“Keicha—” They both started at the same time.
And then she stopped short as her eyes widened, focusing on something behind him.
Rishi swivelled, expecting to spy the creature, all the while thinking, impossible! It wouldn’t, couldn’t, cross the border! They were safe!
Then, he saw the dim glow coming from between the crop of trees to their left, and he wondered how they could possibly have missed it on their way out.
Kobenga minda. Beacon. As the Crossroads were called when they glowed. When long ago, the ancestors had built them as border, warning and beacon.
Past five warriors, backs together
Here it comes, red eyes glowing
In the forest of sinister calm
Creeping shadows, moving ferns
A tinkle and howl will mark your death
Past five warriors, backs together
Glowing as the stars align
Follow the light that marks the way
To its hollow, its hidden lair
Boldly enter, its treasure awaits
Rishi looked back at the sleeping town that stretched along the river across from them, water flowing lazily beneath the wooden bridge a little ways before them.
From their vantage point, he could see the wide, sandy roads that partitioned row after row of nearly identical yellow thatched, red brick homes, colours muted in the light of the fading moon. His eyes skimmed over the roof-tops; past the market square of now empty stalls far off in the distance; past the dense foliage that surrounded the chief’s court; past the sprawl of royal buildings that backed onto the sheer cliff-face; to rest on the cliff-hugging towers. Those spires and turrets housed the sentinels and scouts who should have sounded the alarm.
What were they doing? Rishi wondered. Sleeping? Gaming? Obscured by the few clouds in the sky? For, obviously, no one was alert, no one aware. No gongs clanged. No horns blared. No lights shone – none in the homes and none in the streets to mark the progress of well-armed warriors.
Rishi’s hands clenched. He was on his own, completely alone, and duty called. The Eloko’s den was the only known site of the munjiro tree this far north; the tree of life; more precious than gold. The tree whose roots could cure the fever, that deadly fever that stole the life of the very young. Roots made even more potent when grown within Elokoland. Every warrior of the Manikongo took an oath to seek out the munjiro during the Kobenga minda.
He turned back to Keicha just as she was moving away from him, not towards the town, but back into the forest.
His jaw dropped. “Where do you think you’re going?”
She didn’t break a stride. “Kobenga minda,” she called over her shoulder, giving him a look that seemed to say, ‘obviously.’
In two steps, he’d reached her. “You,” he pointed, “Are going into town to raise the alarm. I,” he pointed, “Am going to find its den.”
“It’ll be too late by then and you know it Rishi. By the time I reach the square, strike the gong and rouse the men, you would be long gone. And they won’t be able to follow. The sun would be up, the moon’s light spent and Kobenga minda over.”
She started moving away again.
“You can’t be serious,” Rishi said. “How could you possibly hope to help? You who fainted at the sight of it.”
“Well, I didn’t actually faint on sight. I fainted afterwards. After—” she stopped talking at the look on his face and shuffled away. “Are you coming?” she called, “Or do you plan on leaving this in the hands of a mere woman?”
Rishi had to pick his jaw off the ground a second time. Was she actually making light of infiltrating the Eloko’s lair after what they’d just been through? He reached her standing quietly before the beacon, bathed in its glow, ethereal.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” he said. “You have nothing to prove to me.”
“I know that, Rishi. Believe me, I know.”
“Because I rather you didn’t go alone.”
He didn’t look convinced.
“I promise not to get in the way. I’ll do exactly what you tell me to, okay?” At his raised eyebrows, she continued, “Okay, maybe not exactly, but as close as I can manage.” She knew she’d won when he let out a long-suffering sigh.
“Just promise me you won’t get yourself killed,” he muttered.