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Jakita the Warrior Queen.
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Jakita sets out to destroy two evil Lords that killed her parents. She found she was expected to do much more.

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Jakita, Warrior Queen.

Jakita raised her right hand to shield her eyes as she peered toward the setting sun. Squinting against the light, she could make out the skyline of the tall towers and steeples of the city of Gorma. Gathering mists, tinged with flaming red and orange, was slowly obscuring the city. From the distance and rocky terrain, she knew she had another half a day to reach the city and crossing this ground in the dark would be treacherous. The cave behind her, on the side of the jagged mountain, would be her shelter for the night.

She unsheathed the sword from its scabbard hanging from a golden chain fastened around her slim waist and sat down on a nearby rock. Her tiny loincloth, a mere strip of skin from a soogil reptile that had dared to challenge her, did nothing to add comfort to the uneven rocky surface of her chosen seat. Two small triangles of the same skin, held in place by thin golden chains, covered her breasts.  Upon her feet she wore leather, knee-high boots that protected her from the jagged rocks and deep underbrush she needed to traverse. Wide golden bangles around her upper arms, etched with symbols, indicated her status as a royal witch. Around her left thigh, another golden band with the same symbols held a sheathed dagger. She had always preferred the freedom  of nakedness when at home in Findelli, the land she was born and bred in, but now she wore the minimum required by the Lords of Darhin, the land through which she was travelling.

“You are seeking to enter Gorma?”

At the sound of the voice, Jakita sprang to her feet, her sword flashed as she raised it in readiness to defend herself. The creature that spoke cowered back, its leathery wings covered its body as if they could shield it from the sharp blade.

“Don’t kill me!”  The creature whined as fear-filled eyes peered at her over the edge of a wing. “I mean no harm to you.”

Jakita examined the shaking creature as she lowered the tip of the sword to point directly at it. It was no taller than her hips. The huge eyes peered from a roundish head covered in black fur.  Small pointed ears on top of its head, flicked back and forth, listening for sounds from all directions. The wide mouth revealed yellow, decaying teeth with gaps between where other teeth had once been.

“Reveal whatever weapons you are carrying,” demanded Jakita.

“I conceal no weapons but a small dagger,” whined the creature. Hesitantly, the wings folded back to reveal its body. The fur of its head continued over its complete body. Only its hands and feet and face were furless.  The thin body reminded Jakita of a feline but the arms and legs were sturdy, even muscular in comparison. A leather belt girded its waist from which hung a sheathed dagger on one side and a pouch on the other.

“What are you?” Jakita approached the still terrified creature, confident she could behead it before it could draw the dagger.

“I am Muchcaha.”

“I asked what you are, not who you are.”

“I am a Thrim from the land of Tajo. I am slave and messenger of Lord Rhoget, of Darhin.”

“What business does a slave of Lord Rhoget have with me, Muchcaha?”

The terrified look on Muchcaha’s face changed to a wary smile.

“I can help you enter Gorma.”

Jakita tilted her head sideways and frowned.

“What makes you think I need help?”

Muchcaha’s smile turned to a grin.

“They know you are coming!” The creature said smugly, its wings opened wide and flapping. “They are waiting for your arrival, Jakita of Findelli. Warrior Queen!”

Jakita lowered her sword and observed the Thrim with narrowed eyes for several seconds, then she looked away. Muchcaha watched her as she stared unseeingly into the distance, deep in thought. She had lost the element of surprise in spite of taking the hardest route across the mountains to reach Gorma. She could have ridden on the back of a snark and flown here. The Lords of Darhin must have had her followed. Perhaps it was Muchcaha that had been following her and reporting her progress back to Rhoget. The question that burned in her mind and concerned her most was why hadn’t they attacked her yet? Finally, she spoke.

“So you would lead me into a trap and get your reward from your master, then?”  She tossed her long mane of red hair over her shoulder and glared at the Thrim accusingly. “I should slice off your head and let the sics turn your body into manure.”

Muchcaha’s eyes widened and filled with horror. “No, my Lady! I would show you a safe way inside Gorma. My master wishes you a safe journey and success in your mission.”

Jakita smiled cynically. Her mission was to destroy at least two of the Lords of Darhin and, if possible, all of them. Lord Rhoget had, without doubt, misinformed the Thrim to ensure its loyalty.

“I am sure he does,” replied Jakita with a sneer. “Night is almost upon us.” She returned her sword to its scabbard and entered the cave. Once inside, after her eyes had adjusted to the dim interior, she selected a rock in the centre of the cave and reached out with her palm toward it. “Let the rock burn with heat and light to warm the cave throughout the night.”

Muchcaha moaned with fear as the rock began to glow and strange bluish flames flickered over its surface filling the darkening cave with eerie light.

Jakita turned to the quivering Thrim. “Give me your dagger,” she commanded. When she saw his reluctance, she reflexively touched the hilt of her sword to hasten his obedience. She snatched the dagger from his hand, thrust the weapon into her boot and turned away from him.

“I am sleeping here in the cave. As for you, you can sleep wherever you want.” Giving him no more thought, Jakita settled herself down close to a wall and closed her eyes.

Muchcaha stared at her for several minutes before crawling to the back of the cave, giving the glowing rock as wide a berth as possible. He hated magic.

*           *           *           *           *

The first glow of dawn spread across the sky as Jakita woke, stood up and stretched. The rocky floor of the cave had offered little comfort and, although she had slept, dreams had tormented her throughout the night.

She pushed from her mind the fading images of the Lords of Darhin gloating as she strained helplessly against chains that bound her in a dark, damp dungeon. Muchcaha was sitting on his haunches, his leathery wings wrapped around him. On the floor, before him, was the pouch he had worn on his belt.

“So. You are still here,” she said. “I thought you would be gone back to report to your master.”

The Thrim raised his eyes and peered at her. “My master’s orders were to stay with you and guide you safely into Gorma.”

“You mean into a trap,” retorted Jakita. “I don’t trust you or your master, Rhoget.”

She unsheathed her sword and ran her fingers along its blade. “If the Goddess smiles upon me, this blade will pierce his heart and his soul will be in the hands of the demons he serves.”

“His only wish is to assist you in your mission,” whined Muchcaha.

“Just stay out of my way or you will be the first to greet his soul when he dies.”

Jakita returned the blade to its scabbard with a flourish. “I have half day of travelling to reach Gorma. I must get an early start.”

The Thrim stood up and unfolded his wings. “Please, my Lady! You have not eaten. I have a little food for us.” His hands indicated the pouch before him.

The mention of food reminded Jakita that she had not eaten since reaching the mountains. Her last meal had been berries and roots gathered from the plain a day before. She appraised the pouch warily.

“Do you hope to drug or poison me?”

Muchcaha’s eyes widened and he fell to his knees. “No my Lady! The food is good. See!”

He opened the pouch and took out a small loaf of grain bread and broke a piece off. Jakita watched with disgust as his yellow teeth bit and chewed the morsel.

“And I have Leekas!” He pulled a plum-like fruit from the pouch and thrust it into his mouth. “Good for nourishment and energy!”

Muchcaha’s readiness to consume the food convinced Jakita that it would be safe to eat. She would need her strength and energy should she meet her enemies unexpectedly. Now aware that they knew of her coming, she had to be on the alert for an ambush or attack.

“Very well. We will eat,” she declared.

*           *           *           *           *

The sun was climbing as Jakita strode purposefully along the sand covered valley, her eyes flitting from side to side in anticipation of hidden danger. She estimated she would be at the gates of Gorma within two hours.

“Wait, my Lady.” Muchcaha had difficulty in keeping up with the pace Jakita had set.

“If your legs can’t keep up, why don’t you fly or return to your master?” Jakita replied without slowing.

“My Lady! Stop!”

The urgency in the Thrim’s voice caused Jakita to stop walking and turn to him in annoyance.

“What is it?”

The Thrim pointed ahead. “Danger!” he whispered hoarsely.

Jakita scanned the scene. All she saw was sand and small rocks. There was nothing she could see that presented any danger to her or the Thrim.

“There,” whispered Muchcaha, pointing. “Seven of your strides ahead.”

Only then did she see it. It was a wide circle, twice her height in diameter, and slightly darker than the surrounding sand.

“What is it? A trap set by the Lords?” She edged forward to see if the circle covered a pit into which the Lords hoped she would fall but Muchcaha tugged at her arm.

“Come away, my Lady,” he pleaded. “It is the nest of a chikyua.”

As he spoke, the circle erupted and the air was filled with screeching snarls. Five reptilian creatures poured out of the nest and rushed toward them, each one as big as the Thrim. Jakita’s sword was in her hand in an instant as Muchcaha’s wings flapped and carried him out of reach.

The creatures surrounded Jakita, screeching defiantly and lunging at her, waiting for an opening to attack. Slimy saliva dripped from the jagged fangs of snarling mouths. Above red eyes with yellow pupils two deadly looking horns protruded from their heads. Their long spiked tails thrashed in anger.

Jakita, holding her sword in both hands, stood her ground while turning slowly to face each one in turn.

“Which one of you wants to die first?” she taunted them.

As if in answer, one sprang toward her, mouth wide to sink its teeth into her. Jakita’s sword flashed to behead it but the creature was too quick. The blade only struck one of the horns but with sufficient force to sever it. The beast, momentarily stunned, sprawled on the ground and shook its head.

With a yell of triumph, Jakita leaped forward, her sword arced down, and severed its head. The headless beast spun around, it’s thrashing tail caught her legs, knocking her to the ground. She heard a screech as another attacked her from behind.

She sprang to her feet and spun round in time to see something black descend upon the creature and cover its head.  Muchcaha had dropped from the sky to hinder the chikyua by wrapping his wings around its eyes. The beast raised a clawed paw and effortlessly tore the Thrim from its head but it had been delayed enough for Jakita to lunge forward and thrust her blade into the throat of the bewildered monster. The other three chikyuas froze at the gurgling screams of their dying sibling, then backed away in defeat.

“Muchcaha!” Jakita called, still facing the beasts. “Are you hurt?”

“Just a little dazed, my Lady. And a small tear in a wing.” The Thrim came to her side. “We must go from here. The mother of these babies may return soon.”

Jakita was relieved that the Thrim was unharmed. Muchcaha had risked his life to help her and she felt she was in debt to him. Lord Rhoget may have fooled him into believing he wanted her to arrive at Gorma safely but she doubted that he expected the Thrim to risk death to obey his master.

The remaining three chikyuas had scampered back to the nest and had begun spinning a cover to conceal it. Already the pit was taking on the appearance of undisturbed sand.

Not having any desire to meet the mother of the monsters, Jakita sheathed her sword and  turned to Muchcaha who was anxiously scanning the horizon. “Let’s get on our way,” she said.

*           *           *           *           *

The midday sun blazed fiercely down as Jakita and the Thrim arrived at the foot of the tall stone walls that surrounded Gorma. Jakita realised that she would have to  walk around the wall to get to the main gate. As she began to walk to the right, Muchcaha called to her.

“My Lady! The main gate is well guarded and they will be expecting you.” His leathery wings flapped and he flew to land in front of Jakita. “I know of a better way to enter the city without being noticed.”

Jakita studied his round face for a moment. His expression of concern was clearly evident and his anxious glances at the top of the walls showed his discomfort at being in such an exposed situation. She knew he meant well but he was a slave of one of the Lords and she still did not completely trust his judgement. He could be unwittingly leading her into a trap.

“This way in,” she said slowly, “did your master suggest it?”

“No! My orders were to get you into Gorma safely and to use my discretion.”

Jakita leaned against the rough stone wall, taking advantage of what little shade from the burning sun it afforded. The seven Lords of Darhin would surely have given the guards instructions to be on the lookout for her. She would be a prize catch for them if she was captured. The Witches of Findelli were highly respected by the inhabitants of all the lands except Darhin. Unlike the Lords, they only practiced white magic.

Her thoughts turned to the two Lords she had vowed to destroy. She only knew them by name, Sorgen and Bakard. Anger welled up inside her as she remembered how these two lured her parents into a trap and captured them. Tales from lands bordering Findelli told of how the Lords had tortured them for amusement before killing them and hurling their mutilated bodies onto the burning garbage tip outside the walls of the city.

Whichever way she entered Gorma, she would have to be on the alert. She turned her attention back to Muchcaha. She reached down to her boot and drew the dagger she had taken from him and examined it. It was well crafted and balanced. Symbols, unknown to her, were etched on the sharp, double-edged blade and hilt. She tossed it casually to the Thrim who caught it with surprising expertise and sheathed it.

“Show me this way in, slave of Rhoget,” she commanded, not wanting him to forget that she hadn’t forgotten he was a potential enemy.

“It is but a short distance from here, my Lady,” replied the Thrim, obviously pleased with her decision. “This way.” Muchcaha turned to the left and, keeping close to the wall, led the way.

The wall curved around the city, encircling it completely. As they walked, Jakita became aware of the acrid smell of burning waste and smoke. Grief began to overwhelm her as she realised the Thrim was leading her toward the burning tip that had consumed her parents bodies.

A little further and she saw the tip. It was a huge pile of ashes and smouldering garbage against the wall. The smell of sulphur used to keep the pile burning made her catch her breath.

She closed her eyes in an attempt to fight back the tears that welled up as she thought of her parents mutilated bodies being thrown unceremoniously onto the smouldering pile of garbage.

Somehow, the Thrim sensed Kakita’s distress and stopped. “We are almost there,” he said, “just twenty of your strides more.”

Jakita acknowledged him with a nod and gestured for him to continue. They came to a small metal gate set in the foot of the wall. A broken rusted chain once used to secure the gate hung down loosely. The gate had been obviously been in disuse for many years. Muchcaha tugged at a handle and with a screech of protest the gate opened. A different kind of stench reached Jakita’s nostrils and she reeled back.

“Is this the stench of Gorma?” She asked with disgust.

“Excuse me, my Lady, but this was once the sewage outlet,” explained Muchcaha. “It is no longer in use but the smell prevails.”

Jakita squatted on her heels and peered into the hole. The wall was just five paces wide at its base and was so low that even the Thrim would need to bend down to enter. She could see sunlight through the slats of another gate on the other side. She would need to crouch low to go through the short tunnel.

She reached out her hand and chanted, “Let the scent of a comely wench replace this obnoxious stench.”

Muchcaha’s eyes widened as the sweet smell of a flowering corpeena plant drifted from the opening. Although he hated magic, he did recognise it had its benefits.

Jakita drew her sword and moved to crawl into the tunnel. Muchcaha touched her arm.

“You cannot go in as you are, my Lady.” His head shook as his eyes travelled from her head to her feet and back as she straightened up to her full height.

“How else can I go in?”  She glanced impatiently at the Thrim with raised eyebrows.

“You will be too conspicuous. I have a suitable disguise for you to wear so that no one will notice you.”

He scuttled over to a large flat rock by the wall and lifted it. It covered a shallow hole dug in the sand. With a grin, he reached in and drew out a hooded robe of cheaply woven, brown fabric.

“This is the poor area of the city, my Lady. This robe is common in this and other areas.”

Jakita took the robe and shook the sand from it, then eyed it dubiously. The coarse material would probably make her skin itch but he was right. She would easily be recognised if she entered the city as she was. He seemed to have thought of everything. Or, she wondered, had it been Rhoget that had done the thinking?

She slipped the robe over her shoulders and did up two of the three crude buttons, leaving the middle one undone. She would need to be able to draw her sword if she was challenged. The garment was loose enough to conceal her weapon and reached to the ground and would hide her boots. The hood was also wide and loose and easily covered her red hair. By bowing her head, it would conceal her face adequately.

“What about you?” she asked.

“My Lady, no one will take any notice of a slave going about his master’s business,” replied Muchcaha. “Slaves are often sent into this area to bring fresh maidens to their masters.”

Jakita scowled and clenched her teeth as she was about to ask how many maidens the Thrim had obtained for Rhoget. It was none of her business and hopefully Lord Rhoget would be dead by her sword before she returned to Findelli.

“Time is passing by,”  she said impatiently as she ducked into the low tunnel. She reached the inner gate and peered through the gaps between the slats. Thirty strides away, a group of people were chatting together. Three were wearing similar robes to the one she now wore. The other two were men in coarse shirts tucked into pants that reached their knees. As she observed them, a cart, piled high with wooden boxes passed by. Drawn by a three horned beast of burden with its forked tongue flicking in and out, the two wheeled cart rattled on its way.

Satisfied that she could mingle with the people, Jakita pried open the door, using the noise of the passing cart to cover any sound that would attract attention. She emerged in a cobblestone alley followed closely by Muchcaha.

The whooshing sounds of wings above made her jump back and reach for her sword. As she pressed against the wall, she glanced up in readiness for any attack. It was a flying snark, its fierce, bat-like head tossing agitatedly. Its mouth open in a constant snarl revealed its long canine teeth. Huge pointed ears made its head appear twice its size. Powerful, feathered wings supported its furred body. An armoured nobleman sat on a saddle strapped around the snark’s neck. She watched it as it went between two towers and disappeared from sight.

“Do you know where Sorgen or Bakard live?” Jakita asked the Thrim.

“Of course I do. But I do not know how you can get inside their mansions.”

“Take me. I’ll worry about getting inside.”

“My Lady, first you need somewhere to stay and hide. It may take a few days before you can get to those Lords.”

Jakita snorted. “If need be, I’ll conceal myself in an alley or even in this sewer.”

“But there is no need for such discomfort, my Lady. There are many that would be willing to hide a Findelli witch from the Lords.”

Jakita turned her back on the Thrim and raised her eyes to the sky. She had made no plans. She had been driven by the burning desire to kill Sorgen and Bakard for murdering her parents. Now, this slave of a Lord was telling her what she should do to accomplish her task. Had it not been for him, she would have walked straight into the chikyua’s nest. He had risked his life to give her an advantage over the chikyua. He had got her into the city without being seen, even provided her with a disguise. She wondered what punishment he would receive from Rhoget when he related all he had done for her. She would do her best to kill Rhoget before he had the chance to punish the na´ve Thrim.

“Who will hide me?”

Muchcaha smiled broadly. “I have friends close by, my Lady. People from the land of Torkil that were captured by the Lords and brought here as laborers.”

Jakita raised her eyebrows. The people of Torkil were peaceful and harmless. She had heard of the Lords attacking and plundering their homeland, taking many as slaves. Her people had helped those that the Lords left by giving them provisions to get back on their feet.

“Take me to them,” she said.

*           *           *           *           *

The stone house was one built by early settlers from Golan at the time of The Escape when some attempted to flee from the Sorcerers of Golan, the ancestors of The Lords of Darhin. The Sorcerers hunted them down and forced them to build the magnificent city of towers and mansions. Now, the old stone houses were used to house slave laborers and their families under the harsh rule of The Lords. The Lords of Darhin had allowed the slaves to breed to keep them happy and working hard.

Muchcaha’s rap on the wooden door was answered by a tired looking woman. Jakita couldn’t help noticing sadness in her eyes. Her face lit up when she saw the Thrim and she quickly ushered him and Jakita inside and closed the door.

When her eyes had adjusted to the dim interior, Jakita quickly scanned the simply furnished room. The bare floorboards were worn smooth by many years of use. Beneath a shuttered window stood a wooden cabinet with three drawers. A small clay pot containing a plant graced its top. In the centre of the room there was a table with six chairs spaced around it. Large cushions were scattered on the floor by the walls.

Muchcaha introduced the woman to Jakita as Keela. The woman smiled but Jakita couldn’t help noticing that the sadness remained in her eyes and wondered what caused the deep pain.

 Keela’s clothing was simple. The skirt was woven from the same coarse thread as  the clothes worn by the men and women that Jakita had so far seen. A simple blouse of slightly finer thread covered her top. A pair of hide sandals on her feet completed her attire.

“Keela, this is Jakita of Findelli. She needs somewhere to stay for a day or two.” As he spoke, two men entered the room. One was a man about the same age as Keela. The other was much younger.

“Muchcaha,” said the older man, “it is good to see you again.” He turned to Jakita. “I am Bohan, Keela’s husband. This is Jorg.” He pointed at the younger man without turning.

“Bohan, this is Jakita of Findelli,” said Keela. “She needs somewhere to stay.”

“So I heard,” replied Bohan. “The girl can stay here for a few days.”

He smiled at Jakita. “Please, remove your robe and sit down. Keela, refreshments for our guest.”

As Keela hurried to bring the refreshments, Jakita thanked Bohan, slipped off the robe and sat down on the seat indicated. Both men saw the golden bangles around her upper arms at the same time and exchanged glances, then Bohan dropped to one knee and spoke again.

“My Lady. You must be one of the Witches of Findelli.” He kept his eyes on her feet. “I did not know we were so honored.”

Jorg also went on bended knee. Resting his forearm on one knee, he looked straight into her eyes. “My Lady. You cannot roam about without  suitable clothing,” he said. “If one of the Lords should see you, he would make you his own plaything.”

Jakita touched her sword. “He would die before he had the chance,” she said. “But you are right. I do need inconspicuous clothing.”

“I will see to it,” promised Jorg, “but please do not underestimate the power of the Lords. Their magic is powerful and they have many guards.”

“It is true,” added Bohan. “Laborers have started many uprisings against the Lords but have been easily defeated every time.”

Keela entered carrying a tray laden with a large jug of juice and some grain biscuits. When she saw Jakita without the robe, her eyes widened. She hurriedly placed the tray on a table and fell to her knees.

“The Great Goddess smiles upon us!” she exclaimed. You are surely a noblewoman!”

“Get  up, all of you! My authority is only valid in Findelli,” said Jakita. “Here, I am just another woman.”

“But still a witch with the power of magic,” murmured Muchcaha quietly.

Bohan rose to his feet. “Keela! The refreshments!”

They all sat around the table to eat and drink. During the conversation, Jakita learned the reason for the sadness in Keela’s eyes.

When the Lords saw the daughters of the slaves grow into beautiful women, they began to take them for their own pleasure. When they tired of them, the young girls, no longer virgins, were returned to their parents with their foreheads branded to indicate which Lord had finished with them. Some never returned having taken their own lives or had been killed through excessive abuse by the Lords. The daughter of Bohan and Keela was one of those that died. Her body was dumped on the ever burning tip.

“Only the most attractive girls are taken for the Lords,” said Jorg. “Often, the less attractive are taken for the pleasure of the Lord’s troops to keep them happy.”

“At times, even our youthful sons are taken to pleasure the wives and daughters of the Lords,” said Bohan. “They are never returned alive.”

Jakita listened to stories of the Lord’s lack of mercy and severe punishment dealt out for the smallest error. With his anger increasing with each story, Bohan told of men and women being publicly flogged to death for failing to meet work quotas, young children thrown alive to ferocious beasts as food.

“Just ten days ago, they took a four year old child and dangled him from a rope over six hungry sibnas and watched as the beasts leapt and fought to feast on the boy. I was told one managed to rip a leg off the screaming boy. The child was still alive when the Lords allowed the sibnas to tear him to pieces, still dangling from the rope.”

Jakita shook her head and raised her hands to her ears to block out hearing any more of the distressing tales. “Stop! Enough!” she cried.

Seeing her reaction, Bohan fell silent and looked at his quietly weeping wife. He placed his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands, breathing deeply to calm himself. Jorg, who had been staring unseeingly at some spot on the table the whole time, looked up and laid a comforting hand on Bohan’s shoulder.

Muchcaha had left the table and was sitting in a corner of the room on a cushion. His wings folded protectively around him. Now, he looked up to observe the scene.

“Perhaps I should not have brought you here, my Lady,” he said apologetically.

Jakita said nothing but her mind was racing. These were the Thrim’s friends. Their hatred for the Lord’s was so evident and he must feel the same way about them. Yet he served Rhoget as a messenger and slave. She turned her head and met his eyes, holding them for several seconds.

“Why do you serve your Lord? Why are you a slave to Rhoget?”

Muchcaha unfolded his wings and stood up. “We are all slaves to the Lords, my Lady. Only the Lords and their friends and their armies are free in Gorma.”

“You met me in the mountains. You were outside the city and could have escaped!”

Muchcaha glanced over at the others, then back to Jakita. “And leave my friends, my Lady?” He gestured with his hand to the others in the room.

Jakita dropped her eyes to her lap where her sword, still in its scabbard, lay. She wondered where his loyalty was strongest. His friends or his master, Lord Rhoget.

Jorg, sensing Jakita’s distrust of the Thrim, pushed his chair back from the table, stood up and went to Muchcaha.

“Muchcaha is a good friend. He has helped us in every way he can,” he said. “We trust him.”

Bohan and Keela murmured in agreement as Jakita’s eyes swept over Jorg. For the first time, she took in the details of his appearance. He was tall, at least half a head taller than she was. His hair, thick and blond, was a mass of tight curls that fell to his broad shoulders. She imagined the loose shirt he wore hid a deep chest and muscular arms. Steel blue eyes, with a hint of amusement in them, seemed to see right into her soul as they gazed confidently into her own.

Jakita felt her cheeks redden and looked away. She turned her head toward Bohan and Keela. Bohan was toying with a metal cup. Keela, her face tear streaked wiped her tears away with the heel of her hand and, filled with curiosity, flicked eyes from her to Jorg and back again.

“Muchcaha has been a great help to me also,” she told them. “He risked his life to protect me.”

She stroked the scabbard thoughtfully, and then added, “Perhaps I am being too wary of betrayal.”

“You must be tired, my Lady,” said Keela. “Let me show you where you can rest.”

“Yes. I am very tired.” The long, fast-paced journey on foot from Findelli had been physically exhausting. “I do need some rest.” She also needed to think over all that she had heard from these gentle people.

She bade each one goodnight as Keela rose from her seat to show her where she could sleep.

Keela led Jakita to another room that contained a straw-filled mattress on the floor and a small cabinet. “It is not much for a noblewoman such as you but you will be safe here.”

Jakita glanced around the room nodding with approval. She had slept on hard ground for the past three nights and the mattress looked appealing. She noticed a large bowl on the cabinet with a dish containing soap beside it.

“This was my daughter’s room,” Keela explained. “I will fetch clean, warm water and a towel so that you may wash, my Lady.” Without waiting for a response, she hurried out of the room.

Jakita went to the cabinet and opened a drawer. Inside and neatly folded were a few simple garments. She chose one and held it against her. The neckline was open to the waist and held together by a thin cord. She decided that by loosening the cord the garment would just about fit her. She slipped it on and was just adjusting the cord when Keela came back with a large jug of steaming water.

“Oh! My Lady! My daughter’s soul will be so honoured!” She placed the jug on the cabinet and turned back to Jakita. Tears welled up in her eyes. “That was her favourite.”

Jakita, seeing her tears, went to Keela and took her hands in hers. “I was just trying it on. I should have asked for permission first.”

The weeping woman dropped to her knees. “No my Lady. Use whatever you wish. We are honoured.”

Jakita pulled the woman to her feet. “Rise up! I have no authority in Gorma or even in the whole of Darhin,” she said. “Call me Jakita for that is my name.”

“No, no, no!” Keela’s voice dropped to a whisper. “These past four moons the foreseers have been telling us a warrior queen would be visiting this city and we must give her the respect to which she is entitled.”

Jakita stared at the woman. It was four moons ago when her parents were killed. Even she had not planned to come to Gorma until a few days ago.

“How could they know I would be coming?”

“The chief foreseer saw the signs in the smoke of the tip, my Lady. It is said that the smoke itself suddenly burned with fire and the image of the warrior queen appeared with an army of many thousands standing ready behind her.”

Jakita turned away from Keela and paced up and down the room for several seconds.

“The foreseer is mistaken,” she said.  “I have no such army. Just a few guards at my palace.”

There was a rap on the door and Bohan called out.

“Is everything all right in there?”

Keela glanced at Jakita who nodded and called back. “All is well, Bohan. You may enter.”

The door opened and Bohan walked in. “Jorg and Muchcaha have gone. Muchcaha will return at dawn,” he informed Jakita who raised her eyes in surprise.

“Jorg is not your son?” she asked.

It was Bohan’s turn to show surprise. “My son? No. He is a good friend, that is all.” He smiled at his wife, then added, “But he is like a son to us.”

Keela went to her husband and took his arm. “My Lady, you must rest as we all must. Bohan has work to do for the Lords at dawn.”

When they left the room, Jakita sank down onto the mattress, her thoughts on what she had learned from Keela. She shook her head as she tried to think where she could get an army as Keela had described. Finally giving up, she took off the garment and replaced it in the drawer then lay down and closed her eyes.

Her last thoughts before she slept were on Jorg. There was something about him that intrigued her.  She thought of his steady gaze into her eyes. She had felt as though he was seeing her most intimate thoughts. No man had ever caused her to be embarrassed like that before. Bohan had said he was a friend of the family but he was so much younger than they were. She wondered if he was married.

*           *           *           *           *

The sound of a door closing woke Jakita. Rising from the bed, she went to window and looked out. Bohan’s stocky figure was trudging along the cobbled road, dimly lit by the first rays of dawn. Ahead and behind him, several other men were making their way in the same direction. As she watched him reach the end of the road and turn a corner, she wondered what kind of work he was required to do for the Lords.

She was about to turn away when she saw the black form of Muchcaha flying awkwardly over the men’s heads and then stop outside the house. A moment later she heard him rap on the door, then the muffled voice of Keela greeting him.

Jakita used the remaining water in the jug to wash then slipped on the robe Muchcaha had provided for her. With her sword and scabbard in her hand, she made her way to the main room of the house.

The Thrim was sitting poking a garment or two set on the table. As Jakita entered, he stood up and greeted her.

“My Lady, I hope you slept well.”

“I slept very well, thank you, Muchcaha,” she replied.

He indicated the garments. “It seems that Jorg kept his promise and brought you clothes to wear.”

“Really? He must have been very quiet as I didn’t hear him come or go.”

She went to the garments are picked one up and holding it at arms length, examined it. She noticed the material, died a pale blue, was of the finer weave and itlooked as though it would fit her well. There were three dresses in all, blue, green and pink. Holding each in turn against her, she was satisfied that all three would fit.

“Jorg has chosen well,” she said. “I must thank him when I see him again.”

She turned to the Thrim. “I saw you arrive. You were having difficulty in flying,” she said.

The smile on his face went and he dropped his head. “It is nothing. The tear in my wing from the chikyua’s claw has not yet healed.” He spread his wing and Jakita saw the tear was worse than before. She moved closer and examined it. The edges were raw and red.  It was obvious that his flying had enlarged the tear.

“Close you eyes and keep the wing extended,” she told him.

Muchcaha’s eyes widened and panic showed in his face. “My Lady, what are you going to do?”

“Do as I say!” she commanded.

Reluctantly, the Thrim shut his eyes tight, his face grimacing as he held his wing wide open.

“Great Goddess, to you I appeal. Let your power, this wing heal.”

Muchcaha whimpered as he heard the chant. Then he felt a tingling on his wing and with heart pounding, moaned aloud.

“You can open your eyes now.”

Muchcaha slowly opened one eye, then the other. Still grimacing, he looked at his wing. The tear was gone and so was the pain. A smile gradually formed on his face.

“It didn’t hurt! My wing is whole again!” He bounced up and down with delight.

Jakita smiled. The Thrim had only seen the black magic practiced by the Lords. She removed her robe and slipped on the green dress. Jorg had guessed her size perfectly. The garment could have been made especially for her, the bodice and waist fitting snugly.

Keela, bearing a tray, entered the room. “I have brought you something to eat, my Lady,” she announced, setting the tray on the table. “It is not much for a royal person but it is all we have.” She turned and saw what Jakita was wearing then added, “Jorg brought the clothes this morning. He said he hoped they were suitable.”

“He chose well. This one fits perfectly,” replied Jakita with a smile as she went to the table. On the tray were a bowl of fruit and a small loaf of bread. A metal cup held fruit juice.

Jakita thanked her , then asked, “Aren’t you eating?”

“Bohan and I ate earlier, while you were still asleep, my Lady.”

Jakita sat down at the table and picked a Leeka, the same fruit Muchcaha had given her in the cave on the mountains, and took a bite. As she ate, she studied the Thrim. He was touching the place where the tear in his wing was, his face a picture of wonder.

“Have you made your report to your master?” she asked him.

Keela glanced at Muchcaha and then at Jakita. “Excuse me, my Lady, but I have work to do. I will leave you to eat.” She hurried out of the room to go about her chores.

Muchcaha looked uneasy as he replied. “Yes, my Lady. His instructions were to assist you the best way I can.”

Jakita sipped the fruit juice thoughtfully. She couldn’t help feeling that something was being kept from her. Something that Muchcaha and his friends didn’t want her to know. She chewed slowly on a piece of bread and swallowed before speaking again.

“Which is the closer, Sorgat or Bakard’s fortress?”

“Both are on the other side of the city, my Lady, but Bakard’s is the closer.”

“I want you to take me to Bakard’s fortress, then.”

“As you wish, my Lady, but it is well-guarded. He has a personal army of two hundred and fifty men.”

Jakita raised her eyes with surprise. She hadn’t thought there would be so many guards. Her own palace guards were just fifty men.

“And Sorgat’s?”

“My Lady, all the Lords have the same number of men in their personal armies. It is a law among them that none be more powerful than the others.”

“So, the strength of their armies is just a thousand seven hundred and fifty men.”

She thought of the vision the Chief Foreseer had seen, an image of a queen with an army of many thousands. It was little wonder that the people’s hopes of being rescued from the Lords were so high. The queen he saw must have been someone other than her.

She pushed away a feeling of helplessness. She had come to Gorma to avenge the murder of her parents and was determined to carry out her mission or die in the process. She would go to Bakard’s fortress and assess her chances of getting in to kill him.

“I want to see this fortress with my own eyes,” she said.

“Very well, my Lady,” replied the Thrim. “It will take an hour on foot.”

“It will have to be on foot. We don’t have any snarks available, do we?” She glanced at Muchcaha hopefully but he shook his head negatively.

*           *           *           *           *

The uneven cobbled road surface changed to smooth paved roadways as Jakita and her companion approached the better part of the city. The buildings improved in quality, became more elaborate the further they went toward the city center. The peasants became lower in frequency and the wealthier, better dressed inhabitants became predominate along the thoroughfares.

Jakita pulled the hood of her robe further over her head to conceal her flaming red hair which would identify her as being from a southern land. All those she had seen were from lands north of the mighty River of the Goddess that separated the land of Findelli from Darhin.

She thought of Jorg and his blonde mass of curls and wondered from which land he had been taken from and enslaved.

The sound of hooves clattering on the road reached her ears and Muchcaha Took her arm and pulled her to the side of the road. She noticed everyone had moved aside.

Three men, armed with swords and lances and mounted on triple-horned beasts galloped past her, heading the way from which she and Muchcaha had come. One of the men shouted angrily at the handler of a cart that was slow in getting out of the way.

As soon as they had passed, the people resumed walking.

“Bakard’s guards,” whispered Muchcaha. “We are close to his mansion.”

Jakita’s heart quickened knowing she was close to her destination. “Let’s be on our way,” she answered.

A short distance further and they came to a large square. A huge, elaborate mansion occupied one side of the square. Four guards on foot patrolled outside the gates of the entrance. Beyond the gates, another four guards could be seen pacing the length of the impressive building. From her position, Jakita could see tall towers with lookouts at each corner of the mansion.

“You will never get past those guards unseen, my Lady,” whispered Muchcaha.

Jakita, disheartened at the strength of the mansions security, turned to the Thrim. “You are supposed to assist me, aren’t you?” she hissed. “Why are you trying to discourage me?”

Muchcaha looked up at her, his huge eyes expressing helplessness. “My Lady, I fear for your safety. I can only assist you the best way I can.” His head and shoulders drooped, despondently.

Jakita immediately regretted what she had said. The Thrim had done everything he could to help her. She doubted that she would have come so far as quickly without him. It was not his fault that Bakard protected himself so well.

She reached out and stroked his furry head. “I’m sorry. I was venting my frustration on you.”

She glanced back at the mansion. “Is there a way to the back?”

“I can see if you wish, my Lady. But it means leaving you alone for a while.”

“Go see. I will remain and mingle with the people here.”

Jakita watched approvingly as the Thrim rose into the air and flew to one side of the mansion over the roofs of neighbouring buildings. He was avoiding any obvious interest in the mansion. When he was out of sight, she strolled casually a short distance down the road, keeping close to peasants and other pedestrians going about their business. She was thankful others also had their hoods over their heads to shield them from the burning sun.

The clatter of hooves drew her attention and she glanced down the road. The three mounted guards were returning. As she merged with the other pedestrians and moved aside to allow the guards to pass unhindered, she saw the grim worried faces of the men.  Something had displeased them.

The guards turned toward the square and Jakita watched as they approached the gate of the mansion. The men guarding the gate spoke to one of the mounted guards, then the gate swung open to allow them entry.

To Jakita, it was clear that she would never be able to gain access to the mansion from the front if the guards even checked their own. Her attention was so fixed on what she was observing that she failed to notice Muchcaha had returned until she heard his whisper by her side.

“My Lady. There are four guards at the rear and one small gate,” he reported. “The men in the rear towers are not very alert.”

“What do you mean,” asked Jakita.

“I flew close to both towers. One of the lookouts was dozing and the other was playing some game. Neither saw me.”

Jakita’s hopes rose again at the news. She focused her eyes on the front towers. One of the lookouts leaned over a battlement and scanned the square. The other appeared to examine the scene inside the gate. Her best chance of getting into the mansion would be from the rear.

She praised the Thrim. “You have done well, Muchcaha.  Now let us return to Keela. I have plans to make.”

*           *           *           *           *

No one answered Muchacaha’s knock on the door. After three attempts he turned to Jakita, concern written all over his face. “Something is wrong,” he said. “Keela would never leave the house alone.”

Jakita reached past him and tried the latch and the door swung open. She drew her sword and entered. They found Keela, her face streaked with tears, cowering on a cushion in a corner of the room. When she saw them she began crying with relief. “Muchcaha…My lady,” she sobbed.

Jakita saw her face was bruised and ran to her. She took her into her arms and asked, “What happened?”

“The guards were here. They searched this house,” said Keela between sobs. “When they began to throw everything on the floor, I asked them to stop and one struck me and told me to keep out of their way.”

“Bakard’s guards,” said Muchcaha. “We saw them riding this way, my Lady.”

“Yes. They were not in a good mood when they returned to the mansion,” replied Jakita slowly. “But how did they know where to look for me?”

She looked up at the Thrim as her distrust of him returned. “Rhoget?” she asked meaningfully.

“No, my Lady…”

“You made your report to him, didn’t you?” Jakita interrupted. “Only you, Bohan, Keela and Jorg knew I was here… and Rhoget if you told him.”

“But my Lady, Lord Rhoget knew of your whereabouts all the time.”

“If it wasn’t Rhoget, then it must be…” she fell silent as realisation slowly sank in. Then, with determination, she stood up.

“I must leave here at once.”

Keela knelt down before Jakita and held the skirt of her robe. “Who do you think betrayed you, my Lady?” she asked.

Jakita took her hands, drew her to her feet and looked into the woman’s pleading eyes. “I am sure Bohan would never have put you in danger of being hurt,” she told her. “So if it wasn’t Rhoget, it could only be Jorg.”

“Great Goddess!” Keela exclaimed, shaking her head. “Never! Not Jorg, my Lady.”

Muchcaha also displayed astonishment at the suggestion. “You are surely mistaken, my Lady. Jorg has been a very close friend of this family and mine for years.”

“Nevertheless, I will not stay and endanger this family any longer.”

Jakita turned to the Thrim. “I will complete my mission alone,” she told him, looking straight in his eyes to make sure he understood. “You will just have to inform Rhoget that I no longer need your help.”

*           *           *           *           *

The sun was already low in the sky by the time Jakita had found a way to the rear of Bakard’s mansion. She concealed herself amid a group of trees and observed the positions of the guards. Muchcaha was right. She saw only four guards, evenly spaced, leaning casually against the wall surrounding Lord Bakard’s premises. They were armed with swords and wore leather breastplates and helmets.

The guards in the towers were more interested in watching whatever was going on within the grounds of the mansion.

There were a good fifty paces of open space that she would need to cover to reach the guards. She doubted she could do that without being seen and challenged.

After pondering for several minutes, she decided on a course of action and emerged from her hiding place, wrapping her robe around her to conceal her sword.

With a casual pace she wandered aimlessly as if taking an evening stroll, stopping now and then to bend down and pick up a pebble and examine it before tossing it away. As she got closer to the nearest guard, she could sense his eyes fixed on her, watching her every move.

She went to walk past him and he called out.

“You there! Come here.”

Jakita looked at him and smiled but continued walking.

“I said come here, girl,” said the guard gruffly as he straightened up and faced her.

Not wishing to attract the attention of the other guards, she went and stood before him. The guard reached out and pulled her hood from her head.

“Well! What have we here?” He grinned evilly as he tilted his head and examined her face. “Quite a beauty, aren’t you? It’s a wonder one of the Lords hasn’t claimed you yet.”

“Please sir, let me pass,” said Jakita. “I have to go home.”

The guard chuckled. “You’ve got time to give me a kiss, haven’t you?”

He grabbed her and pulled her close to him and with one hand ripped her robe off. His expression changed to astonishment when he saw her sword and the way she was dressed beneath the robe.

“Hey! Who are you?” he demanded.

Jakita reached down to her thigh, drew her dagger in a fluid movement and thrust the sharp blade into his side. His scream brought the other three guards running.

 Jakita held the dead guards body against the wall until the first had almost reached her, then she spun around and drew her sword. With the weapon in both hands, she sprang toward the guard who had no time to draw his own. The blade swung down to slice his head from his neck but he ducked. The blade glanced off his helmet. The guard was quick and rolled away before drawing his sword to defend himself.

Jakita attacked again but the guard raised his sword and parried her thrust at his heart.

Jakita stepped back and stood, feet apart and arms outstretched as if offering him the chance to thrust his sword into her. She watched his eyes sweep over her almost naked body and his sword dropped slightly. It was enough to allow her to spring forward and thrust with all her strength. The sharp point of the blade pierced his breastplate and sank deep into his chest.

She was trying to withdraw her weapon when another guard grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms to her side. He was strong and held her tight while she struggled to get free. The fourth guard was fast approaching when, in desperation, she threw her head back. The guard grunted as her head smashed into his face and he released her. He staggered back holding his broken nose.

Jakita threw herself at him, her dagger in her hand, not allowing the guard to recover. Her sudden charge knocked him over as Jakita fell on top of him. The weight of her body forced the dagger through his breastplate and into his heart.

The clanging of a bell and a lookout shouting for guards reached her ears.

Jakita sprang to her feet to face the fourth guard and stood crouched in a defensive posture. He was already almost upon her with sword raised to strike her down. Her dagger would be no match for the two-edged sword he wielded.

Something flashed through the air and the guard dropped to his knees with a look of surprise and horror on his face. The handle of a dagger protruded from the side of his neck. The guard fell forward as his sword slipped from lifeless fingers.

Jakita’s swung around. Her eyes scanned the area to see who had thrown the dagger but could see no one. She approached the still form of the guard warily and stared at the dagger in his neck. She recognised the strange symbols engraved on the hilt. It was Muchcaha’s dagger.

She was barely aware of shouts and the sound of approaching hooves pounding on the hard ground.

*           *           *           *           *

“My Lady, you must leave here now!” The voice of Muchcaha came from above her head. She glanced up as his dark form flew down to land beside her. He reached down and retrieved his dagger, wiping off the blood on the guards pants and sheathing it. “There will be too many for you to battle!”

Jakita had to admit to herself that Muchcaha was right. Now the alarm had sounded, she would have no chance of getting into the grounds of the mansion. She went to the guard that still had her sword in his chest. She placed a foot on his chest, withdrew and sheathed the weapon.

She turned and began running for the trees. She had almost reached them when the first of the mounted guards rounded the wall and, shouting to each other, took up pursuit.

Muchcaha, flying above her, called to her.

“It’s too late! They have seen us!”

Jakita stopped and turned to face the guards with her arms stretched out.

“Let a mist from the ground arise to conceal us from enemy eyes.”

Immediately a dense mist formed between them and the guards as Jakita turned once more to run for the cover of the trees. The mist continued to form just a pace away behind them.

“This way, my Lady!” The Thrim flitted between the trees with Jakita, panting with exertion, following him. They came to a clearing where two snarks were tethered.

Jakita stopped running as Muchacaha landed on the ground.

“You have managed to get snarks,” exclaimed Jakita.

“No, my Lady. Not I.”

“I did!” Jakita spun around at the sound of the voice. Jorg was emerging from the trees. “They will get us away from here quicker than on foot.”

Jakita was confused. She had suspected Jorg of betraying her and now he was helping her to escape from Bakards guards.

“Hurry! The guards will not let a mist stop them from searching.”

He mounted a snark and untethered it.

Jakita could still hear the guards shouting to each other. Jorg was right, they hadn’t given up. She swung into the saddle of the remaining snark and quickly untethered it.

“Where do we ride to?” she asked.

“Follow me,” said Jorg, goading the beast.

As they rose above the treetops and headed toward the older part of the city Jakita called to Jorg.

“We cannot go back to Bohan and Keela’s home.”

“I know! I am taking you out of Gorma where you will be safe.”

“NO!” cried Jakita. “I have a mission to complete!”

“You will complete it but not the way you are doing it,” replied Jorg, his long, blonde curls flowing behind him. He glanced at her and smiled. “Trust your friends, my Lady!”

Trust your friends! The words struck home hard, filling Jakita with guilt. She knew she had been suspicious of everyone, including those that had shown her friendship and had gone out of their way to help her. She tried to tell herself it was because she was in a hostile land but she knew the only ones hostile were the Lords and those that supported them.

Silently, she followed Jorg, weaving in between the towers and steeples, toward the city wall where the smoke from the smouldering garbage tip drifted skyward. Muchcaha flew behind her, effortlessly keeping up.

Once over the wall, Jorg goaded his snark to turn eastward. As they left the mountain region, vegetation turned the ground to a lush green. Jakita saw cultivated fields separated by hedges and fences. A few peasants working in the fields paused in their work to look up at the sound of the snarks’ beating wings as they passed over them.

Soon they came to a small village of ramshackle cottages and Jorg’s snark dropped lower and landed in a road by a cottage. Jakita followed him, landing close by. The snarks folded their wings and shuffled closer to each other.

Jorg dismounted and ran to Jakita and assisted her in dismounting.

“You will be safe here,” he told her. “The guards won’t look for you beyond the city walls unless ordered to.”

Several people emerged from the cottages and greeted Jorg as they peered with curiosity at Jakita. As they gathered closer, they saw the golden bangles on her arms. Some dropped to their knees while others bowed to her.

“The reputation of the witches of Findelli has spread far and wide,” Jorg said to Jakita.

“And the prophesy concerning the warrior queen,” added Muchcaha.

“Jorg, my friend!” A large broad-shouldered man approached Jorg and hugged him. He stood almost a head taller than Jorg. His dark brown eyes sparkled as one huge hand ruffled Jorg’s tight blonde curls. A thick, black beard and bushy eyebrows covered most of his face but did not conceal his broad smile.

“Come!” he boomed. “Bring your friends inside and have some refreshment.” He turned to Jakita and knelt before her. “It would honour me if you would accept what little hospitality I can offer.”

“My Lady, this is Gogan, the leader of this village,” said Jorg. “He is a good man.”

Gogan snorted. “All are good in this village,” he said.

“It would be a pleasure to have something to eat and drink,” said Jakita. “A chance to wash if possible.”

“I can take care of all that, my Lady.”

Jakita turned toward the sound of the voice. A small woman stood nervously wiping her hands down her dress. A bleached cloth was tied around her forehead, holding dark, straight hair with a few grey strands, in place. Her face, though smiling, had the unmistakable lines of hard times.

Gogan rose up from his knees and beamed. “This, my Lady, is my lovely wife, Jianna.”

The introduction surprised Jakita.  Gogan was such a huge man and his wife was so petite and fragile looking. Jianna curtseyed then nervously adjusted her headband with the palm of her hand.

“Please, my Lady, enter our humble home,” she said gesturing toward the door of the cottage. “I will attend to your needs at once.”

“Yes. Come in. Come in and rest,” said Gogan. He followed Jianna to the door then stepped aside to allow Jakita, Jorg and Muchacaha to enter. Before entering, he called out to someone in the group that had gathered.

“Calin! Tether the snarks and give them water and feed.”

The interior of the cottage was simple and very similar to Bohan and Keela’s home but had handmade ornaments carved from wood and several rectangles of cloth died with various patterns hanging on the stone walls. Lamps, already lit, burned in each corner of the room giving adequate light. Jianna disappeared through a door and into another room. The sound of utensils being moved drifted from the open door of what must have been the kitchen.

Anxious to be hospitable, Gogan offered Jakita a huge seat with several straw cushions. Its size made it obvious that it was made to fit him personally.

Jakita smiled and moved to the table and pulled a seat out from under it. “You sit on your throne, Gogan,” she said. “I will be comfortable here.”

“You are gracious, my Lady. Those small seats were not made for the likes of me.”

Muchcaha found a corner and sat down on his haunches while Jorg sat bedside Jakita.

“So. What brings you here after so long, Jorg?” Gogan’s deep voice seemed to set the air vibrating as he spoke.

“Jakita needs somewhere to stay for a day or two,” replied Jorg. “Lord Bakard’s guards will be searching for her but I don’t think they will find her here.”

Gogan glanced at Jakita and frowned. “Great Goddess! What has my Lady done to upset Bakard?” he asked.

Jorg leaned his elbows on the table and explained how Jakita had attempted to get into Bakard’s mansion single-handed and had killed four guards.

“Three guards,” interrupted Jakita. “Muchcaha killed the fourth. He saved my life.”

“That is not good. Many will suffer at the hands of Bakard’s guards,” said Gogan, shaking his head slowly.

Jakita hung her head. She had not wanted anyone to suffer for her actions. Her thoughts went to Keena and how the guards had beaten her. Now, Gogan believed more would suffer. Nothing was going the way she had expected.

“I am so sorry. I must leave this land and go back to Findelli.” When she looked up at them, her eyes swam with tears. “I have caused enough trouble here.”

“No, my Lady.” Jorg’s voice was adamant. “You have a mission that concerns not only yourself but those that believe you are the chosen one to free them.”

Jianna came into the room with the refreshments and set them down on the table.

“The vision, my Lady,” she said quietly. “The Lords fear you.” Her hand went to her forehead and adjusted her headband unconsciously. She left the room hurriedly to get more refreshments.

“Why does Jianna wear that headband?” asked Jakita.

Gogan’s face darkened and he glared at the floor, his face filled with hate.

“We never mention it,” whispered Jorg.

“My Lady will discover the answer soon enough,” growled Gogan. He lowered his voice and leaned toward Jakita.

“She is one of the branded. Used and discarded by Lord Slaken when she was just a teenager. She tries to hide her terrible experience behind the headband but it is a constant reminder.”

Jakita sat trying to comprehend the terrible things that Jianna must have experienced at such a young age at the hands of a sadist.

“All the Lords must be destroyed,” she announced. “These atrocious acts must end.”

“Slaken is dead now. His son, Lord Sorgat has taken his place.”

“My Lady, the people of Darhin look to you as their saviour,” said Jorg. “You have their support but you must make workable plans to complete your mission.”

“I am not the saviour in the vision. I do not have such an army at my disposal.”

Jianna entered bearing the drinks on a tray. “You are the one,” she said, overhearing the tail end of the conversation. “I know you are the one, my Lady.”

“How do you know this, Jianna?” asked Jakita with a smile. “I wish I could have your confidence.”

The little woman glanced at her husband. Their eyes locked for a moment as though some secret message was being conveyed between them.

“Tell your story, Jianna,” said Gogan. “Now is the time.”

Jianna sat down at the table and fingered her headband for a minute. Jakita could see she was trying to make up her mind before speaking. Finally she turned to Jakita.

“My Lady, I have told this to no one but Gogan. When I was very young I lost my mind. Terrible things happened to me at the hands of one of the Lords that my mind could not accept. Only Gogan stood by me and helped me to slowly recover my senses.”

She reached up and eased her headband from her forehead to reveal the brand, a black circle around a red face of a demon. Jianna touched the brand and tapped it with her index finger.

“No man wants a woman that has such a brand that would constantly remind him that she was once owned by a Lord and her insides had been ruined so that she could never carry a child. No man except Gogan.”

Jianna smiled at her husband and Jakita could see the tenderness in her eyes.

“Something must have happened while I was insane. I began to have dreams. Dreams that were like prophesies that were fulfilled at a later time.”

She clenched her husband’s hand tightly and he responded by taking her hand in both his.

“My Lady, I had such a dream at the same time the vision was seen by the Chief Foreseer. In the dream I saw a beautiful woman with a crown of a queen upon her fire-red hair. She held a sword triumphantly above her head and from the sword golden flames ran from hilt to tip. Before her, on the ground, two bodies lay with snarling demons cowering around them. A great roar of approval rose from a huge army of warriors that filled the valley behind her.”

Jianna scanned Jakita’s face, her eyes bright behind the tears.

“My Lady, you are the living image of that woman.”

Jianna fell silent and wiped a tear from her eyes while Jakita thought over the story she had just heard.

“But they were just two of the seven Lords and I have no such army!” she protested.

Jakita loosened her sword and scabbard and laid it across her lap. She had no doubt that Jianna had related the dream accurately but, was it a vision of what was to happen or just a dream?

“Where can I find an army of thousands?” she asked helplessly.

The men looked at each other then Gogan spoke.

“We could get thousands of people behind you but none are skilled in battle. They are just slaves, farmers and labourers. The Lords with their black magic and their armies will easily defeat them as they have in the past.”

“Let’s sleep on this and meet tomorrow to discuss plans,” said Jorg. “I have to get the snarks back to the city.”

Jianna stood up. “I will prepare your room and a bath for you, my Lady.”

Muchcaha, who had remained silent throughout the conversations, also rose from his corner. “I will go with Jorg,” he said.

*           *           *           *           *

Jakita had just returned from a stroll through the village when Jorg and Muchcaha arrived the following day before lunch. As she greeted him she noted, with some annoyance, that he only had one snark.

“How long are you going to keep me here in this village?” she asked, turning her back on him and entering Jianna and Gogan’s cottage.

Jorg followed her, sensing her annoyance. “The guards are still searching the city for you, my Lady. They are doing a house to house search.”

Jianna came into the room bearing a tray laden with food. Jorg took it from her and placed it on the table, then turned to give her a hug, lifting the small woman off her feet and swinging her round. Jakita smiled at the warm greeting. She had to admit he was a likable and charming man. Her smile faded slightly as she realised she knew so little about him.

“Put me down, Jorg! I have a guest to care for!” Jianna’s blushing smile belied her irritation.

“And so you shall,” replied Jorg, placing her back on her feet. “Is Gogan here?”

“He will be back soon. He is checking the crops.”

“Good! I have done some thinking and want to speak with him and Jakita.” He picked a morsel from the tray and turned to Jakita as he placed it in his mouth and chewed.

A look of surprise spread across Jakita’s face as she glanced at him. It was the first time he had used her name. He had always referred to her as ‘my Lady’.

“I have been thinking, too,” she told him. “More and more good people are getting involved in my fight against the Lords and I am not pleased about that.”

“They are our enemies as well as yours, my Lady,” replied Jorg. “We are only too pleased to assist you.”

“I came to kill Sorgen and Bakard because they killed my parents. Now others are getting hurt. Keela was beaten because of me.”

“The Lords have spies everywhere,” said Jorg. “They live and mingle with the slaves and report to the Lords what is happening among them.”

“So that is how they knew where to look for me.” Jakita looked down at the floor. “I thought you had betrayed me. I’m sorry.”

At that moment, Gogan arrived home. When all the greetings were finished, Jorg sat down. “I have a plan,” he announced.