Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride

(Book Two)
A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
 

Previously: The Ronin, Fukitso, discovered a damaged crate in the ship's hold from which the monster, whatever it is, must have escaped.  But, just then, his lantern went out.  On deck, the lascars (sailors) blame the two girls for their troubles and are up to no good.  Migoti discovered the bracelet tossed onto the deck by the minion of the Tiger Priestess and, unsuspecting, slipped it on her own slim wrist...



EPISODE 5: THE LASCARS ATTACK!

It had been some little while since the Ronin had disappeared down into the ship's dark hold.  There had been no word nor sound from below in all that time.

Now, on the sun-splashed deck, Almaz continued to wait, poised uneasily by the bow, her whole attitude one of nervous impatience steadily fading into smoldering resentment.  Her dark eyes cast again and again toward the black companionway in the middle of the waist, eyes narrow and flashing with sparks of fear.  Her slim bare arms hugged her body as if against a numbing gale, and her brow was furrowed with the ever increasing burden of doubt.

What if he does not return? her fretful mind wondered.

He might not.  After all, it would not be the first time she had been abandoned.  Whatever had killed the two lascars was unbelievably silent and swift.  It left no mark upon its victims, save the marks of horror imprinted on their features.  What if even the Ronin, powerful as he was, could not overcome such a foe?

What if he was already dead?

The young girl's gaze shifted just a trifle, like a small feathered bulbul catching the subtle movement of a cobra hidden in tall grass.  Now there was no shading to the light in her eyes.  Now there was only fear, bright as the hanging sun.

She regarded the remaining lascars in their dishevelled turbans and their tarry pantaloons, their glinting earrings and their curved gleaming talwars.  All three seemed busily engaged, coiling cords, setting the fishing lines, mending yellowed flapping canvas.  They seemed totally unconcerned by the Ronin's long absense, as if it was nothing of theirs as to whether he lived or died, as if it was not partly on their behalf that he had ventured down into the hold in the first place.

Almaz tried to tell herself that their apparent composure was simply their way, simply the stoicism of the stolid seaman.  But something about the scene said otherwise.  There was a tension in the air, as palpable, as unrelenting as the hard, hot deck under her small bare feet.

From time to time, Almaz thought she caught them looking at her, furtively, from beneath scowling brows, first one and then another and then, later, still another.  Each time, their eyes jerked away as soon as she looked over, but not before she caught the burning glares, hot with angry accusation.

Her eyes moved again, but, this time, not back to the hold--rather to the arched door to the great cabin.  For it was not toward Fukitso alone that Almaz felt resentful.  A few moments ago, Migoti had vanished into that cabin, leaving Almaz alone on the deck with the lascars' stares.

Even without the Ronin to protect her, Almaz had felt some comfort from the golden girl's presence.  True, she sensed a certain resentment from Migoti herself, and in some ways she feared Migoti, finding the girl darkly menacing even in her breathless beauty.  After all, it was Migoti who had offered to carve the brand from Almaz's hip with her own gleaming sword!

But all the same, Almaz felt she could depend upon Migoti to stand by her in the Ronin's absense, to protect her should the lascars' stares prove to signify more than idle discontent.

Now, though, Migoti had left her, as well.

Even as the honey-skinned girl had vanished into the great cabin, Almaz had noticed her playing with some gleaming trinket on her slim wrist, a gilded bracelet, it had seemed.  Dimly, Almaz had wondered where Migoti had found the bracelet, since she clearly had not brought it with her from Fakhd al Houri.  Presumably, Migoti had found it in the cabin; there were any number of shelves and chests in there.

Then, a short time later, Almaz had heard a dull thump from the great cabin, as of something falling on the boards, and a sharp startled cry.

Momentarily, Almaz had wondered whether she should investigate, but decided not.  There was only one door to the great cabin, and Almaz, having been there only a short while before, knew there was nothing in there which could possibly threaten Migoti and her dazzling katana, Shogun.  More importantly, she knew she would only add to Migoti's resentment were she to check up on the girl.

And so Almaz continued to wait, her dark eyes constantly roving back and forth, between the lascars and the hold, between the hold and the great cabin, her expression melting between impatience and anger, between anger and fear.

Then, suddenly her gaze steadied on the lascars.

What was it about the scene that raised the tiny hairs on the back of her slim bronze neck?  Why did she feel a sudden crawling chill scrurry up her back?  To all appearances, the lascars were hard at work, coiling cordage, setting lines, mending canvas...

Almaz's breath caught sharply, her white teeth fastening on the arc of her bottom lip.  Mending canvas?  What need was there for mended canvas on a ship without masts?

The unease which before had been a vague formless thing, now suddenly assumed a more focused, more threatening aspect.  She did not know what the lascars wanted the canvas for, but the mere fact that she did not know was enough to set her heart hammering in her chest, enough to rouse fear which, until now, had shown only in her eyes.

She began to move.  With brisk mincing steps, she started across the waist, quickly but feigning calm--even as her pulse pounded in her ears and a bead of sweat trickled coolly down her supple spine.  Her senses seemed intensely aware of their surroundings, the hot sun beating on her dark head, the warm deck pressing against her naked soles--and the silence, the tense, anticipatory silence.

Now she reached the companionway down into the hold; now she had passed the three lascars and was almost to the great cabin.

Behind her, she heard a subtle stirring, heard naked feet slapping on the deck--the rasp of a blade drawn suddenly from a girdle.  She didn't glance around, but, in an instant, began to run, springing forward in a rush like a startled karmah, like a stone launched from a sling.  Her feet flew across the remaining space, barely touching the deck in her frantic flight.  She heard pounding pursuit, angry snarls.

With a sob, she grabbed for the door, running into it, then throwing it wide--even as a bruising fist seized her arm, jerking her to a halt with a force that clacked her teeth and brought a cry of pain to her lips.

But she wasn't thinking about the hand on her arm.

For just a moment, she saw into the cabin, saw what it contained, and her cry of pain burst suddenly into a scream of horror, then of despair.  As a powerful arm constricted brutally about her smooth waist, she put up no resistance, not even as her feet were lifted from the boards and she was flung over a broad naked shoulder.  She knew that there was no point in calling for help--no point because she knew that Migoti could not save her.

Migot could not save anyone...

***
Back out onto the open deck Almaz was carried, her bronze legs kicking feebly, fearful whimpers finding their way past her trembling lips.  Then, with brutal force, she was flung down onto the yellowed canvas which had aroused her suspicions only moments before.

Instantly, the lascars wrapped the canvas tight about her struggling body, and then began binding the outside with ropes.  In a flash, Almaz understood what they intended.  They meant to throw her into the sea wrapped in the sack; they meant to drown her!

With the realization, came a wild surge of panic.  She began to thrash and writhe in the heavy sack, twisting like a fish caught on a line, screaming in frenzied, mindless terror.  The fabric was hot from the sun and there was no air to breathe.  The lascars worked in silence.  The ropes were jerked tight about her struggling limbs, confining her body until she could do little more than strain and flex against their implacable embrace.  To her fear of death was added claustrophobia, suffocating her, compounding her panic until she thought she would go mad with fright.

Then, suddenly, the ropes grew slack.  Almaz found she could again move her limbs.  She didn't stop to wonder at this, but renewed her thrashings, kicking and punching at the confining canvas with a desperation built on faint hope.  The canvas parted over her face and, with a sob, she thrust her dark head through the rent and frantically inhaled fresh air.  Then her eyes dilated and a little gasp of relief fluttered on her breath.

The three lascars stood with their backs toward her, their attention having been diverted by the powerful black-garbed figure who had only moments before surged up out of the hold...

***
For a while there, Fukitso had wondered if he would ever find his way out of the ship's black hold.  When his lantern had gone out, he had found himself cocooned in smothering darkness--darkness which he knew harboured whatever monstrous creature had been confined in that great iron crate.

The Ronin rarely knew real fear, but he did know when to cut his loses.  He dropped the lantern and began to retreat.

His sense of direction was far better developed than in the averge man, honed by the tenth ritual of the Doji Temple--just the same, somehow he became lost in amongst that cluttered jumble of crates and barrels and damp, tangled cordage.  He fought his way through the mess, beating aside wooden debris with his katana as if chopping a path through jungle lianas.

The whole way, his ears continued to strain for any hint of motion in the surrounding darkness.  At any moment, he expected to hear the sudden rustle of limbs uncoiling in a killing leap, expected to feel sharp talons latch jaggedly onto his back, teeth fasten to his neck.

But somehow he found the ladder and clambered up to the upper hold.  Though his path was still littered with shadows, the frosty column of light from the companionway served as a beacon in the dark.  He made for it with a grunt of gratification, though still keyed for any sign of attack.

But then, even as he reached the base of the ladder, he heard a muffled scream from the deck above.  It did not take great thought to discern the cause of that outcry, nor its author.

With a snarl of disgust, the Ronin bounded up the ladder and onto the deck.

He found the three lascars near the gunwale busily binding the girl, Almaz, in a canvas sack.  Immediately he knew what they had meant to do; they had meant to throw her over the side to drown in the sea.  A savage growl rumbled through Fukitso's gritted fangs and his weird white eyes narrowed to deadly, blazing slits.

The sound alerted the lascars, who whirled almost as one.  Their own eyes flared at the sight of the furious Ronin--and more at the sight of the dazzling, silver-guarded blade which he held horizontal before his snarling face.  They saw no mercy in those dark, contorted features.  They saw only death.

They barely had time to drag out their talwars before the Ronin was upon them with a shout like a clap of thunder.

"Banzai!"

His long blade slashed right and left and right again, ringing three quick knells as steel shocked steel.  All three lascars reeled back against the gunwale, their feet nearly trampling Almaz as she cringed in the canvas sack.

Amazed by the berserker speed of the Ronin's attack, the lascars barely found nerve enough to deflect his flashing blade, let alone to return the blows.  Onward he came.  He was like a force of nature, like a whirlwind of gleaming metal.  Again and again, edge hissed on edge, sparks shedding from the impacts, the air resounding with the clashing din.  Even between the three of them, the lascars could make no breach in that shield of dancing light, could find no opportunity for counter attack.  They barely had time to breathe.

Abruptly, a red mist exploded and one lascar sagged grotesquely against the gunwale, Ginago having cut him nearly in two.  Instantly, seeing the ghastly death of their mate, the remaining two lascars flew at the Ronin with reckless fury.

In their eyes were looks of haunted doom.  They knew this was a fight which they could not win.  The Ronin's swordsmanship was like nothing they had ever encountered.  In his hands, his blade was a thing of living flesh, not like a steel sword but like a serpent of steel, writhing and lashing in a breathless, mind-numbing blur of inconceivable swiftness.  But knowing that they were doomed, they fought with the desperation of the doomed, hacking and slashing without control or skill, knowing only that each moment gained was to be treasured in lives which had only moments left to run.

Then, one of the lascars tangled his feet in the cords which had been used to bind Almaz.  He gasped in surprise and fell sprawling on the deck, his talwar gliding away across the boards.  The Ronin instantly turned his full attention to the other lascar--the same man who, before, had dared to challenge Migoti.  This man was a slightly superior swordsman than the others had been, but still no match for the Ronin.  Now, without the others to draw some of the strokes, the lascar found himself beset by a veritable holocaust of blinding steel blades, as if he fought, not a single man, but an army.

It was over in seconds.  The fight had carried the two men a short distance away from Almaz still wrapped in the canvas sack.  She watched in wide-eyed horror as the terrible drama hurtled to its sudden grisly climax.

For a heartbeat, the men fought on the steps leading up to the quarterdeck.  Sunlight danced on their clashing blades, flashed from the sweat on their faces.  Then, the lascar gave a horrified shriek, and on the tail of that cry, his head jumped from his neck on a column of gushing red.  For a moment, the headless body remained standing, as if still imbued with impossible life--then it toppled leadenly over the side of the ship and down into the white wash below.  The head landed with a thump on a step almost at the Ronin's sandaled feet.

Fukitso ignored the ghastly relic and whirled, his long blade jumping in preparation for the final act of this grim play.  But the remaining lascar had made no attempt to retrieve his dropped talwar.  Already he was on his knees, his turban pressed frantically to the boards.  His naked torso gleamed with fearful sweat and his whole frame quaked with terror.

"Mercy!" he shrieked.  "Oh, mercy, effendi!  It was Nabel's idea to drown the girl, I swear it was!  Please, have mercy on me!  Oh, please!  Mercy!  Mercy!"

The Ronin hesitated, still crouched on the steps.  Slowly he straightened and lowered his crimson sword.  The lascar continued to howl, an appalling bedlam, and even Almaz found herself pitying him in his wretchness.  Finally, Fukitso nodded, the effect made hideously ghoulish by the blood that speckled his face.

"All right, you dog," he snarled.  "I should kill you, but I'll give you one last chance.  Doji knows, I've given you enough chances already.  But if you try anything like this again..."

To complete his threat, the Ronin bent and snatched up the severed head by its tangled, black hair.  He held it a moment, raised up like a grisly lantern, blood trickling from the neck, then hurled it into the sea.

The lascar watched with dilated eyes, then immediately smashed his head against the boards again and again, crying: "I swear, effendi!  I swear I will do nothing to harm the girl!  I swear it!"

But Fukitso was no longer interested in the promises of the lascar.  Alone, the man was no threat.  The Ronin strode down to the waist and crossed to Almaz in the sack.  He reached for her, but Almaz recoiled at the sight of the blood which caked his hand.  He drew back the hand and grunted.

"Are you all right?  Doji's fire, can't I leave you alone for even a few minutes?"  He cast his eyes around the deck, scowling.  "Where's Migoti, anyway?  I left her to look after you."

At the mention of the golden girl, Almaz gave a sudden startled gasp--recalling in a flash what she had seen in the great cabin.  She squirmed out of the canvas sack, and shot to her feet.

"In the cabin!" she cried, excitedly grabbing the sleeve of his kimono.  "Oh, come quickly!  Something has happened to her!  Something terrible!"



Next week...Migoti's Doom!


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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!)