Stalkers of the Tiger's Bride


A SERIAL of SHEMSHIRAN

BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA

Previously: Fleeing both the Priests of the Tiger and the madman Ghaffar, the Ronin and Almaz rode out into the burning desert, believing no creature could track them through the drifting sands. Fukitso hoped to find a friend in the desert city of Fakhad al-Houri who could translate the place names on the ancient treasure map. But he had failed to procure water. Nearly dead from thirst, their mount lost, they finally sighted the desert city, only to look back and find a winged shape following them over the dunes.

Now, in the desert...


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EPISODE 12: GHOST CITY IN THE DESERT


The winged figure was too far to make out anything more than the slow pulse of beating wings, but there was something odd and unnatural about the creature, something which chilled Fukitso's blood.  He knew instinctively that it was yet a new horror set on their trail by the damned Priests of the Tiger.

Baka!  How had the creature found them?  Surely, it could not be following their tracks, not through that sea of drifting sand.  But there was no time to wonder about that now.  It was doubtful the thing had spotted them from such a distance.  There was still a chance they might reach the shelter of the city before the winged djinn overtook them.

Unmindful of the cramps that knotted his calves, the Ronin surged up with the girl in his thick, corded arms and began to stagger toward the wavering desert city.  The weight of her slight brown body was no more than a sheaf of wheat, but the heavy, clutching sand dragged at his sandaled feet and the wind tugged at her cape which wheeled free, held only by the tie around her throat.

A faint protesting whimper passed between her pale lips.  A desperate glance over Fukitso's shoulder revealed the winged creature much closer than before.  It was flying faster than he had thought; perhaps it had already spotted them.  But the city was closer as well, and he redoubled his efforts, pushing himself until his veins bulged in his temples and his breath hissed between grimly grating teeth.

With a final Herculean dash, he stumbled into the cool, quenching shade of a neen tree, weaving on his feet like a drunken man, then collapsed to his knees panting in thick, heaving gulps.

He rolled the girl onto the gentle sand, streams of perspiration coursing down his spine, then glanced furtively up through the spreading branches as a dark, sinister shadow ghosted silently overhead.  The creature had given no indication of having spotted them, but the Ronin waited in hiding for several moments more just to be certain.  When at last he stepped out from beneath the tree, the monster was a tiny trembling speck nearly lost in the blue-white satin of the distant desert sky...

***
As spent as he was, Fukitso knew he could not rest until he had procured water for his slender companion.  Wrapping her in the white folds of her burnoose, he carried his tender bundle along the sand-banked foot of the great stone wall until he came to a vast open gateway surmounted by a majestic horseshoe arch.

Passing through this, he found a wide, marble plaza or maidan, vast and empty, stretching away to a line of jumbled storefronts with airy, pillared loggias and bright, striped awnings.  Orange groves and clustered peepul trees rustled gently along the fringes of the maidan, green and miraculous in this land of heat and thirst.  In the very middle of the marble space stood the low stone curb of a well, as wide around as Amir Judapur's bed.  It was flanked by the long balanced beams of two shadufs, their buckets floating half-submerged in the clean black water.

Fukitso crossed to the well and gently settled the girl against the curb, her burnoose parting to reveal a face pale and drawn.  Quickly he filled a bucket with water with the aid of the counter-balanced shaduf, then impatiently tore the bucket from its mount.  He allowed the cooling fluid to trickle in flashing silver streams over her face and front, washing the dust from her sleek limbs and body and matting her black locks against her head.

With more good-intentions than sense, he brought the heavy bucket to her lips only to have the water spill uselessly over her chin and neck.  Setting down the container, he scooped water in the cup of one hand and more carefully placed this to her mouth while supporting her head on his knee.

Though her eyes remained closed, she stirred restlessly as the moisture touched her lips.  Those lips parted dreamily, closing on the edge of his hand as softly as rose petals, and he felt her tiny velvet tongue questing eagerly over his skin as she began to suck precious droplets from the creases in his palm.  For a time he allowed her to continue until his palm was empty.  But when he tried to draw away, she moaned urgently, her small hands blindly clutching his wrist, her long body straining as her mouth desperately drew on his littlest finger for a final quenching drop.

He lifted her and crossed over into the cooling shadow of the peepul trees where whispering leaves moistened the air with a gentle soothing mist.  As he lay her on the damp lawn, her lashes fluttered, then raised revealing dark, wondering eyes.

"Easy, girl," Fukitso chided, as she fought too quickly to sit up.  "You've had a close call.  Don't push your luck any further than you have already."

Supported on one slim arm, she raked back her damp locks and searched the vast white maidan with a mingled look of doubt and bewilderment.  After a moment, she gazed up into his face.

"Where are we?  The last thing I remember --  the desert stretched as far as the eye could see -- I was so very, very thirsty and my body ached --  there seemed no end to the dunes and the sand..."  Suddenly a dimly grasped memory seemed to flit on the edge of recall and her delicate brow bent to the strain.  "I remember falling -- and then being carried -- then I was drinking and the water was so sweet, I wanted to go on drinking forever."

"Our karmah died in his tracks throwing both of us," the Ronin confirmed.  "That was the fall you remember.  After that, I carried you to this city in the desert."

He chose not to mention the winged creature.  As far as he knew, they had escaped detection; there was no need to burden her unduly.

"But how?  What is this place?"

"The sand dwellers call it Fakhd al-Houri.  I knew of it from when I used to run as a sowar on the Honey Road protecting the caravan trains bound for Dolman Adji.  I have a friend here who might translate the other writing on the map.  That's why I headed this way in the first place.  As it turned out, it was a good thing I did.  That damn sun's hotter than I remember it, but then this is summer and the caravans I guarded only crossed in the winter months."

Almaz accepted his words without comment, content in the knowledge that he at least knew where they were.  Although trust, real trust, still came hard to her, for the moment she found unexpected pleasure in the security provided by this crude, strange-eyed defender.  With a small shrug of her bronze shoulders, she returned her gaze to the wide maidan.  A frown narrowed her eyes.

"But where is everybody?"

The Ronin rose to his feet and looked out across the empty marble space, for the first time feeling an uncomfortable tightening in his broad shoulders.  She was right; the place was deserted.  In his hurry to find water for her, he had barely noticed, putting the silence down to the tendency for sand dwellers to spend the hottest part of the day indoors.  But now he saw there was more to it than that.

His keen hearing, honed to detect the pad of a stalking samadhi at a dozen yards, here could discern no hint of human life.  When last he had visited Fakhd al Houri, the city had teemed with travellers -- kaffiyeh-clad nomads from the scattered clans; fat, wealthy merchants accompanying their wares on the long Tariq al'Asal; seductive dharbis dancers with flat brown bellys and long flashing legs aglitter with silver spangles and bells.  A multitude of skins and tongues had mingled on this marble surface like the runoff from a winter storm gathering in a wadi.

But there were no voices now.  Not a muffled footfall disturbed the ominous hush that lay over the city.  Thousands had passed through that arched gateway each and every day.  The city itself boasted a permanent population of many hundreds.

Where were they?

The girl sensed the Ronin's growing unease, noting the increased tension in his rolling thews, his tight, ready stance so like a wild beast atuned to every sound, every scent carried on the dry wind.  She drew her slim legs to her body, covering her nakedness with the damply clinging burnoose, her eyes dilated and fearful.

"What is it?" she asked.  "Where have they gone?"

"I don't know."  Without turning, Fukitso reached down for her.  "But I'd feel better with a wall at my back.  Anyway, let's get you out of this heat."

As they crossed the maidan, Almaz was struck by the awesome beauty of this island in the desert.  Beyond the row of pillared shops loomed vast peaked domes, azure against an azure sky, almost like insubstantial mirages wavering in the heat.
Thrusting minarets flanked the domes, their dizzy balconies painted emerald and ruby, and smaller, silver cupolas glinted blinding flashes in the blistering sun.

Fukitso passed into the shadow of a short arcade, leading Almaz by the hand, then through an engrailed arch into a small shop cluttered with heavy bolts of carpet, thick, tasseled cushions and brightly woven tapestries.  Somehow the sight of so much expensive fabric left unattended served to shake Almaz further.  She had thought perhaps this place had simply been abandoned.  But who would leave so much wealth behind, to be looted by the first badmash to happen through?

Fukitso released her hand and dropped to one knee.  He touched the stone floor then rubbed his fingers together curiously.

"Hm -- some sort of ash," he told her, scowling.  "I noticed it on the marble outside.  It's all over the place."

He rose and strode to a curtained archway leading to a back room.  Parting the curtains, he peered through.  "I once came upon a town blanketed with ash just like this.  The people lay thick in the streets, all dead, aswarm with flies, almost as if they had been struck down before they even knew what was upon them -- which I suppose was the case.  A nearby volcano had blown a cloud of deadly gas over their city, suffocating every living thing, and laying down a thin film of ash."  Satisfied the rear store room was vacant, he turned back with a casual shrug.  "But I don't know of any volcanoes near --"

He froze and, though Almaz was watching, she did not see the movement that placed his short wakizashi in his hand.  Whatever sound had alerted him, it was too dim for her ears to detect.  He touched her arm as he passed.

"Stay here."

"Don't leave me!"  Her cry was a frantic yelp of despair.  But it was too quiet and too late and, before she could move, she found herself alone in a dead city...

***
Fukitso followed the arcade until it let out on a marble roadway cutting through the row of stores.

Turning right, he followed the road under a tall, gilt-rimmed arch set in a towering wall or ivan, flat as a board.  The ivan was decorated with peacock blue tilles and freestanding except for two flanking minarets.  Beyond the ivan stretched a second maidan, smaller than the first.  Light marble kiosks with pierced screens and peaked cupolas were set at intervals across the open space, gaily hued ribbons rippling from their spires.  As beautiful as those kiosks were, Fukitso could only see them as potential concealment for an attacker.

He paused just beyond the ivan, his body in a tense half-crouch, sunlight flaming from the flat of his wakizashi as it played slowly before his eyes.  Then he heard it again -- someone running on naked feet.

The sound snatched his head to the left where a row of arcaded shops jostled for room on the edge of the maidan, wooden latticed screens concealing their wares from view.  From one of the shops came the crash of an urn shattering on a stone floor, then an urgent scrambling as of someone, having tripped, rising again.

Immediately the Ronin sprang across the marble surface and threw himself full against the screen, which splintered into a shower of flying chips.  He landed and rolled amidst a welter of exploding pots and urns inside the shop.  Regaining his feet, he was just in time to note the purple hangings over a rear arch rustling back into place.  He leaped after his quarry, tearing aside the hangings with his sword and plunging out into the dust-filtered sunlight of an alley running behind the shops.

Thin puffs of dust marked the frantic flight of his quarry leading along the alley and out through a vine-laced arch of pierced sandstone.  The Ronin paused amazed, a slow tremour of unease working at the back of his neck; his quarry was remarkably fleet of foot.  Unnaturally so.

He began to wonder whether the two-footed object of this pursuit was really human, after all.

For a moment he hesitated, thinking of the vast empty maidans and the silence that now gripped this once thriving city.  He slammed Kyodai into the scabbard at his hip, and drew the longer katana from its sheath on his back.  Ginago flashed bright silver.  He shook his bald skull and uttered a low, purring snarl.

He rushed down the alley like a desert whirlwind and sprang through the arch -- then pulled up short, dumbfounded.  He was in a wide room with bare plaster walls and a flagstone floor.  Dappled sunlight filtered down through a latticed stone vault crowded with twisting quisqali vines.  There was no way in or out save for the way Fukitso had come.

His quarry had simply vanished.

For a moment, Fukitso was too surprised to move.  But then he realized, human or not, his quarry must have escaped through some sort of secret door.

Scowling, he searched the walls with his bare hands, working his way entirely around the chamber, seeking some sort of lever or catch which he knew must exist.  As he searched, he noticed a curious, fetid odour that hung dull and noxious in the air.  It was an odour he could not place but it seemed to fill the chamber like the spoor of some animal might permeate the rock walls of its den.

But, after a time, thwarted in his aim and growling almost like a beast denied the kill, he was forced to admit defeat.  Turning reluctantly away, he retraced his steps back through the alley and the shop until he reached the smaller maidan.  Here he stopped and considered the situation.

Whatever the mystery here, there was no point in remaining any longer than he had to.  In all likelihood, whatever fate had befallen the rest of the population had likewise taken his friend.  He would have to find someone else to translate his map then.

As well, if he were to be honest with himself, he had to admit that he found himself strangely unnerved by the ominous quiet and whispering emptiness.  Even in the clear light of the smoldering sun, the vacant shops, the dry wind-washed spaces and lonely dust-blown alleys, the lofty minarets standing blank-eyed watch over a town blasted clear of life as if swept by a desert storm, all these combined to fashion a disconcertingly unnatural sense of imminent, unavoidable peril.

He resolved to leave at sunset.  If he carried enough water and food, traveling on foot, he could reach Dolman Adji in three days...

But then he scowled with sudden irritation.  He had forgotten the girl.  She would need time to recover from her recent ordeal.  Even then, it was doubtful she would have the strength to walk to Dolman Adji through the killing desert heat.

Again he cursed himself for bringing her along, only dimly remembering the terrible alternative which he would have left her to suffer otherwise.  Then, thinking of the girl, he suddenly realized he should never have rushed off leaving her alone.

He started across the maidan toward the arch-pierced ivan.  Instinctively he carried Ginago at the ready, his eyes constantly roving, seeking out every possible place of concealment no matter how unlikely, on the lookout for anything suspicious or out of place.  It was in this way that he noticed something which to a normal man would have barely registered but which to the Ronin encouraged him to turn from his course and cross to the far side of the maidan to investigate.

He moved stealthily as he approached, taking advantage of the scattered kiosks to hide himself as he worked his way.  Finally he stepped out next to a plain stone wall surmounted by an overhang of curved clay shingles from a sloping roof.  But it was not the roof that had caught his keen-eyed interest; rather it was the few scattered stones spread half- hazardly about the foot of the wall.  There was nothing especially odd about the gravel itself, merely the fact of its being so concentrate in one place.  Then he noticed something else.

Throughout the city, virtually every walking surface was dusted with a thin layer of the mysterious grey-white ash.  In some locations the ash was thicker than in others, but the ash itself seemed all-pervasive.  Here though, at the foot of this wall, there was no ash, as if it had been swept away either by accident or by design.

He hesitated, some primitive instinct warning him to take care; all was not as it seemed.  He frowned suspiciously, then extended his gleaming blade to touch one of the pebbles...

But, just then, a shrill, horrified scream reached him on the wind.  It was the girl's cry, her voice frantic with sudden heart-rending terror.

At the sound, he started with an oath, his attention momentarily distracted.  Without thinking, he took one foolish step into the center of the scattered pebbles -- then cursed furiously as a marble slab sank beneath his sandaled heel.

His reaction was entirely reflex, coiled thews responding to the sudden threat with blinding quickness as he sought to throw himself clear.  But there was no time as a vast too-solid weight descended on him in a silent rush, a weight which blasted the wind from his lungs and dashed all thought from his mind as easily as a candle flame from the wick...
 



Next episode...The Shape in the Shop


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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!)