Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure

Set in 19th Century India, a beautiful princess is the victim of a mad rajah's fiendish torture.  The hero, Karim, has one chance to save her.   Choose correctly, and she goes free.  Choose wrong...



The Tiger Trap
A Tale of Eastern Adventure

By Talbot Pratt

With a strangled cry, Karim thrust a desperate palm to the ghastly scarlet gout blossoming amongst the emerald folds of Gopal's kamar band.  His young friend's stricken features were awash with an ashen hue, frightened eyes dilating like hideous pearls, knees suddenly gone limp dragging them both to the stone floor of the dungeon.

"Sahib!" Gopal gasped through writhing lips, foamy spit flecking his henna-red beard.  "Sahib, you must find the begum...without me.  The wound is too deep.  I am done."

The chuprassi's fingers groped blindly at his master's sweat-streaked shoulders, leaped to the tortured face, felt the tears that coursed there like bitter rain.  "Please do not cry for me.  I have been good in this life.  I will be rewarded."  Yet his hopeful words were subverted by the terrible haunted sorrow in his eyes.  "Find the princess, sahib.  Find her for us both..."

A final shivering convulsion shook the chuprassi, his breath hissing between his grating teeth like the fleeing of his soul.

"Gopal!" Karim screamed, frenziedly crushing his friend's body in his naked arms.  But he knew already Gopal was beyond hearing.

"So much pathos to waste on a mere servant -- how touching."

The words were spoken with such ruthless cynicism, such crafted callousness, they dragged Karim's gaze from the still body to level with blistering fury on the speaker across the dungeon.

"Devil!" he spat, his young features deformed with the intensity of his hate.  "You will die for this, do you hear me?  You will die for the blood you have spilled this day!"

A thin smile turned the regal lips of the rajah.  One arm gestured arrogantly to indicate the tall gilt and gem-crusted cage which had only the moment before fallen to trap Karim and Gopal.

"Oh, I think not, merchant's son.  Not unless you can shrink yourself very thin and crawl between the bars of your cage."  His lean hand made a sinuous motion in the stale air and he laughed with a gleeful bark.  "Like a little cobra, perhaps!"

Though a berserker rage rose like a howling typhoon in Karim's breast, he grimly fought it down knowing the rajah's words were all too true.  He was helpless for the moment, unable either to avenge his friend or to save the girl he loved.

Instead his narrowed eyes hungrily surveyed the gold bars, searching for a weakness in the design.  The ragged coils of his turban tumbled low on his burning forehead, disarrayed in his vain attempt to intercept the silver arrow which had taken his friend.  He wore no shirt, but the baggy legs of his pyjamas were bound by a scarlet kamar band at his waist, and saffron slippers with curled toes covered his feet.

Dimly he noticed a subtle shifting of the rajah's crafty eyes; perhaps had he been thinking clearly he would have understood the significance of the look.  Instead, too late, he felt the gentle tug on his kamar band from behind...

With a snarled oath, he spun on his knees.

A squat, furred marid leaped back from the cage yelping in fright, torchlight splashing white fire from the stolen object clutched covetously in its loathsome paws.  Instantly its dumb animal fear transformed to a spiteful jubilation as it shambled tittering across the dungeon to the feet of its richly robed master.

"And what is this?" the rajah asked in feigned surprise, accepting the object from his fawning minion.  He raised the steel throw-ring in the spiked fingers of one hand, rotating it slowly so the lambent lighting danced on the razor-sharp rim.  "A chakram?"

The mocking note passed from his voice and a dangerous shadow settled over his narrow eyes.  "But not just any chakram, am I correct, merchant's son?  No -- this is a very special weapon: the Chakram-i-Gulab.   It has been bathed in the magic springs rushing from the living basalt slopes of Mount Kailasa, waters sacred to the Holy Shiva.  Then humble sadhus in dhoti sarongs and soiled turbans carried it to the sacred banks of the Ganges where it was soaked for fifty years in that precious flood.  Next it was anointed with the nectarine sweat of devadasis, lissome temple prostitutes -- sweat taken from their sleek limbs while in the writhing midst of passionate kama.  And when all this was complete, a most holy Brahmin chanted an ancient mantra while gesturing potent mudras over its gleaming circle, instilling in its unblemished metal strange powers known and forgotten a thousand years before the coming of Iskander.  A special weapon indeed: a chakram which will unerringly seek out whatever target the thrower may choose, regardless of the accuracy of the thrower's aim."

Something in Karim's expression betrayed his surprise and the sinister smile crawled back onto the rajah's lips.

"You see, merchant's son -- my spies are very good indeed.  Did you think I would kidnap the lovely begum without taking precautions lest her foolish lover seek to rescue her?  My spies were there when you purchased this trinket in the bazaar at Delhi.  They crept in your shadow as you set out on your madman's quest.  There has not been a single moment you have had the upper hand in this game.  And now, your silly servant lies dead, I hold the Chakram-i-Gulab, and as for the incomparable princess you sought to save..."

He raised a hand imperiously, signalling to his monstrous servant behind.  Tittering again, the marid scampered up a set of crudely hewn stairs to a tasselled pull-rope hung from a hole in the ceiling.  An expansive, violet curtain concealed almost an entire wall of the nighted dungeon.  As the monster dragged down on the pull-rope, the curtain parted in vast, shining pleats -- and Karim felt his lungs lock in horror as a tableau out of nightmare was revealed.

The begum hung suspended by her slim wrists from a golden rope that creaked into the upper darkness.  Her dark head lay back between her quaking shoulders, the light glossing off the damp arc of her throat.  Her bare, pointed toes just brushed the polished stone floor, affording no relief from the cruel torment, and pink diaphanous veils swirled like morning mist about her drawn body revealing only glimpses of the trembling brown flesh beneath.

But, as terrible as was this torture, a vastly more insidious device met Karim's gaze.

On opposite sides of the hanging girl paced two powerful Bengal tigers.  Their muscles rolled like pythons beneath their glossy orange and black pelts, their humped shoulders rocking in concert with the restless, hungry padding of their razor-studded paws.  Strings of yellow saliva trailed from their open jaws where ivory fangs gleamed; their striped tails lashed the air and their flashing eyes burned with ravenous desire as they jealously studied the supple, brown creature dangling just out of reach.

The tigers were held in check only by two leather leashes let out from cranks off to the sides.  Karim surmised that the tigers had already tried to reach the girl and had discovered they could not.  For, as hungry as they seemed, for the moment they made no attempt to spring at her.

The begum's name was Titli, meaning 'butterfly", and she did indeed seem as small and fragile as a butterfly compared to the size and power of the great cats menacing her.

Karim did not know why the rajah had kidnapped the begum.  Until this very moment, he had given the question little thought.  It had been enough to know that she was a prisoner of such a villain as he knew the rajah to be.  Now, though, he found himself wondering -- what could possibly explain this appalling nightmare?  What could justify, even in that madman's mind, such an evil torment as this?

"You will have to forgive her if she does not say hello," the rajah explained with low, cruel mirth.  "She has been in this situation for two days and two nights and I fear she may be somewhat...over-wrought... by the experience.  As you may have noticed, the tigers' leashes are wrapped on cranks allowing me to vary their distance from the lovely begum.  I fear I was unable to resist permitting them a somewhat... freer rein from time to time -- when, for example, the need for sleep threatened to distract her, you understand?"

"Monster."  Karim's snarl was a low bestial cough, and his dark eyes smoldered with a light akin to the gleam in the tigers' own.

The rajah took no notice of the insult, but signalled again to the marid crouched at the top of the stair.  This time the creature shambled over to a jewelled switch set in the stone wall and, taking this in its gnarled fingers, it pulled with a rough shrug of its misshapen shoulders.

Immediately, Karim detected a dull grinding of machinery in steady motion.  The tigers too noticed the sound and they seemed instantly encouraged, pacing now with an eager, preparatory energy.

"You see, merchant's son?" the rajah chuckled darkly.  "My pets know that sound very well -- the turning of the cranks.  They know that very slowly their leashes will be let out, exquisitely slowly in fact, and their rending claws will come closer and closer to the begum's poor exhausted body.  If she still has strength left, perhaps she can evade those claws, for a time -- but, of course, evading one cat means coming within reach of the other."

Abruptly the left tiger, excited to a nervous frenzy by the tantalizing prospect held so near, dropped into a coiled crouch, then sprang, its black-rimmed lips writhing over dripping fangs, a shrill roar shivering the air like the blast of a culverin.

Karim had thought perhaps Titli hung mercifully unconscious -- but even through the deafening keen of the cat's furious cry reached a sobbing scream of wretched terror.

Her long legs thrust rigidly at the floor, her body momentarily flexing to avoid the vicious swipe of its paw.  Then the leash thrummed tight, flipping the great cat almost onto its back.  Instantly it regained its feet, but now the other cat lunged with an equally terrible cry.  Titli screamed again, twisting helplessly in her bonds, her emerald eyes reflecting her anguish, burning exhaustion showing in every shivering line of her limbs.  Then this cat too was pulled short by its leather leash, falling back with an enraged snarl.

Slowly, mercilessly, the two cranks turned.

Even with the first cat's leap, Karim had sprang up, shouting in mingled horror and fury.  His fists gripped the gilt bars of his cage, his eyes staring between with wide wild horror.  The rajah laughed an echoing, mocking cadence.

"You cannot reach her through those bars, merchant's son," he said.  "But I did not arrange this elaborate display merely so you might watch this sapling princess feed my pets.  I offer you a chance to save her."

He crossed easily to the cage, but was careful to halt just out of reach.  He raised the gleaming throw-ring hung daintily on one lean finger.  "I will give you back the Chakram-i-Gulab.  All you have to do is use the chakram to cut the rope by which she hangs.  You would have to throw it by reaching through the bars, but with its unerring aim, this should not be a problem."

Karim believed this was but one more torment devised by the rajah, but he seized the opportunity, reaching through the bars with desperate quickness.  But the rajah was as fleet as a krait, snatching the weapon back and shaking his turbaned head.

"Patience," he chided.  "You must learn patience."

Behind him, Titli screamed in panting despair as the left tiger sprang again.  The rajah drew his other hand from behind his back, two flashing chakrams flourishing like playing cards in his fingers.

With a lightning flicker of his hands, he slipped Karim's chakram in with the others, then offered them all with a secret smile on his lips.  Karim snatched the rings, surprised to find this was not a trick, then stumbled back from the bars.  Breathlessly he chose one of the three at random.

"Choose carefully."

A sudden sinister note entered the rajah's tone.  "For the other two have interesting attributes, as well.  The one will fly swift and unerring to sever the leash holding back the tiger on the left.  The other will just as accurately free the tiger on the right.  So, as you can see, to choose wrongly would be a costly mistake indeed."

With a mocking laugh, he wheeled and strode to a jade dais against the far wall.  Unhooking the lower buttons of his sapphire-blue jama, he regally seated himself with long fingers laced in his lap.  On the stairway, the marid giggled with vindictive glee.

Karim spread the three chakram's in his hands, frowning with perplexity.  He tried to focus his attention on the problem, but Titli's shivering screams brought up his eyes just as the right tiger, closer now, hooked its fiercesome claws in the whispering pink of a filmy veil.  The veil came easily away, revealing the glossy  curve of her waist.  He saw the shattering horror in her eyes.  Then he forced his gaze back to the three weapons, tears stinging his sight.

The rings seemed identical in every way.

All had the same bluish cast, the same gold inlay along the inner rim.  He concentrated, studying the flashing polish of their surfaces, the keenness of their honed edges; hefting each one separately to compare their weights.  There was no discernable difference.  It was impossible to distinguish one from the other -- impossible!

His eyes cast to the rajah, no longer furious, but pleading.  "It can't be done," he cried.  "They are identical.  How am I to know which will save her and which will kill her?"

The rajah smiled amiably, lazily flourishing a hand.  "I never said there was a way, merchant's son.  I merely said I would give you your weapon back.  If you wish to save her, you will have to guess.  Surely one in three odds are not that unreasonable?"

With a curse, Karim threw the chakrams to the floor and lunged at the cage.  His fingers gripped the gold bars in a pallid clasp, his eyes feverishly surveying their ends at top and bottom.  They were set in sockets bored in a jewelled frame so that, though the bars might rotate, they held fast against his assault.

Titli sobbed again, her weakened thews barely responding this time as jagged claws tore a veil from about her smooth, brown hips.  Only inches now separated her soft skin from the rending strokes of those two killer cats.  Their leashes shivered with the fantastic fury of their lunges.  Their attacks were rising quickly to a frenzied pitch as they drank the scented fear on the veils ripped from her body.

Helplessly watching the ghastly drama, for a strange moment, an idea seemed to waver tantalizingly on the edge of Karim's thoughts.  A solution?  He fought to focus, willing the idea to crystallize.  Almost as if sensing this, the rajah spoke, sharding Karim's concentration like glass.

"I would have loved her."

The rajah's tone was distant and dreaming, his eyes burning distractedly on the dark twist of her trembling body.  "I am a rajah; I could have given her so very much.   And yet she resisted me."  A puzzled crease slashed his noble forehead.  His dark eyes turned to regard Karim.  "What do you offer her, merchant's son?  What are you to her that is worth this?"

Karim glanced down at the throw-rings.  An idea -- but what?  There was no time to think; only seconds remained.

In his mind, the greatest horror was the unimaginable thought that the ropes would not break when the tigers' claws found her; that they would strip the flesh from her bones even as she writhed in the air between them.  Even worse, the pull of their leashes would hinder their assault, would prolong her grisly death to a nightmarish...

The pull of their leashes!

He stared through the bars, his eyes dilated with sudden, desperate hope.  Yes -- there was a way!  There had to be!...

Click for the Conclusion


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The Tiger Trap is copyright 1998, 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!)