Return 14

Onyeka cuddled one child against each side while she spun a story for them, a legend of long ago. Together, the hero and Ejiro’s Bride had slain a dangerous spirit-creature belonging to a water-god, one that had been preying on people attempting to cross the river or even draw water or do laundry or fish. Two years later, after she’d passed on her responsibilities to her successor, the Bride had chosen the hero as her husband. No one then had questioned her faithfulness to Ejiro or accused her of inappropriate behaviour. That morning, though, outside the temple, Onyeka had heard exactly that.

Many generations of respect for Ejiro’s chosen Brides was eroding rapidly, at least in some minds. It might be a mercy that Abena’s successor had died in one of the epidemics, and there was no one to follow. Unless Ejiro recovered quickly, Abena would be the last link in a very long chain.

She was completely unprepared for all four of the Bright Ones who had been harbouring in her house to appear in a hysterical panic comparable to the one they’d been in the night Ejiro had shaken. They seized any part of her they could reach, tugging urgently.

Enitan looked up at her, even though there was little to see in the dim light. “Mama?”

“Wait. Stop! Now! Yes, I’ll come with you, but let go!”

They released her, but fidgeted nervously, taking turns darting towards the door and back towards her.

“The Bright Ones?” Nechi asked.

Onyeka nodded. “They’re extremely upset about something. Can you two put yourselves to bed?”

“We could,” Enitan said seriously, “but I think we should go with you. Maybe having someone you can send with a message would be useful.”

He had a valid point, and had done that for her before. Nearly fourteen, he’d always been thoughtful and more reflective than the other boys his age, and the recent conditions had only made it more pronounced. But would it be dangerous?

“It’s late, and I don’t know what they want.”

“If it’s going to be bad, I’ll bring Nechi home. But the Bright Ones won’t let us be hurt.”

Onyeka sighed. “I don’t have time to argue. Up, and let’s go. But if I tell you to come home, no more questions.”

“All right.”

He kept promises, and he was protective of his little sister, so she could trust in that.

The Bright Ones led them along the dark streets at such a pace that Onyeka gathered Nechi up onto her back to carry her. By the temple, she spotted Abena, similarly roused, with an escort of something like a dozen Bright Ones. Without a word, the current Bride joined them.

The Bright Ones led the small group directly to a place they’d been recently: the abandoned lot where the moons’ brighter children, in their guise as healer and servants, had been living and ministering to the people of Ilek.

The fire was out, the big soup pot overturned, and Onyeka saw scant signs of life.

“Mama?” Nechi said fearfully. “Where are the nice people? And the animals?”

“I don’t know, love,” Onyeka said worriedly. “Enitan, go check whether the donkeys are here.”

He ran for the stable tent, but his steps back towards them were slower, his shoulders slumped, and that told her everything. In the moonlight she saw his spine stiffen as he swung around to face the cart. “Hey! There’s someone over here!”

Abena strode past Onyeka in that direction. “Show yourself,” she demanded. “In Ejiro’s name, show yourself!”

The reply was a dismissive snort. “And what’s that worth?” That voice sounded male.

“Bring him,” Abena said flatly, and all the Bright Ones that had come with them, and several more besides, swarmed the cart.

“Ow! Stop… what… stop that!”

Nechi giggled. “That looks funny.”

Yes, watching the intruder being physically dragged out into sight probably would look extremely amusing if you couldn’t see the Bright Ones who were doing it.

They dumped the intruder at Abena’s feet and stepped back, watching her alertly. Part of their purpose was to obey and serve the Bride—a substantial body of absolutely loyal attendants provided to the Bride by her divine husband—but Abena had been too deep in grief to give them any directions for a long time. Until now.

“Explain,” Abena said imperiously. “Are you responsible for the healer’s absence?”

The intruder sat up, rubbing various parts of himself that had probably been pinched as well as grabbed. “Me? No. There was no one here. I figured anyone that stupid deserves to lose some food.”

“Once more people realize they aren’t here,” Onyeka said, lowering Nechi to the ground, “they’ll tear everything apart looking for every crumb.”

“Yes, they will,” Funanya said from behind them. “And that would be deeply ungrateful on Ilek’s part. Best we see to it that it doesn’t happen.”

“Leave anything you took,” Abena told the intruder. “And leave. Quickly. You can tell anyone else you see that Ejiro’s Bride and her predecessors forbid anyone from setting foot here until our guests return. Ilek will not stoop to plundering the belongings of guests in our house simply because they’ve been called away.”

The intruder looked rebellious, but a few pinches from the Bright Ones drove him off the lot, and Onyeka had no doubt they stripped him of any ill-gotten goods in the process.

“What happened here?” Abena asked the Bright Ones when some of them gathered again around her and Onyeka, elderly Funanya and young Efua.

Onyeka expected only the silence that she’d grown accustomed to, but one regarded Abena, shifting from foot to foot in agitation. “Taken.”

“Taken by whom?”

“The bad ones… took two who were here alone, the others go seeking them. Ejiro is afraid. The moons are afraid. The good ones tried to help. We saw. We told Ejiro. Ejiro needs help.” It came out staccato and rapid, the words tripping over themselves.

“Is there anything we can do to help them?” Abena asked. “So they can help Ejiro?”

The Bright One speaking drooped. “We think not. We can keep watch. The bad ones can see us. They have killed us. But we all die without Ejiro. You… no.”

“We can stay right here,” Funanya said. “So that if they make it back, they have their home intact. We can be here when they return, and help then if we can. If nothing else, we can make certain they know that there are those in Ilek who are grateful to them already and who care in return about what happens to them. And if they do not return…” She heaved a sigh. “Better us than the council. Get the fire going. This may be a long night.”

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