“Lwanda — .” A high-pitched, child-like voice echoed across the arena. He could make out a vague figure perched on the throne directly in front of him – the slight frame of a boy.
Lwanda took a tentative step forward. Pain shot through his side. Instinctively he brought his hand to his rib, and winced in pain as he felt the warm liquid oozing out of his side.
“You are injured —” the boy repeated. Lwanda’s eyes were now adjusted to the darkness, and he could make who the speaker was. He was a young, black lad, and couldn’t have been more than twelve. He carried a woollen blanket draped over one shoulder, and held a short, brown staff in his other hand. A conical hat came down almost to his eyes. It was woven out of coiling bunches of reeds held in place by rows of twining, and was tipped by a coiled bobble at the apex of its crown. A golden pendant hung from his neck and rested on his bare chest. It gleamed and glinted in the light that bathed the space.
Lwanda looked at the woollen blanket on the boys shoulders in envy.“It’s been a long time since I saw my own blood, Senkatana,” he said. “It feels — cold,” he added, a wry smile playing on his lips. “Perhaps if you lent me your blanket —”
“You jest at a time like this, Lwanda?” a cavernous voice boomed across the room. Lwanda turned to look at the person who spoke. The old man regarding him through stern eyes was dressed in a white linen tunic, clasped over one shoulder, leaving his other shoulder bare and exposed. Greying dreadlocks fell neatly from the blue turban on his head, and he had a scraggy, white beard that stood out against his black skin. He carried a long, ebony staff in his right hand.
“Good to see you too, Setna. Perhaps you can tell me why I am here?”
Setna turned to the woman seated next to him. “Can you believe it, Oya? He jests at a time like this!”
Oya couldn’t help but smile. Her dark skin made her blue eyes all the more striking. A blue and gold silken headband covered her head entirely, and ended in a light blue veil that fell to her shoulders. A necklace of gold beads was strung around her neck, and on her wrists she wore several golden bracelets.
Lwanda caught the smile. “Why am I here, Oya?” he asked, taking the smile as a sign of sympathy. “Why do I stand before the brotherhood, like unto one accused?”
“It’s you that should tell us, Lwanda,” Oya replied sharply.
“That I cannot do. I will take my seat amongst the brethren,” he said, taking a step forward. “I am injured and I am tired.”
“Not when you are standing trial, Lwanda.” Nyaminyami’s deep voice snapped across the hall like a whip. He was a young black man, with a slim, handsome face and sunken cheeks. All he wore was a scarlet shawl wrapped around his waist. Three, bright blue peacock tail-feathers fell from a clasp around his neck onto his chiselled, well-defined chest. A single blue bracelet adorned each of his arms and each of his ankles.
Nyaminyami shot a harsh glance at Lwanda’s feet. Instantly, green creepers burst through the marble and entwined themselves around his legs. Lwanda struggled to move. He was stuck.
“You do not sit when you’re standing trial,” Nyaminyami continued in his stern voice.
“As much as I admire your wit, Nyaminyami, was that really necessary? ” Lwanda asked, struggling in vain with the creepers around his massive calves. “That’s what I call an abuse of powers.”
“That’s funny coming from you, Lwanda,” Setna said.
“Nyaminyami’s the funny one, not me.”
“You do not seem to realize why you are here,” Setna shot back.
“Isn’t that what I’ve been asking for the last five minutes?”
Senkatana chuckled. Setna shot him a stern look. He quickly became serious again.
“Lwanda Magere,” Nyaminyami said, rising to his sandalled feet, “You stand accused of absconding from your mission to bring peace between the Luo and the Lang’o nations.”
“Now, hang on just one minute,” Lwanda objected. “Who said anything about absconding? As far as I’m concerned, I’m still on the mission.”
“Then why are you here?” Setna asked. Lwanda shrugged.
“I got stabbed. It’s an occupational hazard when you’re a warrior. It’s bound to happen at some stage, you know.” Senkatana muffled a chuckle.
“You have been stabbed many times before, Lwanda. Do not take us for fools,” Oya said, looking stern for the first time during the proceedings.
“Your calling to protect and defend gives you indestructible skin,” Setna said. “This is your gift.”
“I failed because of the chink in my armour,” Lwanda said, defensively. “You were too scared that I would grow too powerful—”
“We all have weaknesses, Lwanda,” Nyaminyami cut in.
“Then that’s just too bad because the enemy found out about the shadow thing and —.”
“The way they attacked your shadow was gruesome.” Senkatana piped up. “Did you guys see — ” he stopped when he noticed the disapproving looks all around him. “Sorry”, he said, sinking into his seat. “I was watching,” he muttered, “I know I shouldn’t have been—. It’s just that, he’s my hero — well, wa — was my hero, actually.” Senkatana almost disappeared into his chair.
Lwanda’s shoulders sagged. The defiance disappeared from his face and from his voice. “Brethren,” he said, “I have failed you. Give me another chance—”
“You seem to forget that this was already your second chance, Lwanda,” Setna said, enumerating off his fingers. “Thousands of years ago, you were to lead your people safely from the southern reaches of Egypt to their present homeland. You failed in that.”
Lwanda’s head fell. Setna continued. “Then we sent you back to broker a lasting peace between them and their warring neighbours. You got a second totem – the rock. You failed in that, too. None of us gets a third chance, Lwanda. You are banished to Ahera, for good.”
Lwanda felt his knees buckling. Surely he had misheard? To be banished forever meant that he would never ever see Atusara. Never ever see the realm of light. The worst thing about the nether gloom of Ahera was the cold – the eternal, biting cold. He felt his head spin. There must be some chance for escape. Some way out.
A pair of doors leading into the arena burst open. An old, black man scurried in. He was short, had a flat, bulbous nose and big, clear eyes and long lashes. His light brown toga left his dark legs and sandalled feet exposed. He carried several rolls of parchment beneath his arm, and was in a visible state of agitation.
“You’re late, Aesop!” Nyaminyami said.
“I am from the Map Rooms,” Aesop said, ignoring Nyaminyami. “Two of the Time Maps are missing.”
“What?” The Brethren rose to their feet all at once, firing questions at Aesop at the same time.
“What time maps?” “Missing how?” “Did anyone see anything?”
Aesop dropped the rolls of parchment in one of the vacant seats, then leaned over to catch his breath. Being an old man, it seemed that he had made a considerable effort to get there running.
“I had gone to the Map Room, to consult a couple of Time Maps and see when to expect the next set of Passages. I wanted to be on hand to capture my next batch of stories.” All the Brethren listened to him in wrapt attention, including Lwanda. “When I got there, I immediately saw two gaps on the shelves.”
“But the Map Room is massive.”
“It contains billions of life stories.”
“How could you tell?”
“Perhaps your eyes are growing dim with age, old man.”
“I know the Map Room like the back of my hand. I have painstakingly annotated each one of those Maps. I know exactly where every human being’s map is, I know their life story from beginning to the time of passage.”
“Then you can tell me how mine ends?” Lwanda interjected.
“That I cannot do,” Aesop replied. “I cannot see beyond the time of passage. I already knew that you would be joining us here today. That is why I came armed,” he said, tapping his parchment and quill, “I wanted to add your story to the collection.”
“Whose time maps were missing,” Setna barked.
“Oh,” Aesop continued. “One of them belonged to a human being called Phineas Chuene.”
The Brethren exchanged looks. None of them had ever heard the name before. “He lives in the Realm of Men, in the year 2017.”
“And the other?”
“It belonged to one of us. To one of the Brethren.”
There was a moment’s silence, as if everyone was afraid to speak. Setna cleared his throat. “Who was it?”
The looks of horror and panic that swept across the room made Lwanda’s heart jump.
“But isn’t he meant to be guarding the gates of Atusara, as a punishment?”
“Yes, and he has only been there for half an age.”
“Summon him here, this instant,” Setna commanded.
“Baoner’s been missing since this morning,” Oya mumbled. Everyone turned to face her. “I was at the gates of Atusara earlier today. Baoner was nowhere to be seen.”
“Then he has returned to Earth,” Senkatana said.
“No, that cannot be,” Nyaminyami exclaimed, a look of horror on is face. “Surely, you would have seen him enter the cross roads, Aesop?”
“Yes, he came into the cross roads this morning, to give me a story for one of my maps.” Aesop’s face fell. “I hurried to the Map Room to take it down, but when I got there, I noticed that two maps were missing, and I rushed here immediately.”
“Senkatana!” Setna said, sharply. “Get to the Cross Roads. Note whatever you can see. Then come back here immediately.” Senkatana got up and bounded out the Arena.
Setna sunk into his chair. The wind seemed to have been knocked out of him.
“Baoner has returned to earth,” he muttered in disbelief.
“But why would he do such a thing?” Senkatana asked, naively.
“This was all my fault,” Nyaminyami replied. All eyes in the room turned towards him. “Our sentences at the gates overlapped briefly, and he replaced me just as I completed my age.” He sat down on his seat, and held his head in his hands. “He was very bitter, and would complain every day about how unfair it was, that the others could enter Atusara, and still be men of renown. He said he too wanted man to –,”
“— Build his monuments, tell his stories and write his songs.” Oya completed the sentence for him. “I’d heard him say it a number of times, too.”
“But I thought nothing of it at the time.”
“If Baoner returns to this realm with his totem, what would it mean?” Lwanda asked.
“Like those that have gone before us, he would enter Atusara, but,” he added, “I fear that he would not rest there. His mind is corrupted. All he wants is power. He was always closest to —”
“Kishi, before he got banished to Ahera.”
“With Kishi and Baoner in league, Atusara would soon fall.”
“Then we need to stop him, somehow.”
“Who could make the passage?”
“It cannot be any of us. We have done so twice already. A third time would be too much for us. We might never come back again.”
“Send me,” Lwanda said, stepping forward.
“No,” Setna said.
“You were willing to banish me to Ahera. Why not this?”
“Because you do not understand what you are asking.” It was Aesop that replied. “I have never seen any soul make the passage a third time. You will be greatly diminished. So diminished in fact, that you might never ever come back.”
“What do you mean? What’s worse than Ahera?”
“Non-existence. Non-being. I have never seen it. I’ve only read of it. If a soul makes the passage too many times, it could eventually, disappear.”
“There are some things that are worse than Ahera, Lwanda. I would not wish that on one of the Brethren.”
Lwanda bowed his head and weighed his options. He thought about his past mistakes and failures, and how he had let his brethren down as well as the Realm of Men. His head snapped up. “I am willing to face the risk,” he said.
“Are you just trying to escape your punishment?” Nyaminyami asked.
“No, I am not, Nyaminyami. I owe it to you, and I owe it to the people that I have failed back on earth. If Baoner comes back with his totem and releases Kishi from Ahera, then what will happen to you? What will happen to us? What will happen to the Realm of Men, that we have been sent to protect?”” There was silence. No one could give him an answer.
The white marble beneath Lwanda’s feet gave a sudden jerk. All was dark again.
On the soft, rolling grasslands that ran gently up to the shores of Nam Lolwe, the earth shuddered. There was a loud crack, the ground separated and a massive crevice snaked its way across the bare patch where Lwanda’s dead body lay supine.The rumbling earth and the splitting rocks drowned out the ash-covered soldiers’ shouts of terror as they ran for cover. Lwanda’s lifeless body slipped and tumbled into the bottomless crack. There was a mightly jolt, and then, with a thunderous roll, the crevice closed in on itself. The two advancing walls pushed a massive flow of steaming hot magma out of the ground beneath. Within seconds, it was cool. All that was left where Lwanda’s body had lain was a hulking mound of jet black rock. It cast a long, dark shadow towards the east.
In the west, the sun dipped into the soft, lapping waves of Nam Lolwe – the great lake. At the same time, three thousands years away, Fikani Stan Oyama stirred in his sleep. He thought he’d felt his bed shaking, but then he turned over and went back to sleep. He couldn’t believe that it was already morning.