Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: The Ronin Fukitso rescued Almaz from the altar of the Tiger, in the process hacking to pieces the partly resurrected corpse of Ti, an ancient magician, whom Zehabi, the sorceress, had meant to fully resurrect in a ritual involving Almaz. When Zehabi discovered the ravaged corpse, she wasn't pleased, but Fukitso and Almaz fled the tower only to find Ghaffar and two henchmen waiting outside, intent on forcing the girl to reveal where she had hidden the treasure map.

Now, in the street...


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EPISODE 10: "TAKE THE GIRL ALIVE!"


Fukitso scowled murderously as he eased the girl smoothly behind him.  He drew his wakizashi from its scabbard, the short blade rippling with moonlight like water flowing on glass.  He left his katana in its sheath.  There was no need to bother the mighty Ginago, not for such vermin as these.

Seeing that the strange-eyed Ronin meant to make a fight of it, Ghaffar spoke again.  "Don't be stupid, Ronin.  This isn't your business.  Give us the girl and we'll let you go on your way."

"The girl is mine," Fukitso rejoined in a threatening snarl.  "She comes with me."

Ghaffar hesitated uncertainly.  His features were still masked by shadow, the red of his turban showing only dully in the alley's mouth.  He chuckled suddenly, and gestured as if offering a gift.  "Then she is yours, effendi.  I don't care what you do with her -- use her as you wish.  But we all know what you are really after.  You want the treasure as much as I.  Surely we can work out an arrangement, eh?"

Fukitso replied tightly: "I don't make deals...with lunatics."

With a gasp, Ghaffar snatched back his hand.  His voice was rigid with barely-contained rage.  "Very well, Ronin."  Then, to his two henchmen, he hissed: "Kill him -- but take the girl alive."

As one, the two henchmen glided menacingly into the light of the street, spreading out to the left and right.  One wore a green turban and red khalat worked with brightly-coloured beads and thread.  The other, bare- headed, wore a flowing blue abba bound at the waist by a silken girdle from which jewelled khanjar hilts bristled roguishly.  Fukitso stepped forward to meet them both, dropping into a low crouch.  He raised Kyodai on a level with his eyes, the blade held horizontal, elbows high.  Horrified, Almaz staggered back until her supple spine met the stone wall around the tower.  One hand leapt to her lips.

"Banzai!"

With that startling shout, the Ronin sprang, his blade a dazzling silvery blur that slashed right and left and right again.  Metal rang sharply and blue sparks exploded in showers as sword met sword, the two henchmen falling back in fearful surprise.

The ferocity of the attack left them no time for aught but desperate defense.  As Fukitso pressed the assault, they blocked and parried with wild, awkward cuts, not like trained swordsmen but like children playing with sticks.  Although their curved talwars had the longer reach, the Ronin's breath-takingly quick swordplay gave them no chance to employ that advantage.  His guard was as impenetrable as a silver wall, his footwork sure and constantly moving.

Almaz didn't see the blow, but suddenly dark blood gushed in a grisly spiral as the left henchman spun and tumbled to the sandy street -- his head striking the ground a split second later.  The right henchman, thinking the death might provide a distraction, lashed out with reckless desperation.  He wasn't quick enough.  The Ronin spun, catching the whistling blade and deflecting it in a burst of sparks.  Thrown off balance, the henchman's eyes flared wide a split second before gleaming steel sheathed in his guts.  He groaned as blood over-spilled his blue lips, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed grotesquely in the gore-spattered dust.

Fukitso wasted no time admiring his handiwork, but turned instantly to face Ghaffar, still standing in shadow across the street.  With a snarl of disgust, the madman wheeled and fled back into the darkness of the alley.  Fukitso didn't hesitate.  Almaz saw the Ronin jerk something from out of his wide-shouldered overmantle, his hand coming back as if for a throw.  A star made of blue metal gleamed menacingly in his fingers -- but Ghaffar was already gone.

With a low oath, frustrated by his failure, Fukitso returned the shuriken star-dart to his kataginu then turned back to the girl.  As he strode to her side, he saw she was trembling, her white teeth chattering with fright.

With surprising gentleness, he lifted her in his arms, her dark head snuggling tightly against his shoulder.  Gradually, her slim brown body grew still.

"Now," he said, a wry smile touching his lips.  "Let's get that map of yours.  Then you can show me one of those hideouts you mentioned -- in the Mountains of the Moons."

***
"I was born in Sahara," began Almaz, though the strange-eyed Ronin, perched broodingly on the rim of the cliff, had asked no question.

The girl stretched luxuriously on a mat of white moss inside the wide mouth of their retreat.  Here, on a low crag of the Jebel Qamar, the Mountains of the Moon, overlooking the city, Fukitso had arranged the bed and placed her without awaking her from her deep slumber.  And, when she did at last arise, it was well into the next morning, though the sky was dark with dense black clouds.

Again she yawned and stretched her supple body, seemingly as content as if she lay on a silken divan rather than cold rock and damp moss.  She was clothed only in the diamond-dusted thong garment given to her by the Priests of the Tiger.

"My mother died in childbirth," she continued.  "My father took care of me as best he could.  Sahara was...is no place for a young girl to grow up, but I made do as best I could.  A year ago, things changed.  Slave-traders, passing through on their way to the meat markets of Zanziam, broke into our house.  They killed my father.  Oh, I had no great love for him, but he was all I had.  They bound me with cords and tied me to the back of a wagon, and forced me to walk with their caravan.  When I fell by the way, they kicked me rather than risk scarring me with the lash.  In the market, I was bought by a loathsome beast who owned a villa in the waterfront city of Bakan, along the Coral Coast.  He took me for his seraglio.  Yet, my first night there, even as the villa eunuch summoned me to the chambers of my 'master', an alarum sounded from the guardtower.  River pirates were raiding Bakan."

Fukitso had interrupted his watch, and now listened intently to her tale.  With a remembering smile upon her lips, she told of her rescue by the pirates, and her almost pleasurable voyage aboard their ship -- pleasure engendered by the promise of return to her home at journey's end.  But she shivered and hugged her knees to her chin as she relived the unexpected attack on the doomed vessel by Jakaro headhunters.

Fukitso nodded silently.  He had heard tales told of the Jakaro.  As the girl related her gruesome story, he could imagine too clearly their sinewy forms scrambling over the gunwales, gaudily-painted faces materializing like djinni out of the darkness, their long spears thrusting shaft deep into quivering flesh.

Then she told of the revelation of their betrayal at the hands of the eight traitors all for a map, and her tapering fingers worked unconsciously at the skin of her knees until it was a suffused pink.

The break between the Jakaro leader and Bahadur over their female prize, the flight through the jungle chased by the pounding of the kundu drums, the final arrival at their destination, the disappearance into that accursed cave of Bahadur and his two cohorts, her cruel handling at the hands of the others, and her rescue by Karim, the only survivor of the pirate ship -- all this she related, and Fukitso grinned broadly to hear how she in turn had aided the heroic Karim when he had fallen into the grip of the giant, Yakub.  But his grin became a sombre scowl as she finished off with the mighty Karim's own disappearance into the cave.

"I waited two days for his return, but I knew that it was in vain," she concluded, the glimmer of tears gathering in the corners of her lustrous eyes.  "You see, kneeling at the mouth of the cave, I had heard his scream, seemingly far, far in the distance.  Yet, it had not been the scream of the man who had saved me -- the man who had tracked us through the terrible jungle, who had slain my captors single-handed, who had seemed to know not the meaning of fear.  In that scream was fear, I tell you!  There is something horrible in that cave!  Something monstrous!  Oh please!  Please don't go back there!"

Fukitso, seemingly deaf to her entreaties, once again unfolded the map, retrieved from the serai, and examined its faded lines in the sullen light.  The map was small -- barely large enough to cover both his outspread palms, drawn on a soft leather, yellow and ragged with age.  A creeping brown stain covered one corner.

The scratchmark lettering visible along the top edge was in no language familiar to the Ronin.  On the other hand, while he had picked up an impressive collection of spoken languages and dialects during his travels, he had never learned to read in other than his own tongue -- and that only with difficulty.  Yet, he felt certain that those queer, scratched symbols belonged to no language still extant.  This map was very ancient indeed.

"What do you know about this treasure to drive men mad?" he asked suddenly.

Almaz rose from her makeshift bed and joined him on the ledge.  She folded to her knees beside him and shrugged her smooth shoulders.  "Only what I overheard listening to Bahadur and the others.  He said he had the map from a trader from Fort Balaki.  The man told him it led to the treasure of Sultan Alkhar Shan."

Fukitso's eyes flared and his breath hissed through his teeth.  "Sultan Alkhar?"

"That was what Bahadur said.  Does it mean something to you?"

The Ronin laughed in amazement.  "I thought that was just a story," he told her.  "Something concocted by feeble-brained romantics."

At her questioning look, he explained: "Alkhar Shan was Sultan of Tarkistan about five hundred years ago, when it was still part of the Aswadi Empire.  The legend goes that he fell in love with a beautiful courtesan named Basiji.  He married her and made her his Sultana.  So great was his love for Basiji that the Sultan freed his entire seraglio, seventy six of the finest beauties assembled from the four corners of Shemshiran.  Then, to prove his love, he had built a magnificent palace -- the Basiji Mahal -- with walls sheathed in gold and cupolas of dazzling silver.  He stuffed it with the treasures of Tarkistan, gold and jade and smoldering gems and..."  The Ronin shook his topknotted head, overwhelmed just by the thought of it.  But then his features darkened soberly.  "A plague came to Tarkistan, brought by a silk caravan from Adji Po.  The plague carried off twenty thousand in a single summer -- and amongst the dead was the beautiful Sultana Basiji."

Now Almaz listened with rapt fascination, her dark eyes wide.  Her voice trembled as she asked: "She died?"

"Hai."  Fukitso nodded solemnly.  "She died.  And the Sultan was grief-stricken as no man has ever been before or since.  He had created a monument to his love, and now that monument was a curse, a constant reminder of what he had lost.  And so, in his grief, first he leveled the Basiji Mahal.  Then he gathered together a group of loyal slaves and carted off the entire treasure, all the gold and silver, jade and gems.  Where he took it, no man knew, and he never told for, on his return, he placed a scorpion to his breast and took his own life.  To this day, when men in Tarkistan speak of the 'treasure of Alkhar', they mean a love which is beyond measure."

A long, pensive silence settled gloomily over the scene.  Almaz looked as heart-broken as any woman could, as if on the brink of tears.  Fukitso's brow was furrowed.

"How terrible," said Almaz, almost as a sob.

The Ronin raised his strange nearly-white eyes and studied her closely.  Again, she felt penetrated by that blind-seeming stare.  Then, inhaling, Fukitso shrugged his broad shoulders.  "If the story is true, and this map really does point the way to the Sultan's treasure, Ghaffar wasn't far wrong.  It may well be a treasure to drive men mad."

He looked again at the map.  Studying the geography portayed, Fukitso felt a dim sense of familiarity stirring just out of reach.  But, though several places were named, these too were written in that same strange language, and there was no way for him to translate it.  Unless...

"Listen to me!" cried the girl suddenly, desperation in her voice.  She was no longer thinking of the Sultan and his terrible grief.  Her thoughts were only of the black cave in the jungle.  "It would be madness to enter that cave.  No one returns."

"Someone returned," contradicted Fukitso quietly.  And to her questioning gaze he explained: "Whoever made this map.  If he could do it, then so can I.  Now tell me, do you know what these words say?"

If this foolish Ronin insisted on getting himself killed, there was nothing Almaz could do to stop him.  But that did not mean that she must aid him in his quest.  Still on her knees, she looked away, stubbornly silent, the full arc of her bottom lip jutting out in a bitter pout.

"Baka, girl!" cursed Fukitso, slapping his thigh in exasperation.  "Why did you keep the damned map if you didn't want anyone to use it?"

The query caught Almaz completely off her guard.  She had never even asked herself that question.  Oh, perhaps it had crossed her mind dimly, from time to time, but she had never truly faced up to the strangeness of her actions.  Now she realized that she had no answer.  She did not know what had caused her to keep the map -- the map she had found later in the pocket of the khalat taken off the corpse of Ahmed and placed about her shoulders by Karim.  Nor did she understand why, when first she had sighted Ghaffar and his two henchmen in Sahara, she had not been rid of it then and there.  Why had she risked her life, rather than simply destroying it?

"I'll tell you why," continued the Ronin.  "I think you keep that map for the same reason I would keep it -- if I were you.  Because, no matter how much you fear returning to that cave, you fear not returning more!  Face it, girl, you've been bitten.  A treasure to drive men mad!  You want to see it.  You want to touch it.  Pout all you want, you desire that treasure as much as I do.  And to Doji's crater with anyone or anything that stands in our way!"

It startled Almaz to have her emotions laid bare with such ease.  He was right, though, she realized that now.  She did have to know.  It was like a pestilence which, once taken hold, had to be left to run its course -- no matter how fatal the outcome.  But how had this stranger recognized the answer where she had not even had the wit to see the question?  Perhaps she had been right when first she had seen him by the light of a flickering taper.  Perhaps his eerie-eyed gaze did indeed see things beyond mortal ken.

Where before that thought had made her feel uncomfortably naked even in her shift, now, truly naked save for her scanty thong garment, she felt as if those eyes could yet strip her further -- to her very core.  But, odder still, the feeling this time was not unpleasant.  No man had ever mastered her heart.  Had this grim and frightening Ronin done better?

Had he mastered her soul?

"I cannot read the writing along the top of the map," she finally acquiesced, as if impelled against her own volition.  "Yet I heard Bahadur speak it to himself while we trekked through the jungle."

Lithely, she rose to her feet and drifted a few steps along the rim of the cliff, her eyes looking distant and fearful.  There was nothing of the child about her now.  When she spoke, it was with a woman's will and her voice was like that of a corpse chanting in its tomb:
 
"'Beware the beast of 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.'"

The last word spoken fell like a flat pebble on a frozen pond.  It landed and was still, leaving nothing but a chill silence to mark its passing.

Then Fukitso broke the stillness with his usual candor.

"A lot of help that is to us."

"Does it not frighten you?"  Almaz was amazed, her dark eyes wide and staring.  "The warning?  Surely even you would fear such a creature?"

"No such beast walks the earth," he rejoined, without even looking up, "in your cave or anywhere else.  It's a curse, nothing more.  Something to keep away the superstitious.  Why, when we raided the mastaba of old Amir  Judapur, we found writings carved on those tunnels to blast your pretty little mind.  But," and here he deigned to look up from the map, and there was a sudden terrible darkness about him, "in answer to your question: Fukitso fears no creature born of this earth."

Her response was spoken in a breathy whisper, tense with dread.

"And what of a creature spawned in Gehenna?"

***
Fukitso regarded his charge with a puzzled frown, and his hands knotted convulsively at his sides.  She had returned to her bed soon after their earlier conversation, curling up on the rude pallet with her back to the entrance.  The dim lighting lay soft as a spider's web upon the glossy rounds of her shoulders and the brown curve of her back.  Where it fell upon her smooth hip, Fukitso noticed the fresh mark of a brand -- and he recalled the glowing brazier in the altar room of the Tower of the Tiger.  The brand was in the shape of an eye.  Seeing it made the Ronin's red blood boil.

Then he frowned, baffled and irked by the unexpected complexity of the situation.  He had meant only to get the girl to tell him where she had hidden the map; after that, he and she would have parted company -- he to find the treasure.  But now?  Now the girl had both the madman Ghaffar and the Priests of the Tiger to worry about.  Fukitso knew she would not survive a single day alone in Sahara.  To leave her would be to hand her over to one or the other of her tormentors.

Though the Ronin had long ago renounced bushido, the code of the Samurai, he did have a code of his own, after a fashion.  It was not in him to leave a woman to her death.  Somehow he would have to get her away from this city and beyond the reach of her enemies.  Then, too, he needed to find someone to translate the place-names on the map.  He had a plan about that and perhaps he could take care of both problems at the same time.  Anyway, after so many years, the treasure to drive men mad could wait a few more days.

With that decision made, Fukitso strode from the cave to resume his watch.

The girl had been correct about these cliffs.  They were a veritable labyrinth of ridges and defiles, with so many caves and caverns that it would take an army several weeks to search them all.  He had chosen a cave well-situated to keep an eye on any pursuit from the city below.  From here he could see the unholy tower far in the distance, but near enough as to distinguish the portcullis from the rest of the surrounding wall at the base.  No longer was its unearthly shape masked from a distance; now the weird, organically branching turrets were displayed for all to see -- as if the time for pretense was ended.

Thus far, none had either entered or departed from the structure, and the grille had remained lowered.  This disturbed Fukitso far more than would have open pursuit.

Even as the flames of dawn rippled along the peaks at his back, queer, menacing storm clouds had begun to gather over the city.  Black, ponderous clouds, thick and ominous, they drifted across the sky as if drawn by a lodestone.  Now they crowded the sky for as far as the eye could behold, a rolling plain of black, purple and blue in which flickered odd yellow highlights as if fires kindled in the midst of a desert host.  Fukitso's skin crawled at the unnaturalness of it all.  The only sound was the dull, muffled rumble of thunder in the distance, the wind grown still and stagnant in their shadow.

If the clouds seemed drawn by a lodestone, then that lodestone was the Tower itself.  For it was about the weird branching turrets that the clouds had first congregated.  And it was there that the ghostly fires burned the brightest.  Fukitso had no doubt but that this was the doing of the priests.  What magic they were working in their silent dwelling, he could not guess.  Yet, he was certain it boded ill for those who had dared to defile their home -- and especially ill for the man who had so snatched a victim from the very altar of their god...

Abruptly Fukitso caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye.  He started with an oath.

The tower's portcullis had been lifted and the threshold framed an occupant.

The distance was too great to make out more than a tiny, ill-resolved figure.  It was a rider, that he could see, mounted on a scaly two-footed karmah.  The rider wore a black cloak, with a hood drawn close about his head.  There was nothing overtly strange about him, but something in the way he slouched in the saddle, the way his head rolled beneath the hood, something about his mien and carriage, made Fukitso's bald scalp crawl and his palms grow clammy.

And then, something occurred with such rapidity that Fukitso was left to wonder whether he had actually seen it at all.

Through the open portcullis raced a pack of three or four dark shadows.  They appeared in an instant and were gone just as fast, disappearing into a side street.  What they were, Fukitso did not know, but, whatever they were, they were larger even than the nightmare creature which had nearly caught the girl while she was trapped by the grille.

A moment later, the rider prodded his saurian mount and melted into dismal shadow...
 



Next episode...The Winged Menace


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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!)