle around the returning crown prince of Jaiye kingdom. He himself bestriding a regal white stallion. His choicest, steed. Ga.
Shao’s mouth fell open in awe of the rebirth of hope. Like the miracle a cluster of flaming touches brought upon a dark and dreary night.
Shao was ready to do the unthinkable now. Even the stupid, no matter what anyone called it. And without given a further thought, the young man charged towards the open gates with sprightly steps.
As Prince Àlà along with the troop entered, the huge gates were closed behind them. And Shao kept running towards the advancing horde, screaming for the prince’s attention at the same time.
The soldiers were alerted and two of them veered off the troop on horseback, and charged towards the young man.
One of them quickly put out his burning touch, thrust it in his large quiver and drew out a sword with one hand, while riding with the other.
The other soldier sprinted on beside the first with a flaming touch in his left hand.
Àlà glanced at the scene in the dim light of night. Upon a second thought, he reasoned that the daring youngster charging towards them might neither be an enemy nor a clown. As the prince couldn’t see Shao well enough to recognise him from that far distance.
Àlà decided he wanted to hear what the young lad had to say. He believed he could be bringing an important news he might not know about. And so he told the soldiers to bring the young man to him first.
As the soldiers raced up to Shao, the young servant thought he could be killed on the spot. And so he cried out.
‘I have something to say to my lord the Crown Prince!’ he screamed. ‘It is Iyun! It is very important! It is Iyun!’ he panted.
The soldiers found what Shao was saying a splutter of nonsense. And the one wielding a sword asked the other about it as they charged forwards. ‘What is Iyun?! What’s he saying?!’ he yelled over the surrounding noise.
The touch bearer glanced at him. ‘Maybe an important spy code? Or what d’ you think?’
The sword man glanced back. ‘I asked you first. How can I know?’ And with that he charged faster ahead, and the other soldier raced up his horse too.
As the two riders came to Shao, the latter crouched low in a frightened surrender. The sword man sheathed his sword at once, leaned downwards, pulled up the servant boy by his collar, and mounted him on horseback with him.
Shao cowered in front of the brazen soldier as they rode back to the prince and the rest of the troupe. And when the soldiers got there with Shao, they threw him down to the ground in front of the prince.
Just then, Àlà realised it was Shao and wondered what was happening. He exclaimed in a loud, impatient voice. ‘Shao! Why are you here?! Huh, tell me! Why are you here?!’
It was the time for the two soldiers to be surprised. And they wondered how the crown prince came to know such a poor looking boy so fondly.
Shao crouched down on his knees. And he repeated his words. But this time, in some weak, tired breaths.
‘It is Iyun, Your Highness! It is Iyun! It is Iyun, Your Highness!’
Shao was absolutely short of words to capture the tragedy. It was cockcrow already. The time Iyun would be sacrificed at the Altar of Slaughter.
Àlà jumped down immediately, and all the soldiers jumped down from their horse too; the earth shuddering with the heavy thuds.
The prince grabbed Shao by the shoulders. And he shook him so hard. ‘What about Iyun?!’ he shouted. ‘Tell me, what about her?! Is she all right?!’ It was to the amazement of the standing horde.
The sword man and the touch bearer couldn’t help looking at themselves now. And they didn’t know when the same question rolled out of their lips.
‘Who is Iyun?’ they blurted. But neither of them had the faintest idea. They shook their head at the same time.
A soldier standing near the two naïve men leaned towards them and whispered. ‘Even a suckling will know that Iyun must be a damsel that has conquered the conqueror’s heart!’
‘How did you know?’ whispered the touch bearer.
‘Who told you that crap?’ queried the sword man.
But the other soldier didn’t answer. He told himself right then that it was time to walk away from there.
And as he walked to another side of the standing company, he heard Shao tremble with some unfortunate news.
‘Iyun has been captured, Your Royal Highness!’ Shao cried. ‘She was captured by a group of priests a few days ago. They said she is the one. That she is the one the Heavens choose!’
The soldiers could barely make enough sense of the conversation. Yet they reluctantly admitted it was something regarding the ongoing sacrifice.
But the men couldn’t fathom how the crown prince’s woman could be the sacrificial offering. Nothing about these made sense so far. They were left with no further clues.
A tensed silence covered the earth right then. Everything went utterly silent and still. And no one could dare ask the prince. The grieving already seemed too personal for the minions to get involved with it.
A silent tremor enveloped the night.
Àlà was dazed with both shock and fear. His bulging eyes smoked with fire and ice. His skin raised their hairs in a heated chill. And his feet weakened beneath his trembling limbs.
After an eternal silence that shouted out a deafening noise, Àlà brought himself to speak again.
But the voice that produced his next words were weaker than the voice of the feeblest on earth. And he raised his gaze and cried. ‘Aargh, why must it be her?! Why, why?!’
‘I heard she’ll be sacrificed at the first cock crow,’ whispered Shao.
‘And this is the time of the first crow,’ Àlà interposed in a pained moan.
‘The first cocks to crow tonight will do any time from now,’ Shao put in, and Iyun will be slaughtered for sacrifice!’ Shao lamented, buried his face in the sand, and cried.
Àlà raised his gaze skywards. He groaned so desperately hard. ‘No!!’ he cried. ‘Aargh… no!!’ he groaned.
Everyone bowed to their knees under the crown prince’s great burden. And they cried in a rueful voice. ‘Your Royal Highness!! Your Royal Highness!!’
But only one man didn’t crouch to his knees immediately. And when Shao raised his gaze up, he noticed only then that a stranger had return with the prince from his voyage to the empires of the Ashias.
Only him did not bow yet. He was called the Niger.
And now it was Shao’s turn to wonder along the lines of what his master the prince had also thought about him.
He bowed his head and muttered about the man who didn’t kneel. ‘He must be an enemy or else a clown,’ he said.
When Shao raised his head, he saw that the stranger had bowed. And just then he heard the crown prince call out. ‘Come with me!’
But no one knew who was ordered to come. Or where exactly they would go.
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© 2020 by Kayode & Tola Olla