The rain started just as Jide made his way through the forest. He travelled light to move quickly and unencumbered. His only items were a pouch strapped to his back containing the offerings he had been asked to bring and an ornate dagger sheathed at his hip. The blade had been carried by six generations of his line, the Adelanis. Passed from father to firstborn son. It had always been worn or within reach of the bearer and he was loath to leave it behind, despite the misgivings of his counsellors. He had been warned that weapons would be perceived as a threat by the seers, but the king did not relish the idea of being completely unarmed in the presence of such men. He had given way to every other concession requested of him, but this would not be one.
He continued to stalk through the thick shrubs and vegetation and wondered again if he was making the right decision to seek counsel from the seers. He knew there would be a price to pay for their aid, but he needed affirmation of success before he committed himself and his tribe to war, choosing not to rely solely on the protection of the gods. His half-brother, Olise, would certainly turn to the dark arts to secure his success in the battles to come and seize control of the tribes, especially if the rumours were true about Olise’s mother and her affiliation with the occult. Jide would take every opportunity afforded him.
His thoughts flashed to his wife, Lara, and his three young sons, quickly sending a prayer to Yemoja, the Orisa of the rivers, his most beloved deity, to safeguard them in the days to come. He felt a moment of peace and decided to keep moving.
He spent the best part of an hour navigating the forest before he came upon a clearance with a mud hut in the centre, a few yards from where he stood. The area seemed desolate, devoid of any form of life, and a feeling of foreboding settled in him. He would not allow his doubts and fears to take root and force him to turn away, so he closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm himself.
With his resolve restored, he quickly scanned the surrounding area and the line of trees around him before deciding to move towards the dwelling. He walked a few yards and came to a halt at the threshold of the forest. The constant patter of the rain against the leaves seemed to stop, although the rain still fell in thick torrents. Something didn’t seem right. He looked around again but there was nothing there. He told himself that he was letting his imagination get the better of him, but his skin prickled and the hairs on his arms and neck had begun to rise. It felt like he was being watched, silently judged, and suddenly he heard his name whispered on the wind.
Did he imagine it? He was not sure, but he frantically swept his gaze around the forest. The only thing he noted was the gentle swaying of trees and the rustle of leaves all around him; then he heard his name again, this time louder and more urgent. Jide's hand moved unconsciously to the blade at his hip; the habit of an old warrior accustomed to meting out violence in the face of fear or danger.
He looked around again and, to his shock, saw a young girl standing as still as an old tree about ten paces behind him in the forest. She was of a fair caramel complexion, different to the darker skin of his people. Unnaturally beautiful, with long dark hair down to her elbows in fine braids, her dark unwavering eyes seemed to possess intelligence far beyond her years. She was dressed simply, in a length of cloth wrapped around her chest down to her knees tucked in under her arms. The cloth, or wrapper, as it was called, had vivid embroideries that seemed to shift and mimic the movement of the trees and leaves of the forest. She also wore a set of coral beads around her neck, another on her right wrist and one around each ankle.
There was something about the girl that unnerved Jide, but he could not place a finger on it. Those eyes, that appeared to see right through him, made him hesitate before he spoke.
‘Who are you and what are you doing alone in a place like this?’ She didn’t seem to have heard him, so he tried again, ‘Are you lost, child? Do you need help?’ She only shook her head, almost imperceptibly. When she spoke, the voice that passed from her lips was not that of a girl but that of an elderly woman, haunting and deep.
‘Turn away from here, King Jide; do not seek guidance from these seers, for they only wish to deceive you. Yemoja watches you, as she always has, but you risk her scorn seeking advice from charlatans.
These words troubled Jide to his core, but how could he turn back now, with the storm gathering towards his kingdom? He tried to resist challenging her comments, even though everything inside him screamed the contrary.
‘How do you know who I am and why should I trust the words of a stranger? How can I be sure that you do not also wish to deceive me as you say the seers will?’ She did not respond so he carried on, fear slowly gripping him but not willing to be cowed. ‘By whose authority do you speak? I am beloved of Yemoja, but I cannot be turned away with an enemy at my door. If only you know–’
‘Silence,’ she said, interrupting him, ‘you are beloved in truth, but your arrogance and desperation has blinded your judgement. You have been warned, but I see that you will do as you please.’
Jide stood aghast at her words and the confidence with which she spoke. Who is this girl? he thought; it was clear that she was no ordinary child, but he was the king, and he always commanded respect. To be spoken to in such a manner, he could not fathom. He closed his eyes to find his composure. Satisfied, he opened his eyes and turned towards the dwelling for a second, weighting his reply but as he looked back at the girl, she was gone, vanished into thin air. Jide rubbed his eyes and wondered whether he had imagined the whole encounter. He stayed in the same spot for a while, his eyes still searching the forest for her, but there was no sign.
He battled with his conscience, for the message from the girl had disturbed him deeply. Will I truly displease Yemoja if I proceed? He mused, then his thoughts turned to his half-brother and the armies he had amassed over the last year, the towns under Jide’s rule that did not submit to Olise and were reduced to rubble, the deluge of displaced townspeople who had come in their hundreds to his capital city for refuge. He could not turn his back on his people, and he knew his forces alone could not stand against Olise.
Most of his allies who had not already been destroyed or displaced had already gone over to Olise through bribery, manipulation or even fear of witchcraft, he could not tell. He promised himself that he would see to it that all the turncoat vassals were paid in kind. Once Olise was defeated, Jide vowed to sweep through his kingdom and cleanse it of all the puppet rulers and establish new governments across the kingdom. It was time for a change, if anything, just to secure his legacy and the birth right of his sons. If his sons were to have any hope of ruling in his stead, he would need to enact this change soon, once he had dealt with his half-brother.
Jide made his decision, telling himself that it was the right choice for his family, his people, and his kingdom. His mind was set, and he tentatively moved towards the dwelling.
Suppressing a shudder, he stopped outside the door of the hut. He paused for a minute to observe his surroundings and make sure he wasn't being watched, just before he pushed open the door slowly.
It took a few seconds for his vision to adjust to the gloom, and then his eyes fixed on four figures huddled over a large cauldron. No one spoke until the king lost his patience and said, 'I have come a long way for your guidance, do I have to wait longer still to be acknowledged?’ The first of the seers turned his head, a weathered face with long tribal marks running down his cheeks like the marks borne by some of the western tribes. The old seer’s eyes scanned the king before him, and a hint of a sneer crossed his face before he spoke.
'You seek guidance from us, so do not presume to hold any authority here, King Jide.' Before Jide could respond, one of the others spoke without turning, 'Arrogance is one thing, but to come here with a blade is another; do you seek to threaten us?'
Jide’s sense of authority and composure began to falter as he regarded them, so he spoke quickly to try and dispel the tension. 'Forgive my rudeness, the circumstances that has led me here robs me of the respect that is due to you. My predicament is a desperate one, but I come here humble, please forgive my impertinence, I beseech you'.
Another one of the old figures began to laugh, a horrible sound similar to a fowl being strangled. 'Sit my child, these old men are not accustomed to visitors and only seek to assert their seniority. Please sit, do not be frightened'.
The one who spoke turned slowly and Jide realised that this one was blind. His eyes gleamed white in a grizzled face. Finally, the last seer spoke. It was obvious that this one was the most revered amongst them; he turned, and the others seemed to shrink slightly as he fixed his cold dark eyes on the king, quietly appraising him. He seemed to sense Jide’s thoughts, his innermost fears and doubts; all the while the seer’s eyes bore deep into Jide's mind and even the depths of his soul. This almost unmanned him, but he reminded himself of who he was and what was at stake.
'Bring forth the contents of your pouch' he said without preamble. Jide hesitated for a second before reaching behind him and pulling the pouch free. He opened it and produced four kola nuts, a goat skin of palm wine tapped from the trees of his lands, a small clay vase containing blood taken from an untouched girl of his household and finally a bunch of his hair bound with leaves from an iroko tree grown from his gardens.
Jide had thought it strange that all the items he had been asked to bring by his councillors were things that had to be from his household, but he was past being cautious and just wanted the ritual to be done with. The blind seer shuffled over and picked up the contents as if he could see them as clear as day, and Jide noticed that half of the small finger on his left hand was missing. All of them had this deformity, which marked them as Babalawo, the ones who dabbled in the dark arts and were feared and respected in equal measures in the lands of the tribes.
The blind seer mumbled some words under his breath before passing the offerings to the lead Babalawo, who took them and expertly began to pour the contents of the vase and skin into the cauldron. He picked up the four kola nuts, passing one to each of his companions, which they all chewed noisily for a few seconds before spitting the moistened contents into the cauldron. Finally, the lead Babalawo took the hair wrapped in leaves. The leaves were split and the Babalawo began to separate the hairs between finger and thumb and slowly spread them around into the cauldron in a circular motion. All the while his lips moved, chanting an old incantation in the native Yoruba dialect of Ile-Ife. A dialect thought to have been long forgotten, but this was the tongue of the Babalawo, this was how they communicated with the ones who are not seen or spoken of aloud. This was the art of juju.
It was known that the only thing that separated the Babalawo from witches was that they only took a glimpse into the other side, the unseen world. They did not, however, allow themselves to become consumed by it, for there would be no return.
He chanted a few more incoherent words and, as if on cue, Jide heard the cauldron begin to bubble, and steam slowly started to rise from it. All the Babalawo began to rock back and forth and Jide thought it must have been some sort of trick.
He looked over his shoulder towards the entrance of the hut, the only opening that permitted sunlight into the dwelling, but something drew his eyes to the wall in front of him where all their shadows were cast. Suddenly he noticed that his shadow didn’t quite move as he did. It seemed like nothing at first until he raised his hand and saw that his shadow did not do the same.
Right before his eyes, his shadow slowly rose and seemed to grow bigger, dominating the room. Jide shrank back at what he saw but the Babalawo didn’t seem to have noticed. Fear rooted him to the spot, but he could not turn his eyes away from it.
The shadow was a terrifying sight and, at the same time, mesmerising. It almost appeared to communicate with him, with an outstretched arm that pointed towards the entrance – a silent warning only meant for his eyes. He looked around at the seers again and they were still transfixed on the cauldron and their ritual. How could they not see what was happening before them? It beggared belief, but suddenly the words of the girl from the forest come to Jide’s mind. Could this be something to do with her perhaps? He did not know.
The shadow, his shadow, had now moved towards the entrance and lingered there for a while, then slowly went back to its original place opposite him. Just then, the lead Babalawo broke from his trance and dipped his hand into the cauldron, producing a small clay horn, immediately breaking the spell of what Jide saw, or what he thought he saw.
He gestured to Jide to come closer and handed him the horn, motioning him to drink from it. Jide hesitated for a moment and wondered whether he should drink from it after what he had just seen, but he relented. He put the horn to his lips and tried not to smell the liquid before swallowing the contents quickly. It felt warm and lumpy in his throat, and it was extremely bitter, but he forced it down and tried not to gag, making sure every drop of the unknown concoction was gone before handing back the empty horn.
The lead Babalawo looked pleased before he announced, ‘It is done, I have seen your future and you will be triumphant in the days to come. When you return to your palace, sacrifice a white ram and burn its organs at the setting of the evening sun. Nothing will stand in your way, but be warned, King Jide. Do not heed the words of anyone claiming to be of a higher order to us. Only we can guarantee your salvation, any deviation from our words will see your kingdom turned to dust within a year.’
Jide nodded to himself, satisfied that he had done all that he could. He yearned to get out of that place and put as much distance between him and the seers. He rose slowly, forcing himself not to appear too eager to leave and cause further offence.
Gathering the pouch from the floor he thanked the Babalawo, bowing briefly as he turned towards the door. As he began to walk, one of the seers spoke: ‘Do not stop or look back when you leave here and do not speak to anyone of what you have witnessed here today.’ Without another word Jide left and began to make his way out of the clearing. As he reached the tree line of the forest he was tempted to stop and look back, but he forced himself to keep moving, slowly picking up pace as he made his way to the edge of the forest.
As he left, he did not see the dark figure of a woman shrouded in black from head to toe standing close to the hut. She watched him walk away deeper into the forest, hatred seeping out of her every pore, but as Jide moved further and further away, a wicked smile slowly started to spread across her face.
The rain began to fall heavily as dark clouds started to gather and sweep over the horizon. In the distance the sound of thunder rumbling could be faintly distinguished, a sign of what was surely to come.