Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride



Previously: Temporarily fighting off the madman Ghaffar, Fukitso, retrieving the treasure map, fled with Almaz to the Mountains of the Moons. There he learned that the map pointed the way to the fabled treasure of Sultan Alkhar Shan, and that the treasure cave was guarded by a monster with a "thousand jaws", and a "thousand claws", that cannot die. Almaz, remembering the death of her former champion, Karim, in that jungle cave, wanted to abandon the quest, but Fukitso scoffed. Then, while Almaz slept, the Ronin saw a dark rider appear out of the Tower of the Tiger below along with three massive animals...obviously tracking Almaz.

Now, a short while later...

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Fukisto roused his slumbing charge with a brisk slap to the tawny curves of her bottom.  Almaz started awake, squirming on her stomach a moment and blinking confusedly in the dull grey light filtering though the cave mouth.  Then she seemed to gather together her thoughts, recalling where she was and from whom she was hiding and, belatedly, one hand touched the wounded spot, painted a suffused pink, as her slim brows bent indignantly.

"What was that for?" she asked bitterly.

"Doji's fire, girl, you sleep like the dead."  Fukitso was a black monolith etched in the glow of the cave mouth.  "No time to talk now.  I misjudged those heathen priest friends of yours."

He cast a final hurried glance outside, then quickly returned to her side.  Without warning, he caught her slender arm in one steely paw and hauled her to her feet, her breath passing in a gasp.  His voice lowered, as if he feared they might be overheard.

"Looks like these caves won't serve to hide us, after all.  They've fetched some beasts on our track.  Baka!  Didn't get a good look at them, but they were big.  Must be able to follow our scent.  They're fast, too.  I saw them leave the tower only a short time ago and just a moment ago I heard them scattering gravel on that ledge we followed to reach this infernal lookout."

Dropping her arm, he slipped stealthily out into the light, pausing just long enough to motion her to follow.  Barely yet awake, Almaz hesitated unsurely, dark eyes fluttering against the glare, hands clenching and unclenching at her thighs.

It was all happening too quickly.  There was no time for her to think.  Who was this brawny, strange-eyed man?  How could she know to trust him?  Though he had saved her from the Priests of the Tiger, was it not he who had also attacked her in the bedroom in the serai?  Then he had assaulted her a second time in the hallway as the terrible Ghaffar carried her to be tortured.

A shiver passed down her supple spine as she recalled the way he had forced his mouth to hers with such brutal savagery.

Why should she trust him now -- she who had already been betrayed by the religion she had been taught to worship since birth; she who found herself betrayed and used at every turn?  Why should not he also be but one more betrayer?  Perhaps he merely wanted her for himself, a prize to be won and used, then tossed aside like an empty vessel.  What had he done so far that would lead her to think differently?

"What now, girl?"  The hazy light cast thin shadows across the Ronin's  hard, broad features and his nearly-white eyes regarded her beneath deep- furrowed brows.  In those strange eyes, she could discern no hint of his intentions toward her, no clue to what she might expect from him were they to escape.  Perhaps she might be better to wait here; better to return to that dark and terrible tower.

"Fine, then," he growled, in irritation.  "Suit yourself and stay.  But I can hear them just around that shoulder there, and I don't intend to go looking for you a second time."  Without a pause, he turned and passed from the cave mouth.

In a rush, all the terrible crushing emotions which had tortured her before in the haunted glade returned to prey upon her now -- the overwhelming pang of solitude and helpless abandonment, of fearful unavoidable loneliness.  With a frightened cry of despair, she rushed out after him on small flying feet, terrified he might already be beyond hearing.

Then his arms were around her, catching her and drawing her body to his in a startled embrace -- and his voice was in her ear.

"Keep it down, girl,  I'm still here.  You want to make their job any easier than it already is?  Doji's fire, but you're shivering.  What did you think, I would just leave you to those degenerate apes?  Now come on, there's no time to lose."

Feeling foolish for her weakness and more so for revealing that weakness to the Ronin, Almaz did not resist as he firmly pushed her away.  Then she saw him stiffen as something caught his attention over her shoulder.  With a muttered curse, he snatched up her hand.

"Hurry.  And don't look back!"

He nearly yanked her off her feet as he dragged her behind him, and together they set off at a reckless pace following a ribbon of jutting stone with a sheer rock face on one hand and a breathless drop on the other.

There had been little need for him to warn her not to look back as it required all her attention simply to keep from stumbling over the fallen stones littering their precarious path.  But even as they fled, her ears detected a strange low sound behind her and the hairs bristled along the nape of her slim brown neck -- as if some ancient instinct were suddenly awakened, roused by recognition of an enemy known only to her ancestors.

It was a dull animal-like huffing, as of some great savage beast with lungs like bellows breathing through wide, flaring nostils or through slavering jaws lined with fierce yellow fangs -- or rather, several such beasts, for she recognized several separate sources for the ominous sound.  Then, worst of all, she heard a human voice speaking in a strange alien tongue, and her shivering increased a thousandfold to imagine what sort of human might have command over such terrible beasts as a normal man runs a pack of salukis.

The sounds were quickly lost as the fugitives put a vast rock shoulder between them and their nightmare pursuers, with no indication that they had been seen as yet.  But Fukitso had no intention of allowing the determined trackers to come so near again.  Though Almaz begged to catch her breath, he was deaf to her entreaties, refusing to stop even a moment, as they dashed headlong down the mountainside by way of steep, crumbling slopes and winding, dangerous passes.

Not until they had gained the cluttered shelter of a dark, noisome alley on the edge of Sahara did he finally release his numbing grip on her hand.  Immediately she dropped to her knees hunched double, a stray shaft of light flashing a white sheen off the sweat that bathed her naked back.  Her chest heaved as she gulped desperate breaths like a man half-drowned.

Her dark companion hardly seemed to notice her condition, but glanced searchingly about, taking in his surrroundings, his mind already set on other things.

During their desperate race down the mountain, Almaz had noticed the ominous black clouds that crowded the skies over Sahara, their numbers dwindling abruptly just beyond the city limits.  Though strange flickering lights lit the clouds like moonglow dappling the swells on a lake, by far the orange haze of sunset over the eastern desert proved the stronger illumination, turning the distant sky to wavering bands of molten gold and purple shivering silk.

But now the last dying rays faded, and the long shadows of whispering night spread stealthily across the jumbled homes and streets of the city.  For a moment,  the blue peaks of the mountain rampart high above continued to throw back the sun's pale light, burning like serried torches raised against the obsidian sky behind.  Then this light too faded away, and one by one ghee lamps, tapers and cressets were lit throughout the city -- a city vainly striving to hold back a night peopled with predators of the two-footed sort.

Still struggling to catch her breath, Almaz looked up to find herself suddenly alone in the nighted alley.  Her companion had vanished without a sound.  For a moment, her heart leapt to her throat and she wanted to cry out for him.  But before she could utter a sound, from somewhere nearby she heard voices approaching, men laughing and shouting in drunken debauchery, the sharp clangor of blade on blade, edges meeting in rough, boisterous play.

She grew suddenly intensely aware of her perilous situation.  Kneeling almost-naked with the sweat of her sleek brown body slowly drying in the cool night air, she could well imagine the temptation she might present to them should they glance in the alley as they passed.

Frantically she sought to draw back into a slim wedge of darker shadow, too small by far to hide her.  Her eyes were wide, white saucers, her hands balled together before her lips and she whimpered sofly into her fists like a tiny frightened animal.

As the voices drew even with the alley mouth, she stiffened, her breath catching in her throat, not daring to move even an eyelash.  Shadows bulked against the light of the street falling over her like a thrown cloak, a length of metal flashed like distant lightning -- and then the shadows were gone and the voices receding again into the general background murmur.

It was several moments more before she dared breathe.  Even then she remained as she was, half hidden in her fragment of shadow, afraid to move from her place of concealment lest the men return unexpectedly, or others happen upon her.

This city which she had once called home now seemed so alien and terrible, filled with ominous shadows and mocking laughter, every padded footfall suggesting sinister stealth and licentious intent.  She no longer knew where to go, whom to turn to.  It was as if she was a stranger suddenly cast into a mysterious land of monsters never imagined even in her dreams.

Suddenly she twisted on her knees, brought about by the soft slap of sandaled feet on the flagstones behind her.  Her strange-eyed companion had returned.  He squatted on his haunches having apparently just jumped down from a balcony above.  Rising, he tossed a cloth bundle into her arms and strode silently past to the alley mouth.  Too surprised to speak, Almaz  unfolded the fabric revealing a hooded burnoose such as the desert nomads wear.

"I found that drying on a balcony," the Ronin explained without turning.  "It isn't much but it will protect that soft hide of yours from the worst of the sun."  Entirely practical, he apparently gave no thought to her modesty.

She noticed he had found nothing to protect his own bald pate, but he carried wooden slit-eyed goggles in his fist which the caravan riders use to protect their eyes from the glare off the dunes.  His baggy sleeves and the wide, stiff shoulders of his overmantle, would provide ample protection for the rest of him.

By the tension in his corded neck, she could see that he was still uneasy, and his gaze searched the street outside the alley as if expecting attack at any moment.  She remembered the fierce huffing animals on the mountain and the hopelessness of their plight weighed down upon her remorselessly.

"But where can we go?" she moaned.  "Those creatures can follow our trail wherever we run.  Sooner or later, we'll have to rest.  How can we possibly hope to escape such things?  Where can we go?"  She shook her head in an anguish of misery, bunching the burnoose in her lap.

The Ronin turned back to her, a rare smile bending his hard lips.  "Oh, we'll put those things off our scent, all right -- don't worry about that.  There are some karmahs tied up in a serai down the road.  I'd rather a camel, but we haven't time to go looking.  We'll head east.  With luck, we'll be deep into the desert dunes by sun up.  There's not a creature alive can follow a man's scent through those drifting sands."

Helping her to her feet, he slipped the burnoose over her smooth  shoulders, lacing it under her tilted chin.  The cape fell in folds at her ankles indicating the original owner had stood considerably taller than she.  The Ronin stepped back and his narrow gaze travelled down her nearly-naked figure appraisingly.  Reflexively, she drew the cape close about her, and his eyes returned to her face.

"We could buy a karmah with that diamond-studded rag between your legs," he stated bluntly, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness.  "But I suppose you'd fight tooth and nail before you'd part with that."

Though Almaz told herself the comment had been made in jest, his weird eyes gave no hint of his meaning.  And, after a moment, he stepped past her without another word.  In spite of herself, she drew the cloak tighter against her body and shivered...

The pallid dawn sun found them working their way along the edged crest of a wide sweeping dune soft and supple as a samadhi's pelt.  A whispering wind raised white veils from the desert sand, but veils which blew barely higher than the haunches of their saurian two-footed mount.

As Fukitso had hoped, the wind erased their tracks almost as fast as they were laid, cleansing their scent such that no animal could hope to follow them through this illimitable, trackless wilderness.

Though his gamble had paid off, it had been a desperate gamble all the same -- one which might yet see them both dead.

The natives called this land Rub al Harara -- the Feverish Quarter, for to those who dared challenge its sunbaked expanse, it was said to be like suffering a terrible wracking fever that boiled the brain.

There had been no time to find waterskins before fleeing Sahara.  Barely had the Ronin selected a suitable mount in the serai than his keen ears had detected the sound of their unholy trackers doggedly following their scent through the alleyway they had just quitted.  Without a moment to lose, he had saddled the karmah, the beast made skittish as it detected the alien odour of the beasts on his trail.  Then, he had helped Almaz into the saddle and, mounting up behind her, they had fled in a trail of drifting dust out into the stony harrat desert.

For a time, backward glances had shown a dark mounted figure topping moontouched eminences in the distance, and their tracker's inhuman determination had chilled even the Ronin's blood.  Worse, there was something altogether unnerving about the plodding, unhurried pace of their pursurer, as if their capture was as inevitable as death itself.  But slowly the shadow shape dwindled and then vanished altogether against the black hillocks.

Then the scrub vegetation of spreading acacia and thorny tamarisk fell away and the stony rubble bit by bit gave up to the sandy fingers of the Rub al Harara, and they set out across the marching dunes without water or proper clothing to protect them when the sun again invested the cloudless sky.

Now they were paying the price for that mistake.

Their claw-toed mount was not bred for travel in the desert.  By its laboured breaths, Fukitso knew it would not last much longer.  The girl sat side-saddle before him, her slim brown legs jouncing limply against the creature's scaly hide.  Her body was slumped against the Ronin's broad chest, his hand cupping the delicate round of her shoulder to keep her from slipping.  The unceasing wind tugged at the loose folds of her burnoose, unveiling glimpses of her tormented features glistening with silver sweat.

For a while, Fukitso had kept her talking, speaking aimlessly about his homeland, his travels, even teaching her the name of his weapons and clothing.  But now, her eyes had been closed for some time as she passed in and out of delirium.  From time to time, her pink tongue glided vainly over parched lips, pitifully suffering whimpers sounding suddenly out of long, ominous silences.

Through the slits in his goggles, Fukitso searched the vast sea of sand  wavering with the dreadful heat.  He glowered, angered that he had yet to find what he was seeking.  For he had not set out into the desert without an aim.

Though Almaz had translated the warning at the top of the map, there were other words scrawled on the map itself, place-names but written in hieroglyphs ancient and alien.  He knew a man who might translate those words, and that man lived in the oasis of Fakhd al Houri, deep in the Feverish Quarter.  Though it had been some time since Fukitso had visited the place, he had been certain it lay in this direction.  Initially it had seemed as reasonable a destination as any given they were already headed that way, but now he realized their very lives depended upon their finding the home of his friend -- and soon.

Though the Ronin's stamina would see him through at least until the desert night brought cooling respite, the same could not be said for the girl.  One more mile, perhaps two, and her frail vitality would slip away as easily as the sandspume curled from the crests of the dunes.

He cursed himself a thousand times for carrying her on this mad flight.  True there was the need to elude pursuit, but perhaps he might have found some other way.  What good was escape if the sun killed her in the end?  He promised himself, if she survived to reach Fakhd al Houri, he would find someone to care for her there, then he would set out to find the treasure on his own.  She was not made to follow where his journey might take him and he had no wish to be burdened with such a hopelessly fragile...

Suddenly his eyes widened.

Was it a mirage?  No, there in the trembling distance -- a walled city shimmering out of the very air itself.

It was just as he remembered it, a miraculous island of sago palms and neem trees, of locus trees and fig groves and wide spreading quisquali vines crowding a vista of pale blue onion domes and slender, spiral minarets.  The whole pressed against the base of a teardrop shaped rise of solid brown rock that heaved from beneath the desert sands, its curved surface so smooth and seemingly supple that men had named it Fakhd al Houri -- the "Houri's Thigh".

With his destination at last in sight, the Ronin shouted in wordless triumph and goaded his mount to greater speed.  But his excitement was short lived.  The suffering karmah took two final strides, then stiffened as if shot between the eyes with an arrow.  A terrible spasm shook its scaly frame as it spat a mouthful of green foam, then pitched on its snout throwing Fukitso and Almaz headfirst into the burning sand.

Cursing blackly and tearing the goggles from his eyes, Fukisto crawled to his charge, who lay as she had fallen.  A hand pressed to her smooth ribs told him her heart still beat, but it was only the cushioning of the sand which had saved her from a broken skull.

Suddenly, as he knelt beside her with his back to the city, he chanced to look up -- and a dry claw clenched in his chest.

Far in the distance, set against the rising western sun, a vague black shape winged its way toward them soaring low over the marching dunes...

Next episode...Ghost City in the Desert

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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!)