PART I. The Journey: Over and over the huge royal kettle drums beat out their message - "The Queen comes; Amina's court is about to begin!" Lami and her mother, Marka, hurried through the palace corridors following the impatient gestures of the royal attendant who led the way. They had been summoned by the queen and must be in the throne room before she made her entrance!
For the first time in Zaria Lami felt uneasy. What if the queen didn't believe her? No one had said that the queen was a just person. What if she was as harsh as a warrior queen ought to be? Passing by the outer guards Lami's fears grew. She had never seen men who looked so fierce. It was not the belts of daggers wrapped around their radiant, multi-colored robes, nor the spiky lances each carried in their hands. Rather, it was their black as night, perpetually scowling faces. As each guard glared at her, Lami was convinced he could see her innermost thoughts and she tried to think pleasant thoughts about Queen Amina. Lami glanced at her mother. Marka was as nervous as she!
The throne room was already filled with courtiers and commoners who awaited the queen. Lami and Marka had just found a place in one corner when a trumpet blast signaled that the queen's court was about to begin. First came Amina's praise singer who dramatically called out the queen's victories and valours in war while repeatedly shaking his finger at the crowd. Again the trumpet blew, this time it was joined by the royal lutes and drums. Queen Amina's two personal body guards now appeared. A sword hung from around each of their necks, a small pointed lance was held firmly in each hand, and daggers glistened at their waists; no one else in the room was allowed to carry a weapon.
Finally Queen Amina swept in. At once everyone fell to their knees, foreheads touching the ground. No one rose until she spoke. Through her downcast eyes, Lami peeked at the royal figure. The queen truly was a wonderful sight. Tall, heavy, and of the same dark color as Lami's mother, she wore exquisite yellow and brown silks, a large coral and gold necklace, bracelets and rings of copper. Her huge, many hued headdress was stiffened with a rich gold threaded fabric. It was the most elaborate headdress Lami had ever seen.
Waiting for her turn to speak, Lami tried to calm her quickening heart. She thought back to all the events that had led her to this meeting with the queen. She recalled her old home in Timbuktu, in the empire of the Songhay people, and that fateful day when her father, Musa, had died. That had been in the season of the first rains of spring. On the same day of this mournful event, Musa's relatives received a summons from the King of the Songhay people. The king was alarmed at reports of the military prowess of Queen Amina, a leader of the Hausa people of the city-state of Zaria. He called upon all his noble families to contribute gifts to appease this "wearer of the headdress among the turbans." With little hesitation, Musa's relatives quickly answered the King's call for gifts with the offer of two they were eager get rid of - Musa's fourth wife, Marka, and her young daughter Lami!
So it was that by the time the new barley and millet shoots had turned the fields of Songhay bright green, Lami and her mother began the long journey south to the city of Zaria. First they would go down the Niger river to Goa and then leave the river to go West into the lands of the Hausa peoples. Travelling with them were ten sleek horses - gifts of the royal Songhay court itself. To discourage raiders, their caravan leader, Ibrahim, allowed others to join the trip. There was a wealthy merchant and his family, a Timbuktu university student, a Mullah returning home from a stay at the Great Mosque, and two pilgrims on their way to Mecca. At Goa, the capitol of the Songhay empire, they were joined by traders who had just completed the long and frightful journey crossing the Sahara Desert from Fez, the capitol of Morocco. By this time the caravan, with its servants, camels, and precious royal horses, created a strong, if noisy, presence as it entered the grasslands of the Hausa people. The heat of summer was intense, but soon they would reach Kano, the city known to have the richest market of all the Hausa city-states. After Kano, only Queen Amina's "gifts" would set off alone for Zaria further south.
For Lami, the journey was wearying but exciting. In Timbuktu she had lived most of her life behind the dust ladened walls of her comfortable home. Often she had climbed the steep white-washed stairs to the house's flat roof. From there she could see beyond the tall tower of the Great Mosque and over the city walls to the immense sand-colored plains which surrounded the city. Out of these plains had come endless processions of travelers - proud nobles on their brilliantly decorated horses, bands of fierce camel-riding Tauregs, traders on the salt-bearing caravans from the Northern desert, porters bearing the ivory and gold from the South. Watching all, Lami wondered about the faraway homes of these voyagers. In her imagination she saw herself, usually sitting grandly on an elegant horse, setting off to discover what lay beyond the horizon...