A NOVEL OF ADVENTURE
BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
"I said, down on your knees!"
His teeth grimly clench, Seagrave knelt on the mat-covered floor. With the leister still held to his neck, he was instructed to place his hands behind his back. He felt the familiar coils of a silth whip constrict tight around his wrists, binding them fast together.
As he had noticed before, there were two large wooden rings set in the ceiling and two rings beneath on the floor. One of the guards threaded the handle of his whip through a floor ring, then drew the cords tight, spinning Seagrave on his knees and toppling him as his hands were dragged to the ring. The guardsman secured the cords, while Seagrave lay on his side where he had fallen, his eyes blazing from beneath his dishevelled scarf and mane.
His back to the ladder, Seagrave heard the three guards clamber up through the hole and close the hatch.
With a low snarl, he struggled to a sitting posture, knocking the hair from his eyes with a leonine toss. His nostrils flared as he filled his lungs, his tanned chest expanding; then sleek muscles rose in winding ridges down his straining arms, and bulged like cable between his broad trembling shoulders. His white teeth grated. For a time, the struggle was waged in grim silence, a fight not of strategy but of pure, unrelenting force. But the slick, vitreous cords of the silth whip were as resistant as steel chains.
After a time, recognizing the futility of his exertions, Seagrave reluctantly surrendered, his chest heaving as he gulped deep breaths, his body glassy with sweat. His wrists were trussed too tightly to allow him to untie the cords. He could only sit and wait for whatever came next.
And so he waited.
As time passed, he was surprised to find the room growing dim, the light through the open doorway steadily fading; the globular lantern, still hung on the bed chain, had been shuttered. He had not yet spent an entire day on this world, so he had no idea how many hours lay between sunrise and sunset; yet, only a short time before, the sun had barely passed a quarter of the distance toward its zenith. So why was it growing darker?
And then he had his answer.
The distant swelling rumble of approaching thunder reached his ears like a breaking surf, like the low snarling of a great beast. A storm -- and a fierce one by the sound of it. With slight unease, Seagrave wondered how well his hanging prison could resist the full force of a howling gale at sea.
With startling suddenness, the wind began to rise, building fast to a wild cacophonous torrent. Seagrave could feel the floor beneath him shivering with the storm's fury, and the stitching holding the cabin's walls together creaked and strained under the buffeting onslaught. Then a dazzling green flash momentarily limned the circular doorway, blinding Seagrave with its ghostly after-image even as thunder crashed seemingly just in the spiralling air beyond the balcony.
Green lightning? What new strangeness was this?
"Hey, up there!" Seagrave bellowed, his voice nearly swallowed by another thunderous boom and the terrific screeching of the gale. "You dogs, the storm is tearing this place to pieces!" Three more green flashes, in flickering succession, strobed in the mouth of the doorway. More thunder shook the air, so near it rattled Seagrave's clenched teeth. Where were the guards? Could they still be at their stations? Not in this storm, surely; the wind would sweep a man from the exposed roof like a dry leaf. Was that why they had tied him down -- so the guards could seek cover? But why not seek cover in here, where they could continue to watch him? And where was Montaz? Why had she not returned?
Seagrave's shoulders rolled, the lightning etching his smooth muscles in flickering bursts of vivid green; he struggled in his bonds, but to no avail. With a snarl of disgust, he glared up at the ceiling as if trying to pierce its sewn boards. Then he lowered his burning gaze to the doorway, the green lights dancing in his feral eyes.
Abruptly he frowned -- and a cool breath whispered behind his neck.
Some dark shape had momentarily flitted just beyond the balcony.
Its silhouette had been fleetingly carved from a single flash of lightning, the vision too brief to allow anything more than a half-seen impression; Seagrave wondered if it had been a mere trick of the light. He waited, frozen, his nerves electric, but the next flicker revealed only empty air. Still, he didn't move. His keen ears strained, sifting the storm's bellow for any hint of the intruder's location outside. Then he heard it -- something scrambling on the balcony. The scratching of claws was unmistakeable even over the screaming wind. He breathed a low curse and jerked hard at his bonds, but it was no use. They were unbreakable. Grimly, he wondered: was this the reason for tying him up? Had he been left here as an offering to whatever lurked in the emerald storm? But why? Draykhis Dol Hashar had made it clear the pirate was to be tortured to learn what he knew about the tal-stone and the Princess Shyrin Shas; it made no sense to kill him this way.
Baffled, Seagrave continued to listen, thews rigid with apprehension. His blood coursed in bitter fury at his own helplessness. Then, again, he caught the scratching of claws, this time nearer the circular doorway, but off to one side hidden from view. Whatever it was, it was working its way toward the door. Did it know he was here? Could it smell his scent, hear the racing of his heart? He held his breath, eyes fixed on the doorway. For a space, there was a lull in the storm's flicker. Darkness closed in, the doorway appearing only as a vague black circle carved from the deeper blackness of the walls. Then, within that circle, the pirate's slitted eyes discerned... movement.
The hair prickled beneath his scarlet head scarf. The thing was standing just outside the doorway. It was no more than a formless shadow, barely discernable. Seagrave sensed the creature, whatever it was, was searching the darkness of the cabin, aware of the pirate's presence, straining to find him in the nighted interior. It made no sound as it looked, the silence only adding to the cryptic eeriness of the scene.
What was it? Seagrave urgently wanted to know. What did it look like? It must have wings, else how could it have reached the balcony, but, other than this, the pirate had no clue. Just the same, quite suddenly, and for no apparent reason, there arose within his beating breast a surge of revulsion, of disgust, a sense of appalling wrongness, of evil. Somehow he knew the creature was a terrible travesty, a monstrous abomination even by the standards of this mad world.
For a dozen heartbeats, the scene held, the tension building steadily to an irresistible pitch of suspense -- then, a jagged bolt of lightning rent the darkness from top to bottom, filling the doorway with a sudden blinding flash. In that flash, Seagrave's dazzled eyes caught a momentary flurry of black flapping wings, a dark angular shape lofting sharply upwards in startled flight.
And the thing was gone.
Nonetheless, it was some time before the pirate allowed the air to pass from his lungs. Nor was a muscle on his lithe frame permitted to relax during the remaining duration of the storm, his burning gaze holding fixed on the doorway the whole time.
Gradually, though, the storm passed on and the sky lightened steadily until, once again, luxurious tropic sunshine poured warmly through the open doorway. A short time later, the three guardsmen returned and released his bonds. Without a word of explanation, they disappeared up the ladder and sealed the hatch. Seconds after that, the hatch was raised again, and trim blue ankles appeared on the topmost rung, gold bangles catching the light.
Montaz descended to the floor carrying the gilt food rack, curls of fragrant steam dancing on the rims of the gravy boats. Seagrave watched her closely as she hooked the rack on the bed chain, but there was nothing in her easy demeanour to suggest anything out of the ordinary had happened.
"Where the hell were you, girl?" Seagrave's question was gruff.
She glanced at him in surprise, her brows arching. "Moryan? What is it? What has happened?"
"Just that the guards took it into their heads to tie me to that ring in the floor," he rumbled heatedly. "Then that storm hit and I thought this whole place was going to come apart. Haven't you people heard of nails?" He paused, realizing he had used the English word -- apparently they did not know what nails were. He scowled.
"Never mind that. Why were you gone so long? Couldn't you get through the storm?"
She appeared mystified. "What storm, Moryan?"
He regarded her in silence for a space. "What do you mean, what storm?" he asked tightly. "The storm with the green lightning and the crashing thunder and the wind that howled like a banshee. The storm that you couldn't miss, even if you were dead!"
Seeing her puzzled expression, he did not bother to add mention of the mysterious lurker in the storm.
Her brows contracted over her delicate nose, and she gave her head an injured toss. "I don't know what you're talking about," she insisted. "I didn't see any storm. I prepared your food as quickly as I could and I came right away." Her voice quavered tremulously. "I may only be a slave girl, Moryan, but I don't think you should be angry with me."
Slowly Seagrave's features softened, and he laid a hand lightly on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Montaz. Aye, you're right -- I shouldn't have gotten mad. But, tell me -- you swear you didn't see the storm?"
She shook her head. He nodded reluctantly, baffled by this strange mystery; then his gaze fixed on the steaming gravy boats. "All right," he said. "Let's see what you brought me to eat. It smells delicious."
Barely had they finished the meal and wiped their fingers than Seagrave again noticed the room growing darker. Momentarily he thought the storm was returning -- but then Montaz stretched her long, blue body with a tired yawn and clambered up on the bed.
"What are you doing?" Seagrave asked in surprise.
"Going to sleep," the girl replied, as if it had been a silly question to ask.
"But why? It's only noon. And why is it so dark outside?" Even as he spoke, Seagrave stepped out onto the balcony to see for himself. Gazing at the swath of sky beyond the rim of the island, he observed the sun fast approaching its zenith -- but what a curious sun. The swollen yellow orb had turned into a slim burning crescent. Slowly he understood. The sun was going behind the planet Korash; Miraya experienced a daily eclipse every noontime.
Already the blue sky was darkening, and glittering stars emerged like sparkling rain falling on a still lake. A glance back through the doorway revealed the slave girl already sound asleep.
Unable to find rest himself, aware his torturer might arrive at any moment, Seagrave remained out on the balcony watching as the sun slowly slipped behind the giant world. With the sun at their backs, the other moons vanished and the darkness spread dense as a cloak thrown over the sea. Tiny sparks sprinkled the dark underside of the island as the people of Jinja Khyam -- those not asleep -- went about their business by lantern light. Other lights ghosted back and forth in the lower darkness, indicating the position of wingships tacking in and out of port.
There was a strange magical beauty to the scene. The wide distant sweep of black void frosted with stars, mirroring ghost-like in the ebony sea; the glowing clusters of city lights scattered across the dark bottom of the island as if in imitation of the celestial vault; the ships' gliding beacons -- the whole combined to create a vista of serene, dream-like fantasy.
Though Seagrave had no way of telling time, he guessed it was at least two hours later that the sun finally emerged from behind the swollen planet. As the sky steadily brightened, Montaz opened her emerald eyes and slipped lithely to her feet, joining him on the balcony. Two hours sleep, it seemed, was all she required to regain her youthful vigour.
"Don't those damn manatyr watchers ever sleep?" Seagrave muttered, voicing the thought which had tormented him for the last two hours.
"They are specially trained," Montaz explained, taking his muscular arm to her cheek, her supple length cuddling softly against his side. "Their attention never wavers; they miss nothing."
Seagrave grimly shook his head. "No -- there's a way. There's always a way."
Later in the day, Montaz carried away the food rack. Seagrave was reluctant to let her go, but she assured him she would return promptly with another meal.
When she next descended the ladder, though, Seagrave was surprised to see she was breathing quickly and a sheen of sweat flashed down her back.
"What's the matter, girl?" he asked, stepping hurriedly forward and catching her as she started to totter. He hooked up the rack, then carried her to the bed, seating her on the edge. "You look white as a ghost -- a bluish ghost, anyway."
She swallowed, spreading the slim fingers of a hand against her upper chest. "I thought they would catch me," she gasped, still fighting for breath. "Oh, Moryan, I was so frightened. I was sure they would suspect something."
"What are you going on about, girl? Suspect what?"
She nodded toward the food rack. "In the bowls," she said.
Puzzled, Seagrave unhooked the nearest gravy boat; it contained a thick dark chowder. But then, feeling the weight of the bowl, he frowned and dipped his fingers into the warm mush. A slow smile opened his lips -- and he drew out the hidden object dripping wet.
It was a gold handle of some sort, designed to fit over the knuckles. Quickly he reached into the other bowl and brought out two glass spikes with metal screws. In seconds he had assembled the weapon; a punch dagger by the looks of it, much like those used in India. But instead of a single keen blade, this dagger had glass spikes, without edges, the lower spike slightly longer than the upper.
"Why, girl," Seagrave grinned, eyeing her with frank admiration, "who would have thought it? You're a born pirate!"
He curled his fist around the handle, so the spikes thrust out from his knuckles.
Montaz's brows rose anxiously. "Did I do well?"
"You did fine. Aye, you did more than fine. We'll make a thief out of you --"
They both froze. From somewhere outside came a weird mournful wailing. The sound was soon joined by others, much closer, until the air itself seemed to knell with the haunting chorus. Then there was a sharp crack, like a dry tree shattering under an axe, followed by a momentary hiss like fat tossed on a fire. More cracks followed, and more hisses.
Seagrave had glanced toward the doorway at the first wailing; now he looked back at Montaz to find her trembling with enormous dread-filled eyes.
"What is it?" he asked quickly. "What's going on?"
"The sirens," she replied in a strangled sob. "And worm cannon."
"Sirens? What for?"
She grabbed his arms, burying her face against his broad chest, her slim body shivering. "The manatyr," she whispered...
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Savage Miraya is copyright 1998, by Jeffrey Blair Latta.
It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short
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