The battle had been raging for hours, and the king could see his fighters were getting tired. Perched on top of his old trusted mare, the king looked over the battlefield in despair. He knew that going in, there was no way he was going to win this battle, but he could not entertain the thought of giving his people away without a fight.
“My God,” he uttered in derision. The Zubarus had taken over the battlefield. There was no hope left.
The king looked around the battlefield and what was left of his men. They looked shattered, swinging their swords like they were heavy with lead. Some of them could barely strike their opponents. Regardless, they soldiered on.
He knew he should surrender; beckon his soldiers to retreat. But the thought of the Zubarus taking over his people and his land did not sit well with him. He needed his people to know that he had fought for them to his last breath. That he never gave up.
Swords swayed back and forth, arrows flew from the heavens, and bodies fell to the ground. There were fighters on horseback and some on foot. Joining his men, the king frantically swung his sword, furiously attacking his enemies and screaming at the top of his lungs. His energy was dwindling. He knew he couldn’t keep going much longer, but he couldn’t leave the battlefield and his soldiers. So, he kept on fighting.
They had been battling for hours, but the Zubarus looked like they had just started.
He looked around as the dust rose like smoke in a fire, engulfing the soldiers as they fought. Fought for their kingdom, their families, and for him.
Looking around, the king spotted a lone soldier sitting on his horse, watching the battle just like he was. His eyes looked bleak and tired. A thought hit him; he needed to warn his family of what was to come. He needed to get them to safety. He directed his horse towards the man and grabbed him by the collar. He whispered frantically in his ears. The man nodded and sheathed his sword into its scabbard. The man then turned his horse around and hurriedly raced away from the battlefield.
The king resumed fighting using all the strength he had left in him. Suddenly, he felt his horse buckle. The horse neighed, and the next moment he was flying in the air. One of the opposing soldiers had stabbed the king’s horse in the leg with his sword, sending both crashing into the ground. The horse fell on his side, landing on top of the king’s leg and crushing it beneath him.
The king cried out in agony as pain radiated through his body.
His sword flew from his hands, leaving him defenseless. He closed his eyes for a moment. As he lay there with his eyes closed, he felt a shadow descend on him. The king opened his eyes and looked up to see a man standing over him, his sword hanging loosely from his hand, dripping with blood. As they stared at each other, the air changed around them.
The other man’s eyes were cold and harsh, like steel. There was no emotion behind them, and the king knew this was it. Suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed a mirthless and defeated laugh. He then sighed and took a slow deep breath.
“I should have known,” he whispered, his face lighting up in recognition. His shoulders slumped in defeat, and he whispered one word: “Justice.” Then he closed his eyes as the other man raised his sword.
A bucket full of fruit flew in the air, splattering and rolling on the grey brick road as two boys ran through the market.
“You silly little rats!” a shopkeeper shouted. “I’ll make your parents pay for all this food! This is not a playground!” he screamed as he ran after them, tripping over the fallen fruit.
“Sorry, Mr. Lango!” the two boys, Eli, and Jeremiah shouted back, chuckling. They continued running through the little village. Their feet made a rhythmic pattering sound as they passed the market and some beautiful houses that lined the streets.
The little village where the two boys lived was very simple. The houses were lined up in neat rows with whitewashed walls and dusty brown roofs. Some of the homes had thatched roofs with older-looking brown walls. Others had beautiful plants clinging and crawling up the walls with colorful flowers surrounding them.
The streets were busy at this time of the day. It was almost evening, and everyone was rushing home from whatever business they had been conducting during the day. A lady carrying a baby on her back and a huge basket full of fruit hurried past them, almost colliding with Eli.
“Hey,” she yelled, holding on to her basket and turning around. “Watch where you are going.”
“Sorry!” Eli shouted back, running past the village dog, who looked up quickly, wondering what the commotion was about.
They ran past old Baba’s butchery, one of the newer buildings in the village. The back of the butchery always had people sitting outside eating and chatting, and the front had people waiting for their orders. Delicious smells emanated from the butchery. Jeremiah turned around and looked at the building, his mouth-watering. Old Baba cooked some of the best meat in the village. One day, when he was old enough, he would be allowed to sit on the patio and eat while listening to the grown-up conversations.
Eli and Jeremiah kept running until they got to the outskirts of the village. They climbed to the top of a small hill located at the edge of their home. That was their regular hangout in the evenings after their class instructions and work in the farms was done.
Eli sat down on the rocks, huffing and puffing from all the running, and looked up at the setting sun. This was his favorite spot in the whole entire world. The little village where he lived was one of the most peaceful places he had ever known. The sight of the endless forest and the painting of the misty hills in the background gave him a sense of calm that he had never been able to find anywhere else. This hill was his little sanctuary. No one ever came up here except for him and his friends.
Eli and Jeremiah had discovered the hill one day after making a mess at the market. They had been looking for a place to hide from everyone. As they tried to get away from the angry tradespeople, they had ended up knocking three more fruit stands. They released Mr. Mugoe’s chickens from their coops and little Sarah’s two goats from their pens.
They finally managed to get away, and that’s how they found this little spot on the top of the hill. They stayed there all day and all night till their rumbling stomachs reminded them that they had not eaten all day, and they had to go home. When they got back, their angry parents had given them a stern talking-to.
A meeting had been held by the elders to decide what to do with the two children. To atone for their mischief, Eli and Jeremiah would do chores for the vendor, Mr. Mugoe, and little Sarah’s parents for two weeks as punishment.
So, every day, after they were done working, Eli and Jeremiah would meet at the hill, sulk and complain while watching the sunset. This became their routine. They had never missed a day since.
“Oh, I hope we don’t get in trouble again for knocking down those fruits in the market,” Jeremiah said to Eli. He was lounging in the ground with a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth.
“I know,” Eli huffed, swatting a ladybug from his shirt. “I hate having to do extra farm work. It’s so boring and tedious.”
“Hi!” A sharp, high-pitched voice rang from behind them. Both boys turned around to see Zuri climb up the hill behind them, holding some flowers in her hands. Zuri was one of Jeremiah and Eli’s best friends. They had met her one day while they were working on the farm. Though they were the same age, Zuri seemed more mature than the boys. Her father owned the farm where Eli and Jeremiah worked after school instructions. Initially, Eli had thought that she was the most annoying girl ever. She asked too many questions and followed them around all day.
Zuri had discreetly followed them to the hill one day after working on the farm. When she got there, she had been so captivated by the beauty and serenity of it all. She decided to come back every-day after that.
This did not please the boys. They didn’t want her to make a habit of invading their ‘boy’s space.’
This was the boy’s hangout. No girls allowed. They tried their best to discourage her from coming back, but nothing ever worked. In fact, a couple of days after her first visit, she brought her friend Iddah.
The boys had been very annoyed and irritated by the two girls. They felt as though they were messing up the ambiance of their formerly ‘boys-only’ hideout.
“I think we should find another space to hang out,” Jeremiah had suggested, feeling disheartened. “With the girls here, our spot doesn’t feel the same. The hideout is ruined!”
“No way!” Eli had exclaimed stubbornly, “This is our space. They can’t drive us away from our hideout! We need to figure out a way to make them hate this place.” They were not going to be run off by a couple of stubborn girls. No sir!
So, then began the ‘let’s kick the girls out’ scheme. The first thing they did was put bugs under the rock that Zuri favored sitting on to scare her, but they sadly found out that Zuri liked bugs. She picked them up and played with them and talked to them like they were little children. It was annoying.
The boys eventually had to clean up the place after they realized that they hated the bugs. It had taken them a long time to debug their space, and they each blamed the other for the stupid idea.
One would think that the boys would have learned a lesson from that one incident, but no. The next time, Jeremiah and Eli hid a dead fish in the bushes close by and left it there for a few days, expecting them to run away because of the smell. Instead, the girls had gone hunting for the scent, found the fish, and got rid of it. To add insult to injury, the girls brought some bright flowers. They planted them around the area, annoying the boys even more.
Eventually, the boys gave up. They came to realize that the girls were more fun to have around than they had initially thought. They brought food, they were funny, and their thoughts were much different from the boys. Like the time when the boys thought it would be funny to lock the village dog in the cattle shed. They had been given the responsibility of rounding up Mr. Mugoe’s chicken, and the dog had appeared from nowhere and scared the chicken and scattered them away. This made Eli and Jeremiah’s work very difficult.
“Locking up the dog with the cattle would be the dumbest thing you two would do,” Iddah had said, shaking her head.
“Remember that the dog is a significant part of the village,” Zuri reminded them. “If you lock him up, the elders will make us spend the whole day looking for it.”
“Then it might scare the cattle and scatter them away, and we would be forced to round them up,” Iddah added. “More work?”
The boys had agreed that the girls made more sense. So, they nixed the idea and figured they would find another logical way to get the dog back. That’s how they all ended up being the best of friends.
“What are all those flowers for?” Jeremiah asked Zuri as she came up the side of the hill. “Don’t you think you have planted enough flowers up here?” he added, gesticulating frantically around him. Since the time Zuri and Iddah had joined them, the number of flowers in their little space had increased dramatically. It looked like a fairy had regurgitated a colorful flowerbed on the hill. It’s not that Jeremiah didn’t like flowers; he just didn’t think flowers were particularly boyish.
“Well! You can never have enough flowers.” Zuri said, stubbornly walking to a small area that did not have flowers, picking up a small shovel, and planting them.
“Hi, all!” Iddah greeted them as she walked up, holding Eli’s younger brother’s hand and guiding him up the hill.
“Why did you have to bring him?” Eli asked, sounding irritated. “He should be at home, not here.”
“Well, he wanted to come, and I brought him. He is welcome anytime,” Iddah stated, giving Eli a stern look. Iddah led Blankie to the spot where the group sometimes played marbles and sat down.
“Why are you so testy anyway?” Zuri asked.
“I’m not testy,” Eli replied, sounding a little annoyed.
Blankie broke free of Iddah and surprised Eli with a hug from behind.
“I missed you,” he said. His tiny hands wrapped around him tightly. Eli’s heart melted for a minute. Aaargh! Why did he have to be so cute?
“I missed you too, booger,” he mumbled.
Eli really loved his younger brother Alexander, whom they had nicknamed Blankie because he used to carry around a blue baby blanket. Still, he didn’t like having him around all the time.
When Blankie started coming to the hill a short time after Iddah and Zuri, his friends seemed to enjoy his company. Eli, too enjoyed his company in the beginning. But after a while, he started thinking that his brother was a little annoying.
“I forgot my book in the town square Iddah. Can I go down and get it?” Eli heard Blankie ask Iddah.
“Sure, go ahead. I’ll wait for you, and we can play marbles when you come back,” Iddah replied, smiling.
Blankie scrambled down the hill and disappeared as he made his way to the town square. Zuri came and sat next to Eli.
“He is a great kid,” Zuri said quietly, looking out into the horizon.
“Hmmph,” Eli huffed.
Blankie always found a way to embarrass Eli in front of his friends. He had no filter and always told stories about Eli that he would prefer no one else knew. Like the time Eli had written a note about a girl from school that he liked, and Blankie had found it and brought it with him and read it out loud to his friends.
His friends had loved it and had teased him about it relentlessly. Jeremiah made it a habit of mimicking a cupid’s arrow gesture whenever the girl walked by them in school. Eli had found it all very irritating.
Eli also found it impossible to be himself around Blankie. He always wanted to be a good role model to him, and that meant that he had to watch what he did and said just to make sure that he wasn’t a bad influence.
Huffing, Eli looked back into the horizon. He was going to ignore everyone and just enjoy being in this beautiful space.
The village they lived in was small, and everybody knew everybody. Eli looked down at it and was able to appreciate its beauty. The houses were small and beautiful. Some had big conical roofs that seemed like they were pointing into the heavens. Beautiful trees lined the streets. The villagers took the responsibility of making sure everything in the village was taken care of, including the well-manicured flowerbeds and grass.
In the middle of the village was the town square. This is where the elders held their village meetings and occasionally acted as an entertainment venue. It also had a small stage that the villagers would use for entertainment. Eli and Jeremiah had once performed a dance for the villagers and received a rousing round of applause. That was a good day.
The only schoolhouse in Dorvale stood at the opposite end of the village. It was a beautiful, large white building with seven rooms where the kids would get their lessons.
Though Eli loved living in this little village, it didn’t mean that he never wanted to go anywhere else. On the contrary, he always had this restlessness in him. This itch to just leave and go somewhere. Only Jeremiah knew about this itch and shared this sentiment.
One of his longest and oldest friends, Jeremiah, was as loyal as could be. He could easily be the inventor of the word. He was tall for his age and very brave. Nothing seemed to scare him. His father was the head of security for the village and was known to be one of the most valiant men in town. Stories had gone around, claiming that he was the only person in Dorvale who had ever ventured into the forests and come back alive when he was younger.
“I’ve always wondered what would happen if we went into the forest one day,” Eli mused.
“Well, it wouldn’t be a smart thing to do,” Iddah replied as she continued working on the flower bed that Zuri had abandoned.
“If my dad found out that we were even talking about this, we would never see the light of day,” Jeremiah added. “He always acts so strangely when people talk about the forest.”
“Rumor has it that he has been there before, and if it’s true…”
“It is true!” Jeremiah interjected, sitting up and pulling the blade of grass from his mouth.
“If it is true,” Zuri stressed, “then he probably would not want anyone seeing what he had seen.”
“He did go in there. No question. My dad is the bravest man in the village,” Jeremiah said proudly.
Eli looked at Jeremiah and scoffed. He knew not to argue with Jeremiah about his father. Jeremiah idolized and romanticized his father’s achievements immensely. He wanted to be just like him. Eli hoped that one day when Jeremiah grew up, he would be able to live up to his father’s reputation.
There were rumors that he had once saved the king’s family from certain death. He had been hailed as one of the heroes in the village. Whenever anyone raised any doubts about his father’s achievements, Jeremiah would always jump to his father’s defense.
Eli didn’t blame him. If his father was alive, he probably would try to defend him as well. Eli also looked up to Jeremiah’s father and considered him a surrogate father. Whenever Eli’s family needed anything, Jeremiah’s father always went out of his way to make sure that Eli’s family got whatever they needed. If Eli needed someone to talk to, he would go to him for guidance.
Despite the four friends burning curiosity about what existed beyond their little haven, they knew better than to attempt to venture into the forest. There were tales of monsters and ghosts, strange, scary animals that could tear you apart or swallow you whole.
There were also tales of funny-looking creatures who would steal children away. Yeah, there were a lot of scary stories out there. No one in their right mind would be stupid enough to even think about venturing into that frightening forest.
The villagers never had a reason to go anywhere anyway. The village had been built in a way that there would be no reason to leave. It had been designed in a way that made it completely self-sufficient.
They had water tanks that could serve the whole village without running out and a well that seemed to never run out of water. The farmers grew enough food to feed the entire town and stored them in large silos.
The farm animals provided meat, milk, and eggs. The children had lessons at the schoolhouse early in the morning and every afternoon. They were then required to assemble at the farms and work till late in the evening. Everyone in the village chipped in. With everyone, including the children chipping in, the town was able to function smoothly.
On occasion, a group of chosen leaders could go and get supplies that the village couldn’t produce on their own, like soap and salt. There was a road that led out of the village. With the protection of the guards, the group left at sunrise and were always back by sunset.
After Iddah, who loved to read, was done planting the flowers, she grabbed a book out of her satchel and sat at her usual spot under a small white dogwood tree. She always carried a book around whenever she went, including the market.
Zuri was the opposite of Iddah. She enjoyed hanging around the apothecary and was always asking questions about how things worked. She was very protective, especially of Blankie. Probably because she was the oldest of three girls, and she looked out for her sisters just the same as she did for Blankie.
Zuri was an outspoken girl and tough as nails. Eli thought she talked a little too much. He had perfected the art of tuning her out most of the time. One thing about Zuri, though, was that she was the kind of person that you could count on for anything. If you were in trouble, you didn’t need to ask her twice. She was always ready to help.
She always wanted to do what the boys did. Once, she saw some of the boys practicing knife throwing in the field and decided that she wanted to learn how to do it. So, she started pestering Jeremiah to teach her how to do it, but Jeremiah always refused.
She had tried bribing him with everything, including his favorite candy.
“Please, Jeremiah,” she had begged. “If you teach me, I will buy you bubbas for a whole week.”
“Only a week?” Jeremiah had asked in astonishment. “I can afford to buy myself bubbas for a week.” He had smirked.
“Okay, fine. I will do your farm work for a week if you teach me,” Zuri had offered, knowing how much Jeremiah hated doing farm work. Jeremiah had pretended to think about it for just a few moments before he complied.
Eli had laughed at them. Jeremiah wasn’t a good knife thrower anyway. Talk about the blind leading the blind. A disaster waiting to happen.
Iddah was the quiet one in the group. She had no interest in learning how to fight. She was more of a pacifist on most occasions and preferred books over anything else. She enjoyed dressing up, doing her hair, and other girlish things and was the group’s sensitive one.
She was an only child, and her parents treated her like she was as fragile as an egg. She loved it. Apparently, her parents had had a hard time having kids, and she was their miracle baby.
She was easy to get along with. The only thing out of the ordinary that she had attempted to do was shooting arrows. She had observed some kids learning how to do it one day and had joined them, becoming very good in a short time. Then she had lost interest in that and went back to sticking her nose in her books.
The sun was almost dipping beyond the tree, and they could see the orange sky bidding them farewell for the night. In a few minutes, the sun would fall behind the enchanted forest, and darkness would engulf the village once again.
Eli looked over at the forest and wondered what ills existed in the woods. One day, during storytime, Mrs. Wambo, the village storyteller, had narrated a story that had shaken the children to the core.
“Once, one of the villager’s goats wandered into the forest,” old Mrs. Wambo had told them. “He followed the goats into the forest, but he never came out. The spirits in the forest had turned him into a dog.”
“How did you know he turned into a dog?” one of the kids listening to the story had asked skeptically.
“Oh!” Mrs. Wambo had exclaimed dramatically, throwing her head back and rolling her eyes so hard; they looked like they disappeared into her forehead.
“When he went in there, there was this big wind that blew everything around. The windows rattled, the roofs seemed like they were about to come off the houses. Doors shook in their hinges,” Mrs. Wambo narrated, her face partially hidden in the dark. The flame on the candlestick wafting slowly in the darkness. “He went in there. We waited and waited for two days. The third day, a dog came back from the forest.”
The kids listening to the story gasped.
Mrs. Wambo leaned in, bringing her face closer to the children, and whispered.
“It. Looked. Just. Like. Him,” Mrs. Wambo finished, her eyes wide open and moving her lips with more emphasis than would have been necessary.
That was the day the children learned that the stray dog that wandered around the village was a man who had ventured mistakenly into the enchanted forest. Since that day, the kids had been afraid of the dog. The adults took turns feeding and sheltering him.
Though there were other tales of monsters and goblins and witches with magic spells that turned people into rocks and mushrooms, Eli’s curiosity did not wane. He couldn’t leave, though, because he had to take care of his mother and his little brother, who needed him since his father had died.
Eli missed his father, whatever he could remember of him. He had died when Eli was very young, and Eli could barely remember how he looked like. Though he had some memories of moments shared with his father, the details were a little hazy. The facts behind his father’s death were very vague.
His mother had told him that his father had died while on a quest for the village. She had not gone into details about the event, so Eli didn’t know exactly what had happened. Every time Eli attempted to delve further into it, his mother had rebuffed his attempts and changed the topic. So, he never really had any real facts about his father’s death. It all remained a profound mystery to him.
It didn’t really matter to him, though. His father was dead. Thinking about the circumstances of his death were not going to bring him back. There was no need to dwell on his loss, though on occasion, it made him sad that he couldn’t remember too much about his father.
At least he had Jeremiah’s father as his father figure. He had taught him a lot about being a man. He taught Eli how to fix things around his house, so Eli’s mother didn’t have to worry about them. He also taught him how to take his responsibilities as the man of the house seriously and never failed to stress that his duty was to take care of his mother and his little brother.
As much as he appreciated Jeremiah’s father, he knew deep down in his heart that he would never replace his own biological father.
“I’m back!” Blankie screeched happily from behind the bushes as he popped up from behind them on the other side of the hill. He jumped up and bounded happily towards them with a toothy grin on his face and dirt on his cheek. He’s been playing in the puddles again, Eli thought to himself.
“Hi Blankie, you’re back,” Zuri answered him in a singsong voice. “It’s getting kinda late. You should go home now and help your mother?”
“Well, I wanted to spend time with Eli,” he whined. Eli grunted in annoyance and shook his head.
“You know I’ll be home in a few minutes; you didn’t have to come out here to be with me,” Eli said, sounding irritated.
“Give him a break Eli, he just wants to be around you,” Zuri said with a smile. “He adores you, don’t you, Blankie?” Blankie nodded and kept smiling. He came closer and sat next to Zuri.
“Yeah, I do.”
“I bet you do, Blankie. But do you think you are brave enough to hang out with brave people like us? You know we like adventure, and you are too little for any kind of adventure,” Jeremiah taunted him.
“Of course, I’m brave, and I’m not that little. I’m only a couple of years younger than you,” Blankie said defensively. “And I’m not Blankie. I’m Alexander,” he added, scrunching his face angrily.
Jeremiah liked to mess with Blankie and taunted him all the time. Eli never said anything because he always thought it was just good fun, and it never went too far. He knew his brother could handle it.
“Okay, Alexander,” Jeremiah scoffed then laughed at him. “You are so lucky to have such a brave shadow, Eli. At this rate, you won’t even need to fight anyone since little ‘Alexander’ here will always be there to protect you.” Jeremiah mocked Blankie and laughed a little louder than necessary. No one joined in, and after he realized no one was laughing with him, he stopped awkwardly and looked away.
Blankie ignored him like he always did and kept on talking about his favorite toy with Zuri. Eli had hoped for a beautiful quiet sunset with his friends, and suddenly here was Blankie, his little brother, messing it up. All this talking was beginning to grate on Eli’s nerves. He felt very irritated.
He took a deep breath and stood up, towering over his little brother. Blankie looked up at him, his big brown eyes glittering in the almost darkness. Eli looked back at Blankie and took a few calming breaths. He seemed so innocent. Eli ignored the pang of guilt gnawing in his gut for what he was about to say. He didn’t want his friends making fun of him about his little brother anymore. He just wanted to prove to them, mostly Jeremiah, that he didn’t need a shadow following him around.
“Why don’t you go play with your toys, Blankie? You can’t play with us, we are grown-ups, and we don’t play with cowardly kids like you. And we’re too old to play with toys, so go home and play with your stupid toys,” Eli said stiffly, knowing that he was going to hurt his brother’s feelings. He was going to apologize to his brother when he got home. Right now, he just wanted him to leave.
Jeremiah snickered in the background, and Iddah just smirked and continued reading her book. Blankie looked at Eli defiantly and squared his shoulders.
“I’m too old to play with toys anyway,” he said proudly. “I was just talking about them because I knew Zuri’s sister would want to have them. And I’m not a coward. I’m just as brave as you and Jeremiah,” he sniveled mulishly.
“Go home, Blankie.”
“Go home, little mouse,” Jeremiah laughed teasingly.
Blankie got up and stomped away angrily, his tiny hands bunched into fists on his sides. Without stopping, he shouted over his shoulder, “I’ll show you! I’ll show you that I am big and brave. I’ll show you that I’m brave!” He ran as he shouted. Blankie was tired of being teased by his brother and his friends; he was just two and a half years younger than Eli, and Eli treated him like he was some little toddler. He squared his shoulders and ran down the hill back into the village, where the crowds were slowly dwindling with people hurrying home for dinner.
Eli watched him as he ran and couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. Had he been a little too hard on him? He should have just let Blankie stay with them. It’s not like they were doing anything unusual. They were just watching the sunset.
“He’ll be all right,” Zuri told Eli. “He’ll just go home, and by the time you get there, he will be back to his normal self.”
“Yeah, I guess. I think I was a little hard on him, though,” Eli said quietly, the appeal of the sunset dwindling. “I think we should head back down. It’s getting dark anyway,” he said as he jumped off the rock, they had been sitting on. He walked down the hill as the others followed him. He knew Blankie was going to tell his mother what he had said. Aaahh! He groaned inwardly and started mentally preparing himself for the lecture he would receive when he got home. That was the last thing he wanted.