There was blood in his teeth when they found him. Many rivers flowed on their transit to the village, but when they arrived at his hut, they weren’t wet. Okulalu’s powder, which he had blown on the four of them and on himself after they waded through the last river, had done the job. Ajala had wondered if it was necessary at all, this show of element-altering power.
They shouted his name. Held him up. Laid him across their joint knees. Poured some powder in his mouth. Smacked his head. His back. Shouted his name again and again. Ajala started an incantation and they all took it. From all the deities across the myths to their connection to the human soul and its invincibility.
After a while, Kudaisi opened his eyes.
“What happened?”
“How many men did the king send?”
“Did we not warn you?”
“What if we had not heard and arrived on time?”
“Howu, howu!” Bilewu held up a hand. “Don’t finish off the remainder of him!”
They quieted. A tranquil wind blew the thatch roof of the hut and with it, Kudaisi shook with coughs. They petted his breast, chanting “Ero, Ero pese.” Easy, easy we speak. His eyes were glazed over; he glanced from face to face and grunted in recognition.
“Who told you?” he mumbled.
Okulalu spoke. “Was it not our mother’s sister’s son, Odejimi, who tramped through the forest to come and tell us in the other hamlet that the king had sent his men to your hut?”
Kudaisi coughed again. He leaned against their knees; they held him by each hand. They waited for him. He would have to tell them how it happened.
After a while, he told his story: he was still on his farm when he had the first ami ara, that heavy premonition that made him look at passersby with an extra layer of suspicion. Especially after the rumours had spread of what the cult had done. So he was on the farm when the tightness in his side began. He left the farm earlier than usual. And as his steps towards home grew, so did his foreboding, so did the darkness in the sky. He kept looking over his shoulder, his steps light and quick, careful not to bump into anybody lest they stick a knife in him as the cult had done to the king’s only son in the market square many moons ago. He reached his hut, an owl hooted and he cursed it. He would have also thrown a stone at it, but he didn’t know which of the mango trees the cry had come from. He checked the perimeters, checked again, found the lock, then let himself in.
“Foolish me,” he mumbled again, now, his head lowered. “I didn’t check the rafters.”
“You should have checked the rafters.”
“Yes, you should have.”
“They always hide in the rafters.”
“Are they God? Why would they be hiding up in the rafters in the first place?” Okulalu’s eyes were red.
“Are we God? Why are you asking us?” Ajala picked his nose, stared fixedly at Okulalu.
“Enough,” Bilewu prevailed again. He was the youngest and, strangely enough, the wisest of the cult.
“So what happened next?” Adio spoke for the first time. His voice was so thin everybody stifled laughter. Everybody except Kudaisi of course, who had nearly died.
“They had terrible patience, those sons of Odara,” he said, bewilderment flashing into his face. “They waited for me to start a fire, smoke my fish, roast some yam, prepare my tools for tomorrow, then put off the light and retire to bed. That was when they jumped down and grabbed me.”
“Sango o!” Ajala said.
“About six of them. Terrible muscles. Only God knows what that king is giving them to eat.”
“Shh,” Adio cautioned. “The walls have ears.”
“Let the walls have ears!” Okulalu said, almost rising. “A man who doesn’t feel mature enough to lose his teeth is the one that will quickly cover them with a hand. They have attempted their worst. They failed. So let the walls have ears. We are here to cut them all off!”
“Spoken like a true warrior.” Ajala’s eyes glinted.
“Please let’s hear Kudaisi out. Please!” Olutade burst out.
“Don’t shout at me!” Okulalu lashed back.
“Is it because he is your brother?” Olutade fired again.
“Yes, it’s because he is my only* brother!”
“Oh, did you think of that when you masterminded the assassination of the king’s only* son?”
“O gbiyanju!” Okulalu clapped, a wry grin plastered on his face. “Who hired the masked man who slipped into the market while the prince was visiting with his careless entourage, and stuck a big knife in the innocent boy’s belly?”
“Oh-ho, is that why you must keep cutting in, like a knife?”
“Look at this mad man!”
Kudaisi hung his head.
“Aren’t we glad we have saved Kudaisi’s life before all this started?” Adio asked, frustrated.
Bilewu shook his small head. “The king offended us by mounting that throne, yes. That throne belonged to our father-in-joined-blood, Akomolafe Adeyanju, before the king’s father ordered him beheaded. The king that reigned before his father reigned already handed the staff to their lineage, but that stubborn king would not soften his hand. He would not let go.”
“And do you blame him?” Adio said, his eyes shifting in their sockets. “His bloodline is a pedigree of royalty. It runs in their veins. They didn’t get it by joined blood. I will keep on saying it: we took things too far by killing his son.”
“He asked for it. Our conscience is clear. We have an allegiance to our father-in-joined-blood, to stay faithful, loyal and honest. We all drank the water. We all ate the kolanut. A woman does not enter a stream and start screaming that she is catching cold. We were for Akomolafe Adeyanju, we are for Akomolafe Adeyanju and we will forever be for Akomolafe Adeyanju.” Bilewu stared pointedly at Olutade. “You foolish man running your mouth here, you are of Akomolafe Adeyanju’s natural blood. You should be the king.”
“And have I not played my role?” Olutade was pugnacious. “Have I not proved that I should be king? Have I not shown enough seriousness about my desire to take my place on my fathers’ seat? Did I not get the assassin who took the bastard son off as a threat to my throne?”
Bilewu sighed. “Yes, you did. But stop arguing with Okulalu. This is his brother we are talking about. They almost killed him. If his cousin had not found us in Ajegunle at the time he did, do you know that the antidote wouldn’t have caught the poison? And it’s because of you.”
This seemed to sober the tension. Bilewu motioned to Kudaisi to continue.
“They jumped on me and while I tried to fight free, my feet knocked the oguso over and it died and the whole place was thrown into gloom. That was when one of them cackled and said, ‘Alayeluwa, our king, has sent a sign that this scapegoat must die.’ Then they sat on my legs and hands, prised my lips open and poured some liquid from a vial down my throat. They disappeared and my intestines became alive and started biting each other.”
There was silence. The subject of death, no matter the intrepidity of the cult, was still one of grave weight.
“Odejimi said he was patrolling the bushes nearby. He must have heard the struggle and heard them mention the king.” Okulalu spoke slowly, as though just convincing himself that it was not a dream after all.
“But how did they get to know who the culprits are?” Ajala asked, his brow furrowed, and for the first time, the same furrows appeared on Okulalu, a rare unity between them.
“I wonder, too,” he said. “There must be a traitor in our midst.”
“A traitor?” Bilewu asked.
“Yes,” Ajala said. “The king has many enemies. He has seized many lands, many farms, many settlements. He has put his leg on so many wives of powerless men.”
“The bastard,” Olutade interjected through his nose.
“So why were the rumours so quick to rise and point straight at us?” Ajala asked.
“If not that somebody had spoken,” Okulalu completed the thought. He rubbed his brother’s head, gently.
“Hmm,” Bilewu brooded. “If there is a traitor within us, then our walls have fallen apart.”
“Yes,” they agreed.
“For if the wall does not open, lizards will not find their way in. And our forebears said the twig does not just snap, something or someone must have stepped on it. We should not be disgraced. The disgrace of the initiate is fun to the benighted. We are the Cult, a family tightly bound by secrets and secrecy, and nothing must compromise that.” His voice rose. “Nothing!”
“Nothing!” they agreed.
“So who is the traitor?” Olutade asked.
Bilewu scrunched up his face and peered from man to man.
“Don’t look at me!” Olutade said. “How could I eat my own tail? Am I not the dissatisfied one who was usurped? Do you think I derived pain from seeing that bastard crash to his back and writhe to death in the sunlight on the market square? Don’t increase my anger!”
They all agreed. Of course, it couldn’t be Olutade.
“Perhaps it’s Ajala,” Adio said, his thin voice shaking. “He was quick to talk about traitors!”
Ajala clenched his fist and leaped forward. But Bilewu caught him in time.
“Easy, easy!”
“Then tell that rat to stop insinuating that I’m a betrayer! I’m as loyal to this cause as to anybody else in this coven!”
“Easy, easy!”
When Adio’s eyes fell upon Okulalu, the other man laughed.
“It is just preposterous that you are suggesting that I’m the one! That I would incite the king to kill my own brother. Son of my mother!” he said.
Bilewu sighed. He looked at Adio. Adio shifted uneasily on his seat. His breathing quickened. In fact, he trembled.
“Why are you looking at me like that, Bilewu?” he asked, feigning composure, but visibly shattered.
“I don’t know. You tell me,” Bilewu said calmly.
“Yes, that is true,” Olutade said, facing Adio. “You’ve been jawing about how we went too far by having the prince killed.”
They all gazed at him.
He drew back; his bag of charms slipped from his shoulder and fell to the floor. “Why are you all looking at me? Don’t look at me like that! I did not betray this coven!”
Bilewu sighed again. Kudaisi looked on silently. The other men clapped one by one. Olutade said, “Bastard.”
Suddenly, Adio leaped from his seat and rushed blindly at Olutade. In his blindness, he collided with Bilewu’s restraining hand, which that one had held out just in time, and to Bilewu’s horror, his bag slipped from his shoulder and landed on the floor with a force that emptied its contents.
Time held its breath. The silence fell loudly.
“What is that?” Ajala muttered, pointing to a dark round shadow lying among the paraphernalia on the earthen floor. He reached forward and touched it. Bilewu seemed frozen to his seat. Ajala picked up the dark round shadow. It was a bundle. It rustled when he bounced it on the flat of his palm.
“What is this?”
Bilewu started stammering.
Okulalu flashed his torchlight on the bundle. It had the seal of the palace on it.
“That is money from the palace,” he said. “What was it doing in Bilewu’s bag? What is Bilewu doing with money from the palace?”
They whirled around in one movement to ask him. But he was gone. He had taken his knife, leaving a soundless warning. Don’t come after me.
Kudaisi whistled. A long, slow, disbelieving whistle. They all turned, again in one accord, to look at him. His name had held indeed: Ikudaisi. Death Has Spared This One.
NB: the asterisked words indicate that they are meant to be italicised for emphasis.

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