A 5-chapter Sword and Sultry Saga!
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THE SUN BREACHED THE LANDLESS CREST of the Eastern horizon and a golden sheen washed warmly over the beach, making dew-beads twinkle upon the green fronds of the nearby jungle. Blue brine, also glittering under the sun's watchful gaze, surged in lazy strides up onto the shore, then receded again. Seagulls squawked and swooped in the air, searching out crabs and dead fish cast up from the ocean's depths.
A woman lay sprawled upon the beach, the tide rolling gently over her calves, then withdrawing, then rolling up again. She lay upon her belly, arms spread limply about her tangled fan of sandy-coloured hair. She was utterly naked, and fading red welts crisscrossed her back and buttocks. The remnants of ropes curled like seaweed about her wrists.
With a snort and a twitch, she awoke.
Dragging herself unsteadily up upon all fours, Neekin blinked groggily and stared about in the early morning light. She shook her head, almost like a beast, and after a moment more, reared up on her knees. She swept her bangs from in front of her face with a hand, better revealing her weird eyes, one of pale blue, the other a smouldering emerald.
She was a striking beautiful woman...and in the foulest of moods.
She looked at the ropes hanging limply about her wrists. With a curse she wrenched them off as memories reinstated themselves in her mind. Her momentary befuddlement at waking on this unknown shore dissipating as readily as a morning fog burned away by the sun.
She had been on a ship with a company of swords-for-hire being transported to fulfill a commission on an island nation. The captain of the vessel was a great bear of a man -- with a devil in his heart. She did not know why he had ordered a young seaman, a youth barely sixteen, flogged, but the severity of the punishment had so incensed her that she had interceded, knocking the captain to the boards and tearing the whip from his thick fingers. His men had then fallen on her and she was thrown in the brig. For the rest of the morning she could hear the boy's screams up on deck as he was literally beaten to death. At noon his body was thrown overboard.
Then it was her turn.
She was stripped and bound spread-eagle between two poles on the forward deck, then whipped in front of the crew. At first it struck her strange that her punishment was not as severe as the boy's had been -- painful, yes, till tears streamed down her cheeks -- but it was a lighter whip that was used and unlikely to leave permanent scars.
Then the captain had explained, with a grin, that the slavers of Khaltesh would pay well for a beautiful woman...so long as she remained beautiful. He punctuated his comment with a hearty laugh and a resounding slap to her firm bottom.
Neekin had then been left to hang there all night, even as the storm hit and waves charged up over the heaving deck. It was an act of cruelty which, ironically, may have saved her life. The aging ship struck something 'round midnight, a reef no doubt, and broke apart like rotted fruit. The poles snapped loose and Neekin hit the foaming brine. As the swirling current whisked her away, she could hear over the roar of waves and wind the screams of drowning men. Those sleeping below decks had doubtless perished quickly...
She now rose unsteadily to her feet, every muscle aching, and inhaled deeply of the sweet-smelling air. Her only regret was that she had not been able to kill the captain herself. Then she frowned as the rising sun traced its golden fingers over shapes a good half-mile down the beach. She set off at a trot.
Shortly she came upon some scattered wreckage of the ship, and two bodies. The man was obviously dead, his left leg chewed away by a shark. The other body lay on its face. Neekin recognized her as one of the few women who had been on board. She rolled her over onto her back to check for life, then recoiled as a centipede slithered out of the dead woman's open mouth.
Obviously, Neekin realized after a moment, she had not been the only one from the doomed vessel to be washed onto this lonely beach. There might even be survivors.
Then her eyes flared as she saw her own hunting knife sheathed in the sash at the woman's waist. Neekin glared bitterly at the corpse for a moment, then pulled the knife free. Farther up the beach she found the tattered remains of a mast. From this she cut a square of cloth and tore a hole in its center, to use as a poncho when it had sufficiently dried.
Throwing the damp cloth over one shoulder, she tied the knife to a rope she found and looped it about her neck so that it dangled between her breasts. Then Neekin started inland.
* * *
Mid-morning found her overlooking a small valley that sprawled breathless in its stillness. Her makeshift poncho, just barely concealing the essentials when hanging limply, flapped and danced in the breeze. Neekin did not notice, nor would she have cared if she had. Something else commanded her attention.
A small town lay below. The buildings were of clay, baked to a pale and brittle beige from the years sitting beneath the tropical sun. She saw no sign of inhabitants. There must be, she knew. Encircling the city were dense, but conspicuously even, gardens; gardens without a sign of weeds or rot. At the far end of the valley she could see well-tended orchards. There was definitely a living, human hand at work.
The tops of apple trees rose up just beneath her feet, achingly out of reach by only a few hands' widths. Neekin had breakfasted on edible roots she had come across, but the sweet smelling fragrances wafting up to her made her belly rumble anew.
She turned, intending to find a way down into the valley, and came face to face with two men she recognized from the ship.
"Neekin," said the first of them, a pale-skinned northerner like herself, his crooked teeth bared in a ragged grin. The other was a ebon-skinned southerner. "I hadn't thought you'd survived. If Captain Strev'n had known that-"
Neekin's pupils flared. "Strev'n is alive, Festann?"
"Aye. He and a few others went off to see if there were any other survivors."
"So he'll be back?"
"Good." Neekin lightly touched the knife hanging from her neck. "We have business to settle, he and I."
Festann scowled. "Mind your place, wench. Your insubordination saw you at the end of a lash once. Don't test the captain's patience -- or ours -- further." He licked his lips as a gust oof wind momentarily lifted her poncho alluringly. "Discipline-"
"Discipline is the watchword of those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions," she countered. "Strev'n was wrong to kill that boy, and he was wrong to have me whipped. And if you're too much the cowards to acknowledge that, so be it. Besides, whatever authority Strev'n had ended the moment we set foot on dry land."
He shook his head. "Strev'n is our captain." He hefted his sword and grinned wider. "Perhaps you need to be punished again. But no whips this time. I have another 'tool' in mind." He took a menacing step forward.
Neekin fell back, her blade flashing to hand. Festann launched himself at her eagerly, taking her action as a prelude to flight -- which is what she intended him to infer. As he came at her, a big, broad-shouldered slayer-of-men, she did not run, or turn, or even stand her ground. She leaped to meet him instead. She came in low under his arms, her knife hand darting up like a deadly serpent. Festann fell to his knees, eyes wide with shock, sword falling from limp fingers as blood flooded over his chest from his severed throat. He was dead before he hit the blood-soaked grass.
She was not as big as most men, nor as strong, but she was quick and nimble; that was often enough.
Neekin eyed his companion who stared at the dead man, mouth agape. "My feud is with Strev'n, not you. Maybe you think you owe him something, or maybe, like Festann, you think I'd be more fun without a blade." She shrugged. "You saw what I did to Festann," she said, feigning a confidence she did not entirely feel; he was bigger even than Festann. "Be smart."
He stared at her mutely, then slowly unsheathed his heavy broadsword.
Her upper lip curled in a feral snarl. "Your choice."
She shot at him so unexpectedly that he started, bringing up his sword clumsily to meet her head on. Instead, she easily side-stepped and kicked out, hard, catching him in the stomach, making even his rock-hard stomach muscles buckle. He gagged and swung his sword blindly in her direction. She leaped over the steel effortlessly. She hit the ground, rolled, and sprang to her feet, whirling to face him in a ready crouch. The sultry breeze teased her hair, oblivious to the life-and-death confrontation. Her ill-matched eyes gleamed with a deadly fury.
He charged her, bellowing like a buffalo. She ducked to one side, but he anticipated the action this time and clove down with his blade. She was quick enough that only the flat of the weapon struck her across her head. It was enough. Ears ringing, she hit the grassy carpet, rolling instinctively with the momentum so as to put distance between her and him. Neekin knew her strongest technique was always a darting, hit-and-run method, rather than a test of brute strength which she would surely lose.
He was faster than he looked, though, and was upon her in an instant. She kicked out, catching him just above the knee with her heel. He grunted as he toppled. She pounced on him, hoping to end it quick as her knife darted again and again for his throat. His arms flailed about him, sword discarded, as he deflected her blows with a panicked, solely defensive air. She nicked his shoulders twice before he managed, more by accident than design, to land an open-handed blow across her face. She fell back upon the grass and immediately started to scramble away, seeking once more to avoid close quarters.
He had other ideas.
She grunted as his greater weight fell upon her from behind, smashing her to the dirt and sending her knife flying. Powerful arms coiled about her just below her breasts. He lurched to his feet, crushing her in a bear hug, her legs flailing, unable to touch the ground. Black spots exploded before her eyes as she bucked and writhed, attempting to dislodge him, wheezing as the air was driven from her lungs. Frantically, she reached back and grabbed his head between her hands and dug her thumbs into his eye sockets. He snarled, staggering about, trampling the grass beneath his sandaled feet as they were locked in a test of seeing which would hold out longer: her ribs or his eyes. Suddenly he released her, deciding victory at the expense of his vision was no triumph. She collapsed on the sward, gasping, as he backed away, rubbing at his eyes and muttering curses.
Neekin glanced over in time to see his left foot step blindly back over the precipice. With a startled scream, he fell back, arms pinwheeling.
She sprinted to the edge.
He lay tangled amidsts the branches of the apple tree, his head angled awkwardly to his body.
She dragged her fingers through her hair, then retrieved her knife, wiping it clean on the leaves of a bush. Then she looked around, eyes narrowed. Festann had said Captain Strev'n was about, with others. Yet no one had come in response to the sounds of conflict.
Why? Where had they gone? she wondered.
She scowled and peered again upon the silent buildings. For some unknown reason a nervous shiver raced up her spine.Then, steeling herself, she set off again to find a way into the valley...
On to Episode 2....A Debt Paid in Full
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