The rays of the early morning sun greeted Deba in her tent. Inaudible sounds from the men outside could be heard, as they went about their business for the day. Her tent was an easy one made by wrapping the length of a pounded tree back on upright sticks dug into the ground. Her bed was a simple cloth laid over feathers, to soften the impact of the hard ground against her skin. The Zulus really made her comfortable. But she had expressed her wish to see that Mekani, Dogo, Kubu and Mayo also had comfortable tents. Her wish was granted.
Although their journey had been smooth, Deba laid uneasy on the soft feather bed. A lot ran through her mind; starting with the search for Gor's entrance and the revelations from Mayo and Mekani.
It had been three weeks since the incident with Mayo and the Zulus. Afterwards, they had insisted that Deba, Mekani and the men, joined them in their camp which happened to be further west.
Mekani had refused, insisting that he couldn't stay with people who killed a whole village, including women and children. For he didn't know if they planned to kill him and his men too. And what about Deba? Who would protect her if he died?"
"We do not have evil intentions towards you." One of the Zulu warriors spoke up. "
"I know." Deba replied
"Also know that I promise to explain things to you if you just come with us." The queen persuaded.
"You can go alone." Mekani was stubborn.
"No?" Mekani frowned. "Are you going to force us?"
"Juba sent you to protect his her, we understand and respect his decision." The queen said. "But we are only offering comfort, more men at your disposal and more men to help find Gor. Juba made it clear I was to meet him in Gor."
"You go alone." Mekani pouted. "We will follow behind."
"Well. I'm going with them. And I will need you with me." Deba announced, to Mekani's disliking. But she needed to know more and Mekani's stubbornness wasn't going to help.
"Don't princess me!"
"They slaughtered women and children!" He insisted. "You saw it with your own eyes."
"Those were no women and children." The queen mother defended. "Those were demons. The people who put those slaves there are from the Songhai. They are planning a mass attack on the kingdoms in this region, yours and mine. They held rituals in that land and demons possessed those innocent people. If they were allowed to live, they would have joined the army of demons the Songhai people are amassing to use against us. They are evil, each one of them. If you think I lie, come with us to the next raid. I'll let you inspect the people before anything is done. I don't just go about killing women and children."
A brief silence followed. Deba searched Mekani's eyes. He searched hers.
"So?" Deba asked when he said nothing.
"I don't know. I just don't trust her." He replied.
"I know. But I need more explanations. From you and her. You people are driving me crazy with secrets. Mayo is coming too. I need to know what is happening to him. And if its something we can cure, better for us. We need..."
"You can't cure it. It is magic." Mekani said with clenched fists. Anger flashed in his eyes. Was Deba realy going to choose the Zulus over him?
"Ok. But all the same, I want to know what his story is. I want to know what her story is...."
"Go then." He didn't let her finish. "Because I'm not coming." She was an ingrate for all he cared. Mekani turned to leave.
"Yes, you are coming" She grabbed his arm. "Please."
Mekani turned back to her. He was going to give her a piece of his mind but the sadness and plea he saw in her eyes made him change his mind. He softened. He couldn't understand why he was mad at her when all she wanted were answers. She wasn't choosing the Zulus over him. Mekani never thought he could be so jealous over a woman's choice. He smiled inwardly. "Ok. I will come with you."
And so they had followed the Zulus further back the way they came, climbing hills and crossing rivers. They stopped only at night and made camp. Early the next morning they continued the journey, searching for Gor.
During their rest one night, Deba had walked up to the camp fire where Mayo sat and demanded explanations about what had happened earlier. He was reluctant. Telling her meant revealing his terrible past. But her kind and assuring words put him at ease. He finally opened up.
Mayo was a very normal man once. He lived in Djenné, the second capital city of the Songhai. He had a wife and two kids. But he was a thief. He stole to keep shelter over his family's head. He stole to feed and clothe them too. But one day, things backfired. He had gone to steal from a rich man who only a few weeks before, had come to settle in Djenné. He needed money for his wife and to prepare for the third child growing in her womb.
That fateful night, the rich man caught Mayo trying to steal from the treasure chest in one of his guest rooms. He raised alarm. His personal guards responded and arrived just in time to catch Mayo. Then they tied him up in a room the magician had pointed out. At mid-night, the rich man conducted experiments on him. It was only then Mayo realized the man was a magician. A wicked one too. The result of the experiments was fire. He screamed the first time, begging for mercy, but none came. His skin would harden like a rock and even get cracked in so many places. Then the fire would burn and when it does, anyone who knew magic could use him, either for good or bad. He was at their mercy.
The rich magician, pleased with his new invention, used him to carry out lots of evil deeds for men who could pay well. Mayo couldn't return home. When he wasn't carrying out the magician's orders, he was held captive in a prison. His family were told he was dead. The rich man gave his wife plenty of money to start life elsewhere. He couldn't risk her finding out that Mayo was still alive.
Then one day, after three years, a very wealthy man paid a lot of money to buy him. The magician put him on a ship headed for Abasa, where his new rich owner stayed. But there was serious storm on the second day. A ship wreck followed. Mekani was on that ship too, with his adopted father. They helped him to shore and took him with them. They didn't know about his gifts until days later. The rich magician got news about the ship wreck and his escaped prisoner. Too much money was at stake. He either delivered Mayo to his new owner, or returned the money that was paid. Unfortunately, the money was long spent on other experiments. So he chose the former. He set magic to work and got into Mayo's head. He used him to kill a lot of the people Mekani saved from the ship wreck. It was his adopted father that saw through. Having years of experience in magic, he was able to get the magician out of Mayo's head and block any entry again. He started to teach him about magic in little ways. He taught him to make fire easily, since he is a fire giant. And that is all he had done since, Make small fires.
"He took me in and adopted me too. We are all his adopted children." Mayo finished.
"Wow! You have been through...so much."
"I had forgotten the past." Mayo said, staring into the fire. "But with what happened back in that forest, I relived it. And I almost killed my friends."
"But you did not." Deba encouraged him. "How long ago is it? That you changed, I mean?" She asked.
He sighed. "About two years. At a time when Gor was under attack. Our adopted father told me he had to use me to crush the attackers. I accepted."
"And since then?"
"I haven't changed. I wonder why it happened now. I wonder why Juba let it happen."
"Perhaps your adopted father forgot to close your entry."
"I don't think so." He scoffed. "You heard the queen. She says Juba gave her the power to get into my head. He used her to get into camp and I really can't tell why. He is all wise. I can't question him."
"Juba may be powerful, but you serve him. And if your adopted father blocked usage, Juba should have respected that decision and stop..."
"You should talk to Mekani." He cut her short, dragging his eyes away from the fire and placing it on her. "Our adopted father and Juba, they are one and the same person. Mekani is his first adopted son. He reminds him of a son he lost. Definitely, he would have more answers."
Deba frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"Mekani has at least half the answers to your questions."
He stood up to leave but she placed a hand in him. He stopped and turned to look at her. "I will talk to him. Thank you, for opening up to me."
"I'm glad." He left to his tent. No, he wasn't cooking. The Zulus had maids in the camp for that. And besides, he didn't want to go near fire for a while.
It was later that night Deba walked up to Mekani during his night patrol around the Zulu camp. The fire had been put out. Darkness enveloped them and most of the party had gone to sleep. While some Zulu warriors patrolled the grounds in groups, Mekani stood alone.
"Princess." He said when he saw her. "You should be resting. The Zulus provide comfortable tents."
"I know. But if I remember clearly, you didn't want the comfort."
"I don't." He smiled lightly. "But I don't have a choice where you're concerned."
"Because you're my princess." He pulled her into his embrace and bent for a kiss. But she stopped him by placing one palm between their lips.
"Who is Juba?" She asked, pretending not to hear his grumblings.
"Our god." His voice was flat. He tried to kiss her again, but she stopped him again.
"And your adopted father." She finished for him.
Mekani's eyes shot up. He pulled back slightly to look at her. "Who have you been talking to? It can't be the queen mother or any of the Zulus. They don't know that much."
"It doesn't matter who I've been talking to. I just want to know. I need to know the people I'm with."
"Like I said earlier, Juba wants to see you. He will tell you all you need...."
"If you don't tell me now, I'm not going to Juba."
"You don't have a choice."
"Yes I do!" She pulled away from his embrace. "I left my mother to be here with you. I don't even know if she's alive and well. But I'm here. So you either tell me or I leave camp. I leave all of you and return home."
"Your home is Gor now. Utho Era doesn't want you, yet."
"You know more than I think you're letting out. Mekani, if you ever truly felt anything for me, please tell me the truth. Your silence is killing me. Too much has happened and I need to know why."
Mekani sighed and walked a short distance away from her. "It is better you hear from Juba. He won't mince words."
A brief silence followed. Both of them were in thoughts - one thinking of the possible way to get answers and the other thinking of the best way to throw her off his back.
"What are you so afraid of telling me?" Deba finally asked.
"I'm not afraid of telling you anything. I just don't have all the details." He turned to face her.
"Then tell me the ones you have." She moved closer and placed her palms against his cheeks. "Please. Ease my thoughts Mekani."
Mekani sighed. Thanks to his sharp sight, he saw the sadness in her eyes. He saw the light dim in her eyes and he knew it was time to talk. The more she worried about what was or what was not, the more she drained her mental energy. He held her palms open and planted kisses on them.
"You might hate me after what I'm about to tell you. Then what happens to us? Our love?"
"Why will I hate you?"
"Because I took your brother's place."
She frowned. "How? My brother has been dead for over eight years."
"You know?" Her heart beat tripled, thoughts ran through her head and confusion joined in. "How did you know?"
"Come. Sit down." He led her to a big stone by his tent and made her sit. "Phew! How do I start?"
"Start from anywhere?" Her eyes shone in the darkness, as her heart sat ready and eager to learn the truth.
"My village was raided. The raiders killed everyone, including my parents and siblings." He sighed, remembering the incident. "I was at the farm that day. My father had sent me to check his trap for bush meat. Mother needed it to cook soup. I was reluctant. I had been having fun with my friends by being naughty with girls, and my dad was about to spoil my time. I was only 18.
I went to the farm that day. The trap caught a big hound. But it was still alive. It was a black hound. I wanted to kill it and take it back home. But somehow, I couldn't bring myself to do it. The hound had this innocence I couldn't ignore. I was still contemplating what to do when the hound started to howl. It howled several times. Then, I thought it was calling on its friends to come and help it. But I realized much much later, it was weeping for my people. After howling, it looked at me and spoke. 'Your village is under attack'. I can't even begin to tell you how I felt. A hound had spoken and it had said my village was under attack. I started to run back. When I got back, I was greeted by smoke from burning shacks, dead men and women gruesomely murdered lay on the ground. Their blood spilled. I raced to my house and that was when I saw my family, dead. All of them. The raiders had all gone. I knelt down and wept.
It was night fall, and not being able to stay with the dead, I went back to the farm. The hound was no longer in the trap. It sat at a corner and said it was waiting for me. I asked why. She said because she was willing to be my new family, as she had also lost her family. I agreed. I later discovered, after it changed back to a woman, that it was no mere hound. She had children. Dogo and Kubu. Thy were just about 11 and 12 years old then. She hid them in the bush when warriors from Nala also raided their village. They were a tribe of half man, half hound. A few were taken captive. The rest were killed. She asked me to be part of her family. And I accepted. Her sons took to me instantly, and I to them. We blended well. I was like a big brother to them. We lived quietly and in fear. My new mother initiated me into the hound circle. I don't know how she did it..but I became like them five moons later. Half man half hound." He sighed, rubbing the hilt of his sword. "One day, hunters came to the forest where we stayed. They had heard of the little group staying alone there. They knew what we were. But they came for us anyway. With spears, they attacked Dogo. Kubu fought them, and so did I. Our mother was away. When she returned to meet the fight, she jumped in and fought them off. She chased them back but not without sustaining serious injuries. She died a few days later. Only three of us were left. It was tough caring for my new brothers alone. We couldn't stay in one place. We moved all the time, to prevent hunters from coming at us again. Then one day, we ran into slave catchers. They put nets over us. Chains followed and we were whisked away along with others who had been caught. Our first stop was Timbuktu. A few of us were sold to masters there. Then they took the rest of us to Gao. More of the captives were sold, Dogo and Kubu too. The rest of us were taken to Mombasa and sold. Lucky for me, I was sold to a house of fighters. The man who bought me normally engaged in bets at the fighting pits. He was constantly in need of new men who could fight well at the pits and give him money. In the house there were the new men and those who had proved trust worthy overtime. Juba was one of them."
"Juba?" Her brows shot up. "Juba is a man, not a god?"
"I'm not done with my story yet, princess."
"OK. Sorry." She apologized, "Please continue"
"Juba, over the years, had risen in ranks." Mekani continued. "He was a slave fighter at the pits, but he was the lead fighter in the house and all of Mombasa. As soon as new fighters arrived, it was his duty to train them; to bring them up to standard. He trained me. It was during training that he discovered I am half hound. He laughed that day, not at me, but at whoever dared challenged me in the pits. He taught me how to channel my energies. He taught me combat the way he taught no other slave. And when it was time to fight at the pits, none if my opponents survived my rage. The rage that I'd lost my family, twice. The rage that my brothers were sold. The rage that I was a slave fighting in a pit just to make a fool rich. But Juba encouraged me not to give up. He took to me and I to him. He became my new father figure. And I became the son he lost.
Then one day, he pulled me and a few loyalists aside. He discussed his plans with us. He was planning an uprising against the masters of the pit and all slave owners in Mombasa. The slaves in each house, put together, out numbered the warriors of the city. Juba wanted us free. Secretly, from house to house, messages were sent to each warrior and other slaves. They all bought into Juba's plan. After all, no one wanted to die at the pits. The women didn't want to continue being raped. There were a few betrayers, but the rebellion worked. It was a day of fighting and massacre of Mombasa warriors. We burnt down the pits, seized their money, food, fine robes and ships. Then we set sail with both men women and children, who had once been slaves. We stopped briefly at Gao, the Songhai capital. I had told Juba about my brothers. It was not easy, but we found them. Gao has a stronger security. Their warriors are more in number and deadly; not easy to defeat. So it was useless staging another uprising for the slaves they owned. Juba instead, paid for a lot of slaves' freedom with the money we took from our Mombasa masters. And that was how I got Dogo and Kubu back. They were both grown ups already, as years had passed. It turned out they were also used in fighting pits. We got into the ship and set sail for a new land to call ours. After all, most of us had no home before we were captives.
It was during the voyage we discovered Mayo. According to his story, a rich magician had put him on the ship, after bargaining with the crew that he wanted him dropped off at Abasa where his new rich owner stayed. Little did he know he was talking to slaves who had just gained freedom and come to free others. They took his money and agreed to drop Mayo off. But of course, that wasn't going to happen.
After getting a number of slaves, we set out to our new land. But there was serious storm on the second day. Ship wrecks followed. Few of us died. But those who remained, Juba led to a new land in that region. He named it Gor. We had only started to build when Mayo's abilities came to light. His former master got into his head and tried to use him to fight us and then force him to make his way to Abasa. Juba was good with magic. He got the magician out of Mayo's head, although there were several casualties already. But since then, we have not looked back. Juba sent our people out everyday to find cast aways or raid slave catchers' caravans. Their prisoners were then brought to Gor and given a home, same with the cast aways. Gor is made up of people who have lost their homes and people who were caught by slave catchers. It is how we have grown to be a very large kingdom.
One day, Juba put me in charge of the people and went away. He was away for a very long time and when he finally returned, he was not a man. But a god. A very powerful god. He is neither dead nor alive. He said it was the only way he could watch over his family back at home. But you can't touch or see him without his permission. He planned the series of events that brought our paths together." Mekani paused and turned then to look at her. His expression was serious. "I don't know Juba's story from the start. I only know he was a slave and is the greatest warrior I've ever known. I know that he lost his son in the fighting pits at Mombasa. But I will tell you this, Deba. Your father is not gone. Juba is your father. And the son he lost was your brother."
Deba's breath caught. She frowned. Her heart skipped. She had been so focused on Mekani's story, trying to paint a picture of all he had been through, trying to understand him and Juba better. Only for him to drop a huge package on her. She never expected it. "Mekani." She called, barely above a whisper. "My father's name is Ezodo. Not Juba. What are you saying?" She looked at him now.
"Juba is the name he chose for himself." Mekani explained. "It was his disguise. No one could know he was from a royal family. There was a reason he didn't want them to know. I don't know that reason."
"My father" She whispered. She was confused. Pictures of him during her days as a 10 years old kid came flooding back.
"Yes. And he was the one who sent me to fetch you. He talked to me about you and your mother several times. Why do you think I know you? He even knows about the dreams I have of you. He is ok with it. Somehow, I think he is trying to pair us up. And He is going to fetch your mother too. I don't know how. But we will all meet in Gor. I am sure of that."
Mekani's revelation got Deba's heart. For days after that, she said nothing to no one. She kept to herself, thinking about her father and brother. She never imagined they were captured on their way back to the farm that faithful day. Or did they reach the farm before the slave catchers arrived? Her father was a fighter. His skills helped in expanding the territories of Utho Era kingdom. He couldn't just be captured. What had happened? And if he became this almighty Juba she had heard of since her encounter with Mekani, why couldn't he come back home? Why did he leave them all these years to pain and suffering? Why would he allow Ezomo molest his wife? Why would he submit her to danger? Ah, danger. He knew about it. He knew about Izogie's sham of a marriage. He knew the Tuaregs were fake. He knew they'd try to kill her. That was why he sent Mekani. The Zulus only respect her and didn't kill her because she was sure Mekani told them Juba was her father.
She sighed, using one hand to caress her temple. She had spent the night thinking. Even when she slept, she dreamt of her father and brother. She was awake now and still, her thoughts were with them.
"Princess" she was distracted by Dogo's voice from outside her tent. Ever since the revelation, Mekani had given her no time. It was almost like he was avoiding her. She didn't know why, she didn't want to. She only knew that when she recovered from her state, she would seek him out. But before then, Dogo was her new guard.
"Yes Dogo. Come in."
"Mekani found it." He announced, stepping into the tent. "The entrance to Gor."
"Gor?" Her father was near. "Are you serious?" She jumped off the bed and ran outside, Dogo followed behind. They had been searching for an entry for three weeks. Gor was large. One of the largest kingdoms. It had grown, quietly. But it was hidden from prying eyes. Mekani explained that Juba casted protective spells around the kingdom, therefore allowing only those who were trustworthy, find it.
In her case, Mekani had insisted that Juba needed Deba to learn a lesson or two before visiting the kingdom. Without that lesson learnt, Gor would never be open to her.
However, the Zulu queen thought differently. "Juba only wants her to know half the truth about him. And thanks to you," she gestured at Mekani, "she does. Gor will be open to us."
And so they had searched, for weeks. If Dogo was right that the entrance to Gor had been found, then her intense desire to sit and chat with her father, to know all that had happened to him and to see her mother again, was almost coming to pass.
Outside, she saw Mekani discussing with the Zulu queen. She approached them. "Dogo said you found it." She said, looking at Mekani with hope in her eyes.
"Yes, I did." His eyes regarded her scattered hair, "We should pack up and head to Gor. But there's one small issue."
"What?" She asked, impatiently.
"We just discovered our camp is surrounded. Some of the warriors spotted armed riders in the forest. I think they plan to attack."
To be continued...
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