Son Of A King

By Grace Ashley

Action & adventure, Historical fiction, Magical realism

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533
14 mins

 

Son Of A King –Excerpt

Chapter 1


“My Lord!”
King Uripo of Uripo was deep in thought when he heard his chief advisor calling out to him. He scratched the ground with his staff and scowled. He wanted peace. No, he needed peace. He’d come to this secluded spot for many reasons—none of them included being disturbed when he had made it clear he wanted to be alone with his thoughts.
He thought about the vast land he ruled. The expectations of his people were simple yet so elusive to obtain. It still made his heart clench with pain every time he failed them. As King he could not afford to fail. He thought how shame never really left you, no matter how deeply you tried to bury it. If you scratched beneath the surface you could always bring up things you didn’t want. At times like this he went beyond the surface and faced his demons.
He tried to bury his shame but sometimes you couldn’t escape it, no matter how hard you tried. He stood still and listened. Perhaps Saga would take the hint and go away. The calling had stopped and everything was quiet again. He let out a relieved breath when the call resumed, this time more urgently accompanied by the sound of approaching footsteps.
He ground his teeth in frustration. At any other time and in any other place, he would have ignored the unwanted summons and carried on with what he was doing. But he recognised that these were not normal circumstances. He was a King first and a man second.
“My Lord, it is as certain as the sun rises from the east and sets in the west,” said Saga his chief advisor and native healer as he drew near to the King. “All the signs point to a male offspring.”
He’d done this thirteen times and each time had been as disappointing as the last. His hopes dashed to pieces with the cries of each newborn. Even now with the possibility that with another baby’s cries his hope would be squashed—again, hope still refused to be snuffed out. Hope was a funny thing, thought King Uripo. It could not be smothered even under increasingly depressing odds. It just refused to die.
He was fifty-five years old well past his prime and he was not getting any younger. During the course of his life he’d married five women in the hope that each new wife would give him his heart’s desire. They had all failed. It was twenty-two years since he’d married for the first time and in all those years he’d produced eighteen female offspring. What a calamity!
He was Uripo, King of the lands south of the great Zambezi River. His lands were very rich extending all the way to the Ngezi River. His grazing lands were prime, the wildlife surrounding him abundant. His people never lacked and had been prosperous since time immemorial. As far as he knew his was the richest kingdom in the world.
For all his greatness and wealth he had no male child to inherit his title. There was no male child to teach and watch grow into a great man worthy to lead his people. With his death his line would die out completely. He had many female offspring but as girls they would marry one day and would belong to their husbands’ families. It was a son he needed, a son to continue his line and keep his legacy intact.
Why oh why, he lamented had the Creator struck him in such a manner. Did he not rule his lands with justice and treat his neighbours with fairness? Surely the Creator and the ancestors would answer his fervent prayers this time. And so it was that he waited under the shade of a great Mopani tree with hope flickering in his heart as Mutsa his third wife laboured to bring his nineteenth child into the world.
“Forgive me Saga if I cannot give credence to your words. You have said the same words to me too many times over the last twenty years,” he said harshly. King Uripo was in no mood for Saga’s theatrics.
“But my Lord—”
“Cease your useless prattle for I do not wish to hear it,” he said sharply. His words were a reflection of the bitterness within. “Was it not you Saga who raised my hopes too many times to count? You who foretold a great and legendary son who would be born to me so many years ago? And yet here we are today.”
“Where is the son you promised me, Saga?” King Uripo demanded angrily.
“The bones do not lie, my King,” Saga sputtered in disbelief. It was unthinkable that anyone would doubt the ancestors.
Saga a great healer whose spiritual powers were legendary in all the land even beyond the borders of Uripo was greatly distressed by the King’s blatant ridicule of his prophecy. A very thin man of indeterminate age, Saga was of medium height and was as swivelled as a dry prune. On his head was a shock of cotton white hair broken by a shiny bald patch at the back of his head. His body was garbed in the black fabric of his profession and on his waist was a rope made of black, white and red beads identifying him as a seer. Not that he needed such regalia to ....his importance. His power over the land and its people was great and second only to the King.
No one but the King dared to speak so irreverently to him. He was very wise and highly respected by the all the people. The King valued him more than any other member of his council. He knew that the King desperately desired a son and so he would forgive him the slight. He sighed struggling for the right words to reassure his leader.
Many years ago he’d seen a vision and yet it had not yet come to pass. After so many female offspring the King was starting to doubt his prophecy. Saga was an old man and he’d seen many strange things. He knew that the Creator acted in ways mortal man could not understand. He’d thrown the bones many times in frustration and doubt as the King’s wives produced girls on top of girls but the answer had been the same. The King would have a son. A great man of renown.
“You must be patient, my Lord.”
“Leave me now Saga,” he ordered. “Perhaps we will have this conversation again at another birthing but for now I have had enough.”
The King’s chief healer wisely left him alone shaking his head at the blasphemy he was uttering in his frustration. Thirty years ago it had come to him in a vivid dream how the current King’s son would be a man of legend both in their lands and beyond. The ancestors had spoken and so it would be.
The birth of a child in a King’s household was a great thing. From the moment Mutsa’s labour began the news had spilled over from his household into the village where close members of his family also had enclosures in the protected valley. His people would be talking. For years his inability to have male offspring was the talk of the village. His personal troubles fodder for the gossip mongers.
Do you think this time it will be a boy? They would be asking each other by the river as they collected water or over a calabash of beer at the men’s council.
All of them laughing at him behind his back!
Nothing would really change for the villagers because if he were to die today his brother Dzukwa would take over the title and become King Uripo. Life would go on and his memory would slowly fade into nothing. Ah but to have a son!
The King’s eyes moved away from the retreating Saga to his large compound which was currently a busy hive of activity. Everyone in the compound was excited, wife, daughter and slave alike. The birth of a boy would affect all of them. The slaves of Mutsa’s personal household were running about like headless chickens fetching this and that for their labouring mistress. While Mutsa’s two youngest children played in the yard their oldest sister assisted the midwife inside the main hut. The rest of the family would be busy in the fields tilling the land and putting seed to the ground.
But the afternoon quickly passed and dusk turned to dawn and still the child did not come. The women slinked out of Mutsa’s hut heads bent while their faces were cast in sad lines. The King watched this sorry display from beneath the tree with sinking spirits. Word travelled rapidly to the village. The mother and child were not likely to survive. Even the dogs seemed to pick up on the sad atmosphere their barks were more than a little subdued. King Uripo watched all this with a heavy heart. His wives and daughters came in and quickly fled into their own huts certain Mutsa was going to lose her life.
No one dared to approach the King who still maintained his vigil under the Mopani tree. Though she was his third wife Mutsa was Uripo’s favourite. She had been brought to him as a gift. Daughter to the King of Tanganyika she was a beauty but that was not her greatest appeal to the King for all his wives were incomparably beautiful. Sweet and gentle she was the only woman he’d truly come to love.
A heavy silence overshadowed the compound as one day turned to two and then into a third. On the third day dark clouds arrived from the south and it began to rain. The first rains of the season. Warned by the rumble of thunder families left their daily labours and escaped into their huts as the rain began to fall in earnest. They huddled together in their huts staying close to the warmth of the fire. The great baobab tree that stood at the centre of the village was struck by lightning. Some whispered that the storm was an ill omen and an evil potent.
In Mutsa’s hut only the midwife remained the rest of the women having escaped the foul weather. The King remained under the tree sheltered from the fury of the storm by a thatch structure that was constructed as part of the tree. Renegade raindrops dripped from the leafy canopy but he paid them no heed. Weary beyond words he sat there too heart sick to eat or sleep.
Not far from where he sat inside Mutsa’s hut a fire blazed hotly and Mutsa wailed pitifully as a fresh wave of pain rippled over her lower abdomen. The midwife sat huddled close to the fire her encouraging words had ceased long ago. Mutsa knew that the old woman had lost all hope. She’d seen the resignation in her eyes as the labour refused to progress normally. Surely she was about to die and her child with her, Mutsa thought the pain suddenly too much to bear.
For three days the pains had come and gone leaving the midwife baffled and Mutsa exhausted. But as night fell something curious began to take place. The pains increased exponentially and would not let up. The midwife emerged from her stupor with hope lighting her eyes.
“Let me see,” she said with more excitement than she’d shown for the last few hours. As she examined her patient she suddenly cackled with delighted laughter.
“The great lion’s beard!”
“What is it?” asked Mutsa in breathless terror. “What is happening?”
Gogo Mangwana had been so sure no one could save mother and child. She had done everything within her abilities to no avail. The King’s chief native doctor Saga had come and gone. He had left baffled like the rest. The will of the Creator would come to pass; he’d said when he’d finally left the hut. The Creator and the ancestors had heard their prayers because the baby was on its way out.
Mutsa through increasing waves of agonising pain, was vaguely aware of the midwife crouched at her feet. She gripped the blankets as the pain reached a peak and breathed out as it eased.
“Please you have to tell me,” she pleaded with the old woman. Her brown eyes pools of torment as she waited for the woman to tell her she was about to die. She held back a scream as the wave of pain crested. Three children and there was no worse pain to compare to child birthing.
“I need you to bear down very hard,” Gogo Mangwana instructed.
Mutsa did not need to be told twice bearing down with all her strength and breathing hard through the pain as Gogo Mangwana instructed. The last powerful contractions gripped her every muscle stretched to expel the baby from her womb. It took every bit of her strength but finally the child slid out into the midwife’s waiting arms. A lusty wail filled the hut and Mutsa gave a cry of gladness. Tired but filled with happiness Mutsa fell back onto the blankets tears of thanksgiving spilling from her eyes.
Her child was alive.
Gogo Mangwana turned the wet child towards the light so that she could see it more clearly. “The great lion’s beard it is a boy!” she exclaimed joyously.
“He is a bit small but that will soon change,” She cackled. “My dear it almost killed you but you have made a prince for Uripo. Our King finally has a son.”
Gogo Mangwana carefully cleaned the child and wrapped him in a soft sheep blanket and laid him next to his dozing mother. She couldn’t wait to share the news. Gogo Mangwana was just about to leave the hut when Mutsa groaned out loud in pain.
“What is this?” Gogo Mangwana clucked worriedly. The afterbirth did not normally case pain as it passed out of the body.
“What is happening?”
She ignored her patient’s query as she moved to Mutsa’s side. Many women had died in child birth and she was suddenly afraid Mutsa would meet the same fate. The birth had been a long and difficult one and there was a high possibility of complication. There was always the danger of a woman bleeding out or becoming infected after extensive tearing. The child had been small and Gogo Mangwana was certain there had been no tearing. Kneeling between Mutsa’s thighs the midwife gasped out load at the unexpectedness of the sight that met her old eyes. Tiny feet were just emerging as a second child made its exit.
“What is it?” gasped Mutsa anxiously as she felt her body begin the painful process to expel its burden.
“It is another child,” Gogo Mangwana answered. “You must bear down.”
A few moments later a squirming baby landed in her arms. Gogo Mangwana held it up in her bloody hands. Too exhausted to lift her head, Mutsa stared at it with growing panic. This one was much larger than the first and his loud cries drew the attention of King Uripo.
“The great lion’s beard it is another boy!” Gogo Mangwana exclaimed marvelling at the strange turn of events.

Deep in thought the King was impervious to the icy wind that buffeted the wood and straw structure under the tree. He’d waited a long time for news but time continued to drag on and on. For three days he’d sat in the same spot at first begging the Creator and the ancestors for a male child. As more time passed he’d begun to pray for the life of his wife, Mutsa instead. It was almost certain the child would die he reasoned but perhaps Mutsa could still be saved.
Suddenly a thin wail pierced the night and was quickly swallowed by the elements. Not sure what he’d heard King Uripo sprang to his feet and made his way to Mutsa’s hut where the cry had come from. At the door his step faltered when he heard the sound of weeping coming from within. Expecting the worst he swept into the hut. The rain and the wind followed him inside before he firmly closed the door behind him. The sounds of the storm were muted and he could hear the cry of a newborn child. He paused for a moment while his eyes adapted to the meager light offered by the fire in the pit. At his advance the midwife looked up in astonishment.
“My Lord, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” she exclaimed. In her arms was a tiny child the source of the wailing he’d heard outside.
The King’s eyes moved beyond the woman to his wife who was weeping on the blankets were she lay.
“Mutsa what is it, why do you weep?” he asked as he advanced on his wife. The midwife moved away to make room for him so that he could get closer to his wife. He glanced at the old woman in confusion as his words resulted in fresh bout of wild weeping.
“Do not weep it is a good thing that you are alive. Nothing could ever change the way I feel about you.” The King cleared his aching throat. “Any child we have boy or girl is born of love.”
As Mutsa turned to him the wool blanket fell away to reveal a tiny body lying next to its mother. The King’s jaw dropped in dawning comprehension. The contents of his stomach heaved dangerously and he tasted the acrid taste of bile on his tongue. For a minute he was in real danger of disgracing himself.
Twins! Not even in his worst nightmare could he have conceived such a disaster.
“My King,” the midwife said with gravity. “The children are both male.”
King Uripo blinked at the woman who was gushing with joy.
“You have to choose quickly so that the other can be nourished,” the old midwife was saying. She picked up the other child and presented both boys one on each arm. The King’s eyes skipped over the babies and came to rest on his wife who wept the harder at his silent regard. The King’s eyes closed for a second as he silently cursed the Creator and all his ancestors for turning what should have been a joyous occasion into a tragic one.
The King regarded his sons with pain filled eyes and noted that one was larger than the other.
Seeing his interest in the babies the midwife said. “The younger one is bigger than the first.” She knew that knowing this would affect his decision.
As their father he would choose which child would live or die. The fate of his children lay squarely on his shoulders. Unlike albino’s and cripples who were condemned to die the minute they left their mother’s womb tradition dictated that when twins were born only one could be allowed to live. One twin would remain with the parents while the extra child was given over to the ancestors to dwell in the spirit realm. There were no exceptions not even for a King. It was the will of the ancestors.
All his life he’d upheld the traditions ensuring the will of the ancestors was followed throughout his domain. Disobedience would only lead to curse. The rains would fail and the crops would perish in the fields. Disaster upon disaster would strike the land and joy would be stolen from each resident. The will of the ancestors had to be met.
He’d never dreamt that one day he would be one of the men unfortunate enough to father twins. It was a punishment worse than death. Their lives hung in the balance until he made a choice. He’d prayed for a son and the Creator had given him two instead of one.
Taking the smallest child he commanded the other to be taken to his mother. Neither boy had been suckled only the chosen one would have the privilege. Without a word he took the child back into the rainy night.
The rain fell in a silvery torrent that obscured everything more than five meters away in a thick grey shroud. He could barely make out the many huts that made up the King’s compound seeing only dark indistinct shapes. The night seemed a little darker than before. The howling wind rising like the screams of a thousand witches. The rain buffeted King Uripo soaking his clothes and blinding his eyes. Shielding the child from the rain he walked away from Mutsa’s hut. He met no one on his lonely trek to the village below. No one sane would go out in such miserable weather.
Rivers of rain water dug gullies in the sand rushing downhill to the river. The King picked his way through the village making steadily for the path that led to the river. A few dogs barked as he passed the compounds located on the northern side of the village. Once he entered the forest the thick canopy of leaves protected him from the rain. The child in his arms squirmed and his fingers tightened reflexively on the boy. The warm little body seemed to burrow closer as if seeking his warmth. But the King shivered, he was so cold on the inside and he didn’t feel like he could ever be warm again.
For the last fifteen years he’d obsessed about fathering a male child. He’d been disappointed each time his wives gave birth to girls but he’d never stopped hoping. He was a King, a leader among men and he’d obsessed about an heir to the seclusion of all else. Perhaps this was his punishment for the callous way he’d dealt with his wives and daughters.
His trek finally led him to the edge of the mighty Zambezi River. At that point the river was more than four hundred meters wide. From the rocky outcrop several meters above the water it looked like a large silver serpent with neither head nor tail. The water surface appeared calm with a few trees that grew in the water. The river was home to many animals including the deadly crocodile that made its home in its watery depths.
It was also home to the dread river god Nyaminyami. The Nyaminyami was said to be a crowned black mamba of colossal proportions. It was as wide as a full grown baobab tree. His own father the former king had seen it and bore testimony that it was so long you could never see its tail. King of all the Zambezi water spirits and a prince in the spirit realms, it was to this god that the people gave over their children. It was at this river the second twins, albinos and cripples were returned to the spirit world where they would exist outside the physical plane. This was where the child would end his short human life and begin a new one in the spirit.
“Farewell, my child.”
Hardening his heart he stretched out his arms but the child who had been silent up until then began to wail piteously as the cold rain lashed at his tiny frame. A flash of lighting lit up the sky illuminating the scene for a brief moment. In that moment the King saw the child...his son for the first time. His eyes were open crying as if he knew his fate, his eyes begging his father for life.
It was as if he knew how much he wanted him. It wasn’t like he could hide it. He’d anticipated this day for over two decades. The boy must have sensed the dangerous emotions swirling within him and took ruthless advantage with his innocent little eyes.
King Uripo fought the dangerous sentimental emotions determinedly. But they wouldn’t go away, no matter how much he reasoned or castigated himself.
The King held his son in this position a minute longer as he struggled with himself. Slowly the King drew the child back into his embrace and withdrew from the precipice. Loud sobs shook his frame as he cried out his anger and pain. Their voices rose in unison and mingled with the elements, until it seemed father and son were part of the storm. Eventually the King staggered into the fisherman’s cave which was not far from where he stood. Finding a smooth rock close to the entrance he laid the boy down. His covering was wet and he was shivering from the cold.
Using the firewood the fishermen used to dry the fish they caught in the river the King made a fire. The cave was very wide with large stalactites jutting out of its roof like the great gapping teeth of a monster. The cave was vast with tunnels that extended deep underground. It was used by the village fishermen when they did their fishing and always had a small supply of firewood inside. With fire burning cheerfully warmth began to seep in banishing the cold. Though he no longer shivered from the cold the child continued to cry until with no other way to quieten him the King stuck his pinkie into his mouth.
His son’s mouth began to work on the finger with gentle suction. In the flickering light the King gazed at his son and wondered why he was delaying the inevitable. It would be so much harder to give him up once he’d bonded with the child.
But the raw need to have a son had been part of his life for so long he had no idea how to turn it off. It was an ache that resided in his innermost core. It refused to be subdued. He found himself caressing his son’s tiny fist which was so much smaller than his own. The King was a very large man standing at over six feet. He was like his father and his father’s father before him. The king’s of Uripo had always been men of large stature. His body though old still bore the strength of his youth. Years of hard work had chiselled his muscular form. And his son would grow up to become as big as him if he was allowed to live.
Time passed slowly and the boy remained safely cocooned in his father’s arms while outside the rain continued to fall. Only his voice broke the silence as he spoke to the sleeping child.
“I can’t keep you,” he said. “I am the King and no matter how much I want you I can’t do it. There is nothing I can do. I am the king but I cannot save your life.”
His words seemed to rouse the boy. He yawned delicately his little mouth forming a tiny o then his tiny eyelids fluttered open. The King drew in a short breath as guileless brown eyes stared up at him. His son looked so small and innocent that his heart ached all over again.
“I can’t keep you,” he whispered but the brown eyes continued to stare innocently, unaware that his very life was in danger.
As the night wore on and the firewood dwindled to nothing the King realized that he could no longer stay in the cave. His son was asleep safely tucked into his now dry wool blanket. He knew that he must act but unwanted dangerous emotions were bombarding him set on a pathway to destruction he could not control. He should never have kept the boy with him for so long. Something inexplicable had happened to him from the moment he’d held the boy in his arms.
The rain was gone and he could hear the sounds of the night. Somewhere out there the frogs were singing and an owl was hooting. Life was getting back on track after the storm. He knew that he had to act but he couldn’t force his limps to move. His mind said yes but his heart was telling him no. But love should not be allowed to enter the equation. He needed to separate his emotions from what needed doing.
His sons were both royal princes of Uripo. His blood and the blood of his ancestors ran in the boys veins. By right as the first born this boy was the true heir to Uripo. Such a child could not be discarded as if he were an insignificant thing. All his life he’d lived by the laws of the land enforcing the will of the Creator and the ancestors. He’d never questioned them until this night because he realised that he could not let his son die. Once his actions were exposed the people would rebel. They feared the wrath of the ancestors too much to surrender to his whims. His son would be killed and he would lose everything.
All night his mind had worked towards a solution while he’d fooled himself into believing that he searched for the courage to do what must be done. There was only one way around this tragedy if only his friend would agree...
Mind made up he put out the fire and walked out of the cave. As he passed by the river he saw the crocodiles lying in wait like fallen logs floating on the water surface. The minute his son’s body broke the surface the crocodiles would be on him in a thrice. If curses and suffering came then so be it. His first born son would not die this way.



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