…the Lesser of Two Evils (A prequel)
“You must never forget that wherever there is sand, there is strength. This is why our family is reckoned the purport of the desert. There is sand and debris everywhere your gaze falls – on your skin, even in the air. You can at any point in time tap into it. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Nazir Tafawa knelt before his ten year old daughter, a smile spread across his lips as he watched her nod to his words.
She was eager to try the Dusk – an ancient art once considered lost but revived under the reign of Amir VII, the seventh Sarki of Tibidi. With this art, the then king had raised an undefeatable army which had taken over lands and tribes in countless wars.
The deities who owned various aspects of nature granted limited power to certain bloodlines of men to harness parts of nature which included sand, the sun and healing. This art was rare, but with it, these men ruled and protected their people as rulers, chiefs, Sarkis. But when the gods suddenly disappeared, so did the Dusk until centuries later, during the reign of Amir VII and his war against the Valarigas, a warring tribe of morbid nomads.
The Sarki had sought out means to win the war, and it had led him to caves, philosophers, and eventually rituals. The gods never really returned, but their gift, the Dusk, did. For those who were favoured by it and had won wars against the Valarigas and dozens more, their bloodlines became nobles, these gifts followed their lineages, even as they spread across the continent through marriage, unions and slavery.
The Dusk wasn’t what it used to be, Nazir had observed. His grandfather’s chì appeared stronger, lasted longer than his. And once, his father had noted this to mean that the gift was once again on a decline, fading. It didn’t matter anyway. Staring at this little child, he could see a lot of potential within her. Her tattoo, the Dusk’s zanen jiki, had come out at a very tender age, and she had proven also to be gifted in learning fast, even if her chì’s duration was weaker than his, like those of her generation.
“Now,” he said, stood to his feet and backed away from Zainab. “Create the sand balls as I’d taught you.”
She nodded excitedly, screamed atop her voice for her mother to come watch her display her newly learned skill. Minna walked out, knowing Zainab would never stop pestering her nor sulking if she didn’t watch her practice with her father. She rested her weight on the big drum of water just outside the door, making known her presence to the little girl. It was beautiful watching her play around and exuded so much confidence in her capabilities. She looked so much like, and took after Nazir’s will and gut. Every now and then however, even as she noticed Shekara watching them from the house’s window —hidden perfectly in the shadows of the room, she wished Shekara so was gifted too. Maybe then, both she and her mother would not resent Zainab so much. Maybe the little girl would not see her father as loving her sister more.
Zainab spread her arms apart, stood on a formation which kept her firm on her feet. She pushed, growling. Her chì came to life, manifest in the glitter of the zanen-jiki drawn up her left arm. The air around her swirled, and the sand levitated, first hovering about her, then clumping together into balls of sand. In a moment she had created four balls of compressed sand spinning in their own axis and about her. Already panting, she struggled with their weight, to keep them all afloat.
Nazir observed her quivering hands and bent knees. She was using up more chì in what required very little. Yet it was nothing to blame her for. Every beginner had the same experience. He moved about, then shook his head. “The bigger you make the balls, the heavier they become, and the faster you run out of chì. If it’s too big, you can’t attack with it. Conserve your chì. The key is to not hold onto something that big or large for too long.”
Zainab grinned. It was her time to do what she’d been practicing all along. She punched her fist forward and the balls launched in, as fast as the force of her punch, straight for Nazir. The collision sent sand and dust and an explosion scattering into the air, engulfing Nazir.
It wasn’t meant to do that, Zainab thought. Or was it not strong enough to hold? There was that, and then there was the likelihood Nazir had — she gasped as the pile of dispersing sand froze, quickly clumped together into lumps which took the shape of hands. Behind them was Nazir, an arm behind him, the other lifted, evoking the sand before him.
The hands lurched for Zainab. She screamed, looking away as the fists of six came at her. Nazir clasped his fist tight. The sand-hands each gripped Zainab. One against her throat, two on both arms, moving them behind and locking them tight, and two gripping hold of her feet, locking them together, which sent her reeling forward, face first into the ground, groaning.
Nazir walked towards her, knelt and tapped her on the head. “The harder your technique, the more difficult for it to either be used against you or manipulated.”
“Food is ready. Enough practice please,” Minna cried out from where she stood. Nazir stood, nodding. He turned and walked towards Minna.
“Papa,” Zainab struggled to free herself from the locks on her, but they wouldn’t budge. Almost seeming to squeeze each time she wriggled. “Release me.”
“That’s today’s lesson. Break yourself away. It gets tighter every ten minutes,” Nazir smiled, leaving Zainab shocked, incapable of conceiving the possibility of his statement being true.
She lay there, squirming, jiggling and rolling about the floor to break free. But he was right. It was getting tighter the more she struggled to break loose with her physical strength.
“Alhaji,” a maid hurried in, bowing. “Alhaji Tanko is here to see you.”
Nazir nodded, a smile up his lips. He followed the maid alongside Minna out of the yard. Zainab remained there, struggling, and shortly after went to cry for help. But no help came as Nazir had ordered none be given.
Just by the window of her room, looking down into the land with a ground filled with sand and a few leaves sprouting at artificial parts of its oval space, Shekara stood, staring down, holding onto the window’s edges and latching her grip against it tightly. Her heart boiled with pain she could not control. Her face was contorted into furrows of bitterness, watching her father walk away with Minna. She almost despised him, yet she wanted his recognition so much. Watching Zainab struggle to break free from the biyar-hannu kulle Nazir had placed on Zainab, deep within Shekara’s soul she wished the locks would squeeze further till it sucked the life out of her.
Her thoughts weighed heavily on her even as the curtain pulled open and Kyawo walked in, annoyed to the face. “Shekara!”
Shekara was startled, turning abruptly as the yell pulled her off her thoughts. Seeing her mother walk towards her, she sighed, afraid she would get a beating. So much had been assigned to her to do for the afternoon, and she had left most of them just to watch her Zainab train with their father.
“Mama,” she muttered.
“What are you doing standing there? Why are you not with your brother at the farm?” Kyawo said, walking to the window to take a look at what her daughter was so engrossed in. Seeing the sight just below them, the annoyance left her face, and so did any shred of surprise she’d thought was on Shekara’s face. “You’re watching her train, again.”
Silence filled the air between them, then the little girl looked out the window again. Her countenance dropped and depression alongside the envy in her heart lurched back up. “His eyes when he looks at her, are warm,” she said, almost broken. “He never looks at me like that because I’m not like her. I’m not gifted.”
This broke Kyawo’s heart. She hated how much Nazir hurt her children. One thing was to behave as though they were inferior, another was to make it obvious to them. To believe she had loved him for years, given him everything she had – time, life, loyalty, respect and children. Yet he repaid her with Minna and her child. Now for every action Nazir took towards that girl, Kyawo felt it was a move to stamp his fortune all to her and her mother – disregarding tradition, disregarding his first son, disregarding her. If at all there was anyone to hate, it was Minna.
She pulled Shekara close and into her hug, placed a kiss on her forehead and tapped her back with a hand, and with the other patted her thick, braided black hair. And as Shekara returned the embrace, letting her pain get submerged in her mother’s comfort, Kyawo sighed.
“Listen,” she said, pulled her away and held her face, making Shekara look into her eyes. “Nothing, and I swear with my blood, nothing, will rob any of my children of what is rightfully theirs, absolutely nothing. You’re not a slave, don’t act like one. You’re Shekara Tafawa, never forget that!”
Her tone was cold as ice, harsh as the scorching sun, and almost intimidating. But this was what Shekara needed. This affirmation was all she needed. She nodded, wiping her eyes.
“I will go meet older brother,” she said.
As she left the room, Kyawo returned to the window, stared down at it, her thoughts agitated. She watched Zainab mutter the word ‘Yashi’ rather fruitlessly, trying to get her chì to break her off the choking hold around her. But Kyawo knew of that technique. Only its caster could unbind it. She closed the curtain and left.
“What of my Kyakkyawan?” Tanko asked as a cup of herbal tea and garden eggs were offered to him. He rinsed his hand and beckoned his host to come join him, to which Nazir accepted as was their friendship’s nature.
“Training at the back. Or to be quite honest, trapped by a biyar-hannu kulle Dusk,” Nazir laughed, and Tanko followed.
“Isn’t that a little too much?” Tanko said. “To my knowledge it’s not possible to break free from that dusk until the caster’s chì depletes. What exactly are you teaching her? Or is this perhaps your attempts at torturing my little beauty?”
Nazir was amused. “Not at all, my brother. She clings too much to me and I need to rest.”
“How about Shekara? Any hopes?”
“At this age I doubt she is gifted. However, she does show great potential in sword fights. She’s almost as skilled as her brother,” Nazir said loosely, although his thought swirled towards his first daughter. Then he realised he had not set eyes on her throughout the night before.
“You are blessed with dedicated and passionate children. I almost envy you.”
“Yeah, I am proud of them all.” Nazir took in air and let it disperse from his lungs. He leaned forward, seriousness clouding his face. “I have been meaning to speak to you about something of importance in relation to the Sarki and his quest to conquer the Niqan people of the the Kobodo forest.”
“In ten days the preparations for the siege should be prepared. It would be glorious, although the scarcity of gifted people now is almost burdensome.” Tanko looked visibly worried. “The Sarki is eager to take Niqan. He will rally all men in the land for this war if he has to.”
Nazir knew this much himself. He was a member of the Sarki’s advisors, and while not in the rank of Tanko, his opinions did weigh a few tons. However, he had conceived something the Sarki wasn’t saying. “I hear he seeks Niqan for their Temple Of Promise. Something in that temple is so much worth the lives of hundreds he’s willing to destroy.”
Tanko turned to him, face drawn and suspicious. “From where did you get this information?”
“Some wars are unnecessary, especially if they are not divinely inspired. This is one of them.”
“You speak a sacrilege. A blasphemy against the Sarkozy, my friend. It could cost you a lot more than your head.”
“No, my friend,” Nazir shook his head. “My loyalty to the Sarki and the gods are firm. I am only seeking answers. Even if he does take that land, the temple will not be his. I have been to Niqan. It is not there.”
“Nazir, you are going a little too far from your reach.”
“Fair enough. I apologise.” Nazir gave up the talk. The Sarki was an incarnate of the gods. His every words for Tibidi were divine and infallible. Tanko was absolute with his loyalty to this truth, and convincing him to look to a way which even if vaguely, hinted to a dent to this truth by error of implication, was bound to make him agitated.
Tanko exhaled. “The legion would be summoned in ten days. You should focus on raising your fair share of and for that army—”
The scream rose through the entire house. Nazir sprang to his feet just as Tanko did, both racing out and towards the backyard. The maids also were headed there. Nazir, worried, feared something had happened. Nothing was meant to happen, he was almost certain, at least nothing relating to his locking her to the ground. But that scream—
Everyone pushed themselves into the yard, eyes wide, tensed to the bones. Nazir was shocked, barely having it hidden, as was Tanko. There she was, standing, covered in dirt, both hands akimbo and a wide smile on her face, giggling.
“How,” Nazir muttered, frozen where he stood. He’d not noticed until then that the zanen jiki on him had dimmed out, meaning his chì was dormant, asign that it wasn’t in use anymore.
“Is that supposed to be possible?” Tanko said, surprised, even as he watched Zainab run towards him excitedly.
Nazir shook his head. It was possible in a lot of sense, but not for someone her age. Definitely not on that much palms used for the lock.
“Uncle Tanko, welcome!” Zainab wrapped her arms around Tanko, just before he picked her up and into his arms, returning the smile. He in fact had come with gifts for her and her siblings, but her particularly.
“Zain,” Nazir scoffed, stunned, unsure how to react, unsure if to be thrilled of embarrassed. “How did you break from the lock?”
She raised her shoulders, and the look on her face spoke of innocent ignorance. “I just breathed fairly and spoke to the sand.”
“Like I said, I am envious of you, my friend,” Tanko said.
Everyone turned, dispersing, muttering amongst themselves but not as secrets, praising the little girl. She was just ten, but from the looks of it, she was a fine prodigy.
Zainab sat by a rock at the farm watching Babba’s hand dance back and forth, his grip firm on the machete as it sliced through the weeds before him, just like the other male servants. She had always envied the boys. The muscles they owned, how the lines on each stub glittered on their sweat, and how flexible they were irrespective of this rigidity in their build.
Once, she’d told Minna she wished she was a boy instead, maybe then they’d play with her more, maybe they’d be more reckless with her as they were with themselves and other younger boys at the Inn and mansion. They thought her strong but fragile, and somehow, for some reason she couldn’t explain, she sensed the truth in their position. Getting jiggled like that by someone with the energy of a bull, they could break her bristle bones by error. Now, looking at them, she felt more grateful and admiration for them than envy. She wanted to be that strong, but she wanted to be like her mother too.
“You haven’t touched that spot.” She pointed her finger towards a spot Babba had missed. He looked up to her, drenched in sweat and stinking of dirt and dust. He knew the look she always had whenever she wanted to play or desired to have something not meant for her. But somehow, that look was different on her now. And she was manifesting its negativity through her intentional attempts to annoy him.
“What is it?” he sighed, took a stop and faced her, waiting for answers.
“Nothing,” she puffed air off her lips, feigning ignorance.
“For the last time, what is it?” he said, and by his body language it was obvious he was eager to get back to his work.
Zainab knew Babba too well. If he asked twice, he was never asking the third time. And if he chose not to ask again, bringing it up the third time was bound to get him scolding her. It was, as she supposed it, better to spill it out and have it over with.
“You don’t want to teach me how to fight with knives,” she grumbled, face twisted into a pout.
Babba shook his head, gripped tight against the machete and turned back to the work before him.
“Father said no, and he has good reasons. Besides, you are just ten, and weapons as knives are no weapons for a girl. You are bound to get hurt. Even I get hurt.”
Zainab sat by the pile of weeds cut down and lumped into a heap by the side, arms folded and annoyed as she tried to understand why she wouldn’t be allowed to handle a knife. She sulked on.
“Shekara is a girl too but father has her training and very good with knives. Doesn’t father care about her too? Why just me?”
Babba looked at her again. She was young and visibly ignorant. But then he figured it was best Shekara wasn’t present when this question was asked. While this stood out as sheer ignorance for Zainab, it was something of grievance for his little sister against their father. To Zainab it was unfair, but to Shekara it only stood as a sign that she was loved less, enough for harm to be permitted for her and not Zainab, the alleged favourite.
He tried to think less about things like that, and hoped earnestly that his father knew what he was doing. Shekara was getting better at knife-play, basing her motivation on hate and anger, which made her rough and dangerous. His mother, Kyawo, was getting envious and fed up too.
He looked ahead, and from the distance rode a figure on a young donkey, with the desert dust rising just behind them. It was Shekara. He watched Zainab’s countenance twist as she took sight also of Shekara. Their relationship had never been one smooth as a baby’s bottom, and Shekara was prone to show this once their parents weren’t around. Zainab was always positive, always appearing to look beyond the sometimes visible hostility meted out on her by Shekara. Babba always hoped a day would not come when she got fed up and maybe fought back. This was going to be a reason for Shekara to really harm her and make justification for it.
Shekara stopped before them and hopped down the donkey. Taking sight of Zainab, she frowned. The bag full of food hung on the horse came loose as she untied it from the donkey’s fluffy saddle. She hurried past Zainab and towards Babba, handing the bag to him. As usual it was from the house, their late lunch. Babba, with the machete in his hand, pointed to a clear spot where he wanted her to have it dropped, and quickly she made for the space and dropped it.
Shekara watched Babba give orders on places not yet touched in the farm he wanted the hands working on. His voice was thick as always, almost void of empathy, yet outside responsibilities, he was as graceful as a butterfly. She couldn’t help but question the relevance of his partaking in clearing of the farms, planting of the crops and even rearing of the cattle to the East or West during the raining seasons. Babba would always say it was to stay fit and get in touch with the workers. But she was sure of the real reason: their father wanted him to work for it. He wanted him to have hands as stiff and rugged as those of the hands, all to prepare everything for his chosen heir; Zainab, even when the tradition gave the family name and its preservation to the eldest and male first. For Zainab, their father was willing to spit in the face of their people’s tradition.
“Babba, it’s almost nightfall,” she says, and in her tone lay this displeasure even Zainab easily noticed. Her arms were wrapped around her chest, and her breath was almost impossible to follow.
“Why not have Uche train with you instead?” Babba sighed, standing straight and taking a moment glance at Shekara’s way. It was time for her training as he’d promised, but he was engaged and too busy to partake in it. Although to his suggestion, he already could tell Shekara’s answer.
“No,” she said almost as the words left his lips. “You promised.”
“I did, but we are short on hands and there’s so much to cultivate and this week. I am not chanced.” He tried to explain, not that he needed to, but for some odd reason he felt the need to. Something about Shekara’s countenance looked off, almost like she was in a foul mood.
Zainab watched them both, smiling. She loved them, and watching them, like many things made her feel glad. She had always believed, just like Nazir would always tell her, nothing was as beautiful as family, and more so when it existed in peace. She wanted to watch them train. Nothing thrilled her like their knife play.
“Then,” Shekara’s face coiled into a grin. She turned her gaze to Zainab. “Let me train with Zainab instead – you or her.”
First shocked, Zainab’s eyes widened, unsure what she’d just heard, from Shekara of all people.
Babba was as surprised for lots of reasons. First, Zainab was not allowed anywhere close to a knife fight. It wasn’t a law nor was it with consequence attached to it, yet, everyone knew Nazir didn’t want it. Second, Shekara would never ask Zainab to train with her. The look in her eyes was disturbing, so much he could almost read her intents.
“No,” he said. “Don’t be foolish.”
“Yes, please. I really want to!” Zainab exclaimed, letting the excitement grow, her eyes gleamed even under her loosely tied scarf.
“Zainab, no. Father doesn’t want you doing that. Plus, you can’t train with Shekara. You can’t use a knife.” Babba pointed out, annoyed how easily it was to sway her into what she could regret if granted.
“Yes I can!” she insisted, turned to Babba. “I actually train in secret.” Her voice was low and her eyes avoided Babba’s risen surprise and annoyance. Leaking this secret of hers was the only means to have this shot. She had watched them always, how they moved and swung the knives. She wasn’t adept at it, but she wasn’t a complete novice either.
“You what?” Babba began.
“Even better,” Shekara sniggered. She walked back to her donkey and pulled out her knife, ones only crafted and only handled by her. It was not sharp enough as was the requirement for someone her age to wield, but it was light enough for someone her age to swing without tiring out so soon. She tossed it to Zainab, and picked two smooth sticks from the ground for her personal alternative instead. “You can continue with your work. She and I would train for a few minutes. And I’d be very careful,” she drawled.
Zainab caught the knife, feeling its weight, its length, its craft, the designs on its silver skin which were smooth as anything she’d ever seen. This wasn’t her first time touching the knife. If was however the first touching it without being scolded by its owner. It was the first time she was going to use it as though it were hers.
“Zainab, drop that knife, now,” Babba scowled.
Uche walked towards him. He had been by the side all along. He wasn’t working with the others as all his work for the day had already been finished. He tapped Babba’s shoulder, shaking his head.
“Let them have their fun. Besides, it’s just a one-time thing. And your father wouldn’t know,” he said.
Babba knew he was right, but he wasn’t ignorant of what he sensed in Shekara’s eyes. Something was up her guts and Zainab was going to be at the receiving end of it.
Shekara drew her stance as all the hands stopped to watch the two of them spar. All of them knew Shekara’s strengths and how much of a fighter she was. They already could predict the outcome, but there was more to the spar than just their exchange of weapons. Many had rarely seen Zainab use her gift nor command sand before, but had heard she was getting good at it. And with only Nazir, their master, as the only one in the mansion who possessed such gift aside her, they wanted to see it go against Shekara, Nihu’s renowned prodigy.
Zainab spread her legs apart, tightened her scarf around her neck, leaving her long, black braided hair exposed to the evening wind. Even in the light of a fading sun, her young beauty glittered, her eyes firm and enchanting as ever. The jewelleries locked into her hair blew a magnificent charm upon her face. And as she stretched her arm forward in readiness, the knife looked like it had found a new owner.
“If you wish, use the Dusk too,” Shekara said, letting the sticks spin around her hands, then point forward.
For some odd reason, Zainab felt both excited and nervous. Eyes were on them, on her. It was like being in a territory not her own. The Dusk was a gift she was not so good at, yet should put her at an advantage over an opponent without it. But the mere fact that Shekara permitted it, spelt a certainty they all knew too well. Then, she gasped as Shekara snarled and lurched forward, fast like the blur of a windstorm, her first thrust straight for Zainab’s face.