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It was in Djedeba, four summers ago, that I was misfortuned to witness the most appalling and fearsome sight that any of you is ever likely to set eyes upon. It was a sight so unbelievably horrid that I can hardly find words appropriate enough to describe it. I can only state that it demonstrated for me what man can become in times of bitter desperation. While I will do my best to describe it to you, I must warn that should you be of a weak nature or of a soft stomach, favor yourself by skipping this portion of my account, for herein describes, as best as I can put to paper, the sinking of man to the very depths of abomination through the most shocking and repulsive scene ever to have been presented before the very eyes of man.
Not far from the imperial garrison in Djedeba, a starving boy with a sunken face and his aging father disputed over the ownership of a half-rotten banana they had found on the roadside. Rather than share the banana as they had agreed in a bid to end their dispute, the boy punched the old man in the stomach and grabbed the fruit. While the man doubled over and wheezed, the boy quickly peeled and ate the banana, then laughed at the desolate old man. With amazing speed, the man grabbed a dagger and slit the boy's neck, then hacked open his stomach, plunged in his hand, clawed out the mashed and swallowed remnants of the fruit, and heartily gulped it down.
* * *
They call me Abdel el Maliki. I am a Moor from Fez. My unending quest for knowledge has taken me to the farthest realms of the known world. And for each of those realms I have taken upon myself the task of putting to paper an account of my adventures therein. But as for Timbuktu, from where I now put these words to paper, I will give you not an account of the city, but a tale-one which they say is true, and from which you will learn the truth about our world and what it might have become. It is a tale of a girl child and a soldier. I urge you to believe me when I tell you that its events are true, for what is about to be revealed to you comes not from my imagination, but from three of the very souls who were fortuned or misfortuned to find themselves in the thick of the said events. In the following you will read the account of a girl child as she told it to me; the account of a wizard of utmost importance to this tale as he, too, told it to me; and the account of the soldier, written by his own hand.
What has the famine in Djedeba to do with my tale, you might ask? To understand it all we must begin the tale at the very beginning, during the Breed Wars of ten thousand generations ago ...
The Breed Wars
According to the Breed Legends, the species began to change when some of their young started being born without the brown fur that covered their parents' bodies, without the two horns that adorned their parents' heads, and without the third eye in the back of their parents' heads used to watch for the evil behind their backs. These offspring were of a new breed, much weaker than their fathers and their mothers. They were like you and me. They were human!
Some in Eartholia Proper believed this new breed was a curse, a punishment for the evil their parents were doing to the land and its creatures. But the oracle, Bi-li Baba, disagreed. He believed the species was changing-evolving into a new breed-and that all the newborns would soon be of the new breed. The old breed was dying out, he said.
But the oracle's prophecy was flawed, for though many were born as the new breed during the next few centuries, many others were born as the old breed. The new breed members, who saw themselves as true humans, referred to the old breed as raw-breeds, or those who had failed to evolve. For many a century, man and raw-breed shared the realm of Eartholia Proper and lived in peace, until the Breed Wars. These were wars fought among the raw-breeds, sparked by the desire for some among them to turn man into slaves of Eartholia Proper; to be used by the raw-breeds to fulfill whatever needs arose in the realm.
The first of the Breed Wars was won by those who wanted man enslaved. And man indeed was enslaved, doomed forever to be forced laborers in a realm that no longer respected their existence. Yet, not all among the raw-breeds found comfort in the enslavement of man. So it was that a slave colony was founded in the outer world dimension, a desolate mystical world where all humans were transferred against their will, to be brought to Eartholia Proper only when their labor was desired. Entry into this slave colony was only through the Portal of Gorgida, the supernatural doorway that shielded the colony from Eartholia Proper and prevented man from escaping the torment of eternal servitude. The magical key to this portal remained in the hands of the raw-breeds, beyond the reach of any human.
But alas! Then came the second of the Breed Wars, fought among the raw-breeds over control of the magical key to the Portal. This war led to the loss of the key, a loss that kept the raw-breeds out of the outer world slave colony, a colony that the raw-breeds called New Eartholia, but which the humans simply called Earth.
The closing of the Portal of Gorgida, its key lost in the chaos of war, freed man from the evil of the raw-breeds at last, until ...
A.D. That was the year I stopped teaching philosophy at the University of Sankoré in Timbuktu and joined the army.
I am Commander Gyvan Drabo of the Imperial Army of Mali. I have spent twenty-nine summers on this Earth.
Two years after I joined the army, I found myself leading 503 battle-hardened foot soldiers against rebel archers who were three times our number and who had nearly stopped the charge of my army's first cavalry assault against their battle lines. This battle to control the salt mines of Taghaza had raged all day, yet no end to the carnage lay in sight. As we charged at the archers I cringed as an arrow flew over my head. A soldier behind me cried in agony and dropped. His quilted armor padded with the fiber of the silk-cotton tree had provided little protection. Would the next arrow find its mark on me? I wondered whether like my father, who twenty-eight years earlier had been killed in a skirmish to retake the gold mine of Tekrur from northern invaders, I, too, would meet my end in battle.
Awed by the raw courage of our charge, many rebel archers fled in terror, while those who were left dropped their bows and drew their swords to engage us at close quarters. We clashed, body and soul, filling the air with cries of death all around, on my side and on the other. I felt secure with my mastery of the sword as I hacked my way through the enemy lines, bringing down many a rebel. Those who got too close for my sword to be of any use had a nasty surprise waiting for them-my wrist knife. This was a circular knife which I wore around my left wrist like a bracelet. The edges were housed in a sheath made of a strip of lion skin leather. At any moment the strip could be yanked off, revealing the deadly blade capable of delivering a fatal slash across an enemy's throat.
Before the rebel archers could use their numbers to overwhelm us, our emperor himself, Abubakari II, led a cavalry charge to reinforce our ranks. This brought the tide of battle clearly in our favor, for all around us the rebel ranks crumbled as many a rebel fled to save his skin.
The battle for the salt mines was crucial, for Fadiga, the rebel warlord, was himself leading the defense of the mines. For a reason that was not explained, Emperor Abubakari II had given orders that Fadiga was to be taken alive. The emperor himself had marched with us to Taghaza to make certain of this. Unfortunately a stray arrow slew the rebel leader, causing his men to flee in panic. Victory was ours. The warlord, an exceptionally brutal and atrocious character who had inspired so much fear throughout the empire that it was rumored that he had cooked and eaten four of his sons and two of his granddaughters just to demonstrate how nasty and ferocious he was, was dead at last.
Though the emperor and his generals regretted the death of Fadiga, the imperial soldiers were joyous at the prospect of victory in this war that had raged for two years. After all, we were one step closer to winning the war and could now look forward to returning home to our families.
Later that day, as we feasted and made merry, all I thought of was returning home to meet the woman I planned to marry. Little did I know that this battle would be only the beginning of much bigger trials to come. It had not been fought only for control of the salt mines. Something more sinister festered behind it. Something only the emperor and his commanders seemed to know. Something that had to do with the unintended death of Fadiga, a grievous error that would lead to consequences far beyond my wildest imagination-to a task which not even an army could accomplish, but which would rest almost entirely on my shoulders! And you, too, will judge for yourself that it was too great a task to befall a single man.
I am Sobo Ha-ha. I was the high eeid of Tera-Hool, appointed by the warlord, Fadiga, in the year the troubles began.
It was a dark cave hidden deep within the mysterious mountains of Koulikoro. These were the mountains where rested the notorious Assassin Hill. Here, some fifteen summers past, a confederation of fourteen kings had battled and defeated a heavily outnumbered but fearsome band of assassins people called Paipans. The confederation was led by the Emperor Sakoura of Mali, who despite facing only 102 assassins, lost 2132 of his 6000 men. And though the Paipans had lost, one survived, causing a frightening alarm among the emperor's troops that continued for many years after. As my account unfolds you will understand why so important a battle raged on Assassin Hill some fifteen summers past, and why the survival of a lone assassin caused so disturbing and horrifying a mood among the confederation of kings, their troops, and the empire.
I was on the mountains for an important task-to visit the creature or being that rested in the darkest, innermost corner of the cave that lay hidden within the mountains. It was a creature that as yet did not exist, but that would exist in due time. My task was to administer certain charms and potions of a dark nature to this creature that would help us accomplish our designs for this Earth-this cursed Earth.
I ended my days of teaching philosophy at the University of Sankoré because I needed the thrill of a good adventure. What better way was there to seek such a thrill than by joining the army, in which I could chronicle my adventures so that generations to come would know me and my grand accomplishments? So I joined the army, where I was made an infantry commander with 503 men under my command. After the battle for the salt mines of Taghaza, only 274 of those men remained.
My love for adventure was known to most who knew me. My only concern so far was that I had been in no military ventures unique enough to be worth chronicling or boasting about. Had I known what awaited me, I likely would have reconsidered joining the army, for this adventure was one like no other, one I could never have imagined even in my wildest dreams.
After the battle for the salt mines, I soon left the merrymaking of our victorious army and retreated to my tent, to determine how best to inform the mothers of the fallen soldiers in my regiment that their sons had died. We were to return to Timbuktu in a few weeks and I had to be prepared for the grieving mothers. Many of them had hoped their sons would excel in the army and perhaps one day be made officials in Timbuktu or wealthy governors in some distant province.
I could hear the singing and dancing outside as I lay in my tent, cleaning the sword, dagger, and wrist knife that had served me so well in many a battle. Suddenly all the merrymaking stopped. I stepped outside. The soldiers were all staring at something. It was only a covered wagon that was being pulled by six horses and heading towards the emperor's tent. Yet a rather eerie feeling floated through the air. About ten mounted Red Sentinels, members of the emperor's own personal guard, were escorting the wagon. These elite soldiers wore their distinctive red turbans, were armed to the teeth, and were suited up in chest armor composed of silver, iron, and brass. Though no one could tell what exactly was in the wagon, it was quite clear that all understood that it contained something mysterious, something which emitted a nervous air.
In a few minutes that seemed to last forever, the wagon reached the emperor's tent. We watched closely to see who or what would come out of it. The tension was even more heightened than before, and heightened even further when Emperor Abubakari II himself stepped out of his tent to meet the wagon. He was dressed in a gown made of the finest cotton and patterned with intricate colorful designs as if to impress a stranger. Had he been expecting this eerie visitor? Who or what was it that created so disturbing a mood, but that the emperor wholly welcomed?
Our curiosity was about to be settled when Gans, the commander of the Red Sentinels and the leader of the wagon escort, dismounted his horse and spoke a few words to the emperor. Gans then turned to address the curious soldiers.
"Into your tents," he barked. "There is nothing to see."
We were disappointed, but heeded Gans's order, for as commander of the Red Sentinels, when he spoke it was as if the emperor himself had spoken. Gans had once been an ordinary Red Sentinel of no special value or rank. But this position had changed several years ago after he saved the emperor's life during a night ambush, during which he realized that the emperor was suffering from night blindness, which rendered him incapable of properly defending himself that night. For his actions, Gans was rewarded with the vacant position of Commander of the Red Sentinels. They were the elite group of soldiers responsible for the personal protection of the emperor. He also had the distinction of having fought in the famed Battle of Assassin Hill.
Gans was not well liked in the army, for after attaining his new rank he had lost favor with many military commanders because of his arrogance. Once quite sociable, now he was rarely seen associating with other commanders or even smiling, except for those few moments when he was charged with executing disciplinary actions against other officers. He was so despised that once, a commander who lay dying after a battle was asked if he had any last words. The commander said: "Commander Gans, there is something I have always wanted to tell you but have never had the courage to do so: You jackass!"
As I lay in my tent, my mind continued to marvel at the mysterious cargo that had been in the wagon. Why had the hated Gans ordered us into our tents? What was the emperor hiding?
By morning the mysterious wagon was gone. While riddled with curiosity, I was yet left with a single truth that comforted and brought some ease to my person-Fadiga was dead. That meant it was now only a matter of time before his last and most formidable stronghold, Djenné, would fall to us. For thirteen months the city had been under siege by our forces, yet its defenders had shown no signs of giving up. Each attack we mounted on the fortified city was beaten back even more ferociously than the one before it.
But now an end lay in sight, for our generals hoped that as soon as the defenders got word of Fadiga's death, their will to defend the city would weaken, forcing them to give in to the imperial authority of Mali. However, there was yet some part of me that refrained from such a hasty judgment, for our generals had made the same judgment after Djiouf, Fadiga's son and Djenné's high lord, was snapped in half by a hippopotamus as he and his forces retreated from the frontlines. Our generals had judged that Djiouf's death would force the city to surrender, but such a development had failed to come to pass. The will of the defenders had only been strengthened-an unexpected consequence which the generals had been quick to attribute to the fact that Fadiga was still alive to encourage the city's defenders. But now, with father and son slain, no one remained in the family to continue the insurgency save Mai-Fatou, Djiouf's mother and Fadiga's widow, who certainly was deficient of any military experience. The war would be over in a few weeks, we convinced ourselves.
Excerpted from timbuktu chronicles by Anthony Nana Kwamu Copyright © 2010 by Anthony Nana Kwamu. Excerpted by permission.
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