The Ronin, Fukitso, returns in...
by Jeffrey Blair Latta
Upon her legs she wore tight, calf-length breeches. Her delicate feet were bare and scratched from too much travel. And upon her lithe torso she wore a loose, sleeveless tunic, now torn wide to the small of her back exposing the tender and glistening flesh beneath -- flesh streaked a diffused scarlet from thhe continuous caress of the lash.
This latter was a long, narrow strip of raw kawanai -- the tough and abrasive skin of the fungal trees so plentiful beyond the Zamba river. It hung from the thick hand of her torturer, swaying ever so gently like some hideous creature eager for its next taste of youthful flesh.
The dim and dusty hut was firmly crowded by the coarse and brawny Gake raiders. These were the men of the cliffs. Castaways from the flatlands to the south and the river valley to the north, they skulked amid the crevices and defiles which lined the rim of the plateau, venturing forth only to raid the vast riches of the cities below or the farms above. But, more often, they remained home, engaged in brutal and usually bloody sport. Thus did they now.
Thrice more the torturer swung his arm with all the power in his thews. The lash cracked like lightning across the girl's unprotected ribs, and she swayed and shuddered with each biting blow. With a final explosive snap, the lash struck edge-wise, tearing deep into her flesh and causing drops of dark crimson to roll gently down her spine.
A tall and crafty-eyed raider held up a palm and the torturer reluctantly lowered his tool. The raider was Hidoi, the fierce leader of this particular Gake band, and none dared question his right to halt the proceedings -- no matter how exciting.
Leisurely he strode to the side of the beaten girl, who now knelt weeping and trembling as if a victim of the Sickness. Gently he laid a calloused hand upon her quaking shoulder, then caressingly moved it up her neck until the fingers lay entwined in her short, black locks. With a savage wrench, he tore back her head until she stared at the thatch ceiling with tear-streaked eyes. She screamed with the pain.
"Where is the diamond?" shouted the raider. "What have you done with it?"
The girl did not respond and Hidoi gave a low, mirthless chuckle.
"You will tell me eventually," he promised. "But, by then, you will not be so lovely to gaze upon. Tell me where you have hidden the diamond, and a quick knife-thrust will be your reward. Delay longer, and the punishment will continue. And I promise, it will continue for a very long time."
An expectant hush settled over the horde, unbroken save for the pitiful sobs of the girl. Finally, with a bellowed curse, Hidoi flung her forward and, stooping, plunged his hand into a small straw basket at his feet from which he withdrew a fistful of fine, white salt. This he callously put to her naked back, fiercely grinding it into the wounds. With an anguished cry, she frenziedly chaffed her wrists in her bonds and twisted and writhed as if to dislodge some many-clawed creature from her tortured flesh.
"Continue," ordered Hidoi. And the grinning tormentor once more swung back his arm...
But he was destined never to complete the motion. He felt thick fingers grip his wrist with a grasp like a naga-gur and, swiftly turning, he looked up into the face of a dark giant whose nearly all-white eyes gazed uncannily beyond their aim. For an instant the scene held. Then, the torturer screamed as the dry crack of crushing bone rose from the unbreakable grasp.
"I am Fukitso," growled the giant, in a tone like the voice of a samadhi. "The Unpredictable."
Without pause, still firmly grasping the mangled limb, he brought the massive ball of his fist into the belly of the torturer and raised the wildly flailing figure above his head. Then, with a volcanic heave, he flung him full into the startled faces of the raiders. For a moment, all was pandemonium as the ruffians sprawled in a thrashing, cursing heap. Then the rallying cry of their leader brought them swiftly to their feet.
"He is only one man!" bellowed Hidoi, tearing his obsidian ax from his belt. "Cut him down where he stands!"
And, as one, like a herd of hungry barapur, the raiders advanced. But Fukitso was quicker still. Ginago flashed like a white flame in the dry and dusty air, then sliced downward, cutting asunder one of the girl's constricting bonds. From his belt, the giant Ronin drew forth a long-bladed sword which he tossed to the earth at her knees.
"I found your toy outside," he explained. "Can you use it?"
Her reply lay in action not words. In a single blinding motion, she took up the blade, severed her remaining bond, and leaped nimbly to her feet at his side. All pretence of frailty was vanished, torn away like some parchment mask, and now she stood revealed in her true form -- fiercely beautiful yet impossibly deadly.. And in her daggered eyes burned a passion all too closely akin to lust.
Fukitso laughed grimly at the transformation.
"You almost had me fooled."
"Why art thou here?" she asked, taking momentary advantage of the uncertainty of the raiders. She spoke in the proper, often unwieldy Ioni dialect of the east coast.
"I promised I would come for you," replied Fukitso, simply.
"As didst I swear to slay thee shouldst thou try."
There was no jest in her tone.
"Hai," he grinned. "But we can discuss that if we get out of this."
"If!" she cried, in disgust. "Ronin, thou doth forget with whom thou art allied! I am Nandalia, Hanbun of the Aka-Zaki!"
At one time the Aka-Zaki had been a famed and feared warrior elite, trained in the use of every weapon known to man. But then the Utopii far to the south (whose skin, it was said, was as white as the ash which forever cloaked their fields) had declared them outlaws and hunted them to their doom; that being at a time when the Utopii took an interest in the affairs of the "Feri Barbari". Nandalia, being the only female, had escaped the purge and was now the sole survivor of that invincible following. Now, as ever, she did credit to her heritage.
The raiders, thinking the girl to be the easiest foe, centre their numbers upon her. But with the swift, flashing strokes of her sword, she soon taught them the error of their choice.
The quick but defensive fighting form of the Aka-Zaki was well suited to the use of the weapon, whose weak, bronze blade, angled a palm's width above the wrist guard, could not long stand direct blows from an antagonist. Thus the Aka-Zaki used it mainly as a "funnel", redirecting the black obsidian ax-heads and turning their very weight to the enemy's disadvantage. It was thus that the Aka-Zaki ever fought, as a target to be seen but never touched. Small wonder that it was whispered in the kurabu that to fight an Aka-Zaki was to fight the wind.
And when at last the foe stumbled from his vain exertions, then was the time to strike. And strike Nandalia did. Often. Until the floor at her feet lay drenched in crimson and cluttered with limbs. Again and again she leaped fiercely into the howling mob sending another fool to his death. And ever she returned to the fleet, untouchable defensive.
But, once, she returned too slowly, and an obsidian edge tore the sword from her grasp, burning her fingers by its nearness. There was no hesitation, no uncertainty. In a motion too swift to follow, she pivoted full on her heel and lashed out with the other foot in a blinding, lethal arc which caught her assailant across the jaw and spun him completely about. Then, in the same fluid blur, she launched her knuckles into the base of his neck, and he fell with a broken spine -- dead before her sword even reached the flloor.
As the astonished raiders momentarily fell back, Nandalia caught up the ax of her fallen foe and the battle resumed.
For his part, Fukitso fared no worse against his opponents. But, in tactics, he was the opposite of his lithe, young ally. Where she twisted and parried with an almost beautiful delicacy, he was a raging whirlwind. She was untouchable, he unstoppable. Again and again Ginago, the Silver Jaw, roared, biting through meat, bone, and ax-haft alike. He battled without skill nor thought. Only his fierce, savage instinct served to aid him in his bloody task.
But serve him it did as, in short time, he stood like the very incarnation of Iemekai, God of Chaos, his sandalled feet slipping and sliding on the scarlet gore-strewn floor, his kimono torn and stained with red -- not all of which was that of his enemies. Yet, in the fury of combat, he had eyes only for his roaring, hacking katana. All pain, all fatigue was forgotten in the red mists which clouded his sight and the terrible exhilaration which coursed like lava in his veins. Even the knowledge that they were impossibly outnumbered did not serve to damp his raging inner fire fed by the bloody ecstasy of battle.
But, then, as if from some great distance, he heard his companion shout, "The window!", and, even before his brain had deciphered the message of his senses, Ginago roared in a fantastic arc, rending the reed bars of the window like dry grass. He saw Nandalia turn and leap nimbly through the ragged aperture and, with a terrific sweep of his dripping katana to clear a brief space, he plunged after.
The giant landed hard upon his already battered ribs, but rolled, regaining his feet while still gripping Ginago. Nandalia had quickly reached the opposite end of the compound where stood tethered the two sturdy karmah which Fukitso had purchased with which to escape. None barred the path of the crimson colossus as he sped to the mounts, leaped heavily upon the nearest, and pulled hard on the reins, even as the howling horde poured from the door of the hut.
Together the two mounted warriors thundered down the path headed north for Kari-Zak...
Previous episode: A Desperate Lie
Next episode: Nandalia's Dance
Fukitso and the Golden Egg is copyright Jeffrey Blair Latta. It is
reprinted here with the author's permission.