The Nasty rolls on…
The Palace of Lade
Nana stopped on the crest of the hill where he always did – mostly with his father or brother – and looked down at the beautiful palace of Lade, his home.
He had seen this a million times and never got tired of its beauty.
Behind him were the beautiful plains of Lade, and in front of him was the lovely expanse of greenfield that led to the huge, beautiful variety of trees. Within the trees was a wide stone path that led to the drawbridge with the serene moat that surrounded their home. The Ahenfie, as the Ladeans called it, meaning palace or the abode of the king of Lade.
His body ached from the assault he had suffered at the Sightings. There was a bandage across his ribs and around his head from the injuries he had sustained. There was no doubt that Ama had saved him, but what it also meant was that he could probably not visit the Sightings again in peace as he used to.
With his cover blown, he knew any Ladean at the Sightings would look at any visitor twice, wondering if it might be the prince disguised as someone he was not. From now, he would either have to visit the Sightings as a prince, or not at all.
What was important was that they had left that poor creature alone. Nana had been dying to know where Davi had captured the Nasty. The gentle prince had never seen anything like it and had never read of anything like it. He wondered what species it was, and whether it was a male or a female gender of its kind. He was dying with curiosity and wished he could get the chance to learn more about it, maybe ask Davi more about it.
He wondered what would happen to it now.
He had heard rumours, before his clash with the people, that Davi planned to release it back into the wild, wherever he had snapped that thing from. Ama had also been convinced of that fact, and that was why she had wanted to see it before it disappeared from the Sightings. But Nana knew Davi was also a smart man. There would be talking about this thing that the second prince had almost lost his life saving, and more people would want to take a look at it, meaning more profits for the owner.
At least, for the next few spins of the moon, the creature would be kept at the Sightings because Davi would seek to maximize his profits with the popularity the prince’s drama had generated.
Nana smiled and was about to set his horse on a slow canter to the palace when he noticed the black flag flying high above the palace! His heart skipped a beat and sudden fear slammed into his heart!
Black Flags on the parapets of the palace meant tragedy!
He thought immediately of Biko’s Crown Claim!
What had happened?
His heart hammering with sudden gloomy fear, he set the horse off in a fast gallop towards the palace. He was barely aware of crossing through the trees and over the drawbridge as the powerful horse flew across the grounds. He noticed the black strips of cloth the palace warriors were wearing around their arms but he did not stop to enquire from them.
Had something happened to his brother?
Nana jumped off the horse when he hit the forecourt of the palace and raced inside where he noticed more black-clad Ladeans. From Elders to kingmakers to staff of the palace. They were all draped in black and most were weeping.
His fear was now a physical agony as he raced through the halls towards his parents’ quarters, only wishing to enquire from them what was happening. He rounded a corridor and was about to mount the steps to his parents’ sleeping quarters when he saw the grim-faced commander of the Ladean army, Atorku, coming down the steps.
“Your Highness!” the old warrior said immediately and bowed to the prince. “Where have you been all this while? I was on my way to look for you!”
Atorku was wearing his warrior armour but a black scarf was tied around his shoulders, and he looked very shattered indeed.
“Sir!” Nana cried, his voice almost a whisper. “Did the Crown Claim go well? Is my brother alright?”
“It went as it should, Your Highness,” the warrior replied. “Your brother covered himself in glory, and received his crown.”
Nana briefed a little with relief.
“Then, why the Black Flag on the parapets, and the black you’re all wearing?” he asked.
A look of great sorrow crossed Atorku’s face.
“Alas, your father collapsed when they were on their way out of the cemetery, Your Highness!” Atorku began, but the prince uttered a cry of dismay and pain and blasted past the warrior as he climbed the steps four at a time.
The wizened warrior watched the young prince going up the stairs and sighed deeply.
“The storms gather for you, my prince,” Atorku said softly and with great worry as he began to climb the steps again. “I wonder where the evil winds would buffet you to. It has happened exactly as she predicted! Dear spirits, I did not dream of it as I feared!”
The young prince burst on the corridor of his parents’ quarters and found it filled with more powerful people and warriors. Most of them, again, were in tears, and as he moved towards the doorway with fear and a beating heart, he failed to see the dark looks those in the palace gave him.
Nana rushed through the living room blinded by tears and burst into his father’s room, and then came to an agonized stop.
“Magya!” he cried stridently, using the Ladean word for ‘my father’ as he rushed forward again.
His father, his friend, his mentor, the man he loved above all living things, was lying prone on his bed with his eyes closed and arms folded on his belly. He was dressed in a long, white robe with his crown on his head.
But his face was a horrifying purple, and so was his bloated neck. The king’s face was twisted in a rictus of pain, of agony, depicting what he might have gone through before his death.
Around his bed were the queen, the Sage, Biko and a few elders of the palace.
But Nana did not see them because he was blinded by tears and rendered insane with grief. He could barely walk as he tottered rather feebly towards the bed and crashed to his knees, his trembling hands settling on the king’s feet as he buried his face under his father’s soles.
How could this happen?
He had spoken to his father late the previous night when, as he often did, the king had come into the room of his second son to wish him goodnight. He had remarked on how the young man seemed to be smiling a lot lately and encouraged him to bring the mystery lady he had been hearing rumours about to greet him.
His father had been pleased, strong, happy, eagerly waiting for the next day to lead his first son to the Crown Claim!
What had happened?
Nana had crept out of the palace at dawn to meet Ama for their trip to the Sightings, and so he had not seen his father. But nothing could have prepared him for this, for this grief, for this horror!
As he wailed, heartbroken, his ears were closed to sounds and movements around him, but his shock was absolute when he found himself grabbed by the shoulder and spun around violently.
The mourning prince looked into the grieving, enraged face of his mother as she raised her hand and slapped him across the face.
“Enough of your false tears, you evil boy!” Queen Abena screamed. “You wished this evil death for your brother, didn’t you? Ah, and you ended up killing your father, my king, my heart! May the evil spirits deal with your wicked soul, Nana!”
Nana’s ears were ringing with her slap as he looked up at her with a face filled with incomprehension and dismay.
“Maame?” he queried in a broken voice.
“I’m not your mother!” Queen Abena screamed, and again she slapped the poor boy fiercely across the face, causing a spurt of blood to spill from Nana’s left nostril as he crashed to the floor.
As he lay dazed, the queen raised her foot intending to stomp on his head, but Atorku had reached her by then, and he pushed her back rather ungallantly.
“Your Highness!” Atorku said with concern as he looked at the queen. “You will hurt the boy!”
“Warrior!” Biko shouted from the head of the bed where he was standing with dried tears on his face and his crown on his head. “You would dare lay a hand of reproach on the queen of Lade?”
Atorku knelt on his right knee immediately and bowed his head.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty, for my impudence,” he said grimly as he looked down and noticed Nana’s bulging eyes. “I acted in reflex.”
“You will arrest that evil man, and you will keep him in the dungeons till he is recalled by the Judges!” Biko ordered and pointed at Nana.
“Biko!” Nana shouted as he tried to get to his feet. “What is this? Arrest me for what? Have you and mother taken leave of your senses? What manner of madness ails you? What is happening here?”
With a roar of fury, Biko drew his sword and advanced on Nana, whose eyes opened with horror.
“You vile murderer!” Biko growled menacingly. “I’ll show you what manner of madness ails me!”
Atorku spun wildly with a look of horror on his face and crashed a fist into the soft chin of Nana, and the young prince collapsed on the floor in a faint, and when Atorku turned again he saw the blind fury in the eyes of Biko and, turning his head, he saw a flash of confusion on the face of the queen.
“Why did you do that?” Biko asked acidly.
“Because he dared impugn on the good name of the queen, Your Majesty!” Atorku said and bowed his head but he noticed the quick exchange of looks between the queen and Biko.
“The all-seeing Sage has seen through the murderous ploy of my brother, and has accused him of trying to kill me which inevitably ended in the death of my dear father! You will take this vile, greedy prince to the dungeons and lock him up until the Wisemen hear his treachery and pass appropriate sentence on him!”
For a moment Atorku hesitated, and then he bowed again.
“It shall be done, Your Majesty!” he said in a voice that was oddly unsteady.
Atorku tried to lift the fallen prince, but he was too huge and too heavy, so he called four warriors who came with a royal palanquin and bundled the prince out of the room.
Atorku followed them warily as they got to ground level, cross the courtyard of the palace, and opened the huge metal door at the far end of the forecourt. They crossed a patch of grass and came to another door which was guarded by four warriors. They passed through a short corridor, picked up a lantern, and descended into the cold walls of the dungeons.
It had not been used for a long time because King Haman had not liked Ladeans to be kept in the cruel dungeons and had preferred the new and more humane detention correctional places he had built across the ebuses which had bigger cells, bigger compounds, clean air, good food and more associations between wardens and inmates.
They descended into the belly of the earth. The dungeons were dank and smelled awful. Cobwebs slashed across their faces and rats scurried from their paths. When the warriors got to the first cell they tried to send the unconscious prince in.
“No,” Atorku said with a sigh. “We’re taking him to the third level, cell fifty.”
“Sir!” cried one of the warriors, horrified. “That’s the last cell… and it is underground!”
Atorku’s cold eyes blazed at him.
“And since when did you start questioning me, warrior?”
The warrior dropped his gaze immediately.
“Sorry, sir,” he said quickly. “The fiftieth it is.”
That was how the second prince of Lade was brought unconscious to the last cell in the dungeons under the palace he had grown up in. His bed that night was a chunk of rectangular rock.
The warriors put him down gently and waited for further orders.
“Tumbu,” Atorku said quietly.
The warrior who had questioned him earlier bowed his head slightly with respect.
“I listen, my Lord,” he said.
“Go and bring food and cloth covers for the prince,” Atorku said.
“It shall be done,” Tumbu said and turned away.
They moved out of the cell and moved away, but Tumbu stopped and looked back at his leader.
“Are you not coming, sir?” he asked with mild surprise and a great deal of puzzlement.
“No, warrior,” Atorku said softly. “Tonight, I guard the prince.”
“Sir!” Tumbu said with surprise. “The cell is three floors below the ground, with only one entrance, one exit, heavily guarded. Surely, you do not need to be in an awful place like this!”
Atorku smiled sadly.
“Perhaps no one needs to be here,” he said. “Go on, warrior. Fulfil that which you have been ordered.”
They hesitated for a moment, and then the warriors nodded one after the other.
“May the Spirits of Lade be with you, sir,” Tumbu said and turned away sharply.
When they were gone, Atorku leaned against the wall weakly and pulled out two strange-looking beaded chains from his armour. One was made with white beads whilst the other was made from red beads.
Atorku stared at them for a long time, and then he moved to the stone bed and gently slid the red-bead chain around the neck of the prince.
He hesitated a moment, and then he slid the white one around his neck.
“I await the horrors of the night, as you said,” he said softly to himself.
A brave man, Atorku still felt a sudden shiver of fear down his spine, a fear that had never left him ever since he rode down the green hill when he heard prince Biko’s screams, and found his lord and master, King Haman, lying dead on the bare ground with a neck that had swollen badly and become purple!
King’s Cemetery, Lade
It was not a sight Atorku had been prepared for.
King Haman had been filled with too much life to be reduced to that dying hulk on the bare ground. He had known immediately that something awful had happened to his king, something out of the ordinary, and he had been very scared.
As warriors screamed and cried, as he watched how the queen broke down and wept bitterly, as he watched kingmakers and Wisemen mourning, it had struck him as unreal, like a dream he would wake up from. He had been rooted to the spot where he had fallen on his knees and his tears had slowly rained down his face.
He had heard the Sage giving orders, and had dimly been aware of the king’s body being lifted and carried to the luxurious carriage that would take him to the palace.
King Haman’s eyes were open and it was evident he was making a frantic effort to speak, and finally, three simple words had rolled out of his mouth.
“Nana, my son!”
Many had heard it, including warriors and Wisemen and the Sage.
To Atorku, it had been the cry of a father thinking of his son, the final farewell of a dying man, the craving of a breaking heart! It had simply been the desire of the king to see his second son and say farewell.
It was nothing like what they had made it out to be later!
They had rushed into the carriage and saddled horses as their frantic screams continued. Through it all, Atorku had remained kneeling, unable to accept the fact that his lord was dying!
It had just been a simple expedition to the cemetery for Biko’s crown, a day of joy for the town to officially have an Heir Apparent! This day should have ended with joy and merry-making, like always… but not in tragedy!
What had happened?
Atorku had been aware of some of them trying to console him, and some even tried to help him off his knees, but Atorku brushed off the helping hands and remained on his knees stricken with sorrow and shock.
The king’s welfare was first, so they all left Atorku alone at the entrance of the cemetery, and rushed to attend to the dying king. He had remained on his knees and without knowing how long it took. He was only aware that he felt a freezing cold suddenly, so freezing cold that drawing breath caused sharp pains in his nostrils.
He raised his head with an effort, and that was when he saw the old woman for the first time. She was squatting in front of him, and she was as white as a sheet of snow. She was so old that there were no teeth left in her mouth, and her chin had become huge and wobbly. She was naked, but her white hair covered her deflated breasts and the front of her body.
The sight of her had scared Atorku, and he had wanted to stand up and flee, but he was immobilized by the strange coldness and a sort of paralysis that he could not break, making him wonder if, perhaps, he was in his bed and dreaming it all.
“It is not a dream, warrior!” she said, and her voice was a fierce whisper like a sharp wind, piercingly uncomfortable to hear. He wished he could block his ears against the onslaught of her voice but he was immobilized and could not move a limb.
“Who are you?” he tried to ask, but his cracked lips were almost frozen shut, and nothing came out.
But it was as if she could read his mind, for her savage voice reached his ears again.
“That is of no import to you, Defender of Lade, for I am but a mere messenger as yourself! Suffice to say your dear land has reached a very dangerous precipitous edge, and whether she goes over or survives this dark hour will depend on you!”
“What do you want with me?” he threw fiercely with his mind, not bothering to speak because, somehow, he knew she could hear his thoughts.
“To save the real prince of Densua!” she hissed fiercely. “To protect him with your life until he is able to vanquish the waves of damnation that will pursue him from this day on! Today, when you go back to the palace, you will be sent to find the young prince, but you will meet him at the foot of the stairs. Follow him into his father’s abode!”
“Follow who inside?” his mind asked.
“Pay attention, Defender of Lade!” she hissed furiously, causing his eardrums to hurt him exceedingly, and his teeth began to chatter. “There is only but one real prince of Lade, and he is not the one who just left! When you meet him downstairs, follow him inside, for the queen will hit him and try to step on his head to kill him. It is your duty to protect the young man! The obstinate and accursed prince will draw a sword to slay him, but alas, you should do something to save him!”
“To save who?” Atorku asked, exasperated.
“Save the real heir to the throne, Prince Nana Haman!” she roared furiously. “Protect him from the sword threat of his brother. You will be asked to take him to the dungeons. Don’t settle for any cell except the last one on the three spaces beneath the ground. The fiftieth cell is where you should keep him. Stay with him the night, in pitch blackness, remember that. There should be no light lit! You will find two bead chains in the pocket of your tunic. One ivory, one blooded! Pray, as soon as he is lying on the stone bed, slip the blood chain around his neck, and the ivory around yours. If you can guard him through the night, to the dawn, your call will be over!”
“Guard him?” his tortured mind asked painfully. “Against what? And why?”
“That I do not know, Defender of Lade, for I just uttered words I was given to utter! Be diligent, for your watch just might bring Lade back from the abyss!”
Suddenly, Atorku could breathe again, and he crashed on his back coughing and gasping for breath. When he looked, the old lady was gone.
And as he got to his knees, coughing and shivering, he had thought it had all been a silly dream and of no importance, especially when he checked all his pockets and found no beads inside his tunic.
It had all been a figment of his imagination, or so he thought, and he had pushed it out of his mind.
And then he had met the Prince at the base of the staircase and chased him into the private chamber where, shortly after entering, the queen had launched a vicious attack on the prince.
Atorku had been horrified as the old witch’s words came back to haunt him, and then Prince Biko had drawn his sword on the boy. Once again he had helped Nana and carried him to the dungeons, and chosen the fiftieth one as that old woman had directed in that strange encounter!
For several hours he had been dipping his hand into his tunic to see if there were beads in there, but his pockets had been empty.
However, with Nana lying inert on the stone bed inside the fiftieth cell of the dungeons, Atorku had tentatively felt into his pocket again.., and this time around his fingers had landed on the two bead chains just as had been forecast.
And now, he was waiting for the darkness to set in; he was protecting his prince, just as that woman had instructed. She had said there was only one true prince of Lade!
What had that meant?
Why was the king dead?
Most importantly, why had the queen tried to kill Nana, her own son, and why had Biko drawn his sword to kill his own brother?
Atorku sighed deeply.
“The complexities of the times confuse me,” he said softly to himself. “But I bide my time, yes, I bide my time because what will be will be!”
It was indeed going to be a long night.
To be continued tomorrow…[insert-comment-form]
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