The Nasty begins…
King’s Cemetery, Lade
King Haman of Lade sat his powerful black stallion calmly and looked at the wrought-iron gates of the cemetery.
He was huge and grand. Six feet tall with a hard body, head covered with grey hair, rugged face finely-chiselled and framed by grey beard and moustache, King Haman of Lade looked very impressive in his advanced age.
He was wearing a traditional Ladean white smock, baggy trousers and animal-hide boots required for the special occasion facing him and his son. On his head was his grand crown, and strapped around his waist was the golden sword of Lade inside its impressive leather gem-decorated scabbard.
Behind him was a magnificent green field with two rows of apple trees forming a gently-rising hill. He looked up the hill and saw the tiny shapes of the people waiting for him and his son to return from their quest.
That group was made up of warriors of Lade, the queen of Lade, and elders of Lade.
And beside him, sitting on a sturdy mare and wearing only huge, baggy, black trousers, was Prince Biko, the twenty-year-old first son of King Haman.
It was Biko’s day.
After many years of training and being taught by learned men of Lade, this was the day he would formally become the Heir Apparent to the throne of Lade and, as were, begin eating at the table of men.
The Ladean custom – known as Crown Claim – was that at the age of twenty, the first prince was led through the Kings’ Cemetery to pick up the crown that he would wear. At the farthest end of the cemetery would be a pool of water and in its middle would be a white square rock, and on top of the rock would be a shining golden crown for the prince.
He would wear this and use it to rule after his father passed.
That area with the crown was always shrouded in thick fog, invisible to visitors to the cemetery; it only became visible twenty years after the birth of a male son to the ruling king.
King Haman remained seated on his stallion and looked at the gates of the cemetery with a slight frown on his face.
Prince Biko looked at his father and smiled uneasily.
“Is everything alright, Agya?” he asked in the Ladean tongue, giving his father the title of respect. “You look worried.”
The king smiled at his son gently.
“Do not let your heart wander, my son,” he said gently. “I was just wondering why the gates are still closed. When I came with your grandfather at your age, they were standing open. But come, let us get this over, my dear son, and witness your day of glory.”
The king slid smoothly off his horse and gestured to his son to dismount too.
Prince Biko was not as huge as his father. He had inherited his mother’s litheness, but his smooth body was a mass of sinew and muscle. He had dedicated himself to the art of a warrior and had become an accomplished fighter, perhaps the best of his ilk.
Only a year separated him from his younger brother, Nana, who had rather taken their father’s huge and masculine stature. A strapping handsome man, he looked every inch like his father and stood a head taller than his older brother. But, by some strange working of fate, Nana abhorred violence. He had grown up to become a gentle, docile man who hated the very idea of wielding a sword and was, as a result, considered less of a manly prince by the Ladeans.
The king watched as Biko moved towards the gates of the cemetery.
“Son!” he said sharply. “You wear only the danta from here on.”
The prince smiled sheepishly.
“Yes, father, indeed,” he said in a rush. “Forgive my exuberance. This moment is both exhilarating and stressful to my soul.”
The king smiled briefly.
“I understand,” he said said. “Indeed, it will be over soon. Now shirk.”
The prince nodded and quickly stepped out of his sandals and baggy trousers which he draped across the back of his house. He stood naked as he rummaged in a rucksack and took out the two items that formed the requisite danta he was going to wear for the Crown Claim.
One was an elastic band that he tied around his waist, and the other was a strip of long rectangular-shaped red cloth that he passed between his legs and pushed each end into the elastic band around his waist, front and back, forming a crude-looking draping of red across his loins.
The two of them moved towards the iron gates which creaked suddenly and with an ominous shudder. King Haman almost saw the gates shimmering and making an outward movement as if trying to keep them at bay. He sighed inaudibly with worry, glad that his son did not see that strange movement of the gates.
The king reached out to touch the gates, and then he sighed audibly with relief when they swung inwards and opened wide. He walked through and his son followed. The cemetery was a luxuriously lush green field with the tombs and headstones painted white and standing in neat rows.
Ninety tombstones of ninety past kings of Lade were arranged in ten tombs per row. Nine rows with neat stone pathways between them, hedged by tall, green royal palm trees. And, at the far end, the king saw that the crown area had opened at last, and he breathed again with relief. He could see the pool and the rock and knew the crown would be there too.
“Well, my son, let’s go cover you in glory,” he said gently.
They walked side by side and were halfway to the crown area when the prince reached out suddenly and touched his father’s left hand.
King Haman looked down at his son.
“What ails you, boy?” he asked when he saw the tensed look on his son’s face and felt the slight tremble in the hand holding his.
“The crows, Agya!” Biko said desperately. “Strange crows, behind us! Where did they come from?”
King Haman felt a sudden tug at his heart as he looked around sharply.
He saw them.
Huge white crows with red eyes were perched on the tombstones looking balefully at them! No gravestone was left out! Each of them had a crow perched on top and watching them stiffly.
“Agya!” Prince Biko cried desperately. “They’re in front of us too! What’s the meaning of this, father?”
The king swung around and, yes, the gravestones in front of them were, out of the blue, also invaded by those strange, horrible white crows!
Now every tomb had a perching white crow!
“Agya!” the prince said, his voice trembling.
“Relax, my son,” King Haman said with narrowed eyes. “To each king his own calling. I do not comprehend this, but perhaps the Sage will have an explanation when we get back. Hurry, let’s get your crown and get out of here.”
He increased his gait but stopped again when he saw the young prince standing where he had stopped with a look close to panic on his face.
“Biko!” the king said sharply. “This is the time to show the bravery you have garnered over the years. The spirits watch, and the Creators take note. Take the bold steps of a true prince of Lade. Now!”
Prince Biko nodded and licked his lips. He rubbed his hands together and quickly moved beside his father, and they resumed walking towards the far end of the cemetery where the crown was waiting.
And the rain came down!
Just like that!
It was a bright afternoon, cloudless and hale, with no previous forecast of rain. It had never been recorded in the Scrolls of the Crown Claim that there had been an occasion when the rains had shown up in glory to mar a sunny occasion.
Each occasion, through ninety Ladean kings going for their Crown Claims, had been bright, beautiful days!
It just started raining!
And this rain was no shower of blessings. The sky – bright and hale a minute ago – was now dark with clouds that seemed to be frowning down at them, filled with ominous flashing eyes of lightning and furious voices of thunder!
It seemed the sky was furious!
And it filled the king with his first inkling of impending doom.
Father and son looked at each other with varying expressions of dismay, and just then a powerful tremor passed through the ground and almost toppled them down.
The ground beneath them was also furious!
Prince Biko was visibly scared now and the king did not blame him; everything was becoming scary, but they had now come to the lake and could clearly see the beautiful golden crown lying on the rock. It was a sight that made the king happy and gave him a sigh of hope in the scream of confusion that was befuddling him.
“To each king, his unique calling,” King Haman said. “Perhaps, you’re going to be the greatest of all the kings. Go take your glory, my son.”
For a moment the prince stared desperately at his father but when he saw the reassuring smile on his father’s face, he stepped towards the pool of water.
Then, as if by some hidden command, the crows began to caw!
It was a bleating, ear-splitting cawing from the throats of ninety crows!
The king spun around and watched the strange birds with a sudden turmoil in the pit of his stomach. The bright sun dimmed over the cemetery just then and turned the sky changed into a bleary, dull haze as the crows continued their din.
“Agya!” Biko’s stringent cry cut through King Haman’s reflections and made him spin around again. He saw his son back-pedalling from the pool area with his young face suffused with terror!
The sight that met the king’s sight was terrifying!
There were four huge burning swords around the pool of water and they were spinning so fast that the fire from then had formed an effective cordon around the crown on the rock!
Prince Biko was effectively cut off from the crown!
“Agya, why?” Biko screamed as he missed his step and fell down heavily. “Agya, I can’t take the crown! Why? What’s going on Agya? Why have I been rejected? Do they prefer my brother? What’s the meaning of this?”
And as the swords spun and the rain crashed down heavily, mingled with deafening thunder and flashing lightning, and as the agitation of the crows reached a crescendo, the truth finally dawned on King Haman.
His heart hammered with the shock and he dropped to one knee, almost losing consciousness.
He stared at Biko grovelling on the ground with terror, and the king could barely speak.
“Dear kings of Lade!” King Haman whispered with horror. “You’re not the one… you’re not my son!”
And the moment the words left his mouth, the weird rain stopped, the crows stopped their deadly chanting, and the burning swords stopped spinning.
The swords, however, remained around the golden crown on the rock.
Prince Biko, still sitting on the ground, looked at the king with a shattered expression so profound that King Haman felt sorry for the boy despite the ache in his own heart about the betrayal of the queen.
“Agya!” Biko whispered with horror. “Wh-what di-di-did you just say?”
King Haman looked at the young man levelly and allowed the pain in his heart to wash over his face.
“You’re my son, Biko, no matter what happens,” he said in a voice he hoped was calm. “You’ve been a good son… but I did not father you. It explains the insanity of the hour which is plaguing us.”
“No!” Biko whispered as the beginnings of a terrible rage began to mount in his heart. “No, Agya, no! I’ve lived for this, I’ve trained for this! I’ve spent my whole life waiting for this moment! It is my right, Agya, my destiny to be the next king of Lade!”
“Calm down, Biko!” the king said hastily and held up his hand. “You will make a fine king, and if I am the one that chooses, I’ll choose no one over you. Unfortunately, you’re not going to be king of Lade. I don’t choose; the elements do. We have to leave, son.”
“No!” Biko screamed and jumped to his feet instantly, his face broken with passionate bitterness. “Who qualifies to be king then? Don’t tell me it is Nana!”
“This is not the time for that, Biko,” the king said, still kneeling on one knee. “I’m sorry, son. But we need to confront your mother over this! If you’re not my son, as I suspect, then yes, the throne will go to Nana.”
“Nana is a fool, a coward, a weak boy!” Biko screamed. “No, you’re not going to deny me this, father! Not again!”
“Biko, calm down!” the king said sharply when he saw the strange crows turning their baleful looks on the boy. “I’ve never unjustly held anything due you from you!”
“You have, father, countless times, in favour of Nana!” Biko screamed bitterly. “He’s always been your favourite, I know, and I understood because he looks like you! And I am mother’s favourite because I look like her! But you can’t take my inheritance from me, father!”
“It is not mine to give!” King Haman said painfully. “Biko, if it had been mine I would have given it to you freely and happily! But the kingship of Lade has always come from the Haman bloodline! And you’re not!”
“You’re now rejecting me, my father?” Biko asked with a twisted mouth. “I’m not your son now because you want Nana to be the next king?”
“Don’t be a fool!” the king almost shouted. “Look around you, Biko! You’re not supposed to be here, and that is why death is beckoning! Only royal bloodlines and members of the Sage Village step on this Holy Ground! That’s why you were rejected, son. Death stalks you! Let’s leave peacefully and speak to your mother!”
“No!” Biko screamed with a mixture of fury and fear. “It is mine! I wear the crown!”
He spun around and raced towards the pool of water.
The crows let out a mighty cawing din and flew off the tombstones with their malevolent eyes fixed on Biko!
The four spinning swords seemed to glow bigger with the intensity of fire around their edges. Suddenly, they rushed at Biko with pointed tips aimed at his throat.
“No!” King Haman shouted and stood up hurriedly, racing towards the stunned Biko. He positioned himself in front of the boy and the swords stopped just inches from smacking into the throat of the king. “Forgive us! We did not know of this sacrilege! Both of us have been misled! Please, let us leave! The Chosen One would be brought a year from now!”
Biko, trembling uncontrollably, looked behind him and noticed that the crows had formed a solid impenetrable wall behind them. The eyes of the huge birds were filled with sheer malice and fury.
King Haman held Biko’s arm and tried to propel him towards the exit, but the malicious crows cawed again loudly and continued to block their path. They were suspended in the air with wings open, forming a formidable wall and not allowing any passage. The burning swords allowed the king to move backwards, but they zoned in towards Biko’s neck the moment the king’s body was not shielding the young man, forcing King Hassan to sweep his son into an embrace.
He turned with his back to the swords and tried to move forward, but the crows moved closer, gradually growing malevolently ferocious as one slammed into Biko’s stomach, sunk its beak into him, and flew up tearing a chunk of Biko’s flesh away.
The young prince screamed harder with terror more than pain as another crow landed on his forehead, missing his right eye by a whisker, and dug its beak deeply into his forehead.
As warm blood gushed down his face and stomach, the truth finally sank in, and the boy accepted the horrifying truth.
“They’re not going to allow me to walk out of here, Agya!” Biko said, losing his fiery bravery and quivering with terror. “They’re going to kill me!”
As the birds moved in on them, the King swivelled again, turning his back to the crows, and they immediately parted for him to move through, but some of them flew in an arc to face Biko.
“You go, father!” Biko said as his voice trembled. “They’re going to kill me. Leave me alone. Let what needs to be done, be done.”
“I’m not leaving you, son,” King Hassan said in a tight voice. “This is not of your doing. It is by the deceit of your mother. The warning is there in the scrolls… no royal shall walk out of here alive!”
“Then do not risk your life, my father!” Biko said as tears suddenly fell down his cheeks. “Tell my mother she brought this shameful death to me. Save yourself, father. It is well.”
“Perhaps, there is a way,” the king said as he swung from one side to the other, dividing his attention between the swords and the crows. “The scrolls said the one with no royal bloodline will not walk out of here. Perhaps, I can walk out of here for both of us.”
“What are you talking about, father?” Biko asked.
“Get on my back, son, quickly!” the king said and bent slightly at the knees. “Agya…”
“Don’t argue! Get on my back!”
Trembling with terror, Biko wound his arms around his father’s shoulder and hoisted himself up on the back of the king. The moment Biko’s feet were off the ground, the swords retreated rapidly and the crows stopped their horrible frenzy.
Biko wound his arms around the king’s neck, and Haman put his hands under the young man’s thighs to support him. He carried the prince on his back and laboured slowly towards the exit.
The crows were flying around in agitation as they settled on the tombstones once again, one by one, one on each tombstone. They were silent assassins that watched with dark, brooding, murderous eyes as the old king carried the encroacher from the cemetery.
Biko, on the back of the king, felt only profound gratitude and love. He knew he would have died if this kind, caring man had not been able to look beyond the terrible deceit of his wife; only a true king could save the life of the son who had come out of an illicit affair. Biko knew the king’s pain would be horrible because he loved his wife, and yet the life of Biko had come first, above all else.
But the horrible question plagued Biko’s mind relentlessly…
If King Haman was not his father, who was?
How long had this charade been going on? Had Queen Abena stopped, or she was still involved in that despicable act with the same despicable unknown man?
If King Haman had been a petty man, he would have left Biko to be murdered by the burning swords and the horrible crows. But, once again, this dear man had lived above his personal pain and become king for all. And Biko understood why he could not be king because, if their positions had been reversed, he had no doubts whatsoever that he would have left Haman to perish.
And then, much to the terror of the prince, he heard an alien voice in his head.
Hold on to that thought!
“Dusu?” Biko cried as he looked around desperately.
“Biko, I tire, quit moving so much on my back!” the king said in a laboured voice. “Let us get out safely first.”
“Yes, father,” Biko said.
But he had heard it!
The voice of Dusu, the Sage of Lade.
He had heard it clearly in his head!
Don’t talk, don’t give me away, you heard right… it is me, Dusu!
Biko gasped as a horrible image began to form in his mind’s eye!
Yes, Sage Dusu had always looked at the queen with that strange expression! And the Sage had always, always, been tolerant of Biko, good to him whilst… yes, almost always been impatient with Nana!
The calm voice of the Sage blasted through Biko’s head again, and the young man felt like screaming out his fury, fear and confusion!
The two of you have unearthed a secret that can get your mother killed!
Be docile! Be quiet! Listen!
We have but a minute!
Biko clamped his mouth shut and felt the bitter taste in his mouth as he listened to that accursed voice in his head.
You are the force to liberate Lade from centuries of slavery! You were conceived with your mother’s will, and with the will of the spirits of Lade! The secret the king has found out was feared by your parents, an eventuality that has been dreaded for the span of your life, but it was hoped you shall be victorious in the Crown Claim, and so it was overlooked. Now, it cannot come out! If the king gets to the palace alive, your mother will be put to the sword, and so will you, because both of you are living testimonies of the greatest deceit against the royal bloodline of Lade!
Biko shut his eyes tightly to stop the moan of horror that was trapped in his chest! Dear Spirits, how had this happened? How had he been handed this cruel hand? Was this nightmare going to end?
King Haman, labouring under the weight now, was almost out of the gates.
Whatever was going to happen would be swift now because the moment they were out of the gates, the people on the hilltop would see them. Biko knew that he had just heard a death sentence passed on the king, and he knew he had to take a stand.
Of course, the punishment for infidelity and deceit was the ultimate, death!
His mother, for reasons unknown, had been part of great deceit, keeping mute and allowing her illegal son to try and usurp the norms of the palace! That sin could not be forgiven, not even by a king as kind and as gentle as Haman!
Maybe, the king would not suffer any harm to come to Biko. But even he could not stop the wrath of the palace elders against the queen! The stance was clear: Biko could either be true to King Haman and let his mother die, or he could listen to the voice of the Sage, and witness the death of the king, a man who had shown him nothing but love in its absolute, truest form.
As painful as it was, as detestable as it was, there was only one choice Biko could make…
Good! You have done well, Biko. Now, hold the neck of the king with your arm! I will appear in a second… hold him now!
Biko draped his arm around the king’s neck suddenly and tightly, locking it in the crook of his other arm.
“Biko!” King Haman cried in alarm, his voice a pained rasp. “Get down! You’re choking the very air out of me!”
Biko’s legs were on the ground and he tightened his hold, drawing the head of the king back. As strong as a bull, King Haman braced himself to fight back, but he became still with a sudden shock when the tall, lanky, mysterious figure of Sage Dusu suddenly appeared by his side.
“Sage!” the king hissed. “Of course! I thought of you first, traitor!”
The sage was holding a horrible-looking wriggly thing by the tail. It was white and had many crooked limbs, bearing a strange resemblance to a prawn. Biko was horrified by the creature’s terrible face.
Sage Dusu’s hand shot out as he grabbed the chin of the king.
Haman struggled but the Sage pushed the vile-looking thing into the mouth of the king.
King Haman tossed Biko off his body with a mighty forward action, first dislodging the choking hold and then hurling the boy off his shoulder. As Biko crashed to the ground with a moan of pain, he looked at the king with horror!
King Haman was shaking his head savagely as he clawed at his neck. Suddenly, Biko saw the tentacles of the vile creature poking out of the sides of the king’s neck!
About twenty white, spindly limbs were sticking out around the neck of the king for a spell of time before they retracted again., The huge body of the king swayed in a horrible slow-up fashion like a drunk gasping for air, then he crashed to the ground!
Biko trembled violently and began to weep as grief – sudden and unexpected – took a stranglehold of his soul.
If for nothing, he had loved this man on the ground all his life; King Haman had been his greatest teacher, friend and confidant! This was not a moment he was going to ever forget, and this betrayal would haunt him for the rest of his life!
Sage Dusu jumped back as the gates of the cemetery clanged shut violently. The Sage stretched out his hand and Biko saw him holding a golden crown almost like the real one he had seen on the stone table but had been prevented from taking.
“Quickly, put this on!” the Sage said. “Nobody needs to know you couldn’t claim the crown!”
“You murderer!” Biko hissed with grief, and for a moment his eyes blazed with hatred as he looked at the Sage.
Sage Dusu looked at him with a calm, expressionless face.
“No, Your Majesty, you murderer! Now stop your snivelling and put this on!”
He dropped the crown on Biko’s head and disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared.
Biko crawled to the still form of the king and gathered him in his arms. He held him tightly and wept bitterly.
But, deep down somewhere, he felt relieved.
He had a crown, yes.
No one would know he had not been able to complete the Crown Claim now that the only witness was dead. It was well, yes. Justice, as brutal as it had been, as horrible as it had been, as relentlessly savage as it was going to be in the long term, had been served.
He was the new king of Lade!
To be continued tomorrow…[insert-comment-form]
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