by D.K. Latta
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or
commercial purposes without his permission.
Chapter Two: The Land of the Karo
She was startled awake as she was hoisted onto a narrow sill, the cold stone hard against the warm softness of her bare bottom. Her eyes fluttered.
"Wait," hissed a voice. "She awakens."
Opening her eyes, Neekin saw that she was in the middle of a narrow street, still night, and seated on the edge of a drinking well. Her weird eyes narrowed as her gaze fell on the figure of Ehkiballah. Beside him were three men she did not recognize. Looking down, she realized she was still completely nude. Her ankles were tied together, as were her wrists at her back. She looked once more at the sorcerer.
"Where is the king?"
Ehkiballah chuckled. "Fear not, he is unharmed -- for now. I lured him away from his chamber, it's true, but I'm not so foolish as to kill him when a serving girl could testify that he was meeting me, or when any might have seen him walking the halls. No, the king will die another day. It is you who will die tonight."
Neekin glared but said nothing.
"It was difficult enough to get the king alone, harder still if he has a new strumpet -- and a devil with a blade at that." His black eyes gleamed in the moonlight, reminding Neekin of the cold, soulless gaze of a shark. "He has since returned to his chamber and doubtless will assume you returned to the barracks. Instead, you will be there." He gestured with one long finger at the inky blackness below her. "Scream if you like," he said idly. "This neighbourhood has been largely deserted since an epidemic a year ago."
"I still say we don't have to kill her," grumbled one man. "There are better things to do with a wench like her."
"Silence!" snapped Ehkiballah.
"Why would I want a boy like you?" sneered Neekin. "I've had a king inside me, after all. And he is not nearly so ugly or foul-smelling as-"
The man slapped her hard across the face. Neekin's mocking expression instantly slipped away, being replaced by a look of childlike fear in her green and blue eyes. She began to shudder, as if that single blow stripped away entirely a false front of bravado. "Please," she whispered, "don't hurt me again."
The man grinned cruelly. He grabbed her jaw in one hand and forced his thumb between her lips, rolling it upon her hot, wet tongue.
After a moment, gazing at him still fearfully, Neekin began to suck on his thumb.
He ran his other hand down her firm belly, at last cupping her soft fur. She moaned, opening her thighs to his explorations...
"Fool!" Ehkiballah struck him across the side of the face with such force that he fell to the ground, the sorcerer's tapered nails leaving glistening red streaks across his cheeks. "She is manipulating you. She would like nothing better than to be taken away from here. So, take her. Use her. Get an evening's satisfaction out of her...and then wake up with your throat torn open and she chuckling over your dim-witted corpse." He turned upon Neekin, her ill-matched eyes no longer looking fearful or helpless. Instead they burned darkly and a sly grin turned the corners of her lips. "I am not so foolish as they," he said, his gaze lingering on her soft contours, "nor do the fires of passion burn quite as brightly in me. You are a survivor, girl. In your eyes is a look I once observed in a cornered wolf. I was right to view you as a threat to my plans. And your play-acting desperation tells me something more. You fully expect to die in that well. I find that reassuring."
"If you can get me down there," she sneered. Suddenly she launched herself forward, ramming her shoulder into the sorcerer's mid-section. One of the other men came at her, and she flung her head up, clacking his teeth together as her skull met his jaw. But it was futile. She tried hopping away, and ended up in a heap upon the ground. Arms grabbed her and, though she squirmed and shrieked, she was heaved back onto the well, the wall ramming up into her stomach. She lay there, gasping, bent over the wall.
Ehkiballah staggered toward her, panting, and grabbed her ankles. He hesitated, staring at her firm, round bottom, perhaps realizing the fires of passion were not quite as dormant as he had believed. Then, he quenched such desires grimly.
"She is a wild wolf in girl's flesh," he growled. "And so, bitch...die." He heaved up her legs and Neekin vanished into the blackness of the well.
She fell for what seemed an eternity.
Then cool water broke her fall and she sank instantly. She squirmed her body around till her hands were before her and she could claw at the bonds biting into her ankles. With neither hands or feet free, she would drown quickly. It was too dark to see, so by touch alone her fingers worked over the interwoven cords, tugging, weaving, trying to disengage them. Suddenly they coiled away and her legs kicked free. Her head broke the surface and she sucked hungrily at the stale air lurking at the bottom of the decrepit well. Her hands remained tied, but with her feet free, she could tread water. For a time.
She bumped against the curved, slimy wall, then kicked toward the centre and peered up. A small circle of wane light hovered above her head. Otherwise, it was blackness.
Ehkiballah had been right about one thing. She feared the well: from above, she could imagine no escape and now, her fears seemed confirmed. She bumped the wall again and irritably pushed away. The walls were too slick to hope for purchase, and with her hands tied, she would be unable to climb in any event.
Panic flickered at the edges of her mind, but she quelled it. Momentarily.
She brushed the wall again. Damnation-, she thought, then stopped. She kept hitting the same wall. Why? As far as she was concerned, she was treading water in the same spot. Tentatively, she swam away from the wall and then relaxed, focusing on the liquid around her. Gradually, she became aware of an insistent drag pushing her to one side.
A current! The well was not fed by groundwater as Ehkiballah must have assumed, but an underground river. Neekin dove and, though unable to see anything, felt along the submerged wall. Almost immediately she came upon a jagged opening to a small, natural tunnel. She instantly returned to the surface for air.
Neekin knew she had no choice: her next course of action was decided. If she stayed where she was, she would weaken and, eventually, drown.
She inhaled deeply, flushing her body with oxygen, and muttered a prayer to the spirit of this unnamed river, asking for it to look upon her kindly. Then she ducked and swam into the tunnel, feeling the hands of the current push helpfully behind her.
She paddled clumsily through the darkness with her bound hands while kicking powerfully with her legs, feeling the breath in her lungs bleed away, leaving behind a burning emptiness. She felt light-headed. No hint of light stained the unknowable blackness ahead, no indication that she was emerging from the tunnel. Finally, her lungs aflame, she swam upward, expecting to meet unforgiving stone. Instead, her head breached the surface and she sucked in choking gasps of stagnant air. Momentarily she wondered why there was no light, and then she realized: she was still underground. The tunnel merely opened up enough to contain air. Suddenly she scraped against coarse rock as the direction of the tunnel veered off. In seconds though, the current caught her up again, dragging her in this new direction.
The subterranean river twisted a dozen times so that Neekin had no idea in what direction she was headed. She was alive, though. For the moment that was sufficient.
Dimly, beneath the hollow lapping of the river and her own gasps echoing leadenly in the narrow space, a deeper rumbling impressed itself upon her ears. From what source she could not imagine, but she was in no position to be circumspect. Whatever awaited her, she would confront it soon enough.
At last, exhausted and beginning to despair, Neekin espied a sparkle of light ahead and realized that she was, indeed, nearing an exit. Then she frowned, realizing the sliver of moonlight reflected off something at the mouth of the tunnel. Something white.
As she drew nearer, and the rumbling swelled louder in her head, she realized what. The water foamed! Suddenly her leg struck an unseen rock, then she was tumbling through the churning rapids, bouncing between the jagged rocks forming the teeth of the tunnel's mouth. She flipped and rolled, was dragged squirming under, then bobbed up again, choking. She cried out as her hip smacked the tunnel wall.
Then, at last, she was flung out under the dark sky. And Neekin screamed as she plunged over a waterfall.
* * *
She awoke with the sound of sloshing in her skull. She tried to rise, but her hands seemed stuck together, making it a clumsy effort to even kneel. At last she managed it and looked groggily about.
Then it came back to her.
It was a sultry, early morning and she was on the shore of the river, where she had been deposited sometime in the night. Wearily, she gained her feet and tugged futilely at the ropes about her wrists. On either side of the river grew lush jungle ramparts, and the winding river was lost to sight both up and down stream.
Even if she could backtrack, and find the mouth of the underground tunnel, she had no idea in what direction Camotahl lay, nor how far. Bwroan was on his own for the time being.
Looking down at herself, sand clung to her breasts and belly and thighs, it matted her pubic hair and she could even taste it in her mouth. Turning, she wadded once more into the cool water to bathe.
Emerging minutes later, had some fisherman chanced to view her, he might well have mistaken her for some river goddess: she was a stunning sight with glistening water running off her firm, rich contours.
Neekin crouched on the shore and chewed at the ropes with her strong teeth, scanning about for a sharp-edged stone. In the end, though, she knew what she needed was a knife. Resigning herself to her predicament, for the moment, she set out inland, looking for berries and roots to make her breakfast.
A cool shadow fell over her and she looked up quickly -- but whatever it had been, a bird of some sort, it was gone in an instant. She could see nothing. Shrugging, Neekin continued on.
In time she came to a spot where her sharp eyes and jungle-honed instincts told her the trees were younger than the old giants that she had passed. It was as if this had once been a clearing, long, long ago. She moved through the shrubs and grass, then she stopped as her bare feet felt an unnatural smoothness beneath her. She looked down and could make out a stone, but a stone obviously shaped by man, the surface too flat to be natural. After a moment, she could make out other such stones and, some ways away, the tumbling remnants of a wall.
Once a village had been here. Perhaps even a city. Once.
But whose? she wondered. According to the legends of Camotahl, they were the first settlers in this area. Then Neekin frowned.
At least, the first human settlers.
Neekin's brow crinkled in thought, then she stiffened as a twig snapped behind her. She turned, momentarily expecting a ghost of this dead city to confront her.
What she faced was worse.
A black jungle cat snarled its challenge...and its hunger.
* * *
"Things have become...complicated." Ehkiballah bowed before the creature. "I disposed of the woman. Yet instead of making the king more vulnerable, it has made him less so. He is aware that she has vanished and that the captain-of-the- guard is ignorant of her whereabouts. He suspects that she has fallen victim to an attack that was meant for him. He is now never without an escort, nor does he so much as relieve himself without a blade at hand. The one blessing is that, since I was the one who called him away from his bed chamber, he knows that I could not have been involved in any botched attempt on his life last night." He feigned a smile at the irony of such a conclusion, then dropped it instantly upon seeing the look in his master's burning eyes.
"You held me off with promises of subterfuge," muttered the creature. "Now your plans are for naught. Very well. You have soldiers loyal to you. If you cannot take the city by treachery, take it by force of arms."
"My lord, I-"
"Give me what is owed...or I will take your soul for my amusement."
Ehkiballah visibly whitened.
* * *
The great cat was a threat in the best of circumstances, but these were hardly that. She was tired, unarmed, and her hands were bound. No, she decided, circumstances could definitely have been better.
The cat snarled again, pawing at the dirt. It was
hesitating, and Neekin suspected that in this lonely jungle, human beings
were not a common meal. It smelled her, knew that she was meat and
blood, but was obviously made circumspect by virtue of her alieness.
Neekin looked around, hoping to see something, anything, in the moments that the cat delayed. There was no weapon at hand, and the trees were impossible to climb with her tied hands. At least, impossible to climb quickly and, against the big cat, speed was everything. Suddenly she made out a tumble of stones, again an obvious leftover from when there had been buildings here. It looked as though it might form a little cave, the entrance too small for her hungry companion, but not too small for her.
There was no way she could make it in time, though. Unless...
She glared at the cat and, refusing to consider how insane
were her actions, screamed and raced at it. The beast stiffened,
almost bolting, but held its ground. She kicked out, striking its
nose, and sending it scrambling more in surprise than pain. The unchallenged
master of the forest had just been challenged.
Taking advantage of its confusion, Neekin spun and launched herself at the little artificial cave. She hit the dirt, skidded, and dragged herself into the darkness, only belatedly realizing that it could have been the home of another beast. It was not.
Neekin let out a little yelp as a black paw exploded through the entrance, almost taking her leg off. She pressed herself against the back wall, literally holding her breath for fear even an inhalation would push her breasts within reach of those deadly claws.
The cat snarled and screamed in frustration, its lethal paw pounding at the dirt just next to her, gouging great furrows. Neekin's heart slammed against her ribs as she realized that, if the cat was able to force the stones, she had no alternative plan. She was trapped.
She hid like that for an hour, the cat growling and reaching for her. Occasionally it would circle around, then come back and try again. At long last, though, it seemed to give up entirely.
Just to be safe, Neekin remained where she was for another hour. Then, finally, she crawled out, back into the light of day. She looked around, prepared to leap back into her hole at the first sign of danger. The jungle, however, seemed still. Satisfied the cat had departed, she decided to return to the river for a drink, and to wash the dirt from her body.
* * *
Naked and alone in this pristine jungle, she felt a little like a wild animal; it was a pleasant experience to one who often felt stifled in city environs, bewildered by the codes and etiquettes of civilization. But with her hands bound, she had to act the part of a timid little mouse, hiding in burrows from predators -- she who was known, among other things, as Neekin the Lioness.
A scream shattered the stillness.
Neekin froze momentarily, then leapt up and bounded nimbly through the overgrown jungle, surprised by the sound of a human voice as well as its terrified tone. Coming at last to the edge of the flora, she cautiously pulled aside a branch.
A nude woman stood thigh-deep in the river, obviously caught in the midst of bathing. She was staring in horror as a great black jungle cat padded back and fourth along the shore, its powerful muscles rippling beneath its sleek hide. Doubtless the same cat that had menaced Neekin, it snarled viciously as it made to attack the woman, then danced back as its paws touched the water.
The most striking thing about the whole tableau was the
woman in the river herself. She had a strange, blue hue to her body.
Stranger still were the great feathered wings upon her back.
The Karo! Neekin thought, stunned. They were not just a myth. And the ruins, then, had once been a Karo city.
She wondered why the woman did not simply fly away, then realized that her feathers were too wet to lift her into the air. Why then did she not just swim to the opposite side of the river?
Neekin hefted a freshly fallen branch, still thick with fronds. The cat might well choose to brave the water, the longer it had to consider the matter. And so long as it thought its prey was alone.
With a blood-curdling scream, Neekin erupted from the jungle, waving her big, leafy branch above her head. The cat bolted, leaping into the web of branches nearest it and vanishing in an instant into the depth of the jungle. If the cat had been a little hungrier, Neekin mused as she discarded the branch, it might have stood its ground, and quickly realized she was no larger, nor any more fearsome, than its intended prey.
Neekin turned toward the woman when a wind tore at her hair and a shadow fell across her body. She looked up -- and gawked. A trio of blue, winged men descended upon her. That was why the girl had stood her ground, she realized. She had anticipated rescue.
Such a realization was of small satisfaction as a fist slammed into her face and Neekin dropped to the sand, unconscious.
Next: Death in the Sky (Conclusion)
Back to Chapter One
Back to The Neekin Chronicles