Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride

(Book Three)
A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
 

Previously: In Book One and Two, Almaz, as a prisoner, was taken to a jungle cave where a "treasure to drive men mad" was said to be concealed.  Karim rescued her but entered the cave alone only to be killed by some monster without solid form.  (See Book One, Episode One...ed.)  Almaz returned to her home, Sahara, bearing the map leading to the cave, but pursued by Gaffar, the only one of her captors to have survived.  Gaffar, driven mad by the Jakaro headhunters, wanted the map.  Almaz hooked up with the Ronin, Fukitso, who rescued her from Zehabi, the beautiful Priestess of the Tiger religion, who branded Almaz with the "Tiger's Eye", by which Almaz could be followed.  With Almaz, the Ronin decided to follow the map, but lost it to Dahika Khan, who in turn lost it to the madman, Gaffar.  Luckily, the Ronin's memory was good and he recreated the map.  On the map was this warning: "Beware the beast with a thousand claws; Take care the thing of a thousand jaws./ In Gehenna it spawned, in darkness it lies./ Effendi, despair, for the beast never dies..."



EPISODE 1: RETURN TO THE CAVE OF DOOM!

Almaz awoke to the silken rustle of waves breaking on a low shore.

She opened her eyes and blinked, momentarily dazzled by bright sunlight reflecting off the ivory crescent of a long sweep of beach. She lay on the edge of a jungle, stretched on a bed of wide palm leaves, neatly arranged.  A cool wind teased her foamy black hair.

For a space, her thoughts were a hazy jumble.  How had she come to be here? she wondered.  Where was here? Then, in a rush, she remembered, and the terrible memories brought forth a pathetic cry of despair.

She recalled the creature aboard the ship, the fire, the escape in the pinnace.  She remembered hearing a surf, the sound growing closer and closer.  Then the pinnace had been overturned by a wave.  They had all fallen into the sea.  And then?

Then she remembered no more.  No sooner had she struck the water, held tight in the protective embrace of the Ronin, than something had dashed her across the head, knocking her senseless.  What had happened after that?  Somehow she must have made it to shore.  No -- they had made it to shore.  Someone had made this bed for her, that was obvious.  Someone had carried her beyond the reach of the surf.  Who else could it have been but Fukitso?

Just the thought filled her racing heart with a sudden surge of relief.  He was alive.  He had to be.

"Doji's fire, it's about time you woke."

The Ronin's low shout came from behind her.  It was accompanied by the sudden crashing of branches.

Almaz twisted on her hip just as the brawny Samurai broke through the tangled verdure, his powerful arms heaped with wood for a fire.  He stopped and tumbled the wood in a pile on the sand so close that she was forced to snatch her feet out of the way.  Straightening, Fukitso dusted off his hands, his weird blind-seeming eyes studying her a moment in pensive silence.

She wondered why he was looking at her in that strange way -- until finally he commented:

"We'll have to find something for you to wear, won't we, girl."

Glancing down, Almaz realized for the first time that she was naked, her supple bronze length contrasting starkly with the glossy green of the leaves upon which she lay.  Her sari -- earlier torn to ribbons by the star-monster -- must have been lost in the sea.

Still, the mere fact of her nudity would hardly have bothered her now -- not after all they had been through together -- but there was something in the way the Ronin looked at her, his gaze burning with a disturbing devouring heat.  She drew her legs close to her body and swallowed tightly.

"Where is Migoti?" she asked, in a faint voice.  "I can't remember what happened after we fell into the sea.  Something hit me on the head, I think."

Fukitso nodded, his weird gaze lifting to scan the wide sandy sweep of beach.

"The pinnace struck you.  It knocked you unconscious, but I was able to carry you to shore.  Migoti made it with us."  He chuckled throatily.  "It will take more than a few waves to finish her off."

Almaz turned to search the sandy crescent for the gold-skinned girl.  Migoti was nowhere to be seen.

"She left this morning," Fukitso explained simply, recognizing the reason for her glance.

Almaz looked at him in surprise.  "Left?"

"You didn't expect her to come along, did you?"  He chuckled again, a deep feral sound.  "Migoti follows her own path in life, and no man, nor woman, can claim to be her companion for long.  She would have left long ago except she was trapped with us on that damn ship.  Once we made it to shore, she waited just long enough to regain her strength, then set out this morning."

"Oh."

It was a small sound. Almaz found herself suddenly torn by conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, she felt an odd sense of loss and betrayal; after all they had been through, at the very least, Migoti might have said good bye.  On the other hand, she felt relief.  She need no longer torment herself, suffering constant self-comparison to the beautiful gilt-limbed girl, need no longer agonize over the way Fukitso's gaze lingered every time he looked at his warror companion.

After a moment, she asked: "But how did she know where to go?"

Fukitso strode past her, the sunlight gleaming off his topknotted scalp.  Even with the steady wind off the sea, the sun beat down with a blistering heat.  The Ronin had removed both his broad-shouldered overmantle and grey kimono; now he was naked to the waist, dressed only in his wide-legged hakama, his short sword Kyodai belted at his waist, the longer katana, Ginago, still strapped to his back.

Beneath his bronze hide, the muscles of his back rolled smoothly as he lifted his brawny arms to stretch.  Almaz could see the wound in his shoulder where the star-monster had stabbed him with a tentacle.  It was a clean wound, already healing, but still it must have caused considerable pain.

"Oh, don't worry about that," the Ronin said.  "As soon as the sun rose in the morning, we both knew where we were."

He dropped his arms, turned and gestured toward something hidden over the emerald wall at her back.

"You can't see it from where you're lying, but the peak of Mount Shimir is just over there.  Then we found a river a little ways down the beach, so we knew it had to be the Nyaslan River."  Then, seemingly as an afterthough, he added: "Based on your map, that means we're not that far from your cave, and the treasure of Sultan Alkhar Shan."

Almaz inhaled sharply.  The map!  Surely, it was lost along with the ship.  But Fukitso noticed her reaction and divined its cause.  He laughed again.

"No, the map wasn't lost," he assured her.  "After losing the original to Dahika Khan in Fakhd al Houri, I made a copy while we were aboard the ship -- you already know that.  I kept that copy with me, and I've still got it -- though I know the way well enough now that I don't really need a map anymore.  Anyway, as soon as we've rested a bit more and had something to eat, we can get going -- if that's still what you want."

Almaz knew it wasn't really a question.  He knew as well as she did that she would never turn back, not after having endured so much.  Just the same, she told him as much.  He nodded slowly, indicating it was only as he had expected.

Then, while the Ronin started a crackling fire and grilled some fish which he had caught earlier, Almaz fashioned a crude two-piece garment woven of palm-leaves and coconut husk.  When she was finished, the garment barely covered her breasts and loins, leaving her shoulders, midriff and legs bare.  The jade green of the leaves set off the rich tones of her slim brown body.  On a sudden whim, Almaz plucked a large, pink blossom and placed it in the rippling black of her hair.

When she stepped out from the jungle, arrayed in her primordial finery, Fukitso glanced up absently from his cooking.  For a moment, he paused, his strange eyes betraying no hint of the thoughts in his head, no clue to his emotions.  Finally, he grunted, as if having just taken notice of something hitherto missed.  Then, to Amaz's chagrin, his attention returned to the smoking fish, as if dismissing her without a thought.

She twisted her lips in silent rage.  Foolish as she knew it to be, she had hoped for some sort of comment from her dark companion, some sign of approval.

But then, without looking up, Fukitso growled in a voice so low it barely carried over the hurtling surf:

"I begin to see why Bahadur had a falling out with the Jakaro headhunters."

It took a moment before she took his meaning.  After that, the day seemed somehow brighter.

True to the Ronin's word, after they had eaten and rested, they set out down the beach headed for the Nyasalan River, which they would then follow into the jungle.  But, as they set off, there was one thing neither of them took notice of.

Perhaps Fukitso had allowed his attention to be too distracted by Almaz's supple beauty.  Perhaps they were both still tired.  What neither of them noticed was that the brand on Almaz's hip, the Tiger's Eye by which the Priests of the Tiger were able to track her, was no longer blinded by the tar smeared there by Fukitso.

The salt water of the sea had washed it clean...

***
Beneath the forest canopy, the biting heat of the sun was replaced by a stifling swelter that made each breath a labour.  The air was oppressively damp and the land was an endless sea of bogs and swamps.

This was the monsoon season.  In the dark of night, the sky released its torrents.  In the day, the heat turned the waters to steam and a dense fog overhung all quarters.  Almaz wasn't used to such a climate.  The city of Sahara had perched on the parched rim of the Rub al Harara.  No rain fell there, nor clouds filled the sky -- under normal circumstances.  Of course, when last she had seen her home, the circumstances had been far from normal.

The heady scents of the forest awakened frightful memories for Almaz, memories which she had hoped to forget.  Yet, as their voyage progressed, she found herself relaxing as she would never have done on her earlier trek.

This was not alone because her companion this time was of a much less hostile nature, nor alone because she was travelling of her own freewill rather than bound and as a captive.  Certainly these factors played their parts.  But, this time, the forest itself seemed different.  Hideous death no longer lurked in every shadow, grim menace no long dogged her heels.

With a certain pleasure, she realized that this new outlook was directly attributable to the presense of her companion.  This weird-eyed Samurai, this Ronin, seemed confident and adapted even in this unforgiving environment.  He walked with a sure stride where her eight captors had slunk with downturned heads and fearful eyes.

He gave no heed to the strange gibbering sounds around them, where her captors had jumped at every broken twig, every falling leaf.  The cries of wild beasts seemed more distant now, as if even they gave a wide berth to the black-garbed colossus who strode among them.  If anything, the Ronin seemed more at home here, among the waving fronds, the curling mists and the bestial cries, than he could ever be in any city, however rough and uncivilized.

This was not alone a product of his training, she knew.  He was a Samurai, true.  More, he was a Ronin, a rogue Samurai without a master, a warrior governed only by his own will and conscience.  Yet, his confidence went beyond this.  He seemed like a beast himself, untamed and untamable.  His was an innate something which raised him above the common man even as it brought him closer to the primitive beast.  It was not intelligence, for he was not intelligent.  Nor was it bravery, for to be brave entails a recognition of something to fear.  To her young mind, he seemed to know no fear.

She could think of no word adequate to describe him.  And, as she watched the fragmented light play upon his rolling shoulders and dew-specked hide, she knew that no word was required.  Slowly, she reached out her hand, unsurely, like an animal testing the water of a pond before daring to drink.  She touched his hand.  He looked down at her with a puzzled frown, his eyes weird and white.  With a thrill, she realized that they too were the eyes of a beast.

He grunted, as if in wonder at the whims of women, but, nonetheless took her proferred hand in his, and without a word, continued the journey...

***
They walked for two days.  Her guardian seemed to possess an unerring sense of direction.  The sun was masked by the overhanging boughs and higher emerald terraces.  Yet, somehow the Ronin found his way, never changing course nor pausing to reconsider.

During the night, he slept beside her.  His nearness gave her more than security.  It aroused her.  It awakened feelings strange and unnerving.  Almaz found herself wishing that he would take her in his strong arms and love her as he had tried to do when first they met in the serai in Sahara -- yet he laid not a hand upon her.  The scars of that earlier encounter, when she had scratched him, were still barely discernable on his grim face, but she knew this was not the reason for his coldness.  Why then?  Why did he spurn her?

In the morning, they set forth once more and, by midday, they achieved their aim.

Almaz clutched more tightly the strong hand she held, and looked upon the nighted glade which had so often formed the stage upon which her nightmares played out...
 



Next week...The Whining Death!


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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!)