THE MADNESS OF THE MANSA



THE MADNESS OF THE MANSA, by Cullen Groves

One summer night, a great storm arose over the western ocean, and many citizens and sailors in the port of Asongai told how they had seen the demons of madness walking the black winds in the darkness. The gales made wrack of the galleys in the harbor, and many a ship-owner suffered the storm’s wrath, and yet it had howled itself out by morning.

When the royal servants entered the Mansa’s apartments that dawn, they found him already awake and deep in the tides of an evil mood. They entered to dress him in silence, wary of his anger.

The chief servant drew the Mansa up to stand naked and blackly gleaming in the morning light before a great window. Then his servants bathed him with water poured from silver ewers and with sponges harvested from the nearby coasts. After that, they wrapped the Mansa’s body in robes, and one of the younger servants began to hum under his breath as he drew a belt about the Mansa’s waist. The youth even sang quietly to himself as he helped to drape the royal leopard-skin mantle over the Mansa’s shoulders. It was an old song, a traditional song, sung by the men of the river tribes as they plied oars on the streams.

The Mansa’s scowl broke, and a smile creased the corners of his mouth as he listened.

Emboldened, the young man ceased his song and said, ‘How magnificent you are today, great Mansa!’

At that, the Mansa’s glower returned, darker than before. He thrust the youth from his side with a stiff arm, and sent the young man sprawling. Then the Mansa spoke, with a voice like breaking thunder, and said, ‘This man offends me with his clapping tongue, like ill-tuned bells that clatter out their din; so get him gone, in fetters clap his wrists, and let him sing for freedom in the mines.’

‘Please lord!’ the youth cried, crawling toward the Mansa on his knees. ‘Forgive my chattering, I beg you!’

But before he could reach out to grasp the Mansa’s knees in supplication, the other servants hauled him up and bore him away in silence, leaving only their chief in the Mansa’s presence.

The Mansa’s frown deepened. He gathered the leopard pelt around his shoulders. Without a word, he beckoned for his chief servant to follow him to court.

The broad courtyard lay open to the sky, its walls covered in gold lattices like the intertwining boughs of locust trees from the savannah, while pairs of trees flanked each of the three doorways. The courtiers of Asongai had already gathered there, along with crowds of supplicants from the city, and others from the neighboring tribes of fishermen and herdsmen. The courtiers and the city-men stood together gossiping, while the tribesmen crouched in silence; but as the Mansa entered through a wide archway, every voice was hushed.

The Mansa took his seat in the only chair, situated on a wide, stepped dais against the northern wall. His chief servant sat at his feet. To the Mansa’s right hand stepped his executioner, with a broad ceremonial sword, while his herald came to stand at his left, with a leopard-headed staff.

Then the herald stepped forward to address the court, but the Mansa forestalled him with his own voice, which rolled forth like a pealing storm.

Ye subjects I command, now hear my will, that each shall henceforth speak in metered verse, in measured phrases marking out his words, to lend some beauty to this ugly place. Too long I’ve listened to the flatterers and courtiers with crooked tongues crab truth as if the bones of meaning are the form of language, though they lack the living flesh of sinews and the muscles that give strength, and by expressing less than living truth they lie. No more! I would but truth-songs hear.’

The tribesmen applauded, while the courtiers and the citizens stood in shocked silence.

‘But who can be bothered to learn the old meters?’ one of the courtiers cried out.

The Mansa gestured to his chief servant, who directed others of the household to drag the offending courtier out through the gates of the court. When others complained, the chief servant had them hauled away as well.

Then the tribesmen came forward. They couched their supplications in the meters of the old heroic songs, and they got their hearings, and the boon of justice, too.

And the Mansa smiled.

 

II.

More than half the ivory of the world changed hands in Asongai, carried there by camel caravans across the deserts and savannahs to the south and east. There was also much gold there, and slaves, salt, and diamonds. All these things were shipped east from Asongai, through the Pillars of Malqar, to the Aulorad and the cities beyond.

The native men of Asongai and the local tribes were black skinned, but merchants and ship-owners from every nation flocked to their rich harbor. It was not unusual, therefore, to see such a pair as ebony-skinned Draba and sun-burned Mendax walking together in seek of a wine-tavern. Draba stood huge, half again as tall as his companion, and he moved with a restrained power that Mendax lacked. He wore the open shirt and simple trews of a seaman, with a long knife thrust through his belt, while Mendax wore the sword and black cloak of a mercenary soldier.

Draba’s face contorted into a dark scowl as he and Mendax conversed in the Koine, a tongue from far to the east, and foreign to Asongai.

‘I tell you, I don’t trust the man,’ Draba said. ‘I’ve walked into enough ambushes, and I know that Aska thinks I stole my goods from others on the sea.’

‘Didn’t you?’ Mendax asked.

Draba crossed his arms over his breast as he towered over Mendax. ‘What does it matter how I get my gold, if it gleams the same?’

‘Because stolen goods can be seized by force, and only a third given to the Mansa–and acquisition by the sword is cheaper than by gold.’

‘That’s why I need you,’ Draba said. ‘You and I together could sell ourselves dearer than is worth any hoard.’

‘I know I’m worth a talent or two in silver,’ Mendax said. ‘But you?’

Draba laughed, his white teeth flashing in sudden contrast with his skin. ‘You were always full of jokes,’ he said, and clapped Mendax on the shoulder. ‘I’ve never lost a fight.’

Mendax halted and pointed to the low entrance of a tavern, flanked by a pair of lion statues. ‘There it is, the Lion’s Den. They have good wine there–not just that local swill.’ Even Mendax would have to stoop through the low archway.

‘But how shall we deal with the faithlessness of Aska?’ Draba asked.

Mendax threw up his hands. ‘Enough!’ he cried. ‘Turn your mind to wine, for now. Wine is never unfaithful.’

Draba’s smile widened. ‘Lead on,’ he said, and Mendax led him to the low door. They had to duck through, Draba bending almost double, and passed through an antechamber with benches along either wall, on which lodgers could sleep. After that, they stepped into a courtyard open to the sky where tables had been set out on one side for foreigners and merchants. Four trees spread their boughs over the court from the corners, while other archways around the courtyard led into chambers where local wine fermented alongside imported amphorae.

A number of Asongai locals crouched together in the open dirt on one side, dressed in simple robes and sharing wine that they drank directly from a goatskin. Another group sat at one of the tables, and they were dressed in finery of silks and wore gold on their fingers and around their necks. They had a bowl of wine in the middle of their table, and dipped cups into it when they wanted more. Silence fell over the tavern as Draba and Mendax entered.

‘That’s what we want,’ Mendax said, pointing to the bowl of wine. He and Draba took the table closest to the door, and chatter resumed in the local tongue as they settled themselves.

Draba smirked as he heard the talk. ‘It seems the Mansa–the king here–has gone mad,’ he reported to Mendax.

But the smaller man beckoned to a servant of the wine-tavern, a man dressed in a simple loincloth. He approached and bowed low to Mendax, but then stood with his face contorted in confusion as he listened to Mendax mangle the local language.

‘Damn this tongue!’ Mendax said in the Koine as he saw the servant smirk. ‘Ask the man for a bowl of wine, Draba–the stuff from the Aulorad.’

Draba laughed and slapped his palm down on the table. ‘I’d almost rather watch you flounder,’ he said. ‘But I am thirsty.’ He turned to the servant and ordered a bowl of wine in Asongan.

The servant bowed again and turned to fetch the wine, while a smirk flashed across his face. Moments later, he returned with a companion, bearing between them a deep bowl of bronze, two silver cups, a clay ewer of water, and a krater of wine. ‘You pay–I ordered it,’ Draba said. ‘They want a bracelet of cowries. I think two silver pennies should cover it.’

Mendax laid the coins on the table; the servants didn’t leave until he’d placed a third with the others. Then they bowed, took the silver, and left the two to their wine.

Mendax poured the wine out into the bowl, but neither he nor Draba moved to mix in the water. ‘The Bull-God be thanked!’ Mendax said as he dipped his cup into the wine and then poured its contents out to the dust behind him. ‘Now let’s drink.’ He refilled his cup, but scowled as he sipped it. ‘This isn’t worth three pennies. Those bastards cheated us.’

‘You sounded a fool with your chattering,’ Draba said with a grin.

He dipped his own cup into the wine with an invocation to the goddess of the vines. Then he and Mendax drank for a while in silence, content to listen to the low babble of the Asongans speaking, and to look around the courtyard. The red clay walls had been painted with white figures in a stylized dance, while birds hopped through the leaves and branches above, adding their songs to the babble of voices.

‘So,’ Draba began as he dipped his cup for more wine. ‘Come now, Mendax. Why don’t you fight for me? You’re good with a sword–almost as good as I am. And your strategy is better. I’ll give you a captain’s share, if you join with me. Help me against Aska!’

Mendax shook his head. ‘I’m contracted with the Hunter’s Girdle. I never renege on a contract.’

‘Aren’t you sick of slavery?’ Draba asked. ‘Slave of Anaxes, slave of the wars, of contracts, and in the gladiator pits? But a life at sea is freedom–autarcheia.‘  He whispered the word, as if it were a sacred taboo, and fixed his eyes past Mendax as if looking over the grey horizons of the sea. He breathed deeply. ‘I tell you, the salt sea air tastes better on your own ship, steering where you wish. With your hand on the tiller–‘

‘I’m not a slave!’ Mendax interrupted. He hid his right hand from view in the black folds of his cloak, where Anaxes’ name was tattooed from of old. ‘I have freedom as a mercenary, to go where I wish.’

Draba shook his head and leaned back. ‘You are strange to me, Mendax. On the day we escaped from the fighting-pits together, I swore that I would never fight or kill for another man again–only for myself! Yet you go off and sell your sword for other men’s wars.’

A smile quirked Mendax’s lips. ‘But you are a pirate and a criminal, while I am a respectable fighting-man,’ he said.

“I am a respectable merchant!’ Draba roared back. ‘I may have some unorthodox means–but you are a weasel.’ And then in verse, he said, ‘You sneaking weasel, supple like a snake–you spineless vermin, creeping through the halls, and birthing lies by gaping wide your mouth!’

Mendax meditated a moment before responding, ‘And you, a jackal, prowling through the night–you dog-heart, sniffing bitches out, why howl? If you want faith, just flash your coin at whores.’

A smirk crossed Draba’s lips. ‘This weasel makes his home in others’ walls, and in his mouth he carries far and wide the offspring of his evil tongue, false words conceived by falsehoods uttered in his ears.’

I’d rather be a polecat in the house, half-tolerated, than a jackal cur who in the garbage finds his foetid feasts, ere driven off by shouts and arrows sharp,’ Mendax returned. He drained his wine and dipped his cup for more, and Draba followed suit.

But when Draba opened his mouth to reply, one of the Asongans at the table distracted him. The man stood up and thrust a gold-ringed finger at Draba, speaking suddenly in the Koine. ‘You are man of verse and poetry!’

‘Me?’ Draba replied, raising his brows. He exchanged a glance with Mendax.

‘You!’ the Asongan said. ‘Not that pale-faced weasel. Will you share words with me?’

Draba laughed as Mendax flushed. He stood up and stepped over to the Asongan and his fellows, leaving the mercenary to his wine and chagrin.

‘Do you speak Asongan?’ the man asked in the local tongue when Draba stood beside him.

‘I know it,’ Draba replied in the same tongue.

‘Good!’ the man said, and his fellows nodded among themselves. ‘Sit, drink. I am Bukra, a great man of this city. Drink, I say! I wish to talk business with you.’

Draba drank the last of his wine. ‘I am Draba,’ he said. ‘Draba of Hilakkia.’

‘Good!’ Bukra said. ‘A foreigner. It is better that way.’ He nodded, and his entourage did the same, and sipped silently at their wine.

‘What business would you have with me?’ Draba asked.

‘The Mansa of Asongai is mad,’ Bukra said. ‘He has decreed that only verse may be spoken in his court. There can be no justice, because only poets can speak, and poets know nothing of law.’

‘I know many cities where poets keep the laws,’ Draba said. ‘That is not madness, unless half the world is mad.’

Bukra scowled. ‘But Asongai is a city where books keep the laws,’ he said. ‘Now listen. I am a great man in this city–a wise man!–I have increased my fortunes, from a mere half-share in a galley to owning a whole fleet of ships. I have done this on my own wit!’ He paused and looked around at his companions, and they nodded agreement.

‘I wished to bring suit to the Mansa that I should be made governor of the salt mines at Azagouc,’ Bukra continued. ‘The old governor is dead, and I could increase its output tenfold times, as I have increased my own wealth. The profits would redound on the Mansa. But I am a simple man. I know no verse. If I were to bring suit before him, I would be cast out in shame.’

Draba smiled. ‘And you need a man who knows verse,’ he observed.

‘Such a man could speak for me,’ Bukra said, nodding. ‘My profits would be his profits.’

‘It is tempting,’ Draba said. ‘But I have no say in the courts of Asongai. I am a foreigner.’

‘Indeed,’ Bukra said. ‘But an unrecognized man might be claimed as a nephew, and the Mansa would be no wiser to it.’

A mountain heaped of silver, hills of gold, might any man make tremble in his knees–but if he’s prudent, takes a small cut first, and after that returns for promised wealth.’

The Asongans applauded and raised their cups of wine to Draba. Bukra’s smile was the broadest, brightly white, while from his wrists he removed seven golden bracelets. ‘Here is your first cut, Draba of Hilakkia,’ Bukra said. ‘Spend it on wine, or women, or whatever you wish. But come to my household tomorrow, and I will dress you in silks and gold. Then you will be called Camba of Gaoa.’

Draba laughed and raised his cup to the Asongans, and drank it down. Then he stood, and collected the bracelets from Bukra. With a bow, he returned to Mendax’s side.

‘What did they want?’ Mendax asked. He had begun to glower, for he had finished half the bowl of wine to himself.

‘A poet,’ Draba said, and laughed. ‘Cheer up! Let’s drink, and I will tell you.’ He called for another krater of wine and a roasted goat, and he paid with a half of a golden bracelet, hacked in two by his knife.

 

III.

Unlike many of the merchant princes of Asongai, who preferred to live far from the noise of the wharves and ware-hawkers, Bukra maintained his household near the harbor, not far from his warehouses or from the market square itself.

The house had been built along lines similar to the Lion’s Den, but on a grander scale. When Draba arrived, Bukra had him dressed in the finest silks, and in the pelt of a lion killed on the southern savannah, all of which Bukra bought with his vast wealth. From his own hoards, he arrayed Draba’s strong neck and arms in torcs of gold, and Draba’s fingers with glittering jewels. Bukra even bought the Hilakkian a fine heavy kopis with gilded hilts, because such a clean-limbed man looked naked without a sword.

Bukra called it an investment, and stinted nothing on Draba’s appearance. ‘I will make back tenfold times what I spend on you, if you will only win me the rights to the mines at Azagouc,’ he said as he surveyed the effect of the lion skins on Draba’s broad shoulders.

Draba noted the appraisal, and rolled his shoulders so that the lion skin cloak rippled around his muscles. Bukra clapped his hands in delight. With his black form draped in silks and pelts, Draba could easily pass as an Asongan.

Bukra continued, ‘While I farm the Mansa’s quotas, I will pocket everything else for myself–and cut you in as well. I will break rods of iron on the backs of my slaves, if I must, to ensure endless caravans of salt!’

With a grim smile, Draba intoned, ‘Their backs made raw, and hands worked down to bone; from blood flows silver, life transformed to wealth.’

‘Good!’ Bukra cried. ‘It is good that I found you–good for both of us, as we shall both be richer for it. Camba, my nephew, how great you have grown! What does Udrash, my dearest half-brother, feed you in Gaoa?’

‘The marrow of elephants, uncle,’ Draba replied with a sly smile.

They clasped each other in a mock-familial hug. Then, as they stepped back, each burst forth in laughter, Draba’s deep and rolling, while Bukra crowed his delight.

But when Bukra fell silent, he looked again on Draba-cum-Camba, and tapped his own lips with his ringed fingers. ‘How very handsome,’ he said. ‘And yet, something is missing. Ah!’ He snapped his fingers. ‘A prince needs an entourage of slaves. We will go now to buy and outfit such an entourage. Tomorrow we will attend the Mansa at his court.’

Then Bukra led Draba into the city, toward the market, and Draba went as Camba, arrayed in the magnificence of his new robes. An escort of slaves walked around them, carrying parasols to keep off the heat of the late afternoon sun. With Bukra and his entourage at his side, Draba seemed indeed like a prince of the land.

They walked west, and passed through a crowd of women returning from the river Ambla with bundles of laundry on their heads. The river bounded the city to the west, and the women came from its banks, singing in a babble that rose like the song of the mountain streams. They bowed to Draba as they passed, as if he were a lord of the city.

In the market, they saw the stalls of merchants from a hundred nations, hawking wares in the Koine, in Asongan, and other tongues. In the midst, over the Executioner’s Stone, the bodies of the worst criminals–sorcerers and witches of black magic, and pirates, and traitors against the Mansa–were hanged, pecked at by the black beaks of buzzards.

They continued on, and Bukra led Draba to a great estate that Bukra identified as Tanthamas’ house. The plan of its structure resembled others in Asongai, with chambers arrayed around interconnected courtyards, but inside lay much that had come across the seas from foreign shores. In the first antechamber stood a pool of still water, with a bearded sea-god and his daughter-nymphs depicted together in mosaic at its bottom.

Tanthamas himself had come from distant lands to partake in the universal trade far from his native city. As dark as the men of Asongai, he had nevertheless come out of the mountains of Kash in the east, and he greatly admired the men of Lavus, Nera, and the other great trading cities across the seas.

He and Bukra embraced as cousins, and then Bukra introduced him to Draba, using the Koine. ‘Here is my nephew, Camba, come up from Gaoa and wealthy with salt-money,’ Bukra said, sweeping his arms to indicate Draba. ‘But he comes without slaves, for his household was delayed by a siroc in the desert crossing.’

‘How unfortunate,’ Tanthamas declared, turning to Draba. ‘Shall a man live without slaves to carry a parasol over him? Must he lead his own camels? But it is fortunate that Bukra is your uncle, for he has brought you to me, and I have many slaves.’

‘We want strong men,’ Bukra said. ‘Men with strong backs, who can bear my nephew’s baggage across the deserts without collapsing.’

Tanthamas nodded, and showed them a number of slaves whom he was willing to sell, men from the black kingdoms of southern Binan, and others from the Aulic tribes across the northern seas. But Bukra pointed out six young men from Makesh who had been captured by the Mansa’s warriors in a recent battle at Ashawa. He bought them all for the price of three bolts of silk and two camels.

‘These will serve as your entourage at the Mansa’s court,’ Bukra explained to Draba when they had come forth from Tanthamas’ household. ‘And then, when you have won me the rights to the salt mines, they will dig salt from the desert, turning their strength into profits.’

Surveying the six young men, Draba nodded, smiling grimly. They had long and powerful frames, like younger visions of his own herculean stature. They could last many years laboring in the mines before they’d spent their strength. But they would also make fine warriors–if they were free.

 

IV.

When Bukra led Draba to the Mansa’s court, the watchmen at the gate demanded that Draba leave his new gilded kopis in the antechamber.

‘Shall I walk about, naked of arms?’ Draba growled.

‘All walk unarmed in the Mansa’s palace, save his own sworn men,’ Bukra whispered in Draba’s ear. Then, to the guards, he said, ‘Camba, my nephew, comes from Gaoa, where the law is less strict.’ He smiled ingratiatingly. But the watchmen did not let them pass until Draba had unbuckled the sword from his belt and surrendered it to them.

‘It was a fine blade,’ he lamented as Bukra led him to the Mansa’s court, while touching his hips to reassure himself that the pair of knives hidden under his robes there remained hidden.

They went, then, with their entourages and stood on the right-hand side of the courtyard with the other courtiers, merchants, and citizens of the city, who also wore silks and golden rings. On the other side of the court, tribesmen from the fishing villages mingled with nomadic goatherds, each dressed in his tribe’s traditional costume of loincloths or simple cloaks. Many crouched on their haunches rather than stand.

The Mansa sat above them all, on his great dais, with his chief servant, executioner, and herald around him. Leopard skins draped over the Mansa’s shoulders, and the head of a were-leopard, slain by his great-grandfather, lay over his right shoulder. The Mansa leaned forward with his chin resting on one hand, and his eyes stared around without blinking. They had grown dark, and many said that he could not sleep at night because of the troublous dreams that descended on him.

Nevertheless, The Mansa kept court, attending to the business of the land before the midsummer sacrifices, though it seemed that calls for justice had increased tenfold. The city-men clamored against the tribesmen of the hinterlands, claiming that they robbed and abused them because the tribesmen alone could sing the old meters to the Mansa, while the city-men fumbled at the formulae and were cast out.

The herald called supplicants forth in metered words, tapping his leopard-headed staff, and the supplicants knelt before the Mansa’s dais, and kissed the earth before him. They chanted their metered cases, as well as they could, and the Mansa listened, offering judgment only to those who spoke correctly. Meanwhile, the herald’s servants went among the crowd, asking men what business they had there, and always speaking in verse.

Draba had just spoken to one of these servants when the herald stepped forth and tapped his staff again. He cried, ‘Let bold Ganesa of the Iba tribe step forth, and to the Mansa sing his case!

A courtier stepped forth, a wide man dressed in orange robes and finely carved ivory trinkets. Before the Mansa’s dais, he and his dozen slaves fell to their knees as one, and bent to kiss the earth. Then Ganesa looked up to the Mansa and began haltingly, and in a trembling voice, ‘The Mansa sprawls like the sun … seated on the sky, and justice from his rich … mouth should be light for all … Like the lamps that even poor people … keep lighted in their pitiful hovels–at night; even last week the Mansa … made good rulings with his mouth–but now a man gets only darkness … from the sun while mean-hearted others–with knife-eyes take things and money–fishmongers from the Onga-tribe came … through the open doors of my house–

Here he paused, his lips moving as he murmured to himself to remember his poetry. Finally, he continued, ‘And they were rude and boasting … that they could sing away any charges–they took away my ivory … my gold, my silk, drank my wine–insulted my wives and daughters … and also broke many of my beautiful things–great, sprawling Mansa, will you not curse the Onga to be hanged at the Executioner’s Stone?’

A shout arose from the gathered tribesmen. They sprang to their feet. From their midst stepped a knot of men with thick beards and potbellies. They wore loincloths and goatskin cloaks, while bone bracelets rattled on their forearms as they shook their fists at Ganesa. They came forward and made obeisance before the Mansa, kissing the ground before his dais.

Only one from among them spoke, crying, ‘What slander’s this, against the Onga-tribe? The monkey chatters in his tree–he likes to hear himself insulting passersby, but when the leopard comes, he wisely stops, or else the panther kills his ceaseless tongue; shall humble fishermen invade and wrack a well-respected house like hungry dogs? Ganesa’s grievance is mere jealousy from one so long accustomed to receive false justice as a boon of flattery.

‘But they did!’ Ganesa cried. And his face fell as he saw the Mansa glower. ‘They invaded my house, and tore everything apart like dog-faced monkeys. Will you let them lie to you, because they speak the old meters?’

But the Mansa had turned his face from Ganesa, and the chief servant arose with a stern gaze. Rather than suffer indignity, Ganesa kissed the ground before the Mansa, and then fled back through the crowd of courtiers for the door, followed by his household men.

As the Mansa’s eyes turned away, his gaze fell on a man of magnificent figure, who stood beside Bukra, and overtopped the merchant-prince by head and shoulders. Before his herald could call the next supplicant, the Mansa leaned forward and beckoned to him. In a low voice, the Mansa said, ‘Who is it, stands at wealthy Bukra’s side? Go to, and learn his name and business here, for he is strange to me, and fain would I discover what has brought him to my court.

The herald replied quietly, ‘Already I have learned his purpose here; great Mansa, Camba is his name, and he from Gaoa-town has come to test his tongue by bringing Bukra’s suit for salt-mine rights.

So let him speak, and let us judge his tongue,‘ the Mansa said.

With a bow, the herald turned back to the gathered courtiers and tribesmen. ‘Let Camba, Bukra’s nephew, state his case!’ he cried.

The huge man at Bukra’s side flashed his teeth in a grin. With his six servants in tow, he approached the Mansa’s dais, and together they sank to their knees and kissed the ground there. Even in kneeling the man’s size was evident, like a dark lion crouched in the courtyard.

He did not speak with the accent of Asongai, but his mastery of its measures rolled from his lips: ‘O! Mansa, sun of justice, shed your light on all Asongai’s avenues of gold, and every man who walks the gilded streets. Some say the leopard’s pelt is beautiful, while in his heart is ugliness and night, but they are those who cannot see, he stalks in realms his own, unknown to mortal ken. Hear now, I beg, nor judge on mortal whim, good Bukra’s suit to oversee the salt of Azagouc; remember how the man was born in humbler days, possessed of sand, and yet, through skill, the grains within his hand transformed from grains of dust to hoards of gold. So too, the salt that in the desert lies will increase tenfold times and multiply your boundless wealth if placed in Bukra’s hold.

The Mansa leaned forward as he listened, appraising the man and his words as one. He smiled as Draba came to a close.

But before the Mansa could speak, the same man who had spoken for the Onga-men gave a wordless shout. He and his companions came forward, and fell on their knees before the Mansa at Draba’s left. The speaker was younger than his fellows, and had a long, lean build with only the beginnings of a patriarchal paunch. The patterns of ritual scars on his right upper arm recorded his wrestling victories, while no defeats marred his left arm.

He looked up to the Mansa for a long moment of silence, and then cried, ‘This ape of Gaoa comes with honeyed words, pretends the truth is fair while fair’s the form. But do not be deceived! He is an ape, a beast in human form, who on behalf of dog-faced Bukra clouds your mind with lies–that Bukra who our wealth sends overseas! Much better, Mansa, if the Idrash tribe regain their ancient holdings of the mines.

Draba laughed and almost immediately canted back, ‘If Bukra overseas sends desert salts, then too, he brings back distant wealth and wares, as if the desert sand itself were gold.’ He turned to gesture at the Onga-man. ‘This snake upon his belly crawls and speaks in subtle verses with his two-forked tongue. Will tribesmen of the desert share their wealth, or hoard it with their herds and goats?

The rest of the court fell silent. Even the Mansa raised his brows.

Though laden with the wealth of foreign lands, the ships of Bukra share it not with us,‘ the Onga-man declared. ‘To trust him with your gold is like to trust hyenas with the antelopes you’ve shot while hunting on the plains with arrows sharp.

Draba frowned as he replied, ‘Do serpents mandate what the Mansa wills, or does the man himself determine deeds? That snake winds sideways through the desert sands, and sidles up as if to meet a friend, but from his fangs the viper’s venom stings. Great Mansa, if you would the salt’s white gold made multiplied, to Bukra give this charge.’

The Onga-man leaped to his feet and turned on Draba with fists balled, but Draba only laughed.

I’ll suffer no hyena’s laughter shrill!’ the man cried.

Draba flexed, and his powerful muscles rippled under his lion skin cloak.

Be silent, and return ye to your posts!’ the Mansa declared, rising from his seat.

The Onga-man sank to his knees and again kissed the earth, before returning with his fellows to the other tribesmen. Draba and his servants withdrew more slowly, to stand again at Bukra’s side.

When things quietened, the Mansa continued, ‘My mind is yet divided on this thing; though justice seems to lie with Bukra’s claims, Idwara’s fears are more than meritless. So therefore, stay this argument, and hold your tongues until the morrow brings new light; but Camba, will ye not remain the night and test the Mansa’s hospitality? But rarely have I heard such sure exchange, and fain would I have further words with thee.’

Draba bowed low to this request, while the eyes of all the tribesmen burned as they looked on him.

Bukra clapped Draba’s shoulder. ‘I knew you were a good investment,’ he whispered, while the other courtiers and city-men murmured congratulations.

‘This is the first case that Idwara has not won outright,’ one of them whispered to Draba.

Meanwhile, the herald called another supplicant forward, and the court of the Mansa continued. But none could forget the presence of Draba, standing silently at Bukra’s side with a wide and close-lipped smile.

 

V.

The Mansa ended the business of his court shortly after noon, and devoted the rest of the day to his own pleasures, as was his habit. He repaired to his own chambers, where he would take a lunch of cold meat and chilled fruits. Then he would nap through the heat of the afternoon, or listen to his jalis sing, until in the fading light of the evening, he would bathe again, and prepare for the evening’s feast.

For there was invariably a feast every evening in the Mansa’s palace, except on certain sacred days when eating was taboo, or when the Mansa was away at war. If the royal hunters had caught and killed an elephant, the feast of its body could go on into the next dawn; but other nights, the fare was merely of antelope or water buffalo, and boiled yams and fried bread.

The royal household ate together, with the Mansa on his stepped dais, attended by his chief servant. On his right sat his sons, a dozen young men and boys, while on his left sat his wives–only five, though his court jalis remembered songs from the days when Mansa Zuwai feasted all fifty of his wives every night, and caused a famine in the land.

The rest of the household–the warriors of the Mansa’s personal troop, his captains, and his hunters–all sat on the open ground before the dais, and ate only after the Mansa had taken the first bite. The Mansa’s guests also ate on the open ground, in a place of honor just below the youngest of the Mansa’s sons, while jalis sat around the edges, each bent over the long neck of his harp-like kora.

Draba took the place of penultimate honor, and had Bukra sit on his left, as the most honored guest. The youngest of the Mansa’s sons, a child of seven years, looked away from Bukra with haughty indignance but Draba paid him no mind. His and Bukra’s servants knelt behind them in two rows.

‘What if we are rebuked?’ Bukra protested quietly to Draba in the Koine. ‘The tribesmen are well-honored in the court, now. They will send us down the line.’

Draba saw the Mansa’s dark glance their way as Bukra spoke without verse, even in the Koine. To Bukra, he said, ‘Stop braying like an ass and seat yourself; with this, our honor is assured, so hush!’ He brandished a papyrus scroll filled with clumsy writing, on which he and Bukra had worked all afternoon, and Bukra said no more.

Presently, the other guests and the Onga tribesmen arrived. The Onga-men glowered at Draba and Bukra, and Idwara’s dark eyes gleamed like sharp sword-points as they sought out Draba’s. But they relinquished their accustomed place and sat in silence. Idwara sat on Draba’s left; the two men found each other to be of like size.

When all were seated cross-legged on the ground before low tables, the jalis began to play and to sing together the old songs of the history of Asongai. Servants entered with platters bearing yams, bread, and roasted buffalo. These they placed on the low tables in reach of six men at a time, so that all might eat communally.

All awaited the Mansa to take the first bites. He sampled each of the dishes once, with an approving nod for each. Then the feast began in earnest. Everyone ate from the common platters, by tearing off strips of bread and grasping yams or steaming meat in the fold. Bukra, Draba, and the great men of the Onga-tribe all shared a platter; while Draba ate lustily, Idwara barely picked at the meal before them.

The Mansa ate well, but quickly. When he had finished, he sat back in silence and listened to the songs of the jalis. His eyes drifted especially over Draba, Idwara, and Bukra.

As Draba finished eating and sat back in satisfaction, the Mansa caught his eye, and gestured to him. He said, ‘Now come, great Camba of the silver tongue, will you not lift your voice in song for us, the Mansa of Asongai and his host?’

Draba bowed deeply and kissed the earth before him, while Idwara bristled at his side. The jalis ceased playing on their koras, looking on in curiosity at this man from whom the Mansa deigned request a song.

And when he straightened to look again at the Mansa, Draba said, ‘Give me a moment to compose myself, and I shall sing a foreign lay that comes from far across the frothing eastern seas, though canted to me on the desert sands.’

The Mansa nodded his head, and Draba produced the papyrus scroll from his robes. He unrolled its first section, revealing a jumble of clumsily drawn characters from the Koine, but which spelled out Asongan words.

Then Draba began to sing in a rolling voice, and the jalis accompanyied him with chords plucked out on the strings of their koras. He sang from the Aristiad, a little epic from the city of Corunax far away to the east on the coast of the Aulorad. He began with the ancient formula of the prologue, singing, ‘O! muses, sing to me of Corunax, and of Thersiteos’ evil deeds therein; and tell how he, a poor man of the town, by merely donning kingly purple robes, became at first an one of ancient line, and presently a tyrant slaked with blood; and how Aristeus, a noble son, would no more bide Thersiteos’ falsehoods crowned, but killed the tyrant with a dagger’s death–and though the slayer by a mob was slain, Aristeus’ virtues into stars were made, a constellation bright; now to my lied …

The Mansa listened intently as Draba continued into the first book, which concerned Thersitios’ less-than-honest acquisition of purple aristocratic robes. His eyes closed as Draba’s strong voice rolled through the courtyard, and a smile crossed his face.

As the Mansa’s eyes closed, one of his wives turned her eyes on Draba, and flashed a smile his way. She was not the youngest, yet possessed a self-assured beauty that shone brighter than the fresh faces of the two younger wives. Her eyes met Draba’s but a moment before she looked away and stilled her smile, but for that moment it seemed to Draba that a fire was kindled between them, and it burned under his skin. Nevertheless, he continued his song.

But Draba had not made it far beyond Aristeus’ disgust at the proclamation of Thersiteos’ kingship, when Idwara slammed a hand down on the table, upsetting the yams there and interrupting Draba midstride.

How can you listen to this liar’s verse?’ Idwara cried out, his eyes sweeping over all those assembled there before looking finally to the Mansa himself. ‘See what a poet’s silver tongue he has, that he recites his song from lifeless words, scratched out in ink on his papyrus scrolls! Just like a child, he has no grasp of verse, but epithets recalls from written cues.’

And see the adder all puffed up with pride, insulting others’ songs with venomed stings.’ Draba turned from Idwara toward the Mansa and continued, ‘Great Mansa, but a moon ago I heard this song, out on the sea of stretching sands–shall I be faulted, knowing not each line?’

A moon ago! How many weeks is that? And I could sing of ancient Sundi’s deeds, and not a week had passed since first I heard.’

The Mansa raised his hand, and silence fell again over the court. ‘Be still–let’s hear no more of this tonight. Ye jalis, sing one song before I rest.’ Servants returned to collect the platters and remaining food, while the jalis sang a mournful song about a lost hunter.

Draba rolled up the papyrus and returned it to his belt, while Bukra trembled at his side, and Idwara smiled to his fellows. But Draba affected stoic indifference as he glanced toward the Mansa’s third wife and wondered after her smile.

 

VI.

‘We are finished!’ Bukra cried in the Koine when he, Draba, and their entourage returned to their apartments. He cast himself down on some cushions on the floor. ‘Idwara has rebuked us, and the Mansa agreed with him.’  He jabbed one jeweled finger at Draba. ‘And you said that we should write it all out, the better to remember it!’

‘It seemed prudent at the time,’ Draba rumbled. ‘And the Mansa would have listened, if not for Idwara. Damn that man!’ Draba began to pace through the room, while Bukra sat, hunched over on the floor. The six young men of Draba’s retinue watched him in silence, while Bukra’s servants lay down to rest.

‘All my money is wasted,’ Bukra said. ‘You will pay me back everything–all the silk, all the rings on your hands, and these slaves too.’

‘Be quiet and let me think,’ Draba barked back, and Bukra before him. ‘We are not finished,’ Draba continued as he resumed pacing. ‘We need only present a better case in court on the morrow. And deal with Idwara, somehow.’ His eyes narrowed.

‘Why do you argue in a foreign tongue?’ one of Draba’s six slaves asked suddenly in Asongan. ‘Are you plotting against the Mansa, and afraid that he will hear?’ He turned to Draba. ‘Or is it because you are not really Asongan?’

Draba and Bukra fell silent and turned to regard the former warrior, who looked back without fear. His name was Iyawasu, and he had taken it on himself to act as chief of Draba’s servants.

‘Am I not of Gaoa?’ Draba finally replied, in Asongan.

‘The tongues of Gaoa and Asongai are the same,’ Iyawasu said. ‘Yet your accents are stranger than mine, though I am of Makesh. You are playing some trick on the Mansa, aren’t you?’

‘Perhaps,’ Draba said. ‘Does it matter to you?’

‘What do I care for the Mansa of Asongai?’ Iyawasu said. ‘He is not my mansa. I was only curious.’

‘We should have him killed,’ Bukra said in the Koine, pointing at Iyawasu with a trembling hand. ‘He is too clever for a slave!’

‘Don’t be an ass,’ Draba replied. ‘What does he care for the Mansa?’

Turning back to Iyawasu, Draba said in Asongan, ‘Say nothing of this to anyone, and perhaps I will buy your freedom from this goldmonger.’

Iyawasu nodded. He and the others murmured to each other in their own tongue, and then fell silent again, wearing expressions of stoic disregard.

Draba turned back to Bukra. ‘We will work out our arguments for the morning,’ he said. ‘And we will stay up all night to perfect them, if we must. You must also speak!’

Bukra passed a hand over his face, and when he looked back to Draba, greed shone in his eyes again. ‘It is good that I found you,’ he said. ‘You are like a bulwark against my fears.’

‘There!’ Draba said. ‘Already, he speaks in metaphor–now he only needs a sense of meter.’

Then he and Bukra began to work on their arguments, and stayed up late into the night. Draba demanded the details of Bukra’s claims, and the history of the mines, and how they had fallen out of the possessions of the Idrash tribe, to be farmed by the Mansa alone. All this, Draba wove them into metaphors and verse. Then he had Bukra recite everything back to him, over and again, until Bukra could intone everything from memory, however slowly.

But at last, Bukra began to yawn, and could no longer recall more than two lines for weariness. He lay down to sleep, as the slaves had already done, ignoring Draba’s protests as he did.

Only Draba remained awake, reciting endless variations of verse to himself in Asongan. But he started from this reverie at the rattling of the beads that hung as a curtain across the open doorway of the chamber. Draba saw that a small woman stood with her head poked through the beaded archway. She wore the simple robes of a servant of the palace, and as Draba looked up, she beckoned to him silently.

Draba arose and followed her into the corridor beyond, where they stood together in the night’s darkness. ‘My mistress Belecane, third wife of the Mansa, wishes to see Camba of Gaoa, and to test his tongue,’ she whispered to Draba through the shadows.

A close-lipped smile, invisible in the darkness, curved across Draba’s mouth. ‘Lead on,’ he said.

She led him through a maze of corridors until they passed finally into the cool of a courtyard open to the night sky, but unlike the Mansa’s royal court. Trees with the sword-like leaves, and other local plants filled the space. A musky-sweet scent on the air suggested flowering blooms under the boughs of the trees, but none could be seen in the night. Clouds had filled the sky since the evening feast, and they shrouded the stars and the moon in darkness.

‘Belecane awaits Camba there, under the locust trees,’ the servant whispered to Draba. Then she slipped from his side and faded into the night, leaving Draba alone at the edge of the garden.

Draba entered slowly. He felt at his side for his kopis out of habit–but the Mansa allowed none but his own guards to come armed into his palace. Draba was naked, except for the knives he had smuggled in with his baggage, but which remained in the apartments he shared with Bukra. His skin prickled as he stepped out into the shadow of the trees, remembering other secret meetings that had turned out to be ambushes.

A light rain began to fall, rattling on the leaves around him. Yet, despite the darkness, Draba didn’t fail to see the figure that arose in the shadows under the locust grove, a slim feminine figure.

‘Belecane?’ Draba asked quietly. Even half-whispered, his deep voice carried through the night.

‘Is that Camba of Gaoa?’ a woman’s voice returned.

‘It is he,’ Draba said.

The shadowed figure stepped from under the trees, and Draba recognized the third wife of the Mansa through the dim night. But he also saw another silhouette move behind her, someone as tall and as broad as Draba.

Draba stiffened, and recoiled as Belecane’s hands reached out for his. ‘Who else is here?’ Draba asked.

‘My eunuch, Feiraz,’ Belecane said, and Draba heard amusement in her voice. ‘My will is his will. He is only here to ensure your good behavior, Camba.’

‘Is that so?’ Draba said. He relaxed somewhat, and let Belecane take his hands. Hers were cool and soft, and he felt her fingers touching his calouses in wonder. But he kept his eyes on big silhouette behind her. ‘Why have you sent for me, Belecane?’ Draba asked.

‘The Mansa will not speak to me,’ Belecane said. ‘My own husband will not even embrace me, because I cannot sing to him in verse!’

‘Surely you know some songs,’ Draba said.

‘But none are my own,’ Belecane said. The rain began to fall more heavily, splashing through the canopy and flecking cold water on her face and Draba’s. She pulled Draba under the locust trees.

There, she continued, ‘I can indeed sing others’ songs to the Mansa. But I want to tell him my thoughts in my own words.’ She pressed Draba’s hands in hers. ‘I have heard you sing. I have heard your silver tongue. Will you not teach me how to sing to my man?’

Draba listened to the rain’s increasing patter in the leaves above and around them, and to the excited breathing of the woman before him. He could feel her quickened pulse in the fingers that grasped his, and wondered if the sweetness he smelled was her breath, or a flower’s.

How beautiful is night, how dark her face, while in her eyes is silver light of stars,’ Draba said. ‘And o! how sweet her breath, how cool her touch, though in her fingers burns a fire white. I think that I might burn away, beneath the moon’s cold tongues of beauty’s fire.’

Belecane’s fingers tightened around Draba’s broad hands. ‘Go on,’ she breathed.

Draba grinned. ‘I thought you wanted to learn poetry, not to hear it,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you try a verse or two?’

She took a deep breath. Silence stretched between her and Draba, and he saw her eyes searching out his features through the gloom. Suddenly, lightning flashed, illuminating everything in a stark white moment–Belecane’s fine high forehead, her thick lips parted for quick breaths, and how her close-cropped hair accentuated the graceful lines of her cheeks and neck. The torcs of gold around her neck were all bleached grey by the stark flash.

Then all was darkness again, and thunder’s drums rolled across the sky.

His voice is like thunder,’ Belecane began slowly. ‘He comes like a storm–his eyes flash like lightning, and his touch tingles, like the charge in the air. The strength of the strong winds moves in his limbs, and to be loved by him is like … like to be struck by a thunderbolt.’

Draba laughed, and Belecane wrenched back her hands.

‘You don’t have to make fun,’ Belecane said.

‘I’m sorry,’ Draba said, stilling his laughter. ‘It was not bad. The words were good, but not the cadence. Have you no ear for meter?’

‘I don’t know,’ Belecane said, a little stiffly.

‘Here–listen,’ Draba said. As the rain drummed around them, increasingly steady, he canted, ‘I take her trembling hand, I kiss her palm; the softness of her skin, her fingers slim, are wonders like the thistle’s silken bloom, and yet, they prick me with a nettle’s pains.’

I take his strong right hand in my fingers, and feel the strength of their calouses, rough like the rocky pillars of a high cliff-wall,’ Belecane replied, feeling his hands with hers.

Draba shook his head. ‘Not quite,’ he said. ‘But a good metaphor!’

Then Belecane let go his hands, and reached up to draw Draba’s face to hers. Their lips met, and Draba felt the cool rainwater on her face and his as they pressed together.

‘It has been so long since I felt the touch of the Mansa, or any other,’ Belecane whispered when they parted for breath.

Draba drew himself up to his full height and crossed his arms over his breast. ‘What of Feiraz, and good behavior?’ he asked in a low voice.

‘My will is his will,’ Belecane repeated. She reached out to Draba again. ‘Camba, Camba of the silver tongue–will you not come to me?’

Draba gathered her up in a close embrace, feeling her warmth against the cold night. Lightning flashed again, and Draba glimpsed Feiraz over Belecane’s shoulder, as impassive as the tree against which he stood.

Belecane’s fingers scrambled at Draba’s robes to pull them from his shoulders. Draba swept her hands aside and shrugged his broad shoulders from the silk with ease. He shuddered slightly as the night’s chill suddenly touched his skin, and shivered again as Belecane’s fingers traced his huge frame, while he worried at her dress.

But as Belecane traced his body, he felt her fingers run over the scars that criss-crossed his back. She stiffened in his grasp as she felt them. ‘Are these the scars of a warrior?’ she asked quietly as Draba bent his head to kiss her neck.

‘Yes, each one a reminder of a man I’ve killed,’ he growled. ‘Each one a reminder of my survival in the fighting-pits.’

Belecane recoiled suddenly from Draba. She clasped her dress close about her breast and looked up at him, while disbelief and outrage mingled in her eyes. ‘You were a slave of the fighitng-pits?’ she hissed.

Draba drew himself up again, half naked in the night. He laughed and flexed his massive arms. ‘I killed every man I faced,’ he said. ‘And many more since.’

‘Feiraz!’ Belecane gasped. ‘Kill this impostor–this liar. This slave has tried to seduce the Mansa’s wife!’

Draba’s laughter darkened, but the huge figure of Feiraz sprang at him, and Draba felt as if he had been tackled by a leopard. Just like a pard, Feiraz went for the throat, locking his hands around Draba’s neck, and he bore Draba down in surprise.

But Draba’s neck was thick and corded with muscle, and though tenacious, the eunuch wrestled without technique. He relied on size, but had never had to reckon with a man as powerful as Draba.

Draba broke the hold and threw Feiraz to the ground. Feiraz seized something from his belt–a long knife glinted suddenly in his hand. But Draba laughed, and he seized Feiraz’s head where he sprawled in the mud, and with a savage wrench of his hands, he snapped the eunuch’s neck.

Lightning flashed as Draba stood over Feiraz’s corpse in the mud, and Belecane cowered back against a tree. She tried to run, but Draba leaped out and grasped the back of her dress with his hand. Thunder rolled over them as he hauled her back.

‘Not so fast!’ Draba said. ‘Now that we’ve come to this pass, I might as well take what I want.’

‘The Mansa will kill you,’ Belecane spat. ‘His warriors will skin you alive, and nail your bleeding corpse over the Stone.’

He gripped her shoulder in one hand, and held out the other before her, palm open. ‘Give me those torcs at your neck, and those bracelets too.’

When Belecane had delivered into Draba’s hand all her torques and gold bracelets, he thrust her away. He barked laughter into the night, echoed by peals of thunder. ‘Go on and weep to your Mansa!’ Draba cried to Belecane as she fled. ‘Go and sing through your tears that Draba the Hilakkian has stolen your gold!’

VII.

Draba burst through the beads of his apartments, startling awake the six youths of Makesh, while Bukra and his slaves continued to snore. The six watched in silence as the half-naked Draba, with a heavy knife bare in his hand, leapt to his bundle of belongings under the wall and deposited a pile of golden torcs and bracelets in his lion-cloak. Nor did they make any noise when he produced two other blades, hidden in the bundle.

‘Weapons are not allowed in the Mansa’s court,’ Iyawasu observed.

‘I go nowhere unarmed,’ Draba answered. He turned to the Makeshi, holding two of his three knives out, hilts first. ‘Do you wish to be warriors again?’

‘We are your slaves,’ Iyawasu replied slowly.

‘You were warriors of Makesh, captured in battle,’ Draba said. ‘Against whom did you fight?’

‘Against Asongai,’ Iyawasu said.

‘Will you fight Asongans now?’ He fell silent, and cocked his head toward the doorway. ‘They are coming. Do you hear?’

They listened, and past Bukra’s heavy breathing, all could hear dimly the tramp of the feet of many men in the corridors.

‘The Mansa’s warriors are coming!’ Draba said. ‘They will kill us.’

Iyawasu pointed at the gold torcs and bracelets piled on the cloak at Draba’s feet. ‘Because you are a thief,’ he said.

‘I am a captain of Hilakkia!’ Draba returned straightening to his full height. ‘I take what I want when I want it, and only pay when I wish. I’ll have you on my ship, if you wish–slaves no longer, but earning a share of every venture.’

Iyawasu explained in the Makeshi tongue, and the others muttered quietly, as Draba looked on. The shouts and the tramp of feet grew louder in the corridors.

‘We have no weapons,’ Iyawasu said. ‘But we are with you.’

‘Good!’ Draba said. ‘I have only two knives to spare. The rest may have to use their hands. Gather all the gold you can, and we will flee from here!’

Iyawasu directed the other Makeshi to do as Draba asked, and one man hoisted the bundle Draba had made in his cloak, while others rummaged through Bukra’s baggage.

‘What’s going on?’ Bukra mumbled, coming slowly out of sleep, while his slaves roused themselves and crouched back against the wall with their arms crossed, watching the banditry before them.

‘Will you not also join us?’ Draba asked them as they glared. ‘I will make freedmen of you if you come with me.’

‘We will remain loyal to our master,’ their chief replied, shaking his head, and though the others looked between themselves, none moved to join Draba and the Makeshi.

‘Suit yourselves,’ Draba said. He poked his head out the doorway, and saw the glow of torchlight around a corner farther down the corridor. Drawing back into the room, he growled, ‘They are almost upon us! We must go.’

‘Who are upon us?’ Bukra cried suddenly, starting fully awake.

‘The warriors of the Mansa!’ Draba said. ‘They are coming to arrest me. You must go and beg mercy, or they will kill you too!’ He pointed down the corridor to his right, towards whence the torchlight and the tramp of feet came.

Bukra stood, with as much dignity as he could muster in the loose robe he had donned for sleep. ‘They have discovered your ruse?’ he whispered in the last grasp of sleep’s delirium.

‘Our ruse!’ Draba growled. He thrust a stiff finger into Bukra’s breast. ‘You are as much to blame as I. You will also be hanged–or worse!’

‘No!’ Bukra cried. ‘I am a citizen of Asongai. The Mansa will grant mercy to me.’ He turned to his slaves. ‘Come!’ he cried, beckoning them, and they gathered around him. Then, all together, they stepped out into the corridor, and started off toward the oncoming troop of warriors.

‘Now! Quickly!’ Draba hissed to Iyawasu and the Makeshi. They poured across the threshold into the nighted corridors beyond, with the clatter of beads behind them. Draba went first, feet pounding out a cadence matched by his breath as he led the Makeshi down a corridor opposite the light of the Mansa’s coming warriors.

‘Please!’ they heard Bukra pleading behind them. ‘Mercy–the man deceived me!’

‘Arrest him!’ a deep voice cried over Bukra’s supplications. ‘And arrest his slaves.’ And then, resounding down the corridor, the same voice boomed, ‘Lo! I am Ezana, the Executioner of the Mansa of Asongai, and I conjure Camba of Gaoa to surrender himself to me, or to suffer the displeasure of the Mansa!’

Draba led his troop of six around a corner just as the warriors behind them arrived at the still dancing beads of the curtained doorway. ‘There’s no one here!’ one of the guards called back to Ezana.

Then Draba ran, swiftly traversing corridor after corridor, with the six Makeshi warriors behind him. He sought a threshold between palace and city, or a courtyard with a wall that could be scaled to the world beyond. The Makeshi ran at his heels, bundles of gold jangling at their shoulders, followed through the halls by the shouts of Ezana and the Mansa’s warriors.

After several false findings, they found such a courtyard, long and nighted, and Draba thought that the far wall, unbroken by any doorway, must be an outer wall. He thought too, that the trees that lined it would make fine stairways to freedom.

But it was already occupied. A host of tribesmen crouched in the night’s rain, faces turned toward the outer wall. The driving rain drowned out sound in the court, and the tribesmen were focused on the tall idol of twisted black wood before them, and the ancient man dressed in shamanistic fetishes who stood shaking at its feet. He sang as he trembled, limbs shaking feverishly, but the tongue was an ancient tribal dialect. The only sound that cut through the rain was the rattling of the ivory bracelets clasped around his wrists and ankles.

‘It is the god of the thunder-madness, and the storm-terror,’ Iyawasu declared in awe. He and the Makeshi hid their faces behind their hands, but Draba laughed and stepped boldly into the rain.

He went alone at first, but the Makeshi saw him go between their fingers. He went like a lion in the night, advancing alone in disregard against a pack of hyenas between him and his goal. And the Makeshi followed, though they shook with terror in the face of the god.

Draba made for the outer wall, but several of the tribesmen saw him, and they raised a shout and pointed. The heavy knife dripped with rainwater in his hand.

They leapt to their feet and gathered in a knot between Draba and the outer wall, where the shaman continued to chant before the idol. Draba recognized them as Onga-men, and one stood above the rest, with scars on his right arm, and none on his left.

‘Do not let them pass,’ a familiar voice cried. ‘Do not let them live–they will speak of our sorceries, and we will be hanged over the Stone!’

‘Idwara!’ Draba cried through the rain. ‘I only wish to pass! Let us climb the walls, and we will be gone from your life forever.’

The coward comes to run away across the courtyard’s walls, a crow who flees the hawk,’ Idwara returned, and his clear voice rang through the night. ‘Bold Camba fears to lose his dignity, and so he flees through darkness of the night, and hopes to hide the rot within his heart.’

Draba laughed. ‘The monkey stands before the lion bold–he chatters on as if his insults cut, but in his flesh the pard will sink his teeth.’ He and Idwara advanced against each other, and Draba raised the knife in his right hand over his left shoulder for a heavy blow, but Idwara’s fist struck out like a viper, and smashed the blade from Draba’s hand. Draba shouted as the knife spun away through the night.

Behind Draba, the Makeshi advanced, while the Onga-men approached from behind Idwara. The tribesmen were unarmed, and wary of the two knives held forth by Iyawasu and his Makeshi companion.

Then Draba and Idwara rushed against each other, clasping hands around waists, seeking wrestlers’ holds with their strong grips. They strained against each other like dark gods from the dawn-age, who could crack mountains with their struggles, while around them boiled a melee between the Makeshi and the Onga-men.

Muscles bulged and tendons creaked. Draba found that his weight and strength were greater, but that they availed him nothing against Idwara’s skill. The man writhed out of every lock and armbar, and pressed Draba where a man’s strength could not resist. But Idwara’s hands did not have the breadth to grip Draba, and every time he barred him, Draba broke forth like a lion bursting its fetters.

Back and forth through the night rain they rolled, throwing each other to the mud and churning it up with their feet. They lost sight of the world around them–to relax a guard at any moment invited defeat, by a broken back, or even something as little as a snapped finger. They breathed mud and rain, and felt each other’s heartbeats hammering through their breastbones, and still they writhed, each trying to pin the other to the earth and to crush the life from him.

Then suddenly Idwara cried out and went limp in Draba’s hands. The huge Hilakkian stood, dropping the dying Onga-man to the mud, and saw Iyawasu with a bloody knife clasped in his young hand. The five other Makeshi stood around him, alone. The tribesmen had fled, leaving their idol, and the shaman who lay collapsed from exhaustion at the feet of the wooden god.

‘I’d have had him,’ Draba growled through the rain.

‘We must go!’ Iyawasu cried. ‘Can you not hear the shouts of the Mansa’s warriors?’

Draba heard their shouts through the rain, echoing out of the corridors of the palace. ‘Over the walls,’ he said. ‘That tree! Send the gold up first, and I’ll come last.’

They stepped over the fallen bodies of several tribesmen, and clambered up the sturdiest tree, one by one, to the top of the courtyard’s outer wall. Beyond lay freedom in the vast city of Asongai. When Draba reached the top, he turned to the Mansa’s warriors behind him, and laughed. Then he dropped to the ground beyond, and led the Makeshi youths through the benighted city toward a secret cove on the western coast, beyond the river Ambla.

The bundles at their backs jangled with gold.

 

VIII.

Draba’s ship, a lean black galley with a bronze ram like a falcon’s beak, already rocked in the shallow waters of the cove as Mendax approached. Its sails were still furled, and its oars still shipped, while men worked to load it through the surf.

Mendax came brazenly down the beach, his black cloak billowing behind him, sword belted at his right side. Watchers caught sight of him as he came around the bluff and looked down into the cove. They demanded the watch-words, and threatened to kill him when he could not recite them.

But he said, ‘I am a friend of Draba’s–do you think he would be glad to see me killed?’

So they took his sword, and led him to Draba to ask their chief if they should kill him.

‘Mendax!’ Draba cried when he saw Mendax approaching between the two watchers. He leapt to his feet from under the shade of a pavilion where he had been surveying his crew as they loaded stolen wares and fenced wealth onto the ship’s boats to carry to the galley on the waters. Six young Makeshi stood among the men below, strapping amphorae of wine, oil, and garum into one of the boats. The other was already loaded down with gold and bundles of ivory tusks.

Draba stepped out from under the pavilion’s shade. ‘Give him his sword back,’ he said, and the watchers did. Then Draba turned to Mendax. ‘What brings you here? It is too late for our deal with Aska–I had other help.’

‘I heard a strange rumor that a thief attacked the Mansa’s wives and made off with a great deal of his wealth,’ Mendax said. ‘He was said to be killed–funny thing, but the Mansa said it in prose!–but I wanted to be sure of the truth.’

Draba laughed. ‘He must be dead,’ he said. ‘Unless he was as good a fighting-man as Draba.’

Mendax nodded, a crooked smile crossing his lips. ‘Indeed! It seems that Camba was not a nephew of Bukra after all! A pity he was killed–he sounded an interesting fellow. Also unfortunate for Bukra, as he was sent to the salt mines he coveted, for bringing a criminal into the Mansa’s presence.’

Draba drew himself up. ‘Enough gossip-mongering,’ he said. ‘What really brings you here? And how did you manage to find my cove?’

‘Some of your men are talkative after a krater of wine,’ Mendax said offhand. Draba glowered, but Mendax forestalled any complaint, continuing, ‘As for me, I am unemployed, because the Hunter’s Girdle was wrecked in the great storm a few nights back.’

‘So you have come to ship with me!’ Draba said, grinning.

‘Not as one of your crew,’ Mendax returned. ‘But as a mercenary, I’ll fight for anyone who pays.’

Draba laughed and drew one of several gleaming golden torcs from his neck. He threw it to Mendax. ‘Here’s your first payment,’ he cried. ‘Now get down there and load the boats, you weasel–we’re off to the Aulorad to sell this loot!’

 

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Cullen Groves lives in Moscow, Idaho, trying to hack it as a writer while still bumming around where he graduated from the University of Idaho. This is his first prose publication. His poetry has appeared previously at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and he also has a piece forthcoming in Asimovs Science Fiction Magazine.


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