2018 · African Literature · Bookish · Fiction · Historical Fiction · Own Voices · WOC

Excerpt- Of Captivity & Kings: A chapter that integrates the concept of ” A story within a story” with “African culture and history.”




The laws are different in the Kushite ruled Kingdom of Nabara. The penalty for involvement in the slave trade is death, and if the King fails to provide justice and order under ma’at, the High Priests can order him to commit suicide. When a Roman slave ship wrecks off the coast of Nabara, peace is shattered. Ancient caravan routes, pastoralists, and nomadic hunters are threatened by kidnappings, robbery, and murder, forcing Nabaran High King Amkar Kashta to invoke the power of the six-kingdom alliance that is Nudolla. Each member of the ruling families finds themselves thrust into the rising slave trade, and the corruption of everything and everyone it touches.

It is an adventure told from the secret sanctuaries of the desert fathers in the Scetes Desert, and the massive pyramids of Meroë, to the Skeleton Coast, and over the Great Barrier Mountains of Apedemak. Here, kings and queens, princes and princesses, slave traders and gladiators, high priests and slaves, scribes and warriors, caravan robbers, and hermits collide under the thread that links them all.




He could hear the sound of lutes playing softly and continued down, Azima skipping next to him in excitement. When they neared the famed storyteller and historian, black hair silhouetted against the large fire in front of the jeli. The jeli sat on a high seat, his long white robes flowing to the ground, a smile visible under his long beard. A shock of white against his dark skin, he stroked his beard and smiled, nodding to Asim. As commander of the High King’s Medjay and adopted son of the Kingmaker, people recognized him everywhere he went. 

Boys and girls sat on the ground before the jeli, waiting patiently as the old man prepared his Nubian lyre, the kissar, the long strings similar to that of a comb. Light brown cedar glistened from the oil it had been recently cleaned with. A small fire lit between the jeli and his audience glowed softly, crackling as people from the city gathered close, softly whispering greetings, babies sitting on their mother’s hips, fat little legs pumping back and forth as they waited.

 “Tonight, I will tell you of the Princess and the Pyramid, but you must sing with me,” he told the children. “For this story, I need your help.” He plucked at his kissar, a three-part note that tinkled in the silence of the sunset, only half visible behind the mountains. The soft lullaby caused the children to sit up straighter, even as they looked at each other wondering how they would help. “When I sing, you repeat it back to me; we call that reciprocity.” He sang the last word in staccato fashion. The children leaned closer.

 “Let’s try: Ayooooo ayyyaa,” he began. 

“Ayaooooo ayyyaa,” the children repeated it back. “O weeee o oooooo.” “O weeee o oooooo.” 

“Good, Ayoooo ayaaa.” “Ayooo ayaaa,” “O weee o ooooo.” “O weee o ooooo.” He sung a short opening in Old Nubian on the wonders of love and the desires of the heart before he began, “Deep in the desert just along the Nile, there once lived a mighty King. His land held a rich bounty of grain, masses of pure gold, and treasures untold. Little did he know, that his worst enemy, greed, had found him, in the form of a rival trickster King, whose trade was in ebony alone.  

The mighty king invited the Trickster King into his home, unaware that his enemy broke bread with him that day. And when the Trickster King left he formulated a plan, betraying the mighty king, murdering him on the steps of the palace, invading the gold-filled lands, and ransacking the mines filled with treasure. But there was one treasure he could not take. The heart of the mighty King’s daughter, a noble princess, pure of heart, and intelligent of mind. The Trickster King tried for many moons to win her over, but the murder of her entire family by his hand and the enslavement of her people was a barrier greater than a stretch of sea.

 So the Trickster King built a pyramid and slaughtered four thousand cattle and five hundred servants of the mighty king’s former household. He placed them in an underground chamber so that they would serve him in the next life. And he once more spoke to the princess at the opening of the Pyramid and he told her – serve me or live out your days here where no one can hear your screams or the sound of your belly eating itself for want of food. But the princess refused him. So he threw her into the deepest, darkest pit of the chamber and sealed it so that no one could enter.” 

The children gasped in excitement and fright as they leaned forward to hear more. “O weee o ooooo,” the jeli returned to the chorus.

“O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Lovely, Ayooo ayaaa.” “Ayooo ayaaa.” 

“And the kingdom mourned her. But soon, the cries of the people grew too much to bear. And the beautiful sounds of their sorrow touched even the birds of the sky. And the honeyguides could no longer enjoy their honey because of the tears that mingled with their meal. And the grass no longer needed rain because the servant’s spilled enough tears each day. And the lions roared in their fury at the heartlessness of the Trickster King. And so it was, that the animals took pity on the people and told their story and their song. Far in the distance, a Young King heard a strange sound and he followed it to a tree upon which sat a falcon that bid him follow. And he did. Over mountains and down valleys, over rivers and through forests, across deserts and savannah until he spied a trail of the tiniest sugar bushes he’d ever seen, one after the other, surrounded by nothing but sand. And soon he came upon the kingdom of the fallen king now ruled by the trickster. The Young King spoke with the people and learned of their loss and it made his heart heavy. But he had hope. He prayed to Apedemak who warned him to be wary before seeking an audience with the Trickster King. The Young King introduced himself as a prince and asked the Trickster King to unseal the tomb of the last princess that he might save her. ”

“O weee o ooooo,” he returned to the chorus.

 “O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Lovely, Ayooo ayaaa.”

“Ayooo ayaaa.” His kissar playing became faster now and every time he ended a portion he thumped the waist-high drum at his side.

 “She is dead, young Prince, said the Trickster King. It has been one full moon since I sent her there. I offered her a better life. She refused. And the Trickster King offered one of his young daughters to the Young King instead. But the Young King politely refused and again asked for the tomb to be unsealed. 

Now the Trickster King grew angry and banished him from his court, commanding him to return from whence he came. But instead, the people of both the mighty king who were still living, and the people of the trickster King learned of the young prince who traveled such a long way, and one by one, night after night allowed him to stay in their homes. And night after night, the Young King found a coveted item, an unknown treasure to give to the Trickster King and soon the Trickster King, swayed by his own greed and pacified by the Young King’s efforts, changed his mind. What did it matter, he thought. She is but a skeleton, by now. And two moons had passed. The Trickster King gave him one day to save the princess and promised that if he did not make it out by morning, he would light the pyramid on fire and burn the young prince alive. On one condition. You, said the Trickster King, must not have any blood on your hands.”

 The Young King was undeterred and he thanked the Trickster King for his kindness and he entered the tomb. Down he went into the pyramid, past swinging blades and undying fire, groups of mice and rats, over rivers of tar and pits of fire ants, and swarms of scorpions until he reached an empty chamber the size of three men with no visible door. And he pulled a mouse from his pocket and set it on the floor and the mouse ran in circles until finally it pressed its nose against the wall and disappeared through a tiny hole. The young prince followed, using his spear to chisel an opening and break through. When he did he stopped short, a deep well was before him and the princess was in the same. The Young King removed the rope that bound his shendyt and slid down it to the bottom, throwing the princess over his shoulders and climbing back up the rope. When he reached the top he set her down and stirred her awake. Chiseled cheekbones sat below her narrowed, suspicious obsidian eyes, distrust curving the planes of her full pink lips.

 ‘Who are you,’ she asked him, her voice a whisper from lack of use. 

‘How did you survive?’ he responded.” 

“O weee o ooooo,” he returned to the chorus. 

“O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Lovely, Ayooooo o ayaaa.” “Ayoooooo o ayaaa.”

 “My God looked after me, she replied. ‘The Trickster King left me a candle so that I might see my predicament and regret my choice until the day I died. I used it to burn the cattle he slaughtered that I may have food to eat.’ And the Young King smiled.

 ‘It is my greatest pleasure to serve you,’ he told her.

‘How is it that you have come here?’ she asked him.

 ‘The Trickster King lives off greed and greed alone,” replied the Young King. ‘I did not lie as he does. But I told him, truthfully, that I have many brothers, and that my father is yet alive. He believes my father to be king and believes I am only a prince, one in a long line of such he must kill if he were to take my throne. I came in rags rather than riches and so he assumed my kingdom to be a poor one rather than asking whether or not it was. In this way I keep my family safe from harm. Now princess,’ the Young King continued, ‘I have only one hour to bring you from this tomb before the Trickster King has his way. But the way we have come is no longer available, each trap has closed upon us and we must find another exit.’

The princess smiled. ‘I can help you there,’ she said. ‘I helped design this pyramid.’ Soon they reached the beginning of the second entrance and found a pit full of straw and dirt.”

“The Trickster King told me when I entered, a key lay here, but he did not mention the straw or the dirt. The fire may reach us soon.’

 ‘How will we find it?’ the Princess asked beginning to dig. 

‘There is no need,’ the young King said. “The fastest way to find the key is to burn it.” And the young King walked over to the smoke wafting into the chamber and he lit a piece of cloth from the fire that blazed just there, coughing as he did. And he covered the Princess’s mouth with his khat and threw the cloth torch into the pit. And it burned before them, smoke filling it larger and larger.  Soon he dipped the rope back into the pit and moved it about until a clanging could be heard and jumped inside to retrieve the key. And the princess cried out in surprise as he climbed out, helping him to rise and wrapping him in the same khat he’d used on her, dousing the flames from his body as he cried out in agony. But soon he rose and handed her the key and she opened the door that set them free. Into the blinding light of the desert sun they stepped as the pyramid burned around them, flames licking the outside as it grew larger.

 Now the Trickster King was waiting for them believing them dead, but he hid his surprise and he smiled. ‘I congratulate you young Prince. But I fear you have lost our wager. You…have blood on your hands.’” 

“O weee o ooooo,” he returned to the chorus.

 “O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Lovely, Ayooo ayaaa.” “Ayooo ayaaa.”

“And he was right. For the Trickster King had smeared the blood of the cattle and the blood of each servant on the walls of the pyramid so that any surface he touched was covered. And the fire caused the hardened blood to drip again. And so the Trickster King ordered the young prince taken, that his throat be slit, and his body entombed in a nearby pyramid that all the people might remember his fate and what it meant to defy a king. But the Trickster King’s servants could not do it for they had heard of the Young King’s bravery and so they healed his wounds and they buried him alive. But the Young King broke free and disguised himself as a servant and crept into the palace of the Trickster King. The Young King captured him and brought him to the same steps on which the mighty King was slaughtered and forced him to his knees in front of the Princess and all of the people.”  

“‘Tell me,’ the Young King said, ‘Why should I spare your life, when you have denied mercy to so many through your greed?’ 

the Trickster King answered, ‘What matters more than gold? What matters more than power? These are my people. They recognize a king when they see one,” the Trickster King said.” 

 “Well then,’ said the Young King, ‘If any one of them should stand in your defense I will spare your life.’ And he waited. And he waited. And he waited. One day passed and no one would step forward in defense of the Trickster King. Not even his young daughters. 

‘I am immortal!’ The Trickster King bellowed. ‘You cannot kill me!’ 

 ‘As you say. Then I shall grant you the same mercy you show others.’ And at the princess’s permission, the Young King ordered the Trickster King buried alive, deep in the desert. And he was never heard of again.”

Asim smiled as the jeli finished. It was no wonder Azima loved for him to tell her stories so much. 

“What about the prince and princess?” a young boy interrupted, his voice full of impatience to know the end of the story. The jeli laughed, as did the parents around him.

“They married of course little one, and lived to a great age, with many children, and the love of their people. Their intelligence, kindness, and honesty won them the hearts of their people and made the land healthy and prosperous. What matters more than gold? What matters more than power? Love, trust, and honor. Now what do you think he learned?” the jeli asked them as he continued to beat the drum three times in succession with a slight pause in between before returning to the lyre. 

“You,” he pointed to a boy before him, whose eyes were wide with surprise as he answered.

“To not be greedy!” the little boy called out.

“And?” the jeli pushed for another answer, pointing at a young girl. 

“Be kind to others!” 

“Very nice,” he plucked at the kissar. 

“O weee o ooooo,” he returned to the chorus.

O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Lovely, Ayooo ayaaa.” “Ayooo ayaaa.”

“Sometimes,” he told them softly as the kissar continued in the background, “a man will want more than you are willing to give.” “O weee o ooooo,” he returned to the chorus. 

“O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Lovely, Ayooo ayaaa.” “Ayooo ayaaa.” 

“Sometimes, he may try to steal it away, to cheat. But here we do not, we must not. For we know that reciprocity is important. It is fair trade.” “O weee o ooooo,” he returned to the chorus. 

“O weee o ooooo,” the children sang. “Ayooo ayaaa.” “Ayooo ayaaa.” The children clapped as he finished and tried to ask him for one more as the crowd laughed. 

“Not tonight,” he told them. “But I will come again. And you must be on your very best behavior. And remember, what I give you, you give me. How to thank me for this story?” He plucked at the kissar again. “No gold?” The children shook their heads, grinning and laughing.

 “A kiss or a hug then.” The crowd laughed again as the children jumped up to hug him, their favorite storyteller. He laughed and pinched their cheeks as they crowded him, a mass of small arms and legs all trying to hold him at once. 

Asim smiled as his daughter squeezed back through the tangle of arms and legs, running to him, breathless with excitement as she jumped into his arms. Never afraid to fall. He thought of the birds in the story and the slavers he would be searching for soon as they walked home hand in hand. She always leapt that way, certain he’d always be there to catch her. A lump formed in his throat. He hoped he always would.



Check out  my book review of “Of Captivity & Kings”  here!

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