I kept thinking of something witty to say to wipe the smirk off of the taciturn Ayamba. Nothing came. I exhaled. My eyes focused on the elephant mountain behind us. I lowered my body and closed my eyes pretending to nap. Where was my father?
The large man walked towards me with a blade held out. I leaned into the mud wall with pressure enough to let me break it and escape. I tried to struggle but that led to the restraints on my feet and wrists lacerating my skin. The tears that had been on my skin were constantly rejuvenated with more that flowed down my face for the past two nights. Father rushed into the hut with an ikwa in hand. Before the man could turn around, he hurled an ikwa into the man's mid-section. He groaned and fell to the floor. Father removed the blood stained ropes restraining me, held me in his arms apologising for letting this wicked man take me. He led me out of the hut, the Vukutu encampment was littered with bodies and ngoni soldiers standing over them.
"All who wanted to harm you, are dead." He said.
"Why did they want to kill me?"
Father took off his shoulders and placed me on the ground. He knelt down. "Khuze, your milky skin holds what others believe to be magical bones that contain the power to twist the deity Chanda's hand."
I was seven then when I understood that I would always be in danger because of what lay beneath my flesh. Nyauzembe the phoka herbalist near the mountain told Father that everything in my body was okay. She placed a necklace made of parts of an antelope's horn on my neck. She explained to Father that it would kill anyone who was trying to harvest my bones by making their blood boil. I clutched the square piece of the necklace at its centre. Ayamba and Nyasha were chatting. I pulled my body up.
"She is up," Nyasha said. "Now we can stop for lunch."
Mazaza stopped the cart. I got out of the cart, to the right of us was a river bank. After we finished the remainder of the cured beef. Nyasha took off the upper part of his garment, walked to a rock hanging over the edge of a deep part of the river and hurled his body into the waters. I wiped the sweat off my forehead. The glistening water looked appealing. Mazaza left the cattle to gaze and followed Nyasha. I unclasped the garment covering my upper body remaining in the cloth tied around my bossom and my legs. I waded through the green waters. Their movements cooled my body down. Ayamba stood on the rock that Nyasha had used to dive into the river. His eyes scanned the water.
"What? They don't teach elder protégés to swim?" I called out.
He glanced down at me, ignoring my comment.
"He is an excellent swimmer. Just paranoid they maybe a crocodile lurking in these waters." Nyasha told me. He turned to Ayamba. "It's safe."
Ayamba took off the garment covering his upper body, exposing the markings of the revered. The small moons extended down his back covering his whole shoulder blade and upper chest. He dived in. Nyasha was right. He was an excellent swimmer. He lay on his back, letting his lazy limb movements propel his body forward. The markings on his skin were partly submerged. They were beautiful. The water cupped his oval face, sometimes floating to his cheeks. He was a handsome man.
"Ayamba! Crocodile!" I called out.
Ayamba halted, causing him to sink, in a few quick movements he was at the river's bank.
I laughed so hard, I swallowed water. "You are so easy to frighten!"
Nyasha swam towards me. Neither Mazaza nor Nyasha laughed at my prank. Ayamba waded out of the water, walking till he was under the shade of a tree.
"His parents were both killed by a crocodile. It's taken him a long time to get over his fear of water." Nyasha fumed. He too exited the water. What had I done?
Ayamba was silent for the rest of the ride that day.
"Have you ever eaten elephant meat?" I glanced up at Ayamba. His eyes were on the river at the rear of the cart. I repeated my question. He nodded. I asked Nyasha and Mazaza. They both replied yes.
"I am yet to eat snake meat." I said.
"That is something I am never trying." Mazaza said.
I chuckled. "Why not?" I discreetly looked at Ayamba, he was still starring at the river. What was he thinking?
"It's a predator not food." Mazaza replied.
"Some predators are food." Nyasha chimed. "I have a snake's blood as medicine."
Nyasha told us what was his ailment was, when he took the blood. Ayamba did not stir. I wish I had not said that joke. He had done nothing wrong to me. The night we shared a room. He left to let me change in the night and in the morning. Why was I so mean to him?
We slept in the open, the warmth from the day's heat negated the need for a fire. I was awoken by shuffling.
"Move and we cut his throat." A man holding a knife to Ayamba's throat said. We were surrounded by ten vukutu men holding arrows and spears at us. Mazaza and Nyasha were already awake. The man pressed the knife closer to Ayamba slashing his skin. Blood dripped down his neck. "Follow me he dies." He knocked out Ayamba by hitting the back of his neck with a club and pulled his body into the woods. Nyasha strapped on his arrow and climbed up a nearby tree.
He scanned the woods. "I see them."
"Can you take the shot?" Mazaza asked.
Nyasha shook his head. "Not with the darkness."
"They were Vukutu." I said.
"Yes, they must have heard you when you foolishly announced Ayamba's identity at the river." Mazaza scowled.
"I can't see them anymore." Nyasha got down the tree. I was shocked at Mazaza's rebuke. I did not expect it from him. Mazaza grabbed his long spear, and small spear. I grabbed my blades and ikwas. We followed their trail till we could see their encampment in the distance.
Nyasha glanced at Mazaza. "You are sure your plan will work?"
Mazaza nodded his head.
I was hidden in the foliage of a tree overlooking the encampment, Nyasha was a few branches above me ready with his bow strung. I saw Mazaza amble into the encampment, the guards in the encampment searched him for weapons and found none. He had left his spears with us. They laughed at his bravado. They led him to the camp's leader. The camp leader had been sleeping, he got out his hut and went to the encampment's square. As we rehearsed, Mazaza told them there was an army on its way. That the elder's protégé had been sent to carry out negotiations with a feuding Vukutu tribes in the far east. An army was on its way in case these talks went awry. Mazaza told them that he had been Vukutu and wanted to spare bloodshed.
"Give me the revered one." His voice was calm.
I watched him intently. The signal was him raising his hand in the air. Nyasha and I would throw blades and arrows.
"You were one of us, and yet now you work for them?" The camp leader spat.
Mazaza nodded. The leader signalled his guard to bring Ayamba. Ayamba was dragged onto the square. His body was a collection of bruises and lacerations.
"Promise that the Council will look on us favourably." The camp leader said.
"You are under the delusion that you are in a position to negotiate." Mazaza's voice was stern and steady.
The leader chuckled. "I have your man."
"He is merely a protégé. He can be replaced."
The camp leader gesticulated to his soldier. The soldier held a blade to Ayamba's throat. I held out my blade ready to throw it.
"Don't." Nyasha said.
"They will kill Ayamba."
"Mazaza knows what he is doing."
I inhaled and watched. Mazaza did not even flinch.
The camp leader motioned at the soldier. The soldier hurled Ayamba towards Mazaza. Mazaza helped him limb out of the encampment. I wanted to jump down when I saw them cross the gate marking the entrance to the Vukutu village. I remembered we had to wait till Ayamba and Mazaza were out of sight. When they were, Nyasha made us wait a little longer, then we discreetly jumped down and headed back to camp. At camp, Ayamba was lying down still awake.
"I am sorry I got you captured." I said, sitting near Ayamba.
"It's okay these are dangerous parts." He retorted.
I opened my satchel and took out herbs I always carried with me. "Let me."
Ayamba removed his upper garment then turned on his back. In slow movements with a cloth I had dipped in water I cleaned the blood off his back. Even in the pre-dawn light, I could see old scars and burns. Who did this to him?
"I cannot believe your bluff worked." Nyasha said.
"I know how those idiots think." Mazaza retorted.
I continued wiping blood out of a deep gush on Ayamba's mid back. Then I applied mono to his wounds to stop them from becoming septic.
"How do you know so much about herbs?" Nyasha asked.
"My mother knew a lot about herbs." I retorted.
Ayamba would occasionally utter low groans. The groans did not match the pain he should have been feeling. Was he so accustomed to pain because of his training? Did the scars come from his training? But they looked older than that, as though they had been etched onto his skin in his prepubescent days. Who did this to him?
Chanda is an evil spirit.
mono is castor oil.
Have you figured it out yet? Khuze is a person with albinism. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa it is believed bones of a person with albinism can be used as a important component of magic rituals that bring wealth.
It has led to many murders of persons with albinism including children.
Castor oil in tumbuka