Story by Barakat Akinsiku
A middle aged woman stood at the side of a roughly hewn out window by a mud baked wall, her brows furrowed as she gazed pensively at the arid, dusty environment on the other side. She was a tall, slender woman of ancient African Nubian origin. A gold encrusted headband tied around her forehead and fitted in the middle with a small ram head figurine signified her royal status; she was Olor ba Ladia, the Queen of Yat’z, a provincial colony in the land of Arkaz.
She sighed lightly and the ensuing breath of air from her slightly pursed lips blew up a whiff of dust which had settled on the crude window ledge whose raffia mat covering had been rolled up and held securely with a rope, a task Innuede the Queen’s female servant did every morning when she cleaned out the lodge.
Gleeful laughter broke out at the end of the room and the Queen turned swiftly, her long black hair, coarse in texture and fashioned into a single weave, swinging as she did so. An indulgent smile crept across her features as she observed the antics of the two young girls squatting on a straw bedding which was resting gingerly on a carved wooden foot designed to hold it up, a few metres away. The girls were excitedly pawing through dozens of ornate cowrie jewellery and red beads scattered on the reed mat covering of the bound straw. One was of teenage age, older and more graceful than the other, her thick shoulder length hair flowing and gleaming with freshly rubbed tallow oil.
Fourteen years of age, with a heart-shaped face and a bright dimpled smile, she had on her head a golden band similar to that of the queen, but without the figurine. Her name was Kaella, princess of Yat’z and Queen Ladia’s first daughter. Behind her knelt her kid sister, six year old Shaella, a plump and bubbly girl. Shaella had in her hand a string of cowrie necklace which she was trying unsuccessfully to fasten onto Kaella’s neck. One last try saw the cowrie necklace falling off in a crumpled heap on Kaella’s lap and the little girl burst out laughing while her sister shook her head in disgust.
“You’re just so hopeless Shaella!” She grumbled, looking up entreatingly at her mother. “Mama, can you please help put this on? Innuede has not been back since she went to prepare the painting leaves and I want to see how pretty I look.” Kaella spoke in the ancient dialect of Kezwi the lingua Franca of the community, although she also secretly took other language lessons from Kazun Nimo a vastly travelled sage who lived in the neighbouring town of Azki and was a close friend of her father, King Barr. Kazun Nimo usually regaled her with tales of his travels and adventures around the lands whenever she paid him a visit in the company of her father. She had requested he teach her about the cultures of those places, including the languages spoken there, and being one ever eager to impart knowledge, the Sage had taken up her offer.
“All right,” Queen Ladia moved away from the window, smiling lightly at Shaella’s antics while Kaella regarded her shrewdly.
“You look worried, Mama,” she said and her mother smiled.
“No, I’m not. I just wish your father was here.”
“I wish he was here too.” Kaella paused and bit her lips. “Do you think he’s okay? I can’t believe Father would stay away from my coming of age ceremony. Is he okay?”
“Of course he’s fine, Kaella. He’s just tied up with the war and all. He can’t abandon his men and his duty to Arkaz in these trying times.”
“Then should we go ahead with the ceremony? Why not postpone it until the war is over and all our men back?
“Because it’s an indefinite situation whose end nobody can predict. Also, the council of elders voted that we go ahead. They didn’t see the point in allowing the war to affect us in a negative way by coming in between our daily affairs.”
“But it doesn’t feel right…”
“No, it doesn’t. But when you look at it, they do have a point. The ceremony would provide a temporary diversion from our problems. The Niatz River is drying up; or rather not flooding as it usually does at the start of every season and the fields are getting dry. The farmers are worried. There hasn’t been a rainfall in five seasons and the trade routes are almost deserted. Tempers are high and if Arkaz falls, we risk being walled off from the River Niatz’s main source. That’s an impending fear of drought, the effects of which can only be better imagined…” Queen Ladia’s voice trailed off as she stared at the wall behind Kaella’s head.
“Are things really so bad, Mama?”
“It appears so… but that’s not for you to worry yourself about. Everything is going to be fine. You just concentrate on tomorrow’s ceremony. There, don’t you look pretty!” The Queen had slipped a crude hook-like cowrie piece through the last shell and successfully fastened the cowrie shell beads on Kaella’s neck. Kaella scrambled for a nearby copper plate and admired herself in the reflective rays of the metal. While her facial features looked somewhat skewed with the deflection of the light rays given off by the metal plate, she could still make out the beautifully weaved artwork around her neck. Large coral beads encrusted in gold and interwoven with smaller ones were layered about in an artistic chandelier fashion and hung from her neck to the top of her cleavage. They were most lovely indeed, and she twisted sideways to admire them before turning to envelop her mother in a bear hug.
“Thank you, Mama!” she cried excitedly and her mother smiled, patting her on the back.
“You’re most welcome.” She replied, pulling away to study her daughter’s features admiringly, “You’ve grown so fast, I can hardly picture you as the tiny babe I held in my arms fourteen seasons ago. You’ve also turned into a great beauty and I must say Yassir is one lucky lad.”
“Oh, Mama!” Kaella flung her arms around her mother’s neck in a tight hug, “You say the nicest things. You’re simply the best and I owe my beauty to you!” She gushed while her mother burst into laughter, with Shaella making mock faces at the two of them. A light clapping sound followed by the sound of scrapping feet interrupted the cosy scene as a plump, buxom woman bustled into the room bearing an oval shaped clay pot. She bowed briefly in front of the Queen before placing the pot on the floor.
“Adiewe Olor ba,” she greeted in the Kezwi dialect, “The painting leaves are ready for use.”
“Good job, Innuede.” The Queen told her with a smile, turning towards Kaella, “Now Innuede shall paint nice patterns on your shoulders, hands and feet. Pretty patterns fit only for a princess.”
“Yes. I paint you pretty for the ceremony, Zi Kaella.” Innuede chipped in, squatting down at the foot of the bed, ready to begin her task.
“Mama, Mama, can I have my hands and feet painted too? Please…” Shaella asked, hopping first on one foot and then the other excitedly on the straw bedding.
“Of course, but you have to stop bouncing on the bed. We need Kaella to be still so as to get the patterns on correctly. We can hardly achieve that when you jiggle the bed that way.”
“De Fi.” Innuede agreed. “You should sit still, little princess, so I paint you and your sister nice for tomorrow.” With that, she brought out a piece of thick, dried hide cloth from underneath the clay pot, folding it into a cone shape and, with a medium sized wooden stick beat up into the shape of a flat spoon, scooped henna paste into it. Next, she squatted in front of Kaella, placing the latter’s leg on her lap and proceeded to squirt bits of henna paste onto her foot from the opening in the cone, skilfully forming geometrical and flowery patterns while Shaella and her mother looked on. It was an interesting process and Innuede had to occasionally stop to wipe off a few stray paintings or clean off an improperly formed pattern before starting off again.
Soon enough, she was through with Kaella’s feet and moved up to her upper arms just before finally painting her palms. Next, she dipped her forefinger into an oily mixture, allowing it to dribble onto the paintings on Kaella’s hands and feet.
“This will make the colour set faster and harder to rub off,” she explained as she worked and when she was through, sat back to admire her artwork. “There, that’s the lot of it. Now sit and allow it to dry. We wash off later. The colour should be deep by tomorrow.” She concluded beaming with pride.
“Thank you Innuede.” Queen Ladia remarked, to which a blushing Innuede replied,
“Oh, you no thank me, Olor ba. I only do my job. I make Zi Kaella pretty for tomorrow.”
“And for that, I thank you. She looks very lovely indeed.”
“My turn, my turn, my turn…” Shaella cried, bouncing up and down again.
“Of course, Zi Shaella. You sit and I make you pretty too.” Innuede turned to the little girl, who sat down with a flourish while the elderly woman set to work once more. Just as she was finishing off, there was a brief clap at the doorway before another female servant entered the room, bowing briefly in front of the queen.
“What is it, Rukina?” Queen Ladia asked the young female servant.
“Olor ba, Master Uzar announces his arrival and wishes to hold a session with you.”
“Very well, inform him that I shall be to see him shortly.” The Queen replied smiling. Master Uzar was her husband’s distant cousin and one of the highly revered chiefs in the land. He was also a member of the council of elders and had been very supportive since the King had been away. A tall, wiry, and very courteous fellow, he was a quiet chap who didn’t talk much. He had a son, Bosee, who was a few years older than Kaella, but was a somewhat spoilt child. He had lost his mother at birth and had been single-handedly raised by his father, who had refused family members entreaties to remarry. Hence the boy had turned out spoilt, as he had been overindulged by his very nice, unassuming father.
“Yes, Olor ba.” The servant replied, and with a slight bow, left the room while Queen Ladia got up, straightening out her single piece of clothing, a safoor, which was a gaily decorated milky white linen fabric with elaborate geometric patterns on the edges. It was a long skirt worn in the form of a dress, starting from the bosoms, where it was held together by two extended cloth pieces tied into a knot at the back, then went down to her feet with a row of red beads worn over her midsection, differentiating her upper torso from the lower torso whilst defining her curvy backside and hips. A similarly decorated shawl, with gold trimmings at the edges, was used to cover her bare shoulders up to her waist, completing her ensemble.
She made her way out of the room and walked down a long, dimly lit passage before entering another expansive room—the palace courtroom, whose mud flooring felt cool to the feet and had been smoothened and finished to perfection. Raffia mats with gaily coloured patterns hung from the walls, starting from the ceiling to the floor, providing some feel of décor, and ram horns, dried crocodile skin and elephant tusks were hung at several strategic points on the wall, completing the room’s décor. In the middle of the expansive room was a stately stool with a ram head carving and a smaller, similarly carved stool beside it. The stools were surrounded by several other simply carved stools lined up in a row on both sides of the stately stools, with a raffia mat placed on the floor between the two rows of stools, serving as some sort of royal passage.
A dusky coloured, middle-aged man, who looked to be in his late thirties, sat on one of the low stools. His silver banded head held two eagle feathers at both sides, signifying his status as a chief, while he was decked in a karbaya, a single piece of thick, plain linen frock tied around his middle in a sarong fashion. An ethnic patterned neck scarf was slung casually across his neck with both ends dropping onto his bare chest. A male palace servant stood behind him, wielding a large palm-frond with which he billowed gusts of breeze on the young chief that hot afternoon. As soon as he saw the queen, the servant ran forward, bowing and muttering “Olor ba” before hurriedly leaving the room while the chief stood up.
Arkaz can be purchased here.
Submit your review