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The excited voices of youngsters and adults alike filled the air. The Nagara people were rarely known to gather for recreation, and this occasion was not one for celebration.
‘The Preserver is paying us a visit? Something out of the ordinary must be happening.’
‘Certainly. We must assemble at the gathering plain now.’
From huts and barnyards, the people trooped out in their numbers, all heading to the edge of their walled community, to an expanse of flatland wide enough to accommodate the mass of people. Someone had spied the approach of an old man in the distinct garb of the Preserver as he approached the flatland, having descended from the range of hills that bordered the village. The old man halted on the crest of a hill overlooking the gathering plain, flanked on either side by two fierce looking warriors that formed his personal guard. He waited patiently until the excited murmur of the gathered multitude had subsided to a hushed expectation before he spoke in a clear and rich voice that carried far.
‘People of Nagara, I salute you.’
There was a response of acknowledgement from the crowd.
‘My people, for fifty long years I have protected our lands, our lives and our possessions, and we have never known defeat. Though the enemies have been many who waged war against us, every single one of them fell at our feet.’
The crowd cheered loudly.
‘However, the sun is setting on my days, and one must be chosen to stand in my place.’
The crowd was stunned to silence.
‘Today is the day when the chosen one must be revealed.’
A murmur of excitement ran through the crowd. The sage took his time, turning his gaze slowly back and forth across the gathered mass of humanity. The murmurs of anticipation among the crowd gradually grew to a loud rumbling. Finally, a command is issued.
‘Timiyu son of Mukolo, come forth.’
Absolute silence descended upon the crowd as a seventeen year old boy stepped forward hesitantly, a surprised look on his face. His young frame visibly trembled as he approached the great man. The youth stopped at the base of the hill upon which the sage stood. There was a long moment of silence as the old man stared him straight in the eyes, with bright eyes that blazed with such intensity as to burn into his very soul. He felt completely naked in the presence of those eyes; he felt as if all his private thoughts had been laid bare and were being examined in turn. There was nothing he could hold back.
Finally, the sage spoke.
‘Come with me, O chosen one.’
The youth managed to find his voice, even though it came out a bit squeaky in the presence of the great one.
‘Chosen? To do what?’
Momentary silence as the sage paused to look back at the lad. The boy cringed, sure that he was about to meet with a terrible fate.
‘Not to do, but to be.’
There was patience, not wrath, in the old man’s voice. The youth grew a bit more confident.
‘To be what?’
The sage turned back and gave him another soul searching scrutiny. The youth held his gaze for a moment, then quickly averted his eyes, cowed into submissive silence.
‘Come with me, son of Mukolo, and all things will be made clear to you.’
With that he turned round and began to walk away from the crowd with his majestic gait. The youth followed quietly as the sage returned by the same way he had come. It was as they started down the slope on the other side of the hill that the youth looked back, and saw the crowd looking on with a faint murmur now building up. It seemed to him that he could pick out some voices, but he decided that the wind was playing tricks on his troubled mind. Else how could the whispers he thought he heard be true. ‘Timiyu? Timiyu, the son of Mukolo is the chosen one? A great one was among us, and we knew him not.’
Timiyu the son of Mukolo was not well known in his community. He was not even popular among his peers. The only son of his parents, he was the last child of his family. There was nothing remarkable about his father, who reared livestock for sustenance, as did most other members of the village. No member of Timiyu’s family was linked to the elite warrior class. No one from his hut held any title or position of significance in the community. Certainly, no one had expected anything out of the ordinary from the boy.
Yet here he was, walking side by side with the most important member of the Nagara community. The Nagara people had never crowned kings, so the Preserver was not a ruler. But he was held in high esteem by everyone in the land. Being publicly acknowledged by such a person was the greatest honour Timiyu had ever received in his young life.
The sage paused at the crest of the highest hill in the vicinity, from where one could get a full view of the huts and yards and people and livestock that made up the village, the high walls built in a semi-circle to secure the ends of the village that were not protected by hills, and beyond the walls at the great spread of fertile land that sustained the crops and the great river that sustained the fertility of the land. The crowd that had gathered at the approach of the Preserver had dispersed. The sage dismissed his guards, and gazed in brooding silence at view below. Finally, he spoke:
‘For ages, son of Mukolo, our ancestors have ruled these lands. They took the land by force, of course, for there is no other way to possess a thing of value but to fight for it and prevail. Invaders have tried to take them from us for generations, but they have never succeeded.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because we are strong- and undefeatable.’
‘But what is it that makes us undefeatable? Is it our strong walls, or our large army, or our indomitable spirit?’
‘Ahh, all that and much more. We are undefeatable, because we have a power that is greater than any army; that can crush the stoutest walls and break the fiercest spirit.’
‘What power is that?’
‘We wield- the power of the sky.’
‘The power of the sky? I- I don’t understand.’
‘The time has come for you to take up this power, and become the protector of our lands and of our people, as I have done all my life. From this day forward, you will be groomed for this awesome responsibility. Yours are the shoulders to bear the burden of the …people. You are destined to be the next Preserver. It is time to fulfill your destiny.’
‘B-but why me? Why was I chosen?’
‘Because you are pure and undefiled.’
‘You have never gone in to a woman before.’
‘How can you be sure of that?’
The old man laughed heartily. The boy is surprised to find his laughter was pleasant to the ears.
‘The spirits told me so. And the spirits are never wrong. You are the only one among your peers who has kept himself pure – the only one -, and you have been chosen by the spirits to become the new protector of our people. You are the new Preserver.’
The sage looked at him for a long time, and he began to fidget, becoming uncomfortable.
‘There is a girl that you have your eye on.’
It was not a question.
‘You have no reason to feel shame. It is only natural at your age.’
He managed to meet the sage’s eyes. What he saw was compassion, sympathy and – pity?
‘You are to be commended for distinguishing yourself from your peers. I daresay most of them became adults many seasons ago. It is so sad that your generation has completely lost respect for the old ways. In my days, it was considered a taboo to have lifted a girl’s skirts without fulfilling the nuptial customs. In my days, the spirits had options aplenty to fill the position of the Preserver.’
A long sigh. Then a firm declaration.
‘You cannot see her again.’
The youth’s surprise made him bold.
‘Being the Preserver comes with a price. As one was before he was chosen, so he must be for the rest of his days.’
The boy was shocked into silence. The sage looked at him straight in the eyes.
‘The Preserver is not a bedder of fair maidens, in or out of wedlock.’
‘It is the way the spirits have ordained it. It is the way it must be. You must forget her.’
The boy bowed his head in sadness. Now he was certain he had seen pity in the old man’s eyes. He began to question the wisdom of the spirits, or the place of the Preserver in the lives of the Nagara people. What kind of position was so important as to deprive a man of the joys of being with a woman; of knowing her sweetness; of sating his natural desire. Having grown up in a home with many elder sisters, Timiyu had sometimes spied his sisters in the embrace of lovers at their secret rendezvous, and he had looked forward to holding a beautiful young woman in his arms. He had never carried out the act because it had seemed he had all the time in the world.
In the little time he had spent with the sage, Timiyu had begun to feel himself to be somewhat special. He had begun to perceive himself as someone different from and above his peers; someone to be held in high esteem and bestowed with great honour, as the sage. Now he wondered if the position of the Preserver could be refused. If he was the only qualified member of his community, then perhaps it was time for the role of the Preserver to become obsolete.
He was startled back to the present by the voice of the old man.
‘One does not refuse the spirits, once chosen. You have no choice but to forget the girl. Swear that you will never see her again.’
Now he was convinced that the sage could indeed see into his heart and view his thoughts. The moment of decision seemed to last a lifetime. The sage continued to stare expectantly at him.
The sage smiled in satisfaction.
‘Now, son of Mukolo, go to your family hut and pack all that you can carry, then meet me at the gathering plain. From this day forward, I shall teach you the secrets of the spirits and the demands of your new position. You shall reside with me in seclusion from the rest of the community from now on. Your training requires much concentration.’
‘Ah, my darling Timiyu. I have missed your company so much.’
Timiyu was both delighted and pained to gaze once again on the sixteen year old girl he had believed would be his bride. He had made a quick detour on an errand for the sage and found her at their usual place, the orchard behind his family’s hut.
‘Beautiful Rukki, how good it is to behold your face again.’
She was indeed a beautiful girl, perhaps the most beautiful in the whole village. She had fairer skin than other members of the community. Orphaned from a tender age, she had been brought up in the household of one of the greatest of the Nagara warriors. Timiyu often found it amazing that he had managed to get her attention.
Now here she was, delighted to see him even as she feigned a pout.
‘You kept me waiting for so long.’
‘Forgive me. I had a little trouble sneaking away from the Preserver’s guards. They go around with me everywhere these days, and watch my every move.’
‘Why is that?’
‘To keep me away from you, apparently.’
‘And why is that? What wrong is there in you coming to see me?’
‘My love, we must talk. Sit, please.’
‘What is it, Timiyu? Why do you look so sad?’
‘I cannot see you anymore, Rukki.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Forget me and find another man.’
‘Is this meant to be a test, Timiyu? How can I forget you when you have already captured my heart. I wish to be no man’s bride but yours.’
‘I’m sorry, Rukki, but we can never be together. I have been chosen as the Preserver.’
‘But that doesn’t change anything. Your heart still burns with love for me, does it not?’
‘It does not matter whether I love you still or not. The Preserver can never know a woman. It would rob him of his powers. And our people will become vulnerable to our enemies. I am sorry, Rukki.’
With that, he hastily took his leave, unable to bear the agony in her eyes. He was careful not to look back at her. Rukki stood staring at his receding back in shock. It was several minutes later before the sobs came.
‘What troubles you, master?’
Timiyu was perched on a stool beside the sage’s couch. The old man had become too weak in recent times to leave his bed, and his young protégé often had to help him perform the most basic necessities. He had caught the troubled look on the sage’s face from the moment he had entered the hut that morning.
The old man’s once rich voice came in a raspy whisper.
‘I had a terrible dream last night; more like a vision. The spirits showed me things to come. A grave danger lies ahead.’
‘The conquest and slaughter of our people.’
Timiyu sprang from the stool in alarm.
‘How can that be? We have strong walls, and-’
‘It is not the army and the walls that have kept us safe for so long. It is the Preserver. By the Preserver, the Nagara people have been kept and by him they will be betrayed.’
The sage struggled to sit up, looking earnestly at the young man he had taught for the past three years in the ways of the Preserver.
‘Son of Mukolo, you must guard your purity. It is what matters most. Promise me to keep yourself pure, for the sake of your people.’
‘Of course I will, master. Is this not what you trained me for?’
The old man sighed in relief, and laid back on his couch.
‘Now I can depart in peace. The Nagara people shall never know defeat.’
The sage passed away that night, and the people mourned him for days. With his demise, many feared for the future. Their fears were laid to rest on the day the sage was buried, however. On that day, there was a heavy storm, even though it was during the dry season. Such an unusual occurrence could only portend one thing, as far as the people were concerned: although one Preserver had passed away, another had taken his place. The Nagara people had nothing to fear from their enemies.
The attack came late in the night three months after the sage was buried. The entire village was caught off guard. Before the warriors could rally themselves, the invading army had broken through the walls at several points and stormed the village. How they had found the weak spots in the walls, no one knew. All night, the invaders slaughtered the Nagaras in their numbers, showing no pity even on the children and the elderly. Some tried to escape to the hills, but the enemy carefully scoured the hills and found them one after the other, dealing them the same fate as their brethren.
The Preserver and his personal guard made a gallant attempt to stop the invasion but were defeated. Mortally wounded, the protector of the Nagara people was carried to the safety of his secluded hut in the hills by the sole surviving member of his personal guard. As the young warrior tended to his wounds, the Preserver lamented over and over:
‘It is my fault. It is all my fault.’
The warrior tried to console him.
‘You must not blame yourself, my lord. Our warriors were defeated and our walls broken through. The enemy is very powerful indeed.’
‘Not as powerful as the Preserver. The Preserver has the power of the sky; the power to destroy whole armies with thunder, hail and anything such element as he desired. At least, he had such power.’
The young man is confused.
‘My lord, do you mean that we were overcome by the enemy because you have lost your power?’
Long silence, heavy with regret and despair.
‘Yes, young one. I lost my power as the Preserver a long time ago.’
‘B-but how? How could such a thing have happened?’
The Preserver sighed, tears rolling down his eyes.
‘The day my master was buried was the day I first experienced the powers of the Preserver. I summoned a storm that day to mourn my master. But that exercise of power did little to comfort me. That night, I was all alone in my hut. I had lost my master, and I was in pain. I was confused. And I needed someone to bare my heart to.’
‘So I went into Rukki’s hut. For long while my master lived, she had often paid me secret visits, and each time I resisted my desire for her body. But after the sage passed away, I went in to her.’
The young man gasped in shock.
‘You forced her?’
‘I did not force her!’ His voice rose in momentary indignation, then dropped to a whisper of sadness. ‘She was a willing participant in the act. She had often offered herself to me before that night.’
‘Then you did no wrong. Every man needs a woman. But what has that got to do with the loss of your power?’
‘Everything. The Preserver’s power lies in his purity. He must not be defiled with women.’
The young man stared at the Preserver in disbelief.
‘And yet you took her, knowing the implication of such an act to a man of your office?’
‘I – did not know the taboo was real. I thought- hoped that it was not true.’
The Preserver saw all the respect and admiration once held for him disappear from the warrior’s eyes in a moment. His face twisted into a mask of rage and hatred; the young man cried out in accusation:
‘You caused this! You put your pleasure ahead of your duties to your people. You did this to us!’
‘Keep down your voice.’
It was too late. Some of the invaders scouring the hills had been close enough to hear the outburst and a band of them soon came charging into the hut with spears and axes. They immediately fell on the warrior and hacked him down. His dying words stung the Preserver to his heart.
‘Curse you, son of Mukolo! Curse you to your grave and beyond.’
Then the invaders turned on the helpless Preserver. The leader of the group drew close enough to him to be recognized in the semi-darkness. He found himself staring at a familiar face, and his shock was beyond measure.
‘You! You led them here. You betrayed your people.’
It was Rukki. She looked fierce and terrible at the moment, and held a blood stained battle axe in her hands. Her usually sweet voice was cold as ice as she responded:
‘The Nagara people were never my people, Timiyu. Your people raided my village when I was a child and I was taken captive- or so my captors thought. But my people staged my capture so that this day could come to be. I am a princess among my people. I grew up among your people, but I never forgot mine.’
‘You seduced me. You did it on purpose, Rukki. You knew about the Preserver’s taboo.’
‘No, Timiyu. I did not know about the Preserver’s taboo until you told me about it. I was sent among your people since I was a child, with the task of finding out the secret of your people, that which had made them undefeatable for so long.’
Tears welled up in his eyes.
‘So you never loved me. You seduced me just… just so you could do this.’
‘I loved you when we were younger, Timiyu. When you were an exemplary young man. I loved you because you never tried to take me to your bed. You said we would do things the right way; that we would fulfill the nuptial customs as tradition demanded. But I stopped loving you when you broke my heart; when you chose to become the Preserver.’
‘I never chose to become the Preserver. I was chosen by the spirits.’
‘All I know is that I could never be the bride of the man I loved. I hated you from that moment, and my mission to destroy your people has consumed me since then.’
‘Yet you played upon the love that I had for you to seduce me.’
A snort of derision. ‘No, Timiyu. You did not yield because you loved me. You yielded because you needed to satisfy your lust.’
‘Lust that you carefully nurtured.’
‘To fulfill my objective, yes. But I gave you a chance, Timiyu, remember? Before you parted my thighs that night, I asked you to relinquish the position of the Preserver and make me your bride. If you indeed loved me, you should have made our love public. But you chose to take me secretly, and to hide the act from your own people. That was when I truly saw you for the monster you are. You loved being the Preserver more than you loved me, and you became a hypocrite by pretending to still be the Preserver even after you had violated the taboo. You could have owned up to your people and perhaps your so-called spirits could have appointed another Preserver in your place. But you did not acknowledge your failure, and now you have brought doom upon your people.’
He bowed his head in shame, convicted by her words.
‘So you see, my dear Timiyu, it was not love that drove you to my bed. It was your lust; your desire to please yourself. You loved pleasure more than you loved me or your own people. And now, you must pay for your treachery with your blood.’
He looked up helplessly at the siren standing over him, a wicked smile on her lips as she raised her battle axe high above her head in an executioner’s style. His spirit broken, the despair was heavy in his voice as he gasped his last words.
‘I was warned… about you; about this. The sage warned me on the day that he ended his journey.’
The axe blade swung down with blinding speed, glinting as it caught and reflected the first rays of the breaking day. The last thing he heard was her mockery laced voice.
‘You should have listened.’