by D.K. Latta
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or
commercial purposes without his permission.
Chapter Three: Death in the Skies (Conclusion)
Neekin struggled back to consciousness. But when she opened her eyes, she seriously questioned if it had been worth the effort. Nude, she dangled with her back against rough stone, on her tiptoes, her arms stretched above her with the ropes about her wrists snagged upon an outcropping.
She was on a wide ledge that jutted from the face of a high cliff. Across the chasm was another cliff dotted with caves and ledges. Winged men and women flew gracefully by, going in and out of caves in the opposite cliff. Some clung to the cliff's sheer face itself.
None of them seemed to give her so much as a glance, so Neekin made no attempt at subtlety as she squirmed upon her rocky hook, hoping to dislodge herself. Though she tried valiantly, she failed to knock herself free.
Suddenly, with a rush of wind, two figures landed lightly a few paces before her; a male and a female. The female she recognized from the river.
The blue pigment of the Karo appeared natural, and both beings had jet black hair, the woman's bound into a braid. Their features were human, and attractive. Neither had any clothing -- nor any body hair. Their sole apparel was a wide belt that each wore, from which dangled short cords which ended in glittering, sharp hooks. Neekin glanced at the figures clinging to the face of the opposing cliff, and realized that they used the lines to secure themselves.
The two muttered to each other in a tongue she did not recognize. The man took off abruptly, leaving her alone with the woman.
The winged woman approached, but Neekin could discern no obvious cruelty in her expression. Instead she seemed curious, her eyes darting from Neekin's shoulders, to her groin, and back again. And then Neekin realized: the woman was intrigued by her body hair. So much so that she reached forward, tentatively, and stroked the downy softness underneath Neekin's arm.
Neekin struggled again momentarily, then looked at the woman. "It's not like I can run away," she said wryly. The winged woman, however, gave no indication she understood her words. Exasperated, Neekin squirmed more frantically, aware that in certain company such movements would be seen as rather fetching. A bead of sweat trickled down her ribs.
Saying nothing, the winged woman reached up, her warm, naked body pressing flush against Neekin's, their sweat mingling, as she helped her unsnag her wrists. Neekin collapsed upon the hard rock at the winged woman's feet, a burning ache welling up in her toes and shoulders. She winced, then bit her lower lip and looked up. The winged woman stepped back, a wide, almost frightened look in her eyes.
Neekin stared for a moment, then pounced.
With a squeak of terror, the winged woman turned to flee, but Neekin brought her down. Expecting her to scream at any moment, Neekin hurriedly grabbed one of the hooks upon the woman's belt and raked at the fibres about her wrists. If she were to face the winged men in combat, she would do it with both hands. After a moment, she looked at the woman beneath her. The woman stared back, but did not call out. Neekin was bewildered, but dismissed her confusion and finished severing her restraints. As the ropes came free, she rubbed at her bruised flesh.
The winged woman had obviously realized from Neekin's actions that her tackle was not a true attack. She reached out, touching Neekin's jaw with feather light fingers. Neekin looked at her, at the way her lower lip trembled nervously. A soft blue finger traced Neekin's full lips. Then the woman reached down and cupped Neekin's right breast in the palm of her warm hand. Neekin took the woman's face in her hands, considering her for a moment, then kissed her lightly, and then with more passion.
Neekin had had many lovers in her life, of many types.
The winged woman was beautiful, Neekin realized. And, besides, she was curious as to whether the lack of body hair was natural, or whether a telltale stubble would indicate it was merely a custom...
* * *
After each woman had satisfied her curiosity about the other, and her desires, they lay together on the warm stone. The winged woman twirled her fingers playfully through the silk between Neekin's legs while Neekin stared at the cloudless sky overhead, lost in ruminations.
Well acquainted with the capricious whims of the Spirits, Neekin knew it might be months, if at all, before she could return to Camotahl. So she did not think she was betraying King Bwroan, certainly not after having only been together one night, and that rather casual to begin with. But she wondered -- she did not consider herself naturally polygamous.
She also knew that she had to try to return, if at all possible. Knowing of his danger at the hands of his own advisor, she must make at least an attempt to aid him.
While Neekin considered these things, her companion seemed troubled by no such conflicts, licking at the sweat on the swell of Neekin's hip. She nudged her so that Neekin obligingly rolled over onto her belly.
Abruptly a gust of wind tumbled over them and the blue woman leapt to her feet, as if fearful. Neekin, still stretched upon the ground, watched a trio of winged men land upon the aerie. The leader of the men spoke to the woman. She hesitated, then looked at Neekin.
"You are to be taken before Zack'ntah, our leader," she said, speaking the bastardized Zoufestaffian of Camotahl.
Neekin gawked at her proficiency in the tongue, and the woman smiled a little sheepishly. Then two of the men took her by either arm and Neekin gasped as the ground fell away from beneath her feet.
* * *
The court of the Karo was a tunnel lined by fluttering torches, burrowed high in the face of one of the surrounding cliffs. There was nothing in the way of gold or tapestries to adorn the place. The ruler's ostentatiousness was represented, instead, by ugly, black stone carvings fitted into niches in the cave's walls.
Neekin was guided through a large crowd and halted before a pot-bellied man sprawled upon a stool on a slight dais.
He stared at her, unblinking, scratching absently at his hairless groin. The woman from the river shouldered through the crowd and, without even glancing at Neekin, settled herself on her knees before the king. She delicately laid a hand on his left foot. Another man, one of those who had flown Neekin here, whispered something in the king's ear.
King Zack'ntah's eyes flared and he glanced at the woman at his feet, then at Neekin.
Neekin realized the woman was undoubtedly his mistress, and that she had doubtless made a grave error in making love to her. She squared her shoulders, thrusting her breasts forward proudly, and met his eyes with her own eerie gaze. What was done was done. Besides, she did not think she liked this king and the way he treated his woman. When Neekin knelt before a man, it was not an act of subservience.
The king rose and cleared his throat, speaking so all could hear. "So, one of the surface rats stands before us," he snarled in the human tongue. Neekin wondered just how many of them it was who were so fluent. "The betrayers, the friend-slayers. A hundred years ago, the wingless scum came to my grandfather and begged a home in his land. He was generous, the land bountiful, and said yes. Share my home."
The crowd muttered encouragement, like disciples at a religious festival.
"Then the humans turned on us, slaying us as we slept when we still dwelt in the low-lands, spearing us when we landed to collect water, or gather fruits. King Gorwyl, his black-hearted sorcerer, Ehkiballah, and the daemon, Zontalbriah, drove us from the home we had opened to them." His grey eyes glared at Neekin. "And now they encroach upon the last lands we have, as we knew they would. I say we cast this bitch down upon their main square, with her heart stuffed in her mouth, to show them the Karo have learned the lessons of the wingless ones' mercy."
Guttural cries went up behind her, twisting themselves into a rhythmic chant.
The winged woman leapt up and spoke in the Karo tongue, causing Zack'ntah to turn. Then, for Neekin's benefit, she said, "Lord, she has done nothing. She was bound, as though a prisoner fleeing the very people that are our ene-" She was silenced by a backhand across her face.
"Quiet, wench," hissed the king.
Neekin tensed. The Karo considered her such a small threat that she was not restrained. She could have been on the king, and twisting his neck, in an instant. For the woman's sake, she should have. That would not alleviate her own predicament, however. She knew this summary condemnation had more to do with her making love to the king's mistress than any threat she posed to the community. With him dead, such a personal motive would be dispelled, but then, of course, she would be an assassin. Unless...
"Are you so scared of me, fat man?" Neekin sneered.
The crowd fell instantly silent.
"You dare-?" stammered Zack'ntah.
"Do my words scare you as much as my prowess?"
"I am neither scared of your words, nor you," he growled dangerously.
"Then prove it. Prove to your people, by example, what you will do to the 'surface rats'. I challenge you to face me in equal combat." Neekin waited. She expected him to protest, to beg off. Her hope was that he would be unwilling to lose face before his people. He surprised her.
He laughed. "Very well, slut. A duel it shall be."
His confidence sent a shudder of trepidation up her supple spine.
* * *
Though otherwise still naked, Neekin had been outfitted with one of the belts and armed with the Karo's chief weapon: a spear with a long rope tied to the butt.
The net shifted uneasily beneath her as she traded her weight from one bare foot to the other. The Karo could not know the unease that slithered through her veins. She had once been in a similar situation, as unlikely as it might seem. Then it had been a web and she the potential prey of the giant Colchri spider. She forced such thoughts from her mind as King Zack'ntah hove into sight above her, momentarily eclipsing the midday sun. He was also armed with a spear, his tied to his wrist.
Around them, upon ledges or clinging to the cliffs by their belts, the Karo watched in silence. A wind whistled, cooling the sweat on her naked skin.
Neekin cursed herself as Zack'ntah swooped toward her. It had not occurred to her when she issued the challenge that a Karo duel would, naturally, take place in the sky.
She leapt as he let fly his spear, rolling across the springy vines as he reeled in his wayward shaft. She twisted, misjudging her step, and one foot slipped between the lines. She plunged, stopping only as her crotch hit the net. She cried out in pain and her spear throw went wide.
And then Neekin understood why the rope should be tied to the thrower, as her spear plummeted end over end into the distance below. She struggled to her feet, now unarmed.
Laughing, Zack'ntah swooped at her again. Desperately, Neekin tore off her belt and swung it at him as he shot by. His spear creased her thigh, leaving a streak of glistening red. But he let out a startled snarl as a trio of hooks snagged his round belly, his forward flight wrenching the belt from Neekin's grasp.
Enraged, he arced back toward her.
Neekin dove, slithering through a gap in the net. Her body plunged suddenly but she griped the vines above her head, catching herself.
The surrounding Karo gawked at the mad wingless woman dangling hundreds of feet from the ground. Zack'ntah's face shifted between anger and bewilderment as he swooped in closer, his fat belly streaked with blood, and let fly his spear through the net. Neekin twisted, the spear barely missing her, then she released the net and grabbed the shaft. She dropped, taking the spear with her. And the spear was tied to the king.
Zack'ntah cried out as her sudden weight slammed him down against the coarse net. He struggled there, wings pounding at the air, the sudden drag of her weight momentarily overwhelming him.
Instantly she began climbing up the taut rope. Zack'ntah, his face pressed against the vines, recognized the anger burning in her eyes as she dragged herself toward him. With a squawk, he clawed at the rope, tearing his own blue skin raw as he struggled to free himself. Neekin redoubled her efforts, knowing that now the rope -- and Zack'ntah -- was the only thing keeping her from falling to her death.
With a roar of satisfaction, Zack'ntah wrenched the rope from his hand.
For a moment, it seemed, Neekin was suspended helplessly in the air, about to plunge to her death. Then her hand shot out and she snagged the net above her. Zack'ntah launched himself away just as her other hand clutched for where his throat had been.
A low growl rumbled in her throat as she glared at him through the criss-cross of vines. Zack'ntah hovered high above her and she could see him glance, unsurely, at his audience. He was now unarmed and the net a barrier between him and the woman he was to kill. No doubt, churning through his brain, he sought a logical way to declare the duel void.
One of the Karo said something. Then another and another, their faces grim and unforgiving. Neekin did not recognize the word as it swelled into a chant, but Zack'ntah did, and its humiliating effect made red anger burn beneath his blue skin. His eyes stabbing daggers of hatred at her, he shot out toward the end of the net. There, he dove, turned, and came at her beneath the weave of vines. But his wings alone demanded space to flap, so that on his first tentative pass, he was obliged to fly well below her.
The first pass was all Neekin required.
She dropped as Zack'ntah flew beneath her, striking him like a sack of barley. Instantly her strong, supple legs curled around his torso and an arm snaked around his neck. His wings beat frantically, the feathered muscles wapping against her ribs as he pounded at the air, desperately trying to keep himself airborne despite this unwanted weight. He flipped and dove and swooped, but Neekin clung to him through it all.
"Listen, Karo," she hissed. "I'll kill us both if you don't take me to the ground. Do you hear? Do you?!?" She tightened her arm about his throat, to demonstrate her determination. There was a dull crack, and his entire body spasmed and went limp. Neekin's eyes flared as she realized she had miscalculated once again. Obviously the Karo had hollow bones, like real birds, and that made Zack'ntah more fragile than a normal man.
* * *
The clash of arms rang in the main square of Camotahl. The copper-stink of blood stained the late afternoon air, mixing with the smell of sweat and steel.
"How many are there?" panted Bwroan, slashing open the breast of the man facing him.
The captain-of-the-guard grunted. "That devil-priest Ehkiballah seems to have his fingers in fully a fifth of my troops." He parried with his sword, and drove his knife into his opponent's belly. "I should have sensed their disloyalty. Damnation!"
Bwroan's mind still reeled with the knowledge that his chief advisor was the instigator of this insurgence. It was not only the captain-of-the-guard who had been deceived.
Ehkiballah had been clever. Knowing he commanded the loyalty of only a fraction of the city's soldiers, his agents had barricaded the doors and windows of the barracks, while the lion's portion of the troops still slept. Effectively imprisoning them. Ehkiballah controlled only a fifth of the army, but thanks to his actions, when it came to those actually fighting in the streets, he had the better of the king's defenders by almost two to one.
The king, the captain-of-the-guard, and a half-score of soldiers had been backed into the main square by a press of men, only to find the avenues of retreat cut off by still more of Ehkiballah's followers. Suddenly he espied the ancient sorcerer observing from an alcove, well removed from the conflict.
"Damn you!" he raged, slashing at another man. "You have betrayed me and my forefathers!"
"On the contrary," called Ehkiballah. "I merely seek to return the city to the original plan agreed to by your great-grandfather, before his conscience changed his mind." Seeing the king's confusion, the sorcerer chuckled. "The people were becoming quarrelsome from their months of wandering, and threatened to depose him. With my aid, he consulted an...otherworldly power...who directed us to the land of the Karo -- a naive and trusting people. The daemon Zontalbriah had his price for securing your grandfather's place as leader of your people, and founder of Camotahl. And now it is time that price be paid."
Bwroan staggered under this swirl of information. His great-grandfather in league with a daemon? The evil Karo, victims? His foot caught against a step and he tumbled backward, his sword clattering free of his grasp. The man with whom he had been trading blows grinned, then raised his sword to strike a death blow.
"Nooo!" roared the captain-of-the-guard, now too far away to help.
Suddenly a spear burst gorily through the chest of the would-be king-slayer. He did a half-turn, his jaw sagging, and he pitched over heavily. Beyond him, Bwroan saw the sky was black as like with the gathering of a storm cloud.
"By the gods," he whispered.
The thunder of beating wings drowned out the clang of steel as the Karo horde descended upon the scene. Dropping from out of the sea of blue bodies, Neekin landed upon the shoulders of one of the traitors, her thighs clamping about his neck. As the man tumbled, she twisted her hips savagely, snapping his neck. Then she was on her feet, the dead man's sword in her hand. She raced to the king's side, dressed in a tiny G-string and an x-shaped harness across her breasts, both items fashioned from strips cut from the Karo belts.
"I thought you were dead, girl," said the king, gaining his feet.
Neekin shuddered, still feeling the wind barrelling past her as she fell, and the welcome sensation of strong blue hands closing about her arms and ankles, halting her plunge. She jumped and kicked, sending a man somersaulting. "Address me properly," she laughed, "for you're speaking to the Queen of the Karo now."
"It's a long story," she said, ducking beneath a clumsy swing, ramming her shoulder under her opponent's ribs, and thrusting her sword through his side. He screamed, and she twisted and pulled, silencing him.
The tide had turned with the arrival of the Karo. Ehkiballah's rebel army was now routed, fleeing for the narrow avenues where they hoped the vengeful winged men would be unable to follow. Neekin spied Ehkiballah darting for one such alley. She bounded across the square like a cat in pursuit of prey, and knocked him to the blood-drenched flagstones. Her sword glinted against his narrow throat.
"My lord," screamed the sorcerer. "Aid me! Aid your servant!"
Neekin scowled and looked about. Every fibre of her being ached with exhaustion from the last day and night. If the sorcerer had more tricks up his sleeve...
Then Ehkiballah's eyes widened. "No, milord! No! I did what I could! I served you-!" He threw back his head and let out a blood curdling shriek. For a moment it seemed to Neekin as though the shadow of a taloned hand materialized before her eyes, plunging into the old man's chest. She blinked, and instantly the illusion was gone, as if a trick of the dust raised by the battle.
Ehkiballah slumped over. She put her ear to his chest: his heart continued to beat, his lungs to draw breath. Yet when she pried open his eyes, there was no light behind them.
She left him where he lay and rose wearily to her feet.
* * *
Neekin sat on a window sill, gazing upon the banquet hall. Humans and Karo laughed and broke bread together. A century of mistrust could not be set aside in a night, she knew, but all concerned seemed willing to set out on the first league together.
She grinned ruefully and bit into a chunk of bread.
King Bwroan and Sh'kara stood to one side. The city folk were not unimpressed with the firm bodies of the Karo, so brazenly unadorned. Bwroan seemed no exception. He had one arm around Sh'kara and gently patted her round bottom. The winged woman smiled at him slyly.
Neekin leaned back and blew a lock of hair from her eyes. She had lost not one lover this night, but two. Still, she mused, it was just as well. She had no intention of remaining Queen of the Karo -- an unlikely position for a woman who could not fly. Though Karo tradition dictated the bester of a ruler becomes a ruler, she doubted her "people" would be sorry to see her go. And with her gone, Sh'kara made as good a replacement as any.
And a marriage between rulers often soothed national rivalries.
She turned her gaze outward, to where the setting sun broiled low over the mountains, capping the peaks with purple spearheads. For herself, she already grew restless to see new lands...
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