Afam drew deep breaths and tensed his muscles as he shivered in the cold, tightly hugging his knees under a plantain tree. Mercifully rain had spared him more torture. He wished morning would come quicker so they could massacre the little village and claim the land.
He tried to force himself to sleep in an attempt to save his strength for the battle. The Aboh warriors were all spread about this bush as it was the nearest to their enemy’s home. There were a few guards in the bush earlier but they posed no problem for the Aboh warriors. Before they knew what hit them, they were all tied to trees with their mouths gagged. As soon as the battle was over they would be made orus.
Afam personally saw to the tying up of some of these men. Of the four guards, one in particular stood out in his mind. This guard was a strikingly skinny man. Afam thought he should have known better than to go to war. What chance did he think he stood in battle? Afam concluded that the man was fighting for the love of his land. He had passion, heart, courage. He was ready to sacrifice his life for what he believed in. As Afam bound the man by the ankles, he had to use a lot of strength to restrain the animalistic struggle. Afam was shocked at the power this man could unleash from his little body. He wondered if it was fear that provided this strength, or was it something else? Maybe the man had a son waiting at home. It was at the thought of this that Afam began to see the many ugly things these intertribal battles brought, and he hated oyibo for encouraging them with bribes of wealth and weapons. Now he that knew the truth about the oyibo, he was seeing things from a different perspective. He used to think they offered the people of Aboh all those goods out of goodwill; now he knew better.
Afam looked into his prisoner’s eyes and he saw things he had never seen before. It wasn’t the first time Afam had bound a man. He had even killed men in battle, a lot of men. But this was the first time he cared to look into the life of his enemy. It was the first time he was asking himself why he was really fighting, what he was fighting for, and if his cause was worth all the loss of life. Afam wished he could free the prisoner but then again, this was war. ‘A’da anyu aya ekene ndo’: ‘You do not say sorry on the battlefield.’
As Afam freed his mind in search of some sleep, he found that he couldn’t close his eyes to the pain, fear, grief, and all the other haunting emotions in the eyes of the man he had bound earlier. It was like he was sharing the prisoner’s fears. He imagined the fate that was going to befall the man. Afam never really asked what happened to these prisoners of war. Sometimes he noticed that some orus were war captives, but what about the rest of them? After Adaobi had told him that the oyibo bought these people and made them orus in their land, he really wished he didn’t have to go to war.
The night passed painfully slow and no matter how hard Afam tried, he couldn’t fight the worries in his mind. He thought about Adaobi and Dike. His heart was burning with hatred and jealousy for the prince. He hungered to thrust his spear into the man’s stomach until death befell him. As this hatred climbed, it turned to anger and Afam wished he could just let out a scream to empty his aching heart. He knew better, he had to bottle it all in. A scream would alert the enemy and ruin the surprise attack that was coming at dawn. Afam passed the time by listening to the conversations of other warriors. It annoyed Afam that these men he fought side by side with isolated him like this. He was used to it now so he didn’t let it get to him. He had a lot on his mind as it was.
Almost every conversation in the camp was about Adaobi and Dike. People who had left their huts for the bush later reported seeing the Obi and his entourage enter Onwa’s house. Afam wished he could see Adaobi once again, even if it was for her to tell him it was over. He wondered how she felt about all this. The thought of Dike touching her crossed his mind and it made him grip his machete tightly. Was this what his life was going to be like? Would these emotions of bitterness rule him through all his days? Afam decided to think of something else.
His mother was probably home alone worrying about him. She knew the battle was going to be more or less a raid, but she’d still worry. That was why she was his mother; she loved him too much. He wished he had controlled his anger better and it angered him even more to know that he could lose control like that. Afam told himself that he would apologise to his mother as soon as he was back. After all, she was entitled to her secrets just like him. He was only deceiving himself when he claimed his affair with Adaobi did not concern her. If there ever came a time when they were looking for him, it was her that they would come to first. Yes, Onu was the property of the gods, no one was allowed to touch her, but Onwa was a strange man.
As Afam poured through his thoughts of regret, he wished for the raid to come and go so that he could go back home. He did not have a strong battle spirit but the war was inevitable. He forced his eyes closed and thankfully sleep claimed him.
The battle cry came a lot quicker than Afam expected. It came so quickly it made him wonder if he had slept at all. The battle horn echoed in his ears and without thinking, he was on his feet with his machete in hand. But when Afam regained full control he realised this was not the bush he had slept in, or did it seem different because it was the Aboh warriors who were being raided? Arrows were flying everywhere as screams of pain and agony filled his ears. Flaming arrows hit the trees, setting the leaves on fire. This could not be happening. Afam felt the fear of death cover his body and for a second he felt so numb he could barely move. After a flaming arrow missed him by a hair’s breadth, he broke into a sprint. He wasn’t looking back as he raced towards no apparent destination. There was no telling whether he was running towards or away from the enemy. Arrows continued to rain and men continued to fall. Afam ran passed corpses of friends and foes. This was the first time Afam actually thought that he might not make it out of battle alive. And this was the first time he realised just how afraid of death he really was. He kissed his battle charm and thanked his mother for making it for him.
After Afam had covered almost half a mile, he began to ask himself where he was running. Was there really an end to this burning forest? He tried to take his bearing to get an idea of where exactly he was. With the fires and bodies everywhere, the place looked so unfamiliar. They had greatly underestimated the enemy and they were paying the price for it. Afam continued his blind run until he was tripped by a branch. He fell hard, brushing his elbow over some rocks on the ground. This could not be happening, no. He turned around to face the sky, only to meet another arrow descending – it was coming for his heart. As the arrow travelled through the air, Afam’s heart raced faster and faster, fear gripped him and he began to think of all the things he was going to miss in the world. Adaobi, Onu, the wine tapper he barely knew. It wasn’t much, but at this moment it felt enough, he could not ask for more. He should have never walked out on his mother like that. He wondered if she would understand that he was sorry when he was gone. And then mercifully the battle horn sounded and Afam snapped out of this horrible nightmare, soaked in sweat and panting for every breath he could draw out of the cold air of dawn.
Afam raised his upper body in panic. His eyes were wide open but it took a while for the darkness covering them to fade. The sky told him it was dawn and the bush was familiar this time. He realised he had his right hand over his heart where the arrow was supposed to have pierced him. He reached for his machete but it wasn’t there. This awakened him to realise that something was wrong, he felt abnormally light. His quiver of arrows was gone too. This could not be happening, no. Afam suddenly wished he could fall back into his dreadful nightmare, or that he would wake up yet again to realise this was yet another bad dream. But he knew that wasn’t going to happen. He could feel every part of his body and the reality he was in. More fear than he could measure covered him when he felt someone behind him.
It was only luck that spared Afam’s life from the ogbunma’s swing. The assassin aimed for the neck with his machete. If it had connected, there was no coming back from where it would have sent him. Afam rolled over on the ground without the knowledge that he was even being attacked. He caught a glimpse of the ogbunma. Just like the myths suggested, they wore very frightening black masks and were almost giant in size. The assassin must have waited for the battle horn for cover. In all the chaos generated from the Aboh warriors slashing and burning, no one would witness his murder. Afam tried to control his fear for he knew a frightened warrior had a lower chance of coming up triumphant in battle. He focused his vision on the ogbunma, watched for movements. Afam was trying to buy enough time to regain some sense of control and rationalisation. He danced around the ground to keep the assassin guessing. Afam thought about screaming but that wasn’t going to do him any good now. His Aboh brothers were already letting out screams of battle as they marched into the sleeping village to raid it.
The ogbunma swung for Afam again and again but missed each time. After a few breaths Afam was sure he was in control, his mind was ready. He had always thought he didn’t stand a chance against an ogbunma, but if the man wasn’t good enough to have killed him by now, then he wasn’t good enough to kill him at all. Afam’s eyes searched for anything that could be used as a weapon. There was nothing in sight.
The assassin, irritated by Afam’s monkey attitude of teasing from up a tree, dashed at him. He was fast, but Afam was faster. By the time the ogbunma realised Afam had stepped out of the way he was receiving a powerful blow to the side of his head, just above his ears. Afam put everything he had into this one blow and as his knuckles connected with the man’s skull, he was sure a lot of pain came with it, the amount of pain that would blind a man temporarily. Afam wasted no time. He pushed his enemy, sending him to the ground, flat on his face. Afam went for the armed hand. The assassin tried to retain his grip but Afam snapped the elbow without second thoughts. As excruciating pain fired through the assassin’s arm, he realised that he was not going to make it out alive.
The moment Afam held the machete he struck at the assassin’s skull, twice. Each blow with force and precision to make sure the enemy was dead. Afam allowed himself a sigh after the second blow but it wasn’t for relief. There was no telling if more ogbunmas were on their way. Afam was trying to decide whether to continue into battle, or if to run back home. He wished he had kept the ogbunma alive to torture him about who sent him. But in truth he didn’t really need any confirmation. He knew it was Adaobi’s father. With the wealth and influence Onwa had, Afam knew Aboh was too small for him to hide. He just couldn’t run away right now. He had to see his mother to tell her about it. He couldn’t subject her to the torture of believing he had died in battle when he was very much alive in another land. Afam realised his life was more or less beginning to mirror that of his father’s. He began to feel the pain of being hunted, his freedom stolen. He knew his affair with Adaobi wasn’t the most morally right thing in the land, but it wasn’t rape, there was no reason to send men to fetch his head. He decided to go back to his mother. He had to have one last word with her before setting out. Maybe this journey would bring him closer to his father. Perhaps it would make him understand the man a bit more and possibly answer some of the questions he had.
It all felt too much and too sudden. One day he was just a lonely outcast, the next day assassins are after him. Afam began to race his way back home; he wanted to leave Aboh before the cock crowed. He thought about all he had been through and it worried him to know that things were only going to get harder on the road. He asked the gods to save him, and then he wondered if they were ever with him in the first place.
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