…The Lesser of Two Evils (A prequel)
Zainab screamed as the stick slammed against her neck. Shekara’s arm swung up for her jaw, but she moved away in time. Her yelp thrilled the air as a move she’d not expected hit her face. Zainab reeled back, going hard for the ground, and Shekara was coming in again without falter.
Shekara crouched, slammed the stick against her feet, hastening the fall. Zainab hit the ground, the knife falling to the side. Shekara stepped away from her, a smug on her face. Something about the dazed and fearful look on Zainab’s eyes made her inside light up. The scratch on her once smooth face, the other on her neck, was all enough to make Shekara thrilled. Now, she understood she needed to do more. She had to definitely see Zainab really bleed.
“Princess,” she drawled, pointed her stick at Zainab. “Stand. Don’t disappoint father.”
Zainab felt her heart thumping. She could hear the best throb in her ears. Shekara wasn’t just trying to train, she was trying to fight. She’d realised this from the pain itching deep in her skin. She reached for the knife and rose again, lining it, hands trembling against her will. She watched Shekara’s hands and feet, this time more closely. She had to read her speed and movements in other to not get hit again.
Babba sighed, regretting having let Uche talk him into the madness of having Shekara humiliate Zainab before the hands. He had already figured this was Shekara’s intent from the onset. Just to inflict pain and shame on Zainab. He wanted to stop the training —now unreasonable – yet deep down for some reason he could barely find explanation for, he wanted Zainab to fight back. Maybe even win the odds of her reality.
Zainab swerved to her right as Shekara’s left arm swung the stick past her face, missing her by mere inches. She flipped the knife up almost immediately, shielding herself from the fast following thrust from Shekara’s right stick. Again, Shekara spun fast, arm swirling round with her revolving frame, straight for the bare skull. Nearly missing sight of the third strike by seconds, Zainab stooped to dock the passing wooden weapon. Shekara’s feet launched off the ground, straight for the coming face.
Blood and a scream left Zainab’s lips as the sharp impact sent her reeling back, arms flying helplessly in the air as she keeled back without control. Shekara gave no space or made waste a fraction of time. She moved in, limbs flying back and forth, disarmed Zainab of the knife first, sent a shocking rush of pain through her head, attacked her shoulders with the sticks, then ramming them against her side, and as her feet thrust into the air and for Zainab’s chest, she crashed, whimpering as she toppled over the ground.
Everyone echoed, surprised.
Shekara stood, face drawn and firm, waiting and hoping Zainab stood again. She however coiled on the floor, sore across all parts of her body. She was on the verge of tearing up. This experience, this sort of pain, she’d never felt any before.
“That is enough,” Babba sighed, having watched enough. Now the problem was how he was going to explain all these to Nazir or Minna without getting into trouble.
“Go again?” Shekara scoffed, and the mockery in her low and subtle yet audible jab made Zainab exhale, ire surging through her bloodstream.
Fists clenched and butt against the floor, Zainab’s pant became louder, harsher, and her glare seething with anger. She rose to her feet, dragging the knife up with her and lining it with an arm. The sand around her came alive, moving, just as her zanen jiki boldened. Everyone saw it, they all could feel the sand underneath their feet move, and the axis her chì had covered was wider than had been estimated for one her age. About her, the sand began to rise and coil around her feet.
“Zainab, that is enough!” Babba barked at her, but her ears were distant from him. He scowled.
Zainab flung her arm forward as a snarl burst of her lungs. Sand shot of the ground, launched straight for Shekara. Shekara rolled a swerve off the way and the ball of trailing sand blasted its way into where she’d stood a second earlier. She made to her feet, leaping to her side as the second sand ball came for her, missing merely by inches. She moved, quick, circling around Zainab.
Zainab spread her arms apart, made a lifting gesture, and the ground jiggled. Everyone gasped as the floor slipped underneath their feet. Zainab gritted her teeth as the weight of the Dusk summoned weighed on her. Her chì exploded.
Shekara slipped and hit the ground on her knees as the sand underneath her feet was stolen, rising into the air and swirling above her head. She gasped, eyes wide in disbelief as the cloud of a billion storm of sand punched down an arm of sand for her. She toppled to her side, screaming as the force of the impact sent dust and a gust of wind knocking her off her feet and against the hardened ground. The sand cloud launched another punch down, a fist wide as life and with a speed quick as death.
Zainab blinked, everything went black as a sharp pain struck her skull. Her head reeled back, following her stagger. The animated sand dropped from the air like rain and dry dust. She heard Shekara’s snarl, close, too close and marked with so much rage.
Shekara lurched towards Zainab —now disorganised by the stack of sand she’d hurled for her face. Up close, she slammed the second stick for Zainab’s face, hurled her fist in second, then a kick. Her arm swung up and Zainab’s scream followed her blood into the air as the stick latched into her face.
Disabled and on the floor, Shekara moved in, reaching for Zainab where she lay, aiming to crush her face with the stick. Babba reached in before the stick hit its target. He caught it, hurling a slap into Shekara’s face. Shekara yelped, falling back, the rage quickly fading off her eyes. She found Babba kneeling next to Zainab, but his infuriated glare piercing through her like he’d have beat her were they not related.
“Are you stupid!” he snarled, holding Zainab in his arms.
Shekara bit against her lips, livid.
Zainab was crying, both from the pain and the shock of having seen the sort of wroth in Shekara’s eyes just a moment ago. She couldn’t help but wonder if she was really going to hit her even after having obviously won the fight and disarmed her. She felt broken within. Shekara looked a lot like she was going to do it.
“Wow,” Uche said, impressed but surprised as well, even as everyone rallied around Zainab, asking after her. “That was very intense.”
It was dark. Work for the day had ended and everyone was packing their working tools into sacks and getting them mounted on their rides. Shekara stood by her donkey, waiting for the others to finish. She felt a little ease, like something had been taken off her chest. Yet, in the same light she felt displeased. Everyone looked at her like she’d done something bad, and even the scratch on her arm from the spar had been left unnoticed all because Zainab had a few scratches on her face and an eye which was swollen. Even Babba looked pissed with her, her own brother.
Babba refused offering a shred of sympathy to Zainab. And while he had scolded Shekara and left Zainab out, he made it known that her punishment was best reflected by the pain she currently felt. A noise of fast galloping feet drew his attention from his horse. He turned to the road and there rode a horse, fast on its pace and the charges of its rider loud enough that they could hear and recognise its owner.
“Why is he coming hereby this hour?” Uche said, unable to understand why Azim was headed towards them at such space and at such time.
Azim pulled back the horse’s reigns and almost immediately, Babba could sense trouble in his eyes. He looked afraid, anxious. He moved towards him.
“What is it? Did my father send you?” he said.
Azim panted, shook his head. “Soldiers are in the house and all armed. Alhaji Tanko says Alhaji committed treason.”
Zainab sprang to her feet, for a second her pain swelled into nothingness. Babba rose, unable to grasp what was being spoken of. Shekara hurried forward, on impulse, weary as the look on Azim’s face spoke of nothing but seriousness.
“What do you mean?” Babba asked, up close to Azim who turned the horse around and pointed back where he’d come from.
“Hajjiya Kyawo says to tell you and Shekara not to come back now, but everything is so intense right now, we need to go.”
Before the words were ended, Babba had leaped into his horse, dragged Zainab up with him and sat her down before him. He charged the horse and zoomed into the night, everyone else rode behind and alongside him, all as anxious, as confused and as petrified.
Nazir rose from his reading desk as footsteps ushered one of his guards through the door of his room. Even with exclusion of the noise outside and the presence of soldiers surrounding the entire building, he could see from the look on the guard’s face that trouble was worse than his ears spoke of.
“Alhaji, we are surrounded. It is only a matter of moments before they break into the building,” the guard said.
Nazir exhaled, walked over the window and looked down. They were all royal soldiers, which meant they came from the Palace. He’d expected this, but not this quickly. He had hoped Tanko would have seen reason in his words earlier that day, but apparently, as he realised, Tank’s loyalty to the Sarki was deeper than his sense of reasoning. He definitely had reported their discussion to the King, and even likely handed him the letter he’d written to him earlier that evening.
“Where is Tanko? He is here, is he not?” he said.
The guard nodded with a bow. “He is outside, and I think he is the one holding the soldiers from coming in. He also came with Dusk users.”
Nazir shook his head. “He wants just me. Go get my wives. Where is Babba and his sisters?”
“They don’t seem to be anywhere in the building, likely still at the field.”
Nazir reached for his table, picked a newly written letter, placed his seal on it and wrapped it up. He handed it to the guard. “Take this, take Minna and Kyawo out of here through the underground passage. Ride to the Kobodo forest, amongst the Niqan people, ask for someone called Bozo. Tell him to take you down South. Tell him to find Dumeje. He’ll know what I mean. Find Babba, take him with you. Tell him to protect his sisters with his life. Tell him to watch over Zainab.”
“Alhaji, I can’t leave you alone here—”
Nazir handed him the letters. In his eyes were worries, but also a youthful glare the guard had not seen in a long while. He was going to fight. It was obvious. Yet, the guard couldn’t get why he would not escape than fight a battle he could not win.
“Just go. The third letter is for you. Open it in the South once you complete your task successfully. Go!” Nazir barked. Reluctantly, the guard bowed and hurried off.
Nazir exhaled. Tanko knew him too well. He knew as a matter of honour, he would never escape. This in fact was why Tanko refused to come in. He was a lot of things but his principles were firm. Tanko would never desecrate his home, even if he wanted him dead.
He picked a bottle of concoction and drank, to boost his chì, then strolled down the steps of his room, headed straight for the door. Pushing it open, there they were, swords drawn, rage in their eyes, anger for a sacrilege he’d committed. He took sight of Tanko walking up from amidst the crowd of over thirty soldiers.
“Tanko,” he said. “All these men for me?”
“Thanks to you, the Sarki’s life was put at risk. You betrayed both the throne and this kingdom. All for what?” Tanko had a weak and regretful light in his eyes. He seemed tired and behind that, disappointed.
“I detailed my reasons all in the letters I sent you,” Nazir said.
“The only way you could have known of the Palace raid enough to stop it, is if you knew about it beforehand. This was known only to me, so my question is: how did you know?”
“One of your own has more sense than you do,” Tanko said. He gave the orders with a nod and the soldiers moved around Nazir, readied to take him down. “The Sarki has doomed you to death, my friend.”
One more time he protested. “The Sarki will kill us all if he finds the temple of promise.”
Tanko sighed, shook his head. Nothing on his face spoke anything but resolution. He gave the order as was directed of him. “Kill him.”
The soldiers charged in, screaming, swords swinging. The ground moved. Spikes popped into the air, attacking everyone within its axis. Bodies dropped fast and blood soaked the animated pile of sand.
Nazir made a complex sign with his arms, roared as all sand from around the whole building came to his call. A monster’s face formed from the heap, attacking the men, taking as much down. Sand balls launched across the space, a few hitting targets, many missing.
Tanko made his move. He roared at the incoming ball of sand, and from his mouth spat a gust of flame rising tall and ravaging everything on its wake. And as soldiers burnt and others ran off the way of the blazing flames, Nazir watched Tanko dart of the fires, sword in hand, red and hot, swinging for his head. They clashed.
The sword lurched for his eyes. Nazir docked off the way, blasting Tanko twelve feet into the air with shot from the sand underneath him. Mid-air, Tanko launched balls of fire down at Nazir, falling towards him even as Nazir created a shield against the rain of flames. Tanko snarled.
Nazir gasped as something sharp cut through the shield and across his skin amidst the heat of fire around him. He fell back, watching a blast of flame shatter the shield and Tanko bursting out of it, sword first.
A move from Nazir had Tanko frozen as sand gripped hold of his feet, rapidly spreading across his body and stiffening. He struggled to move, but the tighter it became. One of the Dusk users launched a blast of flames at the lock engulfing Tanko, and as it dispersed into hot sand and dust, Tanko swung his arm for Nazir’s neck, missed, then used his knee against Nazir’s chest. As Nazir staggered back, chest bare, Tanko pushed the sword for his heart. The sand created a shield against the attack, but only a little too late. Nazir groaned as blood spilled off his mouth.
Tanko heard a muffled scream around the garden by the side. He turned to his side to get a better look at the voice he had heard and was familiar with. Nazir tried to fight, and Tanko pushed the sword further in, then slashed it sideways. Nazir dropped to the ground, panting amidst the fire burning around him and the soldiers getting close while others attended to their comrades.
“It’s me you want. Leave them be.” Nazir coughed, gurgling in his own blood.
Everyone turned as a frantic woman came running out of the mansion’s doors, straight towards Tanko and Nazir. It was Minna, a large stick in her hand, swinging, and terror in her eyes. A soldier blocked her way, hit her against the face to stop her moving any further. She staggered from the impact to her face, straight into another’s drawn sword, one not meant for her.
Nazir groaned, pained that Minna had not listened to his orders to leave. Hurt that Zainab and others were there too.
“Do not worry, so long as they stay hidden from everyone here, I shall not harm them. I swear,” Tanko said, lined the sword towards Nazir, its sharp tip pointed at his throat. Though shrouded in darkness, something was broken in his voice, even as he pushed the sword forward, soaking the ground further with Nazir’s blood. He turned to the soldiers, all of them. “Search everywhere, find anything you can, his household inclusive. Now!”
As all the soldiers ran in to the building and turned everything upside down, Tanko bent over, closing Nazir’s wide opened but lifeless eyes. He stood, wiped his sword and followed them into the building.