Precolonial West Africa against a backdrop of gods and magic.
"Emuakpor craftily weaves fascinating characters, facts, and folklore together into a riveting adventure steeped in African culture." —Publisher’s Weekly
Amina is heir apparent to the throne of Zazzau and must prove herself worthy of the crown. As foreign invaders close in on them, she is the only thing standing between her people and their destruction. Caught in a web of prophecies and intrigue, she must defend Zazzau, but cannot do so if she wants to prevent the future that was foretold. She did not seek war; it found her. Unwilling to be the plaything of gods or men and determined to take control of her own destiny, she tracks down the god of war himself. But has her destiny already been written? Can she choose her own fate? And can she protect her kingdom, no matter what price she must ultimately pay? Because, gods always want something in return.
Queen of Zazzau chronicles the journey of real-life West African queen, Amina of Zazzau. At a time when the Songhai Empire is waning and the Kanem-Bornu still dominate a vast swath of the African continent, smaller kingdoms are rising to prominence through conquest and expansion. Foreign invasion is imminent and Amina must defend her people. Does she have the power to protect their sovereignty or will she lead her people to their downfall?
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Rizga, Eastern Mountain Kingdoms, Southern Hausaland, circa 1557 CE
The smell of smoke wafted toward us like a malicious spirit. Burning grass — a field or thatched roofs — and something else that I did not recognize. When at last the city gates came into view, they were sundered, ripped from the wall and crumpled on the ground like tattered mats. Grey pillars of smoke rose from the city beyond. The odor, growing stronger as we neared, stoked revulsion in me. Its sharp taste constricted my throat.
"Bodies." Jaruma turned to me. She was my personal guard and companion. "The smell is burning flesh."
Aghast, I covered my mouth with my hand.
The madawaki, commander of my mother's cavalry, raised a fist above his head, and the steady clop of a thousand mounted bowmen — Kuturun Mahayi — drew to a halt behind us. Vultures' calls pierced the silence.
"Stay with Gimbiya Amina," the madawaki commanded Jaruma. Turning to his troop, he gave additional orders.
Twenty warriors galloped into the smoldering city, leaving the rest behind with Jaruma and me. They formed a living wall around us, each man alert on his mount, bow at the ready. And we waited. All was quiet but for the sounds of scavengers.
Jaruma peered out from between the men.
"What's happening?" I asked.
She didn't answer. Her fingers tapped impatiently on her thigh, as though aching to have a weapon in their grip. Over and over, she drummed a nervous rhythm while straining to see past the Kuturun Mahayi blocking her view.
After an interminable time, the madawaki and his men exited the shattered city gates.
"Rizga is devastated," he said, his horse fidgeting. "Survivors are mostly the aged and infirm."
"Who has done this?" I choked back the mounting fear.
"You must be taken to safety, Gimbiya."
"Who did it?"
My heart dropped. "Kwararafa?" I couldn't keep the quaver from my voice.
A newly risen plague on the savanna, Kwararafa was a kingdom built on the methodical subjugation of nations. They plundered city upon city to increase their empire. None who stood against them in battle lived on as a people.
Something evasive in the madawaki's manner, the way he looked past me, his eyes scanning the distant peaks, told me that he'd not been entirely forthcoming.
"What are you not saying?" I asked.
He ignored my question. "Jaruma, take the gimbiya to safety."
"Tell me!" I grabbed his horse's bridle.
His quiet scrutiny, which was difficult to endure at the best of times, fell on me. During my tenure as one of a scant few female soldiers in his cavalry, before my mother, Queen Bakwa, cut short my training, I had been subject to his orders. That was evident by the way he looked at me now. Although I traveled this day as the queen's representative, I wilted under the intense gaze of his coal-black eyes.
Subdued, I said, "Please, Madawaki."
An internal debate played across his dark face, deepening the furrow in his brow. Unlike most of the Kuturun Mahayi, he wore no headwrap, only a small white cap. After more than a week of travel, a layer of bristle covered his usually smooth head and face — black hair, interspersed with grey.
At length, he said, "They've made for Zazzau."
"What?" I had heard, but the words did not make sense.
"Go with Jaruma."
"But how can that be?" I asked. "We would have seen signs of a war band on our way here. Who told you this?"
"A man dying in the streets."
The man must have been mistaken. Or the madawaki had misunderstood. They couldn't possibly be going to Zazzau.
I said, "Where is he? Let him tell me himself."
"He is dead, Gimbiya."
Feeling my tension, my horse drew back. The madawaki's horse, its bridle still firmly in my grip, also shifted.
"They must be moving across the hills," he said, casting his eyes to the distant peaks. "And they possess powers we've never encountered."
"What powers?" My eyebrows rose. "You mean magic?"
"Call it what you will. The Kwararafa attack like biting flies — invisible until they strike. They came down on Rizga without warning. No one saw them before the raid. No one knew they were near."
Cold panic formed in the pit of my stomach, but I kept it under control. "Then I must return to Zazzau."
"You will not." The madawaki and Jaruma spoke as one.
"No!" Even the tall savanna grass bowed at the madawaki's voice. "You will be kept safe."
I stiffened. "You no longer command me, Madawaki."
"The queen commands me, and I am commanded to protect you. You'll not return to Zazzau."
My hand flew from the bridle to his arm. "I will not linger amidst this carnage!"
My mother had sent me to Rizga on a mission of friendship. I was the chief administrator of two provinces in Zazzau and well versed in conflict and diplomacy, but I wasn't prepared for this. My role here was to extend a hand to our neighbor in the east, to negotiate fair tariffs and the exchange of goods. Thanks to the Kwararafa, our neighbor no longer existed.
"You will not leave me here," I said.
"The city is safe," he replied. "You and Jaruma, along with the men I can spare, will go into the city. The Kwararafa have finished their business." His nostrils flared in disgust. "You're safer here."
Without a care for whom he was manhandling, he seized my fingers and wrested them from his arm. "Do as I command."
The tone of his words and the intensity in his eyes forced my obedience. As I looked on in impotent dismay, the madawaki doled out orders. If my time serving under him had taught me nothing else, it had taught me that once he made a decision, he would not be swayed. He would never allow me to ride back with him, and now I dared not go on my own.
He huddled with Jaruma, lips moving, forehead pressed against hers. Even on horseback, his height made Jaruma's six feet look small. Despite their age difference, her dark skin and features mirrored his and lent them both a strange beauty. Seeing them together like that, I realized that my own sibling was in danger. Zariya and I were not close like Jaruma and her brother, but we were fond of one another. Zariya was my blood, a part of me. I needed to protect her, yet here I was. Powerless.
The madawaki pulled away from Jaruma. I thought I should say something more, offer him a prayer, wish him all speed back to our people ... anything. But I did nothing, merely hung back as the bowmen rode off, kicking up stones and dirt.
"Come, Gimbiya." Jaruma rode toward me. "Let's go into the city. There are people who need our aid."
"My mother needs my aid," I said dully. "Who will help her?"
"The Kwararafa are on foot. The Kuturun Mahayi will soon intercept them."
"Intercept them?" I looked at her, incredulous.
The Kwararafa Empire lay beyond the impassable mountain ranges, but clearly they had found a way to march an army through them. Not only had they mastered the treacherous mountain passage, they managed to travel unseen by the plains dwellers in open savanna.
"They crept out of those peaks and decimated the city without so much as a whisper," I said.
"But now we know they're coming." Her voice was steady, but I knew her well enough to see the misgiving in her eyes.
I let out a shaky breath, my gaze darting westward to Zazzau.
When rumors of the Kwararafa first surfaced, I had wanted to expand our forces, but my mother had refused. She believed that because we had pushed back the mighty Songhai, we had no reason to fear the Kwararafa. And what evidence did I have to support my assertions? Besides, calling in the mere one thousand bowmen that had accompanied me on this journey had raised the council's ire. They would have expressed an even deeper dissatisfaction had the queen been inclined to recall the entire army back to the city. During peacetime, no less.
But peace was a fickle thing. And while my mother made every effort to meet hostility with diplomacy, the Kwararafa met diplomacy with slaughter.
"You must have faith, Gimbiya," Jaruma said firmly. "My brother has never failed me. He has never failed Zazzau. The Kuturun Mahayi will stop them."
I prayed she was right.
The madawaki had left me fifty mounted bowmen and Jaruma, who now took command. We advanced into the city at her order, smoke billowing thick around us, the odor more acrid than before. Even with my veil pulled tight over my nose and mouth, the smoke coated my throat. Every cough burned. The others, similarly veiled, did not appear so afflicted. They moved quietly through the smoke, past burning houses, past the dead, who lay scattered, flies buzzing about their corpses. The bodies of children, small children, lay motionless among the adults. My stomach retched at the sight, but nothing came up.
"They killed the children," I murmured to myself.
I tried to avert my gaze from the tiny, lifeless forms, but death surrounded me. Men and women struck down, fear forever frozen on their faces. I looked upon the dead bodies and remembered Zariya's prediction — the oracular dream that had compelled my mother to end my military training: The carcasses of men litter the fields. Had she been referring to these carcasses? If so, she had failed to mention the women and children.
"They kill everyone," said Danladi, the soldier who rode to my left.
The stories that preceded the Kwararafa claimed that those who survived an attack were either too old to be bothered with or too well hidden when the enemy swept through their lands. Picking our way through the massacre at Rizga, I saw that the stories were true. To have believed that the people capable of such horror would hesitate to bring this butchery to Zazzau had been nothing short of folly.
Danladi looked around in disgust. "They've neither the need nor the desire for prisoners. They kill everyone."
"Not everyone," Jaruma said as a woman's wailing cut the air. She raised her voice. "I need five of you. The rest, find the survivors and bring them to the palace. Gimbiya, come with me."
I rode through the smoke, telling myself that my people would be safe, that my family would be unharmed. After all, nine hundred and fifty Kuturun Mahayi would be there in a matter of days. But it had taken us eight days to reach here from Zazzau. The men and their horses were travel weary. What if the Kwararafa, riding whatever power they rode, reached Zazzau first? What if the enemy made it to the capital? What then?
"There." Jaruma interrupted my anxious thoughts before they roamed too deeply into darkness. "Palace compound."
The royal palace stood at the center of the city, much of it destroyed. From what remained, I saw that it had been a marvelous structure built with large adobe blocks. The outer walls were not high, but they looked about two meters thick. On this side of the compound, two walls overlapped so that, although there was no gate, the gap between adjacent walls was only wide enough for a single person to enter at a time. We dismounted here, securing our horses to iron pegs set into the wall, before entering the compound.
Though I'd known what to expect, I was unprepared for the sight of yet more slaughtered people. This time, when my abdomen clenched, I doubled over and vomited onto the scorched ground.
"Find the wells," Jaruma shouted over the roar of the fire, and five men rushed to do her bidding. Her hand dropped to my shoulder. "It will pass."
It did pass, as my revulsion turned to anger then back to fear for Zazzau. After removing the bodies and dousing the flames, we saw the full extent of the devastation. The iron gate at the main entrance, opposite the way we'd entered, lay partially atop the smashed gatehouse. The Kwararafa had set fires inside each of the cylindrical dwellings. The largest dwelling — presumably the king's quarters — at the center consisted of several conjoined buildings. The front-middle building was smallest, followed in size by the two flanking buildings, then the rear-middle. Having never traveled more than a day's ride from the borders of Zazzau, I had never seen such irregular architecture. The lack of conformity may once have imparted an exotic beauty to the overall structure; but today, it too had burned from the inside out, and — like the gatehouse — its walls were smashed. Only the king's pavilion, a large three-walled structure with a heavy thatched roof, remained intact.
By late day, the survivors of Rizga — silent as the dead, frightened, and in shock — clung to each other in the pavilion.
"Who among you is of able body?" Jaruma asked.
A few people looked up at her with empty eyes, but no one replied. Then several young boys came forward. The tallest spoke.
"We were in the fields when they came." Tracks of tears streaked through the soot covering his face. "Had we known, we would have returned." He lowered his head. "Before it was too late."
"If you had returned," Jaruma said, "you'd be among the dead."
"I'd have died honorably, fighting alongside my father."
"There's no shame in your survival. The Creator has other plans for you."
"What plan does Ubangiji have that my whole family should die? My sister was only a baby. Did the Creator not have a plan for her? And my brothers?"
"It's not for us to question the ways of gods. For now, we must bury the fallen."
She spoke privately with a handful of soldiers, who gathered up the young boys and led them out of the palace compound.
"What of me?" I asked. Worry for my people would drive me mad. Pulling well water had done nothing to refocus my thoughts. I needed to set my mind and idle hands to a more challenging task.
"You and I will attend the living," she said. "See to their wounds. Prepare food."
I nodded and went about my assigned duty.
Among the wounded, only a few had minor injuries, and these were quickly addressed. The rest were beyond our help; we did what we could to keep them comfortable.
For food, some chickens roamed the city, but the process of feather plucking proved too onerous a task for that day. Although a few market stalls still stood, the Kwararafa had made off with the best edibles. So, we raided what remained of the Rizgawa grain stores and made a meal of cooked millet. It was not a satisfying dinner, but fatigue and despair didn't let anyone complain.
After eating, we took turns washing with water from the palace wells. Then, one by one, we crashed onto the earthen floor of the pavilion. Sleep came quickly.CHAPTER 2
I heard my name and opened my eyes to darkness.
"Amina." The voice was like a stream bubbling over a bed of stones.
Looking this way and that, I saw nothing but the blackness beyond. "Who calls?" I asked.
"It is me."
Grey light filtered through the darkness like the first rays of dawn dispersing a fog. I sat in a forest unlike any I had ever seen. Dark tree trunks rose like giants around me, their canopy lost in the heavens.
"Here." The voice came from somewhere near my foot.
I looked down and saw a tiny spring gurgling from the earth.
"Do you not recognize me?" the voice asked, but there was no one present. The words had come from the spring.
I stared intently at the water. Small bubbles floated from the bottom, increasing in size as they ascended and broke through the surface. From each bursting bubble came the sound of cascading laughter.
"Kogi-Ayu?" I said uneasily.
Stories abounded of the temperamental rivergod. As Kogi, he provided life water to the soil and to the people who toiled it; but as Ayu, he was wicked and drowned any who entered his demesne. Cautious, I scooted away from the water.
"You know me now, Amina?"
"I know you." I glanced around for higher ground. "Why have you come to me?"
"The Kuturun Mahayi have overtaken your enemy."
My head fell forward in relief. "Then Zazzau is saved."
"Your enemy is unseen and will come upon your people under shroud of darkness and cloak of magic," he said. "Zazzau is doomed."
My breath caught.
"Unless ..." Kogi-Ayu paused and the babbling spring went still.
"Unless?" I exhaled.
"Unless you, Amina, save them."
"Destiny demands it."
The Oracle had decreed that I travel to Rizga instead of my mother's usual representatives. That same Oracle had then demanded that I travel with one thousand Kuturun Mahayi.
"What does the Oracle say I should do?" I asked.
"Destiny," Kogi-Ayu corrected. "They are not one and the same."
"Destiny and the Oracle are not the same." The tight, deliberate flow of words indicated the rivergod's impatience.
I moved farther away from the spring. "What does Destiny say I should do?"
"Destiny says you should save your people."
How could I save them? The closest I had ever come to battle was a fight with Jaruma. I could spar with and had sometimes beaten some of Zazzau's finest warriors, but good swordsmanship didn't make me a savior.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Queen of Zazzau"
Copyright © 2018 Jem Scott-Emuakpor.
Excerpted by permission of Mugwump Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I. Queen Of Zazzau,
II. Queen Of Zazzau,
III. Queen Of Zazzau,