Chapter II – The Witness
“I want to get out of here,” Daniel said.
“What? What happened?” his compatriot, Ali Samar asked. “And, where are the . . .”
“They’re dead!” Daniel snapped.
“Did I stutter? You heard me! They’re dead. All but one of them.”
Ali fell silent.
“All are dead except for Djembe, who luckily for him, he stayed back at the camp when we ventured out.”
“They were mauled!” Daniel exclaimed.
“Not what. You heard me!”
Ali listened. “What beasts did this?”
“Lions,” Daniel said.
Ali said nothing.
“Could have been me too!” Daniel added.
“I survived because I took a detour to observe a herd slightly off in the distance. It’s the only reason I’m still here.
“Yes, it was risky to wander off like that on my own in these parts. If even just for a couple minutes, but it saved my life!”
Ali was silent.
“This is a fool’s errand,” Daniel continued.
“How so?” Ali asked.
“’Tis no man’s land. It’s so wild. Untamed.”
“You knew what you were getting into when you agreed to this,” Ali said. “These are unchartered . . .”
“No, I didn’t,” Daniel cut him short. “I haven’t told you half the story.”
“There is,” Daniel replied.
“Well, go on then,” Ali said.
“The cats. There was a man with them. Like he were part of the pride, leading them on like one would do with a breed of hounds.”
Ali was pensive. “Madness,” he said.
“Is it? Were you there?”
“You’ll excuse me but you sound like one of the natives now, with their wild imaginary tales. Are you okay, Daniel? The trauma from what happened must . . .”
“Stop it and listen to me! Or, do you want to go back to have a look for yourself at what’s left of the strewn carcasses? That’s if some other beasts haven’t already taken them away. ’Tis no ill man talking, or one who’s delirious. I’m telling you what I saw,” Daniel said, sternly looking him in the eye.
Ali thought there was a look of terrible concern on his face. “Well, go on then,” he said.
“You’ve heard of this man before,” Daniel said, stating what he already knew to be true.
There were none there who hadn’t heard about Nyeusi. Even strangers or relative newcomers like they were, couldn’t have resided there for long before hearing about him.
“I have,” Ali replied. “I have and I dismissed it as superstition.”
“It’s no myth, Ali. I saw him with my own eyes.”
Ali did not reply.
“It had to be him,” Daniel said.
“And, how would you know?”
“Because he was exactly as has been described. A mane of locked hair. More exotic than perhaps any that has ever been seen north of these parts.
“He was tall. Over six feet. Very dark. Impressive build, and he did lead those cats. I watched him sit near them, unconcerned while they ate our guides alive.”
Ali listened. “Well, this is savage territory. I guess it’s not altogether impossible . . .”
“It’s what happened,” Daniel snapped.
Ali looked him in the eye. “Was there anyone else?” he asked.
“Just him,” Daniel replied.
Ali became pensive.
“What are you thinking?”
“Well, if you are to believe the folk around here, he is supposed to be part of another tribe,” Ali replied.
“And?” Daniel said.
Ali looked him squarely in the face. “A tribe of beast masters,” he said.
“And, the story gets much more elaborate, doesn’t it?” Ali asked. “Did you hear about that?”
Daniel looked at him sternly. “Look, what do we really know about what’s here to doubt or question the truth about it?” he said. “I mean really. What do we know?”
Ali did not reply.
“Nothing,” Daniel added. “Not a damn thing.”
“Maybe,” Ali said.
“Maybe nothing,” Daniel returned.
“Fair enough,” Ali replied. “But if our expedition doesn’t venture to find out, others will. Enough has been said about this place to inspire the more ambitious to come here in droves. But you already know that.”
“’Tis no fool’s errand, my friend. The more ambitious of us will come. They will come for ivory. They will come for gold. They will come for exotic foods and spices. Some, like me, may even come hoping to find the necropolis. Come they will.”
Daniel, mindful that the necropolis was rumored to be the largest diamond ever found, said nothing. It was cast and encased in a silver bangle with two smaller sized diamonds placed on either of its sides. It was named after the burial ground of the fabled city called Sanctuary, whose inhabitants were allegedly laid to waste by the necromancer, the lord of the underworld.
He acknowledged he could not deny anything Ali said. The very reason they were there was to try and get ahead of the treasure and wealth seeking hordes who would come from the lands up north, from whence they came.
They were from the lands north of the great desert, from a place they called Kemet. Their aim? Locate the fabled territory called Sanctuary.
“Listen,” Ali continued. “I’m not doubting anything you said to me, but don’t let yourself get carried away. You know these people are little more than savages, so it’s not too much of a stretch for me to accept some may have wild pets.
“That said . . . well, for the time being anyway, I suspect we’re perfectly safe here. We’ll just have to be better prepared, more careful about how we go about things next time.
“But, if you’ve had enough and you’re ready to pack up, I won’t stand in your way.”
“Thank you,” Daniel replied.
“And, you would that easily, wouldn’t you?”
Daniel did not reply.
“Very well then. So after all of your sacrifices do you mean to say because there was a bit of a scare, you’d simply just pack it up and leave?” Ali asked.
Daniel kept silent.
“There is gold here, Daniel! Gold! Plus an abundance of other raw materials of which these people know not their value!”
“A bit of a scare, eh?” Daniel replied.
Ali considered carefully what words he should use next.
“Well, it’s just that I didn’t think you’d get cold feet having come so far. I was of the opinion because you were willing to come this far inland you also were willing to go all the way.”
Ali’s hope to encourage Daniel stemmed from considering a total of eighty men began the expedition. Adventurous as they were, the weeks’ long journey at sea, which was a first for many, left a good deal of the crew desirous of traveling no further inland than they needed to.
These stayed with the tribes whose lands were closer to the water. Aside from trading with them, they served as the first link among a chain of positions they would attempt to establish as their more adventurous compatriots ventured further inland.
The sea voyage, with its limited rations and countless other inconveniences, left many thin and weak upon arrival. Most, however, survived, but only to watch some of their friends die from mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and others of which they knew nothing or had no name.
Hitherto, from a total of eighty, Daniel was one of a mere twenty who dared to endure come what may, and thus had managed to make it this far.
Djembe appeared at the door.
“Djembe,” Ali said.
“Yes,” he replied. “I need to have a word with you right away.”
“Okay,” Ali said. “Please come in.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Please. Have a seat,” said Ali.
“What’s on your mind?” Ali asked.
“Did you not hear what happened?” Djembe asked.
“Well, Daniel just began telling me something about . . .”
“Word spreads easily, like wildfire around here,” Djembe cut him short. “Three of our men who went out to assist you were killed.”
“I was not out . . .”
“I mean whomever of your men who went out today,” Djembe interjected.
Ali’s face was stern. He was slow to respond. “I . . . I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry to hear this.”
Djembe became pensive. “As you can imagine, the villagers who lost their family are even more so,” he said.
Ali did not reply.
“I remember you saying you were to go with the men, Daniel. I must ask, what exactly did you set out to do today?”
“You know what we were doing,” Daniel replied. “What do you mean?”
“Did you set out in search of tusks from carcasses, or were you seeking to hunt the elephants?”
“Why, we sought already fallen animals,” Daniel replied with a straight face.
“I see,” Djembe said.
“Why do you ask?” said Daniel.
“No one here or anywhere near the surrounding villages has been killed by cats for quite some time now.”
“I see,” Daniel said.
“And, you must know that to unnecessarily harm the elephant is an evil omen,” Djembe added.
Ali struggled to hide his contempt.
He hoped Djembe’s visit would be a short one.
“I will go now, although in parting I must say I don’t know how this will turn out, or what the response will be.”
“Okay,” Ali replied.
“Before we proceed there are some things I want to get to the bottom of,” he said to Daniel, the moment Djembe parted company with them.
“We?” Daniel remarked.
Ali looked at him. “Very well then,” he said. “I will call a meeting with the heads of our contingent.”
“What’s it for?” Daniel asked.
“What’s it to you?” Ali said.
“I’m curious,” Daniel replied.
“I’m interested in learning more about this Nyeusi character and his group. Hopefully, I can glean some more information from the elders here.”
“Don’t see why you’d need to call a meeting with the key members of our group for that, and why the interest in him all of a sudden?”
“’Tis a matter of wanting to exercise caution, Daniel. That’s all. The more I know about these characters the better, and I figure the best way to learn as much as I can about them is not from hearsay, but from meeting and talking to the more authoritative figures here.”
“Like Djembe said, stories spread or travel like wildfire. In time, I’m sure some of our men may become distressed after hearing what happened. Families of the afflicted may by degrees become even more distressed. Who’s to say many haven’t already thought we’ve overstayed our visit, if you’re following me.”
“I believe I am,” Daniel replied. “To some we’re probably now seen as those foreigners who brought death to their people, or so I think you mean.”
“Precisely,” said Ali.
“And, you call that being safe?” Daniel asked. “By midnight they may have us in a boiling pot while they dance around a fire.”
“We need to have a meeting tonight,” Ali, who was growing with apprehension, said. “We ought to air this all out in the open and decide on what is the best course of action to take.”
Daniel shook his head in an upward and downward manner. “Well, let’s get to it then,” he said. “While we still can.”
“Don’t further alarm me, Daniel. We don’t know for sure what’s on anyone’s mind.”
He was right in more ways than one. While they had no certain knowledge of what their peers or the villagers were thinking, word did reach camp about what transpired, and certain members of the contingent did become concerned and could only wonder what may happen next.
Some like Daniel, joked about the possibility of being the chief ingredients later on for a soup, if not a roast.
Some took this talk as humor. With others, the joke fell flat, and they wondered just where might Daniel and Ali be at the hour, that is, if they hadn’t already been taken captive by some of the cooks there.
Ali’s attention was diverted by the presence of three men who appeared at the entrance to the door. They were Penal, Asfar and Sodom.
The later, a known rapist back in his land, was the first to offer his services when he learned their king demanded an expedition be sent to find and acquire gold and whatever other material wealth and riches were allegedly within Sanctuary and/or the distant lands.
The reward for his participation provided the mission was successful, was a pardon for his crimes. He was also promised a share of the spoils or riches too, and a reinstatement of his status to not merely a free but honorary citizen.
Those were the general terms that applied not only to him, but to the entire expedition, most of whom, were convicts.
Ali was an exception. Presently the three exchanged stares with him.
“Come in,” he said.
They did so.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” he added.
“As you can imagine, we heard about what happened,” Penal, who preferred to stay on his feet, said.
“Ok,” Ali said.
“The men are concerned, Ali,” Penal returned.
“Accidents happen, Penal. What do you expect me to say?”
“They do happen,” Penal added.
“Doesn’t make us look good though,” a concerned Asfar said. “We’ve been here for some time now but we’re still foreigners or strangers to many. Not all are happy to have us, and now this.”
“Again, accidents happen. I can’t control all that goes on here.”
“No,” Penal said. “Not all. But you could have avoided what happened today.”
“Is that so?” Ali replied. “How may I ask?”
“Well, for starters, I’d say why do you persist in pursuing frivolous nonsense, like acquiring tusks, skins of exotic beasts and all such foolery and instead stick to the real business of our travel?” Penal asked.
“Frivolous nonsense you say. The king would reward me as handsomely for acquiring a pair of tusks as he would for a pot of gold. Now as to the necropolis, well, that is a different matter entirely.”
“I’ll be forthright,” Penal said. “What amazes me is how quick you are to bend your knee at the beck and call of vain, vile, and foolish men.”
“What do you know about me?” Ali replied. “I didn’t know you, nor did you know me until we were brought together under this assignment. What amazes me is how recalcitrant an individual you are, Penal.
“Lest you forget, I am the head of this exhibition, and our assignment was granted from none other than our king!”
“Indeed,” Penal returned. “You needn’t remind me, although I might mention titles more often than not say little about the quality of a man.”
“There you go,” Ali returned. “As obstinate as a mule.”
“I am only being honest,” Penal replied. “And, if the truth be told, when dealing with most men, honesty is the worst policy. Men prefer deceit, lies, and dishonesty.”
“I’ll have you know that the irony of such words coming from a petty thief and convict is not lost on me,” Ali replied.
“Nor did I didn’t think they would be,” Penal returned, “because mine is not cloaked in an air of pretentiousness. That is your style.”
At this point, the rest of the party was as silent as could be.
“Enough of this! State your case then!” Ali said.
“Why risk life and limb of our men or others pursuing mindless trophies for soulless men is what I am asking. Why put us in such jeopardy? Either from beasts or from the scorn or wrath of the community? What does the king know or care about what we have to endure here? And, for what other than pursing tokens of his greed and vanity.”
“I was entrusted with an assignment here,” Ali replied. “And, unlike you, I do have some respect for authority.”
“I don’t see how disrespectful it would be to solely concentrate one’s efforts on pursuing that which is of the highest value or currency. And that, as you know, is not ivory.”
Ali thought it best to let him continue having his say.
“I don’t know about you, Ali, but I didn’t come all the way here to appeal to anyone’s conceit or vanity. A nobleman I could never pretend to be. I’m in this for me.
“Now you’ve got a community very concerned that you may have incurred the wrath of this guy they call Nyeusi, and heaven alone knows what that could mean.
“If it were up to me, I say we press on to find the gold, and God willing, that most fabled jewel, wherever that might be, since our welcome here may already be as good as spent.”
Ali looked at Asfar and Sodom.
“So, is that what this is? You’re planning a mutiny?” said Ali.
“No one is planning anything, Ali, but one has to first think about his safety,” Asfar said.
“When you agreed to do this, you all knew it was not going to be a cup of tea,” Ali said.
“What happened to those men out there today could have also happened to me, Ali. I’m all for not being sidetracked by things like exotic skins or ivory. If I must go on, well then the gold is where it’s at for me,” Daniel said.
“Well . . . all right then,” said Ali.
“What does that mean?” Asfar asked.
“You want to move on? I’m good for moving on as well. You’ll get no resistance coming from me.”
“What does that mean?” Asfar asked. “Are you going to stay here and leave us be?”
“So, you did make up your minds to leave without me!” Ali said.
“No. Not really, but we do think we’ve been here long enough already, Ali,” Sodom replied. “Whoever wants to stay and wait for word coming back from those leading the charge, let them wait. I want to be with the lead pack.”
“To that, you can include me,” said Asfar.
“Also me,” said Penal.
Ali looked at Daniel. “And, also me,” he said, albeit half-heartedly.
“What you mean is you want to lead the pack,” Ali said, directing his attention to Sodom. “You speak of gold, but I would bet that privately, you hope to acquire the necropolis for yourself.”
“Ali, the truth is most of our men are scared after all the talk they heard from the villagers about Nyeusi and the shetani. So, after what happened today, good luck getting them to go out on any adventures for skins or ivory,” Sodom said. “There’s your mutiny.”
“Aside from that, most of them here are just happy to be free,” Asfar added. “They don’t give a damn about going any further or chasing any gold or ivory. They explicitly said this to me. How’s that for a mutiny?”
“Today or tomorrow we come across gold and half of them won’t even care to return home with us,” Sodom added.
“So, they’d rather stay here?” Ali asked.
“They’d rather stay here,” he echoed.
“You can’t put a price on what it means to be free,” Penal interjected.
“But they would be free back home,” Ali said.
“Yes, but only on the condition they bring what the king wants back to him,” Penal replied. “Their take is they’re already free here, so having got this far, they’ll take their chances trying to make it right where they are now. Forget all that stuff about gold or getting back on a ship.”
“I see,” said Ali.
“When you think of it that way, I can’t really say that I blame them,” Sodom said. “The only difference with me is I’d prefer to move on with what we really came here for.”
Ali thought about this. “Very well then,” he said, becoming pensive.
“What are you thinking?” Asfar asked.
“I’m thinking if we’re to be moving on, we need to find out more about this Nyeusi, and I don’t mean from village chatter and hearsay. We need to speak to the most reputable sources we can find here about him and where they think the gold might be,” Ali replied.
“You’ve heard it a thousand times already perhaps. It’s supposed to be in some forbidden and ungodly city. A place of no return they say,” Penal said.
“Nonsense,” Ali replied. “If it’s a place of no return evidently someone must have returned from there to tell them about it. Right? I mean how else would they know? Either that or they have no idea what they are talking about.”
“Whatever, Ali,” Penal added.
“It’s not whatever. But . . . well . . . we’ll sure find out, won’t we?” said Ali.
“Whose words do you think we can trust?” Daniel asked. “There is no such thing as a map detailing the way to Sanctuary. All knowledge here is laid down from an oral tradition.”
“So, we ought to seek out the most learned and knowledgeable among them,” Ali replied. “That means one or more of those who officially greeted us when we first arrived here.”
“The elders,” Asfar said.
“Precisely,” Ali replied.
“Well, let’s try to schedule a meeting then, and also find out who among our men wants to continue along on this journey,” Sodom said.