The Braid: Part I
The two warriors circled each other, their eyes locked. Both wore quilted practice armor, but both knew it would do little to stop the sting of the blunt swords they held. The others surrounded them, clapping and singing with the rhythm of the djembes, their attention locked on the duo. This was the sparring session they anticipated the entire day.
Both men were of similar size, tall, lean, and muscular. One bounced on his toes with the unbridled energy of youth, his smooth umber skin glistening with sweat. He feinted, hoping to draw a reaction from his opponent. However, his adversary did not flinch. His eyes reflected the wisdom of experience, orbs that had seen many battles and survived every one. His skin bore the scars, keloids and jagged marks of wounds suffered and survived. He smirked at his opponent, amused by his overconfidence yet envious of his vitality. He had once been that way, many seasons ago.
The youthful fighter yelled and attacked. The older man stood still and waited. He blocked the downward slash of his opponent’s sword then waited for the shield meant to smash into his gut. At the last second, he pivoted to his right. The shield grazed his armor and the young cub stumbled. The elder warrior helped him along, kicking his feet from under him. He expected the man to fall on his face, but speed saved him the humiliation. He gathered his feet under him as was turning to face the elder warrior, but the man kicked him hard in the back, sending him sprawling into the dirt. Before he could rise the elder warrior sat on his back then pulled back his braid to expose his neck. He touched the young warrior’s neck with the weapon.
“You are dead again, Kebba,” Nfansu said.
The other warriors cheered as Nfansu helped Kebba to his feet.
“It would be the other way around if not for your tricks,” Kebba said.
Nfansu patted Kebba on his back. “My tricks have allowed me to see more seasons than most. One day I will share them with you.”
“Your children maybe, but not me,” Kebba said. “When you become an ancestor, I will pour libations to you and ask. You might be more generous then.”
Nfansu forced a laugh from his throat. “Maybe.”
The warriors scattered, returning to their homes. Nfansu strode away until he was out of sight of the others then slowed his pace. He grimaced as he rubbed his left shoulder while trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his right ankle. Every victory came with a price, but as the season passed, that price became steeper.
He was almost limping as he neared his house. Sona, his wife, saw him as she weeded the yams. She put down the hoe then strolled toward him. He looked at her and frowned.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“You tell that same lie every time,” she replied.
She turned toward the field.
“Buba! Go to the river and fetch some water. Your baba’s been fighting again.”
Nfansu entered the house then sat hard on their bed. Sona went to their medicine chest and took out the gourd containing the soothing ointment. She handed it to Nfansu, and he scoop out a handful and rubbed it onto his shoulders. Sona took it from him, applied it to his ankle and began massaging it.
“I wish you would stop this foolishness,” she said. “We have plenty to do here.”
“I still wear the braid,” Nfansu replied. “Thus, I am still a warrior.”
“You should have shaved it long ago,” Sona said. “You are long past the age.”
“Today I beat Kebba, the best of his intanga, and you still say that to me?”
Sona dropped the ointment then slapped his ankle. Nfansu jerked his leg away, grimacing.
“You call this winning?” she said.
“Until the mansa forces me to give up the braid and join the elders, I will continue to serve,” Nfansu said.
Buba entered the house with a water gourd.
“Are you okay, baba?” he asked.
“Yes, son. Just a little tired, that’s all.”
Sona sucked her teeth.
“Go back to the field, Buba,” she said. “I’ll return soon.”
Buba shared a smile with his parents then left the house. Sona put down the ointment as she glared at Nfansu.
“This is the last time I help you,” she said. “You do this foolishness on your own from now on. It’s time you grew up, Nfansu.”