Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride

(Book Two)


Previously: Almaz awakes to find herself aboard the mystery ship found beneath the desert, now adrift at sea.  The Ronin, Fukitso, is missing and a trail of blood leads to the hatch into the hold.  Almaz had dreamed about Zehabi, the priestess of the Tiger, who demonstrated she could injury Almaz even in through her dreams.  Almaz also recalls noticing the minion of the Tiger priesthood tossed something onto the ship, but doesn't know what it was or where it went.  Migoti awakes and sends Almaz for a lantern, meaning to look for Fukitso.  But, just then, Almaz hears grapples on the side of the ship.

Now, seconds later...

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With fearful quiet, Almaz set aside the lantern and matches, and gently opened the door enough to see through.

For a moment, she could make out only Migoti, still poised by the companionway, every muscle of her naked body tense with apprehension.  Then, six figures slunk threateningly into view, six villainous rogues in tarry pantaloons and silk girdles, turbans on their heads and earrings glinting in the greasy thickets of their hair.  Only one -- with a  tangled beard stained red with hennah -- carried his tulwar openly; but the other five sported similar weapons thrust in the pleats of their sashes.

Like a pack of ravenous barapur, the six spread out quickly, circling Migoti and cutting off any hope of escape.  If she felt fear, she hid it well.  Her green eyes narrowly watched them, not moving a muscle, even though half of them were now behind her and so out of sight.

Finally, satisfied, the bearded ruffian chuckled in a hoarse, whispery growl.

"Seven days adrift in a pinnace, and then we spotted this mast-less craft on the horizon.  There, I said to my men -- there is life for us yet.  We thought to find food and drink."

He chuckled again, deep and papery with thirst -- and though his back was to Almaz, she could sense his wolfish gaze eagerly caressing the golden body before him.

"But I never imagined to find such fine fare as this!"

Almaz watched the unfolding drama in steadily building dismay.

Migoti was barely taller than Almaz herself, and, though lithely muscular, she appeared heart-breakingly delicate compared to the brawny ruffians menacing her.  At the same time, there was a steely fire in her slitted gaze, a strange confidence, even disdain, at odds with the apparent helplessness of her plight.

For a moment, the bearded man continued to appraise the girl with a slitted ravishing stare.  The others eyed her with no-less-meaningful leers, hands opening and fisting at their sides.

Just then, one of the ruffians raised his eyes, by chance meeting Almaz's own wide gaze.

With a gasp, Almaz lurched back from the doorway, her heart racing.  Had he seen her?  Only seconds later, her question was answered as the door burst open and the ruffian surged through and into the cabin.  With a fearful yelp, Almaz turned to flee -- but then realized she was trapped.  With a villainous chuckle, the man was upon her, flinging her brown length over his shoulder and bearing her kicking and sobbing out onto the deck.

"Look what I found," the man laughed.  "Another tasty morsel to liven  the stew!  Another toy to play with!  We must be dead -- this ship is a ship of houris!"

Setting her roughly down on her feet, he kept a powerful hand on her  shoulder, preventing her from running away.  The other hand pawed at her glossy locks.

"Tell us, houri, are there any others aboard?  There are six of us, after all -- the more of you, the easier it will go."

Almaz was too frightened to reply.  But attention had now shifted back to Migoti, as the bearded ruffian -- evidentally the leader -- approached the golden girl like a samadhi circling its prey.

He stopped suddenly and regarded her searchingly, perhaps, for the first time, dimly sensing that her reaction was not what he would have expected.  She returned his stare, her green eyes sharp as spears.

"Drop your eyes, bitch," he snarled.  "I don't like insolence from my women."  Her gaze remained steady, filled not with fear, but with challenge.  "I said, drop your eyes!"

Even with the shout, the ruffian lashed out, striking her across the face with his knotted fist.  The blow turned her head, terrible in its violence, knocking her back a step, and causing Almaz to cry out in anguished empathy.

But Migoti did not lose her footing, nor cry out, and, as she slowly turned back to face her attacker, the challenge in her startling eyes was undimmed.  For a moment, surprised by her recovery, doubt showed on the ruffian's bearded face.  Then, he sucked in a breath, and his fist flew again, this time aimed for the taut smoothness of her belly...

But the blow never landed.

Almaz did not see the motion that deflected the fist, nor did her eyes catch the fluid maneuver which instantly followed.  There was only a blur of movement, a flash of golden limbs whirling, twisting -- and when it was over, the bearded tormentor lay flat on his back, gasping for breath, and over him poised Migoti, gloriously posed, hands raised in a strange fighting stance such as Almaz had never seen before.

For a heartbeat, the other ruffians hesitated, stunned by the unexpectedness of the attack -- especially from such a small creature as this.  Then, from the girl's feet, the leader finally caught his breath and roared out: "Well -- take her, you idiots!"

As one, they surged forward in a tightening ring, but Migoti was already moving again, carrying the attack to her attackers.

She took three lithe strides across the deck and launched herself through the air, lashing out with one sleek leg, catching a ruffian in the chest and sending him reeling back.   Even as she landed, she spun on her heel and her opposite leg arced high, buffeting another ruffian across the jaw.  Bloody teeth rattled grotesquely on the deck, the ruffian screaming in pain.

A third man grabbed desperately at the whirling gold body, momentarily laying clutching hands on her sun-bright shoulders.  But she turned again, one hand chopping viciously at the edge of his neck.  He gasped at the numbing blow and sagged to his knees, arms unfolding dazedly at his sides.

Now, the bearded leader had regained his feet and he came on with a roar like a typhoon.  Migoti, warned by the cry, wheeled to meet him, instantly dropping into a fighting crouch with hands raised.  She waited just until he came within reach -- then one arm shot out in a breathless blur and he stumbled backward streaming blood from a flattened nose.

Watching in amazement, Almaz barely noticed one of the men, near the gunwale, furtively picking up a wooden bucket.  Only as he crept up behind Migoti did Almaz realize what he intended.  But her shout of warning came too late.

Even so, Migoti seemed to sense his approach and, she started to turn, just as he hurled the bucket with all the strength in his arms.  It struck Migoti across the head with an appalling thump.  She teetered drunkenly a moment, reached out as if to catch herself, then slumped unconscious to the deck.

One by one, the injured men picked themselves up and gathered around her prone body.  To Almaz, they looked like the dazed survivors of some terrible war.  For a space, the leader looked down on Migoti in simmering silence, the blood of his broken nose making redder his hennah-stained beard.

Then, in a low growl, as if speaking a private thought, he said: "Tie her up."  Momentarily, the others glanced at him questioningly, so quiet was the command.  Then, in a vengeful bellow: "Tie the bitch up, I say!"

Instantly, two men sprang up the stairs to the quarterdeck while another two dragged the unconscious girl to beneath the overhang that jutted over the door to the great cabin.  A second later, two ropes snaked down from above, tossed through the railing uprights -- uprights spaced widely apart.

The ropes were made fast around each of Migoti's slender wrists.  On the quarter deck above, the two men hauled on the ropes, lifting the golden girl steadily from the deck.  Just as her feet left the boards, Migoti regained consciousness.  In an instant, her marvelous body flexed and twisted, her legs lashing out with murderous precision.  The impact sent a man staggering into the companion steps.

"Tighter!" hollered the leader furiously.  "Pull the ropes tighter!"

As the men above hastened to comply, Migoti's wrists were pulled wide apart, spinning her back around to face the door.  Finally, her wrists dragged tight against the railing uprights, and there she hung, her arms stretched in a wide V, unable to do more than kick her legs.

Seeing the futility of resistance, her struggles ceased and she hung panting, her naked body agleam with sweat.

One of the men was again holding Almaz and she could only watch in horror as the leader unbuckled his belt and grimly folded one end around his trembling fist, the leather creaking drily.

"I'll teach you," he snarled.  "I'll beat you to death!"

His fist flew back, the belt licking the air, then he struck at the girl with all the strength in his shoulder and arm.  The belt cracked deafeningly across Migoti's supple back, her body jerking with the sudden fiery burst of pain.  She gasped, her eyes squeezing tight.  A red weal was left imprinted across her smooth shoulders.  Her breathing quickened both from the pain and from fearful anticipation of what was yet to come.  Then, again the fist drew back, the belt coiled like a snake...

But the second stroke was destined never to be laid.

The tormentor screamed as something thudded into the back of his upraised fist.  His fingers opened, but the belt, coiled around the hand, did not drop -- for it was pinned to the hand by the shuriken star-dart jutting hideously from his flesh.

He stared at the blue-metal weapon in stunned amazement, rousing from his surprise only when a deep, feral growl sounded from behind him.  He wheeled, his eyes flaring.

Fukitso stood near the companionway, having just climbed up from the hold.  The Ronin's top-knotted scalp was caked with blood from a wound on his temple.  His nearly-white eyes were deadly slits, his teeth clenched in a grinding snarl.  Kyodai shone blindingly in the sun.

"Let her down," the Ronin ordered, menace in every syllable.  "Let her down -- now."

In spite of his surprise, the bearded leader recovered surprisingly quickly, instantly grasping the finer points of the situation.

"Tulwars!" he shouted over his shoulder to his men.  "Feed him to the sharks!"

Immediately, five blades flashed in the sunlight, two of the men springing down from the quarterdeck.  But the Ronin took one bold step forward and dropped into his standard crouch, blade level, elbows high.

"Stop!" he barked -- and the men did so, so commanding was his tone.  "What dogs are you to follow such a pathetic thing as this?  Bah!  This man -- rather, this worm lost your ship and left you cast adrift at sea.  What claim does he have to your loyalty?  What sort of leader is he?  He who can't even tame a weak-limbed slut without strong ropes and the aid of his men!  And now..."  His voice became a low rumble, more menacing than a samadhi's roar.  " he sends you to your deaths."

For a moment, the scene held, a deadly tableau frozen on the brink of bloody combat.

Then, with a single thrust, one of the men ran his tulwar through the leader's back, the scarlet blade standing out a foot from the khalat-clad chest.  The leader's eyes fixed momentarily on the metal tip, surprise and horror twisting his bearded features.  Then his eyes rose to the Ronin with a bleak, defeated look -- and he collapsed in a disjointed heap, dead before he hit the deck.

The man who had done the deed now withdrew his blade and grimly wiped it on the corpse's pantaloons, then, looking at the Ronin, he carefully knelt and set the tulwar on the deck.  He salaamed so low his turban touched the boards.  A moment later, the other ruffians followed suit.

The torch had been passed.  In essence, Fukitso knew, the men had now accepted him as their leader.  Fine enough.  He rose from his crouch and walked past them with a sure, confident stride -- though still carrying Kyodai in a tight, ready fist.

Reaching Migoti, he regarded her sleek, hanging form with an appraising glance, grimly noting the awful weal across her smooth back.  She turned her head and pierced him with a burning glare.

"A weak-limbed slut?" she snarled resentfully.

Apparently in no hurry to cut her down, Fukitso merely grinned.

Night came on and then another day.  The ship drifted on and on, mindlessly steered only by invisible sea currents washing steadily beneath her hull.  Without sails or masts, there was no way to control her course, even had the eight passengers known where they were -- which they did not.  At a guess, the Ronin put them somewhere off the Coral Coast, which lay on the rim of the Jadzra Sea north of the city of Sahara.  But that was just a hunch.

He related to his female companions all he knew.

After the long pounding journey down the underground river, with startling suddenness, the ship had burst out into dazzling sunlight, seagulls wheeling against the clouds, open water stretching ahead like rich, rippling silk.  Looking back, Fukitso had seen the mouth of a cave set in a sheer stone face that reared hundreds of feet against the sky and reached away and away to either side as far as the eye could see, without a sign of shelf or beach.

There was no point in abandoning the ship, even had he been able to rouse his companions in time; they would have drowned from exhaustion long before they could have found a way around that forbidding face.  And so he could only grind his teeth in helpless frustration as the land steadily dwindled and the tide bore them implacably farther and farther out to sea.

It was some time later that Fukitso had thought he heard a sound from down in the hold beneath his feet.  Most likely it was merely the shifting of cargo loosened during the turbulent underground ride, but he recalled noting a similar noise when he had first boarded the ship in the cavern and he decided to investigate.

He was still baffled by the mystery of the ship -- why its owners had gone to so much trouble to hide it in that cavern in the first place.  A sense of unease worked at his soul; even in the sunlight, the ship seemed to radiate strange undefinable menace, like some dark, threatening grotto encountered in the black of night.  Hearing the sound from the hold, Fukitso climbed down the companionway, not thinking to bring a lantern until he was already immersed in pitch blackness.

Even his acute eyes could not see in that stygian hold, so he turned back, only to collide with a stack of crates.  The crates toppled, cracking him a vicious blow on the head.  Dazed, he climbed unsteadily back up the ladder, then onto the deck.  But he had been hit harder than he had at first thought.  Abruptly, he found himself sprawled on the deck in a pool of blood, having passed out, with no idea how long he had lain there.  Struggling to his feet, he found his head still swimming, his sight blurry.  He reeled drunkenly, confused and disoriented, then tripped over the coaming and plunged back down into the hold.  When he came to again, he found his brain had cleared and, climbing the ladder, he encountered the six ruffians engaged in their brutal sport.

The rest, his companions knew.

The three of them -- Fukitso, Almaz and Migoti -- were gathered in the great cabin.  Outside, the five lascars -- which is what they claimed to be, insisting they were not pirates -- were engaged stringing hooked lines over the gunwales to catch fish for food.  As for water, the Ronin had provided for that need by filling barrels with fresh water from the underground river.  It would last them several days, at least.

Almaz had finally discarded the loathsome garment given her by the priests of the Tiger, instead wrapping a strip of scarlet fabric, found in the cabin, around her slender figure in a sort of sari, her brown shoulders and arms left bare.

Migoti had twisted a small bit of silk around her lean lips and another across her proud breasts, but the effect seemed oddly futile.  Nothing could conceal that wonderfully sculpted physique.  To Almaz, it was as if one tried to block the beating rays of the sun with paltry wisps of muslin.  She saw how the Ronin's weird eyes burned whenever they passed over the golden girl -- and she bit her lip in strange dismay.

When food was caught, they ate it raw.  Then deep blue night settled gently overhead, a lush rain of stars filled the vault and two moons bloomed majestically out of a black and silent the sea.  For a time, the quiet was touched only by the soft whisper of waves rippling smoothly along the hull.  Even the wind had dropped, as if in anticipation of an approaching storm.

Then, out of the long, patient silence, there came a startled gasp.  A moment more and a voice screamed out of the darkness.  It was a man's voice, but shrill with stark soul-searing terror.

"Aieee!  Death!  Death out of the night!"

Next week...Death Out of the Night!

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Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.  It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews.  (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)