Advance Guard Part 1

Advance Guard is the prologue of my upcoming novel, God’s Keeper

Victorian era British soldier

“This is a day of judgement,” Major Heneker announced to the troops assembled in Itu forest.

“Today, manipulation and exploitation will be banished from the Southern Protectorate. Today, impunity and plunder will surrender to reason and justice.”

Interpreters translated the Major’s words into Hausa, Yoruba, and Efik.

James Chadwick, outfitted in khaki like the other British officers, was indifferent to the speech.

He had heard a lot of lofty words that were quickly forgotten on the battlefield.

“I expect courage from you,” Heneker continued. “I expect determination from you. The enemy is fierce, but he’s no match for the good soldiers of the British Empire.”

Heneker pivoted to the barefoot carriers standing to his right, haversacks, and machetes dangling from their lithe bodies. “Effiong, where’s my package?”

A diminutive carrier opened a rucksack, retrieved a shiny green bottle and presented it to the Major.

Heneker held the champagne bottle aloft. “Tomorrow is Christmas. I’ll celebrate the birthday of Jesus at the palace of Eze Aro.”

He locked eyes with the British officers. “For you thirsty bastards hoping to join the party, the answer is no.”

Laughter rippled through the ranks.

Heneker put the champagne bottle back in the carrier’s rucksack. “All right, gentlemen, let’s march. Godspeed to all of us.”

The headman of the hospital carriers lifted a blue flag and marched towards the river bank.

Ten of his men followed suit, carrying hammocks and aluminium jars filled with sterilized water.

The ammunition headman marched to the river bank with the red flag of his unit.

Behind him, a lanky carrier lugged the barrel of a Maxim machine gun. Another carrier piggybacked the gun’s tripod and two thousand rounds of ammunition.

Sixty-two carriers marching in a straight line transported the wheels, barrel and ammunition of a 75-mm artillery gun.

Heneker approached Chadwick. “Captain, ready to go?”

“Yes sir,” replied Chadwick. He glanced at a metal lapel pinned to Heneker’s ammunition pouch.

The lapel was inscribed with a golden harp, a scarlet crown and the Latin words Quis Separabit — Who Shall Divide Us.

“Compass?” Heneker asked.

Chadwick tapped a lump in his trouser pocket. “Right here, sir.”

Heneker leaned forward, his nose almost touching Chadwick’s face. “This expedition is very important to the Secretary of Government.”

“I know,” Chadwick said.

“I won’t save you this time.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Good.” Heneker strode off.

Chadwick put on his pith helmet.

Soldiers prepared for combat in different ways. Some hummed songs; some traded jokes.

Chadwick was still searching for the right preparation ritual.

He marched the three hundred soldiers and carriers under his command to the armoured steel canoes anchored at the river bank.

They were the Advance Guard and their objective was to soften up the enemy before the arrival of Major Heneker’s Fourth Column.

The soldiers bundled themselves into the canoes. Chadwick took his place in the lead canoe.

His second-in-command, Captain Sam Davidson, sat beside him.

Cold dry winds gusted from the north.

The river was calmer than Chadwick expected.

The lead canoe sailed from the river bank.

“I love cruising in a boat,” said Davidson.

Chadwick ignored the joke. He hated the bush wars of West Africa, preferring the Boer War raging in the southern corner of the continent.

Down south, the weather was cooler, quarters cleaner and opportunities for promotion greater.

They disembarked at Azumini river bank and marched under the shadows of gigantic, hundred-feet-tall trees.

Chadwick had seen silver-grey monkeys jumping through the trees two weeks ago on a reconnaissance trip.

The monkeys were gone now.

The bugle for food break blew at 9 a.m.

Carriers swung their machetes at a jungle thicket and cleared out a hundred square meter space.

The Advance Guard settled down in the cleared area.

Chadwick opened his ration box and took a tin of wheatmeal biscuits and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce.

He filled a small, ceramic plate with the Worcestershire sauce.

Eating delicacies from home always energized him.

He dipped a wheatmeal biscuit in the tantalizing sauce.

A shout went up.

Chadwick glimpsed a water carrier darting into the bush.

Three native soldiers ran after the runaway carrier.

Chadwick understood the predicament of West African carriers.

The average carrier moved seventy pounds of equipment, fifteen miles a day. He wasn’t paid for his efforts and wasn’t eligible for a medal of honour, no matter how hard he worked on the battlefield.

Chadwick knew that some carriers would desert if they could. He had prepared for such a scenario.

He munched the tasty wheatmeal biscuit and checked his pocket watch.

The soldiers had about three minutes to catch the carrier. If they failed to catch him, their march could be delayed.

An escaped carrier was a risk on two levels.

First, the carrier could be captured and forced to divulge details about the expedition to the enemy.

Second, the other carriers and native soldiers would be emboldened to desert.

Chadwick wished they had horses instead of carriers. But a mysterious tropical disease called nagana had killed off the horses of the Southern Protectorate.

The soldiers caught the carrier within two minutes and dragged him before Chadwick.

“How many lashes should he receive?” Davidson asked.

Flogging was illegal in the British Army, but Chadwick still used it to punish insubordinate native soldiers and carriers.

The prescribed punishment for errant members of the army was Field Punishment One. The offending soldier or carrier was tied to a tree for twenty-four hours.

An alternative punitive measure was Field Punishment Two. The soldier was chained to an artillery wheel and dragged along as the troops marched.

Chadwick felt that field punishment and flogging would be ineffective at the moment.

The ultimate deterrent was needed.

“Shoot him,” Chadwick said.

Davidson seemed surprised. “The troops won’t be happy if we shot one of our own.”

“Do it.”

“What about the body?”

Cannibals devoured dead soldiers left behind in enemy territory.

The Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, Viscount Montgomery, had instructed army units in West Africa to bury their casualties in friendly villages.

“We’ll leave it here,” Chadwick said.

Davidson’s eyes widened.”We can’t do that.”

Chadwick raised his rifle, aiming at the carrier. “We can.”

Chadwick fired. The carrier fell.

Ascent Part 3

mountain in Brian Ewuzie's Ascent

 

He made it sound like it was the easiest thing to do. Like I could prick myself, drain a few drops of blood into a bowl and hand it to him.

“They need it to rebuild your city,” the giant said.

“They? Who are they?”

“Do you want to see your father or not?”

“I want to see him. But I don’t want to bleed.”

“Alright. Tell them when we get there.” He started walking toward the northern mountains.

I thought of running away in the opposite direction.

He could catch me with a few steps.

But even if I escaped, what would I do on my own? Go to Miri Lake and hope for the best?

I followed the giant. At least he knew where Father was.

“You never even asked for my name,” the giant said.

“You have a name?”

“Okunoshimili.”

“Fire in the ocean?”

“Fire and the ocean.”

What kind of name was that? I thought.

I guess giants have special names to match their enormous sizes.

We arrived at the foot of the mountain.

I held my breath.

Don’t go to the mountain, I was told from the moment I could walk.

Okunoshimili was a giant.

He could meet the gods without fear.

I was an ordinary boy.

Meeting the gods could end my life.

The mountains had a rugged look.

Apart from the boulders strewn along the base, there was nothing strange to be seen.

Then why was I nervous?

The ground shook.

I looked up and saw six giants approaching from the left side of the mountains.

Okunoshimili turned towards me. “Do you still want me to tell them you don’t want to bleed?”

The giants surrounded me.

One of them wore an iron cap.

“Didn’t you tell him?” the iron cap giant asked Okunoshimili.

“I tried to, but he wouldn’t give blood.”

“Blood is the first step. Knowledge is the second. You can’t have one without the other,” Iron Cap said.

The other giants grunted their approval.

A frail figure approached us.

She walked with stiff steps.

Belinna.

The day Belinna was marched off to the northern mountains, Father and I were harvesting yam at our farm, close to the city gate.

Belinna had been in the midst of soldiers and priests.

Just before they passed the city gate, Belinna stopped and waved.

I waved back.

Father turned away.

“Why didn’t you wave?” I had asked Father.

“The dead and the living have nothing in common.  Belinna was picked as the bride of the gods this year. She would soon join the dead,” was his reply.

Seeing Belinna, I wondered if she had returned from the land of the dead.

“Don’t lie to the boy,” Belinna scolded Iron Cap. “Knowledge may come before blood. And you can have one without the other.”

She smiled at me. “Did the fire burn down every single house?”

“I don’t know.”

“The day I was offered for sacrifice, I wanted you and Ogadi to follow me,” she said.

Ogadi was Father’s name.

But few in Obodo used it.

Father was called Onyeozi, the messenger.

He was known for relaying difficult messages: the death of a family member, the punishment of elders, the loss of position and power.

Father made bad news easier to accept.

“I wanted us to leave together,” Belinna continued. “To start a new life right here in the mountains.”

“With you? But you’re a…” My voice trailed off.

“A witch?” She sneered.” Is that what you wanted to say?”

She laughed.

The giants grinned at each other.

Belinna stopped laughing and pulled me close to her body, hugging me tightly.

I caught the scent of fresh lily on her body.

“My dear, you’re a wizard too,” she whispered in my left ear, then let go of me.

“That’s why you survived the destruction of Obodo.” Her fingernails grazed my face. “That’s why the giants need your blood.”

I touched my face. Blood covered my fingers.

“I thought you said he had to give it willingly?” Iron Cap asked Belinna.

“I don’t need his permission,” she replied,” I’m his mother.” She lifted her white cloth and pressed it against my wounded cheek.

The pain subsided.

“This should be enough,” Belinna told Iron Cap, holding up the blood-stained cloth. “Let’s go.”

I waited for them to leave.

“Duru, I’m talking to you,” Belinna said.”Let’s go.”

I hesitated, then followed her up the steps cut on the mountain.

The sun’s rays got harsher the higher we climbed.

Sweat covered my face.

I became weary.

Belinna offered me a vase of water.

I took a sip.

“Feeling better?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Do you want me to carry you?”

I was on the verge of manhood, how would I look if a woman carried me up the mountain?

“I’ll walk by myself,” I replied, even though my legs ached.

The sky hung low with crisp blue clouds.

I peeked below.

“Don’t look down,” Belinna cautioned.

She took my hand and held it tightly.

We trudged up.

The mountain was harder to climb with each step I took.

I could hear myself panting.

I wasn’t sure I could continue.

My strength was failing.

Belinna carried me to the top.

The top of the mountain wasn’t what I expected.

It was dreary and cold.

A lone figure stood there.

Father.

I ran to him.

We embraced.

“You were here all by yourself?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

He looked subdued.

The clouds darkened.

Circular shadows appeared in the sky.

“They’re coming,” Belinna said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Who else but the gods,” she replied.

She seemed excited.

I was scared.

“Are they coming for us?” I asked her.

She put a finger across her lips. “Shhhh, they can hear you.”

The shadows grew bigger.

“Father, let’s go back down,” I pulled him towards the mountain steps.

He shook his head. “We stay here.”

I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet the gods.

I ran.

Father got to the steps first, grabbed and dragged me back to Belinna.

He held me as Belinna tied my hands and feet with twines.

She placed the blood-stained cloth on my chest.

I was terrified.

“Help me!” I shouted at Father.

He looked away.

The shadows descended on us.

I closed my eyes, expecting death.

Several moments passed.

I could hear the thumping of my heart.

I opened my eyes a bit.

The shadows had disappeared.

The sun was visible again.

I gazed at my hands and feet.

I was free of the twines.

I stood up, taller than I had ever been.

My hands were big and muscular, my legs as huge as tree trunks.

Bits and pieces of clothing were scattered around me.

“Wear this.” Belinna held an oversize gown.

I slipped into the gown.

“Follow me,” she said and went down the mountain steps.

“Where’s Father?”

“He’s gone.”

“To?”

“I’ll show you.”

We descended the first ten steps.

Belinna pushed a rock by the side of the mountain, revealing a walkway.

She entered the walkway.

I followed her through a labyrinth and arrived at a wide enclosure, illuminated by a circle of torches.

“Meet the future of Obodo,” Belinna said.

I saw a giant huddled in a corner of the enclosure.

A female giant.

She stood up and approached me.

We faced each other.

She ran a finger along my forehead and giggled, “He’s handsome.”

“I told you,” said Belinna.

“I’m Amara,” the giant said to me.

I faced Belinna. “Where’s Father?”

She sighed. “You see your future wife and you only think about your father?”

“I want to know where he is.”

“He left with the gods. It was an exchange. They took him and made you a giant.”

“I didn’t ask to be a giant.”

“You don’t understand, do you? You’re not just a giant, you’re a human with the size and abilities of a giant. You have the strengths of both races and none of their weaknesses.”

I exhaled.

I couldn’t tell if I was happy or sad.

“Amara is a crossbreed like you. Both of you will start a new life in Obodo. You will have a family and rebuild the city. Okunoshimili and the other giants will assist you.”

A thought lingered in my mind.

“Who destroyed Obodo?” I asked Belinna.

“The gods,” she replied.

“The gods? Or you?”

“Does it matter? I asked the gods for a favour and they granted it. Just like they granted me a second chance when I was offered as a sacrifice.”

“So you’re the last human,” I said.

She laughed. “I am.”

Maybe Belinna was my real mother.

Maybe her dreams of a new Obodo would come to pass.

But she took Father away from me.

And I just couldn’t stand losing him.

I took one of the torches and threw it at Belinna.

She ducked.

I threw another.

The hem of her dress caught fire.

Belinna scrambled to put it out.

I threw two torches at her.

Belinna was aflame.

“Why did you do that?” Amara asked.

“I hate her.”

We both watched Belinna burn.

I was surprised at my lack of pity.

Amara looked frightened.

She held my hand.”What’s your name?”

I wasn’t sure who I was anymore.

Duru? Or someone else?

I gave her the first name that came to my mind. “Onyeozi.”

 

 

Ascent Part 2

Lake

 

The giant sauntered toward the city gate. “Come.”

I shook my head. “I’ll stay here.”

He marched into Obodo.

I heard the rumbles of his feet and saw his head bobbing over scorched houses.

I trudged away from the city gate.

I hated getting wet.

But I didn’t have a choice this time.

I reached Miri Lake and dipped a finger in it.

The lake was cold.

I waded into it, shuddering as the water soaked my body.

Miri Lake had a charm that the streams and rivers around Obodo didn’t have.

Not only was it green, my favourite colour, but it was the home of Nanyi, the god of requests.

Unlike other gods and goddesses with elaborate shrines and pompous priests, anyone could approach Nanyi and make a request.

The water rose to my neck as I waded deeper into it.

I stepped on a bulky stone.

This was it.

I was with Nanyi.

Now, I had to dip below the surface and use the stone to draw a symbol of my request on the lakebed.

I had tried this once.

And ended up so scared and afraid of drowning that I abandoned the request and rushed out of the lake.

I had to do it right this time.

I thought of the symbol for protection.

A straight line surrounded by a circle.

Stories had been told of people who wrote the wrong symbols and were shocked by what happened next.

A farmer once wanted a large goat; he drew the wrong symbol and woke up the next morning with a wild dog sleeping beside him.

I dipped below the surface, touched the stone and tried to lift it up.

It didn’t budge.

I tugged at it.

The stone stayed put.

I felt an overwhelming urge to go back to the surface.

But if I went back up, I wouldn’t have the courage to dip again.

I had to lift the stone and draw the symbol or go back up and forget the whole thing.

I tugged with all my strength.

No success.

The urge to breath overcame me.

I broke the surface and gasped for air.

“You prefer to drown than die in a fire?”

The giant stood at the shores of the lake.

I beckoned him over.

“I’ll stay here,” he said with a chuckle.

“Please! I need your help.”

“You can’t swim?”

“I want you to lift something for me.”

The giant stepped into the lake.

He reached me with a few steps.

“Help me lift a stone.”

He glanced around. “Where is it?”

“Below. The bottom of the lake.”

“What do you want to do with it?”

“Make a request.”

“Why do you need a stone to make a request?”

“Just do it. Please.” The cold water was getting to me. “It’s beside my feet.”

The giant bent forward and reached beneath the surface.

I felt his huge hand brush against me.

He straightened himself.

The stone looked like a pebble in his hand. “Is this it?”

“Yes,” I muttered. “Quick, reach back down and draw the symbol for protection.”

“Why?”

A thought popped into my head.

I had to write the symbol myself.

If he did, then he was the one making the request.

I shivered with cold.”Give me the stone.”

“You don’t look well, let’s head back to land.”

“No, give me…”

He flicked the stone away like it was a grain of sand.

He plucked me from the water, threw me over his shoulder and carried me out of the lake.

I was torn between relief that I was no longer in water and anger that he didn’t let me use the stone.

“You should have given me the stone.” My voice shook.

Was it the cold or the rage?

“You look sick.”

“I’m not sick.”

He put me back on the ground. “Ready to trade?”

I sighed.

I was enjoying the ride on his shoulders.

I couldn’t think of anything a giant would want from a boy like me. “What do you want?”

The giant scribbled three wavy lines in the sand.

Wavy lines meant something to drink.

“Water?” I asked him.

He shook his head.

“Milk?”

“No.”

“Palm wine?”

The giant shaped his right hand like the claws of a tiger. “What happens when you dig your nails into your body and scratch?”

“I get marks on my body.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“If you scratch deep, a red thing comes out.”

I tensed. “Blood?”

“You got it.”

All the fears I felt before returned.

At the lake, I had felt comfortable around him. When he got me out of the water, I started trusting him.

The comfort and trust were gone.

“You want to see your Father, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“Then give me your blood.”

Ascent Part 1

 

Stories are the simplest form of education.

In ancient times, they were used to teach lessons and convey values.

This story developed from my desire to transmit the ideas, beliefs and aspirations of Igbo traditional religion.

It shouldn’t be considered a true example of an Igbo folktale.

It is simply a fictional world where certain actions are possible.

I hope you enjoy reading it.

Ascent Part 1 image

 

We knew this day would come.

The prophecies warned about it, the priests moaned about it, yet we didn’t think too much about it.

“We’ll spend the night here,” Father said.

I wanted to go back and fetch Mother, but Father wouldn’t hear of it. “She’s at peace now. Let her be at peace,” he said.

What did peace mean? I thought to myself.

For me, peace meant lots of food, laughter and running around in open fields.

What did peace mean to Father?

“Father?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know when you have peace?”

He frowned.

He didn’t seem to like the question. “You know when you stop worrying about how to live.”

“Do we have peace now?”

“No.”

“Will we have it?”

“Enough questions.”

He moved away from me, curled up and laid his head on his left arm.

He didn’t look like he was at peace.

I still don’t know why he was the only person who knew when Obodo would be destroyed.

We had barely finished breakfast when he told me to get ready to leave Obodo. “Where are we going?” I asked him.

“Somewhere safe.”

We then trekked to the city gate.

A few people asked us where we were going.

Father blurted out the answer. “Obodo will be destroyed today.”

The guards at the gate laughed.

A trader haggling with a fat man laughed.

We were a couple of steps from the city gate when the first tongues of fire descended.

The screams started next.

Father rested beside a stout tree. I knew he wasn’t asleep. If he was, he would snore.

He stood up abruptly. “Let’s head to the mountains,”

“We can’t go there,” I muttered.

He looked at me with anger in his eyes. “We will go there.”

We started walking toward the mountains.

I was in front, Father behind.

I had heard rumours that Father and the witch Belinna were lovers.

And that she had given him spells for divining the future.

Sometimes, I would come into our house and see Father making incantations.

He would act irritated and leave the house without saying a word to me.

I turned around and realized that Father was no longer walking behind me.

“Father!” I called out.

Silence.

Fear washed over me. Where was he? Did he go back to Obodo? Did he stop to rest?

I retraced my steps.

I had never been without Father close by.

Mother came and went.

Father was the one I stayed with most of the time.

He was difficult.

But he was my father.

My heart was thumping. Why would Father go back?

I stopped a couple of yards from the city gate.

The fire burned still. But the screams had died out.

I watched the smouldering city gate, wondering if Father would emerge and tell me he had forgotten something.

I stood, confused and alone.

Something touched my right shoulder.

I gasped.

A giant stood a few feet away from me.

“Who are you?” he roared.

I was dumbstruck.

With a shaky hand, I scrawled the symbols of my name in the sand.

I had been taught to write my name at an early age.

Mother taught me that my name, Duru, could be represented by the symbols for di, master, and uru, profit.

The giant gazed at the symbols and bellowed with laughter. “Master of profit!”

I thought the symbols were funny too.

And if I wasn’t so scared, I would have laughed along with him.

The giant pointed at the ruins of Obodo. “Tell me, master of profit, where are the people who will buy your goods?”

“I’m not a trader. The symbols only represent my name.”

The giant stamped his foot on the ground. “The symbols represent your occupation. You’re a trader.”

“No, I’m not. I’m just a boy from Obodo.”

I broke down.

I didn’t know whether I was crying because I was terrified of the giant.

Or because I couldn’t find Father.

The giant’s massive hand touched me.

“I know where your father is,” he said.

“You do?” I was elated.

“Yes. But first, we have to make a trade, master of profit.”