‘The day is long and the nights are filled with stars. The seasons, they come and they go. They bring us rainfall and give us sunshine. They make our cattle grow fat and our corn flourish in the fields. But danger hides everywhere, from men and from the beasts. If you take me as your pledged-man, I will safeguard you and worship you, until the moon falls from the sky, the trees touch the stars, and our ancestors return home.’
Kobi walked behind the ambling cattle, repeating the age-old vow as he gently twitched the hips of the slowest, with a thin wispy branch. The vow had to be word perfect, and delivered with conviction, if he stood any chance of winning fair lady, his father would have said, before recounting the familiar story of how he had won Kobi’s mother and recited the very same vow to her. But his father was gone. A lion had sent him to join his ancestors long before his time on earth was done. In fact Kobi could easily believe his father was looking down on him right at that very moment, with that familiar wry smile on his face, and wondering if his lovesick son, would ever manage his own household, let alone be in charge of the royal herd.
‘Hey! Herdboy!’ Kobi was startled out of his thoughts by one of the chief’s warriors, Magoti, had approached at speed and expertly flicked up a spray of fine red dust with his foot covering Kobi from head to toe as he passed. ‘Hurry up!’ Magoti pointed to the western sky. ‘The sun is stealing away and we all know how the lions love the failing light!’ He spun in the dusty earth like a dancer, then ran along the well-trodden path ahead, leaving the mocking reference to Kobi’s father hanging in the early evening air.
Kobi wiped the dust from his eyes. Inheriting the position of Royal Herdsman, and taking care of his mother, was a big responsibility, he realised that. But it also meant he had a chance. A small one, but still a chance to marry Nkhosi, the chief’s daughter. A year ago he couldn’t possibly have hoped to say the vow to her. And it was true, others had better credentials than him, like Magoti for instance.
He and Magoti were the same age. Born on the night that the great rains had finally broken after months of thirst-numbing drought, flooding the parched earth and bringing hope and prosperity back to the kingdom of Chipotle. But that was where any similarity ended. Although Kobi was now the Royal Herdsman, Magoti was head and shoulders above him, being in the chief’s Royal Guard, a proven warrior, and a distant cousin to the chief’s new wife as well. This wife, from a neighbouring country, had 16 summers, while the elderly chief counted over 60. Everyone knew she had the old chief’s ear, and it was commonly believed that she was promoting Magoti as a suitable pledged-man for the chief’s only daughter Nkhosi, next in line to the kingdom of Chipotle. The Elders had thought that providing a young wife, would revive the chief’s vitality, maybe even enough to produce a son. But the old chief had proved a disappointment, not only to his young wife, as he slept alone and soundly, through the long warm nights.
‘Ma’ma. I am safely returned.’ Kobi called out as he helped himself to some groundnut stew from an iron pot suspended above a crackling fire. ‘I thought I heard lion tonight, Ma’ma. So I have strengthened the thornbushes to protect the herd in the enclosure, but tonight I must sleep alongside them.’ He wiped up the remains of the stew with some hot cornbread, then wrapping the remainder in a cloth, grabbed his cloak, and headed back out into the darkness. ‘Don’t worry I’ll stay safe…and be back in time!’
‘So it is all arranged then?’ Magoti murmured the question under his breath as he drank deeply from his gourd of frothy beer. The night was still young but they had been preparing for the next day for months.
‘It is. Do not worry so!’ The chief’s young wife slowly teased her nails the length of his smooth back. ‘It is arranged. My mother’s kinsmen are taking care of everything. All you have to do is turn up tomorrow and then, after it is finished, we can be together. Now eat this. Mother says it gives a man strength.’ She giggled softly as she nibbled his ear lobe and dropped more herb-infused honey-comb into his mouth. Then wrapping her arms around him, drew him over her again and soon Magoti’s mind was taken up with other things again.
Kobi sensed the fear of the cattle as he approached their enclosure. They clung to each other, stamping heavily on the ground, plumes of white breath escaped in steamy coils through flaring, snorting nostrils, as they tossed their heads back and forth. Something must have disturbed them, or was still hiding nearby. He lit a pile of dry wood, using an ember carried from his mother’s fire, but as it leapt into life, he noticed one of the herd was missing. It would be impossible to track her safely through the inky-darkness. So rolling himself into his cloak, he settled down by the fire. But before the first finger of light pointed over their land, he would be searching.
As Kobi found sleep, back at the village the evening was just beginning, as against a symphony of singing cicadas and noisy crickets, a seemingly never-ending trickle of people arrived, calling out to old friends and catching-up with others over gourds of fresh beer. For weeks, messengers had been travelling to all corners of the kingdom, summoning people to the Royal Court and the Tree of Decisions, to nominate and celebrate the selection of a pledged-man for the chief’s daughter. Elders greeted other Elders, clasping hands and bowing in deference to their Chief, who leaned wearily on his ebony stick, as he sat on his baobab throne, just longing for the time he could retire. While all around the meeting-place, a comfortable smell of cooking filled the air, as weary people gravitated to blazing fires set up to welcome them and then settled down for the night.
The next morning a soft breeze blew a gentle kiss that caressed the waking plains of Chipotle ruffling the thin wavy grass that released a green fragrance into air heavy with dew. And as another dawn broke with the promise of a new day, Kobi was already tracking. The lack of lion spore around the enclosure had been puzzling, as had the footprints. They appeared to lead to a wooded region ahead, but it was only mid-morning when Kobi finally came across a lingering smell of cooking in the air and keeping low, he followed the aroma.
Ahead of him he spotted an abandoned encampment, and nearby, a sound of angry buzzing that led him to the remains of a slaughtered cow. Kobi recognised her instantly as one of their oldest. She would have followed a man anywhere, such was her trust in men. And this was how that trust had been repaid. He sat by her butchered remains. Tears falling as he took a moment to ask for her forgiveness for not being there to protect her and to thank her for everything she had provided for their people; the calves she had born, and the milk that had sustained their village.
But whoever was responsible had been careless. The embers of the fire were still warm, probably only abandoned in the past few hours. Chopped wood from a rare medicinal tree lay in a heap, and a beaded necklace was hanging in full view, probably snagged from its owner’s neck as he passed the projecting branch. Kobi took it down and examined it, then kneeling down by the warm embers of the fire, he sat and thought for a long moment of the significance of all the things that he had found, and everything that was about to happen.
A sound of joyful singing announced the arrival of Nkhosi to her father’s throne by the Tree of Decisions. Led by hand-maidens, her soft buckskin tunic slapped rhythmically against her thighs, as she approached lightly as a young gazelle. Strings of gold beads and ancient semi-precious stones, coiled around her slender neck and fell to her waist. Her hair, which had been coached into a pile of intricate plaits, was threaded with beaten gold ingots, rosy pearls and tiny sea shells, washed clean by the tides of Madagascar and close by her heels, slinked a cheetah. That day Nkhosi had been bathed and oiled so her dark-amber skin, appeared to shimmer in the light of the yellow flames. But as she approached the throne and gathered assembly, her large, almond-shaped eyes were impassive, as she scanned the large crowd, unsuccessfully, for Kobi.
She couldn’t remember the day she first realised she loved Kobi. There had been so many days and as young children, and before her initiation to womanhood, they had been allowed to run free together around their village and corn fields, and beyond to the Baobabs and Flame trees of the savannah plains. Girls and boys in one tumbling, jumble of friendship, hunting for honey, collecting tree nuts, and splashing and swimming in the cool river. But she might have fallen in love with Kobi the day he presented her with an orphaned cheetah. Or the time she had been struck down with the sweating sickness, and he had brought fresh cream, eggs and honey every day, nourishing her back to health. Or maybe the day a hunting spider was caught in her tightly-coiled hair and it had only been Kobi’s calming voice that could quieten her panicked screams, as he expertly extricated the insect, and released it unharmed. It was only later that it was discovered it had been Magoti who had dropped the spider into her hair. But choosing her own pledged-man was not in her destiny, even though she was next in line to the throne of Chipotle.
Chief Matsimela beamed with pride as his daughter approached. He had been married several times but Nkhosi was his only surviving child. And although it was not unheard of for a royal princess to inherit the title of chief, it was unusual. And it made the task of selecting her pledged-man even more difficult. Her pledged-man would need many qualities. He would need to be dependable, strong in spirit, courageous, but most of all respected by their people.
‘Suitors may approach.’ Announced an Elder.
Across the crowd, young hopeful men stood and made their way to the front. But it was Magoti’s name that was already circulating the crowd. Clutching his spear, shield slung over his left shoulder, tall muscular frame standing out against the firelight he moved confidently ahead of the others. All the suitors had taken great care with their grooming that day, wearing only their best clothes and carrying their family shields and insignia with pride. But they all paled beside Magoti, who was already clothed in the smugness of success.
Kobi reached the back of the crowd, catching his breath and breathing heavily as sweat beaded on his face and ran down his back. He intently surveyed the scene, but even from that distance he could see that his mother had already noticed his late arrival and gesticulated him to join the other young men at the front. He shook his head and drawing his finger to his lips, moved through the crowd closer to the Tree of Decisions, stopping to inspect some of the fires as he passed.
‘Chief Matsimela,’ announced Magoti, sauntering in front of the chief. ‘You know my name! And you know my father and his father before him!’ Magoti turned, facing the crowd as he raised his shield above his head. ‘I am related to our chief by marriage! I am the best pledged-man! Choose me!’
‘Father...’ Pleaded Nkhosi, ‘please father not him.’ Nkhosi looked with dismay as Magoti strutted and posed before the gathering. She had seen him emerging from the new wife’s hut at all hours, but had not been able to break this news to her father.
‘I’m sorry daughter. You know our tradition. It is not my decision. It is theirs.’ Her father gestured to the assembled people.
Magoti was enjoying his moment to the full. Thinking that soon it will all be decided, and how in time he would take over as chief of Chipotle. After all, he wouldn't be pledged-man for long...there were many dangers a chief’s daughter might encounter... He looked over to Nkhosi, smiling broadly at her, before turning back to the crowd. ‘So! Accept me as your Pledged-Man!’
A thin sprinkle of agreement buzzed through the crowd, but most remained silent and subdued, while others seemed to have not even emerged from their slumber.
Kobi pushed further forward, his clothes damp with sweat and thick with dust, from running through the heat of the day. ‘Wait!’
Magoti stopped in his parade and stared at Kobi. ‘What do you think you are doing herd-boy Kobi? Do you think you are worthy? Look at you! Get back to your cows, before another one goes missing!’
But Kobi was undeterred. He knelt before the chief. ‘You must hear me. You are in danger! Look around you! How many of your men can stand, let alone defend you?’
‘Kobi, they have enjoyed many gourds of beer, that is all.’ The chief replied laughing. ‘Don’t worry so! We are all among friends here.’
‘No Chief! Respectfully, not all present here are our friends. I believe our people have been poisoned! I found discarded wood taken from the Tree of Sorrows in an encampment, not more than half a day’s run from our village, along with one of your slaughtered cows and this beaded necklace. I fear there is a war party from another country already here amongst us and our kinsmen are helpless, drugged by poisoned firewood!’
A sudden war cry pierced the air as Magoti, knocked Kobi aside and drew his hunting-knife, aiming it at the breast of the chief. But Kobi was faster, throwing himself between the knife and the chief, shielding the older man as Nkhosi’s cheetah, leapt for Magoti’s wrist, bringing him crashing to the ground in a blur of speed and vice-like gripping jaws.
‘Aargh! Beast get off me! Help! Aargh…’ Magoti screamed in pain as he unsuccessfully fought back from under the determined cheetah.
Nkhosi stepped forward, emerging like a butterfly from a chrysalis, as she effortlessly assumed the mantle of ‘Protector of her Peoples’ as she commanded her unsuccessful suitors. ‘Go! Find them! Bring them all here to me!’ The young men needed no further encouragement, as they grabbed their shields and spears and pursued the intruders, who were by then scattering like ants from a disturbed nest.
The next evening, order had once again been restored to the land of Chipotle. The invading warriors and conspirators had been found, along with Magoti, and the chief’s wife and her mother, who had been banished, under armed escort, back to their land to face disgrace. And Kobi found himself, once again in front of the Baobab Throne by the Tree of Decisions. But this time he was bathed and dressed in his finest clothing and regalia, and carrying the shield and spear of his forefathers.
He knelt in front of Nkhosi. In his mind no-one else existed. It was like a cloud of happiness had descended and encircled them both. Laying his shield and spear before her, Kobi looked directly into her soul.
‘The day is long and the nights are filled with stars. The seasons, they come and they go. They bring us rain and they give sunshine. They make our cattle grow fat and our corn flourish in the fields. But danger hides everywhere, from men and from beasts. But if you take me as your pledged-man. I will safeguard you and worship you until the moon falls from the sky, the trees touch the stars, and our ancestors welcome us home.’