She was not the vain nor jealous type; Moremi liked to tell herself. In fact, she could be less concerned about the state of her beauty, even though she was rumoured to be the fairest in the land; hence her marriage to Prince Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa, and heir to the throne of Ile-Ife.
Not being vain though, did not mean she could not acknowledge true beauty, she thought to herself, as she watched the human form of Esimirin rise out of the sacred river. Dressed in white, and adorned with white beads and peculiar white anklets, the Spirit of Esimirin was the definition of ethereal. Moremi stood transfixed, as the woman gently swayed from the river to its bank.
“Moremi Ajasoro.” Her voice echoed through the trees and shrubs surrounding the river. “To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”
Moremi went on her knees, and refused to raise her gaze from the ground. “Great one. Divine Spirit of Odo Esimirin. I have come to ask a favour of you.”
Looking bored, the deity smiled. “Hmm. I see. Then tell me, what is it that a Queen wants me to do for her?”
“I am not a Queen yet, my lady. I am simply wedded to the son of a king.”
“Enough of that nonsense.” She snapped. “Come closer, my Queen. Stand up and come forward.”
Moremi raised her head to look at the deity, just to be sure she had heard her correctly. Esimirin nodded with an encouraging smile, before beckoning with a crook of her fingers. Moremi hesitated for a heartbeat, and when she was sure she was in no danger, she stood up and moved closer to the deity.
“That is perfect.” Esimirin commented. She clasped her hands in front of her. “Now, let’s hear your request.”
“It is the Ugbo people, my lady.” Moremi began. “They are laying repeated sieges on our land, and they keep looting goods, animals, children, women, and men alike. The people are now so scared of venturing out of their homes, or going to the stream, forest, and market. No one knows when these people would launch another attack.”
The deity’s expression was unchanged. It was almost as if the smile was frozen on her beautiful face.
“I see. Why can’t Oranmiyan take care of this problem? He is the one in charge of the armies of Ile-Ife, is he not?”
“My lady, Oranmiyan has tried his best, it has all been for naught. These people are spirits.”
Surprise finally etched a little change on Esimirin’s face. “Spirits?”
“Yes! Spirits.” Moremi affirmed. “They come to us, looking like fearsome masquerades. They have no faces, no visible arms, nor any concrete feet. All we can hear from them are the howling noises, and sounds of the dead, coming from their coverings. We were only able to know that they are from Ugbo land, because our hunters traced them to those forbidden forests in Ugbo land.”
“I see. So what do you want me to do? I am not a warrior. I am just a river spirit.”
“A powerful river spirit.” Moremi amended. “I want you to help me. Help me defeat them.”
The deity laughed, and the echoes resumed. “You? But you are just a woman? What can you do?”
“And you have taken the form of a woman. What can you do?” Moremi countered, with a tilt to her chin.
Esimirin’s nostrils flared, but she retained her smile. “Fair enough. Fine, I will help you defeat them, but before I do, you must pledge something of great importance in your life to me.”
Moremi suddenly became skeptical, and she took a step back involuntarily. “What is it?”
Esimirin shook her head. “Not now. I will tell you…after you have defeated the Ugbo people.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
“No, do not thank me yet. First, you have to leave here and go stay in the middle of the market. You are going to get captured. I will ensure that the Ugbos come raiding today.”
“Captured?” Moremi sputtered. “How am I to help my people if I am in captivity?”
Esimirin’s smile was unchanged. “Why don’t you leave that to me? Now, do you still want to save your people or not?”
Nodding with vigour, Moremi responded. “I do.”
“Now, go! Go to the market, Moremi.”
Moremi did not wait to be told twice. She turned on her heels, and made away from the river in brisk hurried steps, while the deity looked on with a glint in her eyes.
“My Lord, we brought you a present.”
“If it’s another basket of yams, I don’t want to see it.” The King of Ugbo land roared from his throne. “How can a group of people love yam so much? It’s like they eat nothing other than yam at Ile-Ife.”
“It is not yam, my Lord.” The guard announced.
“Then what is it?”
“Tis a woman, my Lord.”
“A woman?” The King asked.
“Yes, a woman. A very beautiful one, just for you.”
The King of Ugbo was seated on his throne, surrounded by his chiefs, while he held court, before being interrupted by a guard.
“It wouldn’t be a bad idea if you checked her out, My King.” Chief Ogoro admonished his king.
Sighing, the King nodded at the waiting guard. “Bring her in.”
As the command left his lips, two guards brought in Moremi, with her hands bound at her back. In reflex, and stunned by her unusual beauty, the King stood up from his throne, and descended the dais.
“Isn’t she very lovely, my Lord? Look how beautiful she is. You should marry her.” Chief Ogoro said, while his co-chiefs murmured their assent.
Moremi tuned to look at the vocal chief, and was stunned, when she noticed the peculiar white anklet around his left leg. The chief saw her looking, and gave her a familiar smile.
A sound jolted Moremi. It was the King clapping his hands in glee. “You’re right Ogoro. She will make a very beautiful wife.” He turned to look at Moremi. “What is your name, my lovely one?”
“Moremi.” Moremi whispered with feigned shyness.
“Moremi Ajasoro? He asked with incredulity.
Moremi nodded. “Yes, my Lord.”
The king burst into bouts of laughter, stunning the guards, his chiefs, and even Moremi.
“This is perfect. Not only am I defeating the people of Ile-Ife, their Queen will also become my Queen.”
“A splendid idea.” Chief Ogoro concurred. “They will be completely in awe of you now.”
“Take her to my chambers now. I will come and show her what a true king feels like.”
Moremi gave the unusual chief one last glance, before being led out of the throne room, amidst the raucous laughter of the King.
Moremi thanked the little slave girl in whispered undertones, as the girl carried the bowls of water away. Louder footfalls accompanied the girl’s retreating own, before the King made his presence known in Moremi’s outer chamber.
She knelt down immediately she sighted him. “My Liege.”
The King smiled with pleasure and patted her back with the end of his horse tail. “Arise, my Queen.”
Moremi stood up and resumed her former position, while the King sat next to her.
“You did not grace my bed last night. I waited for you, but I did not see you. What happened?” The King began, without preambles.
Moremi looked at him coyly. “How can you expect me to come see you, when you have refused to answer my questions?”
The King groaned and closed his eyes, before opening them momentarily. “Are we still on this, Moremi?”
“We never left it.”
“Why are you so interested in knowing the secret of my nation’s strength?”
Moremi sniffed delicately. “I have been your wife for the past six months, and I have fallen in love with you. Unfortunately, you don’t feel for me as I do.”
The King took her hands and started rubbing circles on her palms. “You know I do. Moremi, how can you even doubt that?”
“Because you don’t trust me enough to tell me this one thing.”
“Fine. If I tell you, will you ever doubt my love for you?”
Moremi shook her head. “Never!”
The King sighed, and released her hands. He hung his head for a while, and then raised it, to look into her eyes. “What I am about to tell you must be between you and I. Not even our random citizens know this.”
“I promise to never breathe a word of it to anyone.” Moremi took his hands.
The market was unusually quiet as the Ugbo warriors crept through it. They were not surprised by the desertion though. Less and less people showed up in the market, since they began their fortnightly siege on Ile-Ife. The people believed they were spirits and were too scared to leave the supposed sanctuary of their homes.
When they saw no one, they decided to converge, so they could discuss their next line of action. So engrossed in the plans were they, that they did not sense nor see the creeping soldiers before it was too late. These men were holding torches, and they looked wild, as they descended on the Ugbo warriors with vengeance.
Raffia leaves caught fire, as screams of agony, and shouts of victory filled the air. Pandemonium and confusion fell within the burning warriors, as they did not know where to run to. Every angle they turned to, there was someone holding a blazing torch.
“Burn their disguise. Don’t let anyone of them escape.” Oranmiyan shouted from his position at the head of the fray.
Smoke filled the air, as the warriors’ clothing of raffia went up in flames. The spirits and howling masquerades were naked. They were just men with the same testicles as the average Ile Ife man.
While the imminent victory began, Oranmiyan turned to the body hiding by one of the stalls, and smiled.
From her hiding place, Moremi returned Oranmiyan’s smile.
“Mother, please. Don’t leave me with her.” Oluorogbo sobbed, looking at his mother with a beseeching gaze. “Please, don’t give me away.”
Moremi looked away, while tears and snot ran down her face. She fixed her chilling gaze on the deity she had thought was beautiful.
“Really? All you could ask for was my only son?” Her voice betrayed her bravery.
Esinmirin’s smile became wider. “You promised to give me whatever I wanted. I want your son. You defeated the Ugbo, did you not? You became a heroine, did you not? Moremi, the brave and beautiful. Moremi, the courageous Queen.”
“You sound bitter and jealous.” Moremi sneered.
“Call it whatever you want. Just give him to me.” Esinmirin’s smile disappeared.
“Horses. Cows. Goats. A festival. Anything. Ask for anything, and I’ll give it to you.” Moremi sniffed. “Anything but my only son. He’s all I have now.”
“No, you have Oranmiyan. He is King now, is he not? And he has welcomed you back with open arms.” Esinmirin waved a dismissive hand. “Besides, the women in the town have vowed to call you mother for all generations, or whatever nonsense you mortals console yourselves with.”
Moremi said nothing more, before she wordlessly handed Oluorogbo’s hands into the Deity’s open ones.
“No mother. No please. Mother please.” Oluorogbo twisted and rolled, but the deity’s grip was surprisingly strong and firm.
“Silence!” Her voice echoed, and Oluorogbo’s cries of pain became quenched instantly.
Moremi could not look anymore. She turned around and left, and the only thing scorched to her memory of her son’s sacrifice, was the peculiar white anklet around the deity’s left ankle.
“Oluorogbo.” She whispered.