Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty five

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The men continued speaking but Lilavati lost the train of the conversation as she once again slid into the half dreaming state she seemed to exist in. Twisted dreams and odd visions held her captive as she struggled to maintain her sanity.

She was barely aware when someone pressed food and water to her lips. She ate and drank what she was given and then lapsed back into the encroaching madness. Manas’ voice couldn’t even break her free from them. The only time she seemed to be closest to reality was when Manas went through his transformation. The invocation of his curse drew her out of her stupor enough that she was able to interact with him. Beyond that, she existed only in the timeless world of her nightmares.

Physical pain shattered that dreamworld, though only for a moment, before her mind dragged her back into hell. She screamed silently as she fought the chaos. The visions grew darker and more violent. Brutal deaths, stone crumbling, the world burning. All of these played out before her unwilling eyes.

Soft light drove away the nightmares. Gentle fingers brushed something wet from her cheeks. She realized they were tears. “Her eyes are open, Dieter,” an unfamiliar feminine voice said.

“That’s a good sign.” The soft spoken scribe moved into her line of sight. “Great Lady, I need you to try to move. Nothing much. Just try to turn your head towards me.”

Lilavati was exhausted. The visions had given her no surcease as she drifted in and out of semi consciousness. But she dredged up the energy she needed and strained her neck. Her head slowly moved. It took most of what she had left, but she was able to looked at Dieter.

Dieter smiled. “That is a very good sign, Great Lady,” he said. “Bianka, get some pillows under the Great Lady’s head and shoulders and wipe the sweat off her face. After the past several days that had to be hard.”

“All right, Dieter,” the young woman sitting next to Lilavati said. A pale face covered with a mask of freckles and topped with a mop of curly red hair moved into her peripheral vision. She lifted Lilavati up with one arm while the other pushed soft cushions and pillows behind her. A cloth soaked in warm water scented with herbs wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Be easy, Great Lady. You should be fine now.”

Lilavati opened her mouth. “Thank you,” she whispered, the only sound she could make.

Bianka smiled. “You’re welcome, Great Lady.” She looked over her shoulder. “Dieter, should we let the Great Lord in to see her now?”

“No. We need to let her recover a little more before we do that. You know how agitated he’s been,” Dieter said. “He could do her more harm than good.”

Bianka nodded. “Great Lady, the Great Lord has been – difficult – to deal with since your injury. The only one who’s been able to keep him under control is Ludger. We hope that, with your recovery, you can soothe him and return him to his normal self.”

Lilavati could only blink. It seemed the tiikeri was taking control more and more of her beloved. That wasn’t a good sign. “Great Lady, don’t let what Bianka said worry you,” Dieter said. “Ludger’s doing a good job of keeping him from doing anything rash. There are many who are impatient to be on the move, but we told Ludger and the Great Lord that moving you would most likely kill you so we’ve been in the same campsite for the past three weeks.”

Lilavati gasped. “Great Lady, this is the longest spring we have ever seen. It should be well into summer now, which is why the older members of the Great Lord’s retinue were worried. But either we will never enter summer and go straight into autumn from spring, or this is a year where we will see a longer spring and summer and a shorter autumn,” Bianka said.

“It means a much harsher winter if it happens that way,” Dieter said grimly. “I’ve seen three years like this, and read about several more. We still need to be home by the time autumn hits, but I think we have the time.”

Lilavati felt her eyes grow heavy. Panic set in and she whimpered. “Great Lady, you need to sleep,” Bianka said. “Don’t worry. The drink I’m about to give you should help keep you from having nightmares. Your dreams may not be completely pleasant but you won’t be trapped in them either. If they trouble you too much you’ll be able to wake yourself up.”

“Someone will be with you throughout the night, Great Lady,” Dieter said. “Bianka will stay with your for now. Valeska will take her place in a few hours. Romy will take the shift after that. If you manage to sleep through the night, you’ll find Odilie with you in the morning.”

“I don’t think she knows any of us, Dieter,” Bianka said.

“I have no doubt she doesn’t,” Dieter said. “We’re the lowest of the low when it comes to the servants. That’s why we’re able to do this.”

“Yes, but if we succeed, the Great Lord has promised us a great reward,” Bianka said.

Dieter’s smile was bitter. “Do you think, in his present state, he’ll remember?”

Bianka drooped. Lilavati coughed. “I remember,” she whispered, forcing the words out even though she was exhausted and her throat hurt.

Dieter looked at her. “Do you really think you’ll remember, Great Lady?” It took the majority of her remaining energy but she managed to nod. “You said your memory, in spite of pain and chaos, was good. I’ll trust to that, Great Lady. Please don’t let him forget us.”

Bianka pressed a cup to Lilavati’s lips. “Great Lady, you need to drink this,” she said. “It’ll help you restore your strength.” Lilavati swallowed as much as she could of the sweet liquid. As she drifted off to sleep, the tiikeri inside of her stretched and purred.

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty four

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Lilavati drifted back into a kind of odd sleep, still hearing her child name but also seeing vivid visions in her mind. Nothing of the strange images remained in her mind except for one – a great white tiikeri, watching her, at times walking with her.

She was drawn out of those strange dreams by the screams and roar of Manas’ transformation. She still couldn’t open her eyes or speak. But she did manage a soft whimper. She felt the massive beast curl up around her.

In the morning she was once again in Manas’ arms. She felt her body growing lighter little by little. She forced her eyes open and tried to turn her head. She managed a small motion, enough to get his attention. “My katali,” he whispered, looking into her eyes. Relief suffused his features. “You are still with me.”

“I told you she was,” Ludger said. Lilavati couldn’t see him but she heard his limping gate and the thunk of a staff on the ground. “I’m not entirely sure what magic was used on that blade. I’m wagering it was given to him by that damnable dark magician that served your parents. It wasn’t a traditional lightning spell. I’m not sure how long it’ll take for her to recover.”

“I know she hates being laid in a cart, but we don’t have much of a choice,” Manas said, brushing his fingers against her cheek. “As soon as you can ride again we have to be on our way. I want to be through the pass before the snows start.”

“I know,” Ludger said. He still wasn’t within Lilavati’s line of sight. She tried to move her head, or to sit up, and still couldn’t. “Do you think I want to try to take this caravan through the avalanche zone? I know how to get through without dropping half the mountain on us, but they don’t. Even if they did it would be an impossibility with as many people and horses as we have.”

“Do you still insist we have to go through the Halls of the Damned?” Manas asked, his voice cracking.

“I do,” Ludger said. “It’s that or the Black Waste, Great Lord. And I truly feel that you need to pass through the Halls.”

“If she isn’t able to move by the time we reach them how is she going to be able to protect herself from the damned souls?” Manas asked.

“I won’t let you take her through if she isn’t ready,” Ludger said. “I’m not an idiot, Great Lord. I won’t leave her defenseless.” He finally moved into a position where Lilavati could see him. “I can see your unhappiness, Great Lady. It’s very plain in your eyes.”

Manas pulled her up against him, helping her into a sitting position. “How can we know what she needs?” he asked.

“You should already know, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “Can you not hear her?”

Lilavati felt Manas’ chin move across the top of her forehead. “How can I when she isn’t able to talk?” he asked.

“She can’t use her physical voice, but there’s nothing wrong with her mind, Great Lord,” Ludger said. He limped over and eased himself down onto the ground. “The two of you are bound, Great Lord, by something I don’t understand. I think Theda saw the same thing I do and feared it, which is why she pushed the assassination attempts so hard.”

“What of the one that happened prior to me retrieving Lilavati from her father’s house?” Manas asked.

“I don’t know anything about that one,” Ludger said. “At least, I don’t remember if she told me about it before.”

Manas explained what Lilavati had told him. Lilavati listened, a prisoner in her own body. Her frustration and fear grew as she struggled to speak, to move, to do something. “That can’t have been arranged by the preester, could it?” Manas asked.

“Easily,” Ludger said. “Theda knew where we were, and when you told us who you’d chosen and her father’s name, it wouldn’t have taken much to locate his house. Gold is gold, Great Lord. All she’d have had to do is pay someone – perhaps one of those corrupt priests from the Great Lady’s lands – and an assassin would have been sent.”

Manas growled under his breath. “May the Twelve condemn her to an eternity of pain for what she’s done,” he said.

“If she’s in the Halls of the Damned, they have,” Ludger said.

“My katali will never survive that accursed place,” Manas said, repeating himself.

“I know this, Great Lord,” Ludger said, his irritation showing in his voice. “If I could heal her I would, but I have neither the energy nor the knowledge. I don’t know what curse was in that blade, and when he turned it on himself, you saw what happened.”

“It was that or face me,” Manas said. “I think he knew what would happen if it came to that.”

Ludger nodded. “You’re very dangerous when you’re angry, Great Lord. Sometimes too much so. You need your lady to balance you, as she needs you to balance her.” He drove his fist into the floor of the tent in frustration. “There has to be a way to do something for her.” He sighed. “I’ll be back to full power in a few days. I’ll see what that precocious scribe of yours and I can come up with.”

“Dieter? What does he have to do with this?” Manas asked.

“He’s as infatuated by the Great Lady as are many of the younger set of servants,” Ludger said. He managed a small smile. “Don’t think all of those who serve you are against her, or your being wed to her. They’re outnumbered, but they’re very vocal.”

Manas snorted. “Dieter isn’t that vocal.”

“No, but those he spends time with are,” Ludger said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty three

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Jorg swept his sword around in an arc, aiming for her head. Lilavati tried to duck, to parry, but neither were entirely successful. The sword was hit with tremendous force, sending impact tremors down her arm. She received another slash wound, this time to her temple.

Jorg laughed. “You won’t be able to beat me, Southern slut,” he said, dropping her title completely. “I’m going to kill you slowly, cutting you apart piece by piece. Perhaps I’ll give the Great Lord a piece of your hand, a finger maybe, to hold as I behead him.”

“You will do no such thing,” Lilavati said, swinging the sword wildly.

Jorg easily blocked her clumsy strike and moved in as swift as lightning. If not for the grace of her internal feline, she’d have been skewered right through the left shoulder. As it was, the lightning sword crackled through right shoulder again. She ignored the pain, numbed by the already damaged nerves, and tried to shove the blade into his back. He moved away before she could get very far with that.

He toyed with her for several minutes. Lilavati knew she was in trouble when her vision blurred and she couldn’t tell where he was. “Are you having trouble, Southern slut?” Jorg asked. “You’ve lost a lot of blood. The ground is positively soaked. You’re actually walking in mud made from your scarlet life force draining from your body.”

Lilavati’s grip on the sword was slipping. “I do not care if I die here,” she said in that low, husky voice that sounded almost like a growl to her ears. “I will protect my beloved and Ludger from a creature of unspeakable horror, like yourself.”

Jorg slapped his blade into hers again. This time it fell from her hand. When she went to grab it, he kicked her in the stomach. She collapsed and was unable to rise again. “As I thought,” Jorg said. “The Southern slut is too weak to be anything but a corpse.” The last thing she saw was Manas opening his amber eyes. She met them one last time as the sword descended towards her chest. Pain seared through her and everything went black.

It was dark and silent. She heard nothing, felt nothing, smelled nothing, tasted nothing, saw nothing. She shuddered. This place was a far worse hell than her life had been. She tried moving, to see if something would happen. The sensation of being suspended in nothingness remained. She closed her eyes as if to blot out the darkness she was surrounded by even as she descended even darker into it.

“Ishani.”

It was so faint that at first she didn’t believe she’d heard it. But when it grew progressively louder she attempted to orient her body on the sound, looking for the source of her childhood name.

A tiny speck of light glimmered in the distance. She wanted to go to it, to reach out for it and touch it, but she couldn’t figure out how to make her body move. She glanced down at her bloody, torn clothing, and looked up again.

The light was right in front of her. “Ishani,” it whispered again. Lilavati reached out and cupped her hands around the white orb.

It was warm. She drew it close and hugged it to her chest. She didn’t know why, but she felt that’s what it wanted. It continued whispering her child name and each time it did she felt comforted.

As she floated there, feeling at peace for the first time in a very long time, hands seized her and began pulling her away. She almost lost grip on the light. She grabbed it again, pulling it up to her chest. She felt the warmth enter her body, soothing the tiikeri and filling her, making her feel whole again.

“Ishani.”

One final whisper of her name and it was silent once more.

“By the Twelve, katali, open your eyes,” Manas pleaded with her as someone held her.

Lilavati tried to, but they were too heavy. She tried to speak but found her chest was too constricted to speak the words. “Great Lord, the late captain’s sword shot her full of lightning. She may not be able to respond to you as of yet,” an unfamiliar voice said. It took her a moment to remember the name that went with it – Dieter. This was Dieter, the quiet young scribe.

“She is awake and aware though.” Ludger’s voice was weak but harsh. His breathing rattled in his chest. “Great Lord, we can’t leave this camp for a few days. She needs time to heal and I have to rest. Strapping her into the saddle will just cause even more damage to her, and if you want magical protections you’re going to need me in top shape. Right now, casting a light spell will knock me out.”

“I don’t have any argument with that,” Manas said, his voice shaking. Lilavati felt something wet and warm fall on her face. “I should have listened to her, Ludger. I should have done something about Jorg before this.”

“Do you forgive her for pointing out a flaw in your character, Great Lord?” Ludger asked.

“No, I’m not ready to do that yet,” Manas said. “Perhaps one day.”

“Make it soon. She needs you as much as you need her. Having this hanging over the both of you won’t do either of you any good,” Ludger said.

“I’ll consider your advice, Ludger,” Manas said. Lilavati heard grunts and limping footsteps as servants helped Ludger back to his tent. “Please katali, open your eyes so I know you and I can have that talk.” He kissed her forehead and held her closer, and she heard him muttering prayers to the Twelve.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty two

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It was as the servant had said. Manas was on the ground outside the tent. Jorg was standing over him, a slight smirk on his face. “I told him the Southern slut wasn’t to be trusted. She’s cast a spell on him, or poisoned him, or something. Look how pale he is,” he said loudly.

“And how do you suggest she did that, considering she hasn’t been near the tent since it was moved?” Ludger asked. “Everything was cleared out of it.”

“They fought after I left,” Jorg said. “Several people saw it.”

“They argued,” Ludger said. “With words. No blows were struck, and the Great Lady walked away before she spoke out of turn with him.”

“Where did she go then?” Jorg asked.

“She was with me, explaining the fight and asking me about what to do to make peace with the Great Lord,” Ludger said. He gestured at the servant. “He saw her sitting there, and heard me tell her to follow us.”

“Is this true?” Jorg asked, staring hard at the servant.

The young man swallowed, but when Lilavati nodded, he took a few deep breaths. “Yes Captain Weiss, it is. The Great Lady was with Ludger when I went to get him.”

“Why did you go to him first?” Jorg asked.

“We didn’t,” another servant said. “We went to the preester. She’s not a healer. We had to go to Ludger since he’s the only one trained.”

“Now, if you’re quite finished in trying to make sure the Great Lord dies, Jorg,” Ludger said, grinning when the captain flushed and sputtered at the use of his given name. “Get out of our way.”

Jorg stepped back. Ludger and Lilavati knelt next to him. Lilavati touched one hand. “He is so cold, Ludger,” she said in a quiet voice.

“I know. Help me turn him over,” Ludger said. He whispered something that she didn’t understand. “There, now we can talk. They’ll just hear me prattle at you about how to check for a pulse, count respirations, and other inane healing lessons as we work.” He steadied himself on the ground. “I’m too weak to do much, Great Lady, so listen well. We’re going to roll him over and we’re going to look. I’m willing to bet we’re going to find signs of poison. You’re going to have to do all the work, though I’ll try to make it look like I’m the one doing it.”

Lilavati nodded. The two of them rolled Manas over. Ludger checked him over, showing Lilavati how to search as well. “Ludger, I see no signs such as you speak of,” she said.

Ludger frowned. “Neither do I, and that bothers me.”

The tiikeri inside her snarled. She looked up in time to see Jorg’s sword heading for Ludger’s unprotected neck. She lunged forward, shoving him out of the way. He fell back, narrowly missing being beheaded.

Jorg’s sword bit into Lilavati’s flesh. She screamed as an electrical shock tore through her body. She could smell burning flesh and knew it was her own. The right side of her face and her right arm went numb. She fell to the ground on her left side.

Jorg laughed. “Looks like the Southern whore isn’t immune to my sword’s magic after all,” he sneered.

Lilavati wanted to stay on the ground. She was dizzy and could feel the thin trickle of blood running down her face. Ludger was being helped up by a couple servants. His face was twisted in rage. Lilavati could tell he didn’t have enough power to cast a spell. It was possible Jorg knew it too. The three of them – her, Manas, and Ludger – were at Jorg’s mercy.

Lilavati felt the great feline in her rebel against that idea, snarling and growling as it paced around the cage of her injured body. Using her left hand she pushed herself up. She got to her feet.

Ignoring the gasps and the horrified stares, she faced Jorg. “I am not as weak as you may think, false advisor,” she said. Her words were slurred because of the numbness but everyone around them heard and understood her. “You who served his mother and father before him, were you among those who told them to trust the dark magician that destroyed my beloved’s life? The one that twisted his parents into perversions of nature that murdered innocents for their blood to perform evil rites?”

Jorg snorted. “That’s his side of the story. That magician offered us power. Power enough to crush our enemies and take over the kingdom from that weak and ineffectual fool who called himself our king. That boy laying there is just as useless as that idiot we attempted to kill twenty years ago.”

Lilavati knelt and drew Manas’ sword from its sheath with her left hand. This was more awkward than she’d thought, since she’d never used one and she was being forced to use her off hand. She returned to facing him, sword out in front of her as she’d seen her father and brother stand.

“Such power is madness itself, for it brings nothing but death, chaos, and pain,” Lilavati said. “That which seeks to harm others to elevate itself is worth nothing. It is less than nothing, for it exists solely for the purpose to give pain.”

Jorg laughed and put his sword up. “Great Lady, you’ve never used a sword in your life. You’re going to be an easy kill for me. Then what’s going to stop me from murdering Ludger and that idiotic boy there?”

“You will not be able to kill me,” Lilavati said, infusing her words with a confidence she didn’t feel. “The Twelve will grant me the ability to destroy you, as you have sought for twenty years to destroy my beloved and the true spirit of Phiri Hu.” She shifted her stance and waited for the first blow to fall.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty one

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Manas gave her a hurt look. “What do you mean by that, katali?”

Lilavati pursed her lips. He sat down while she remained standing. “He does not care that you have ordered him not to speak. You have offered no firm punishment and he knows that your fear of him will permit him to do as he pleases, for that is how it has always been. What retribution can I give him if you do not let me act? I am not a fighter. I can disable a man, but only if I catch him off guard. Now he will be on guard around me and I will no longer be able to defend myself.”

“It sounds like you think I’m weak,” Manas said stiffly.

Lilavati tugged on a few of her braids. “You are capable of handling many things, sikha. You can command the loyalty of your people with great ease, most of the time. When you have a powerful enemy such as this military leader working against you however? It does not aid you when you are kind to him. Kindness, in this situation, is weakness. You must be firm, you must bare your fangs.”

Manas flushed. “I am only a beast in the darkness,” he hissed.

“Draw on that during the day and you will be an even greater lord than you are now,” Lilavati countered. “Do not draw on the rage and anger, but the strength and grace. His words angered you and I could see some of the tiikeri rise up as he spoke. I chose to act in your stead for I was not sure what you could do against him. If he is as old a fighter as you say he is, age will not be a hindrance to him for he will rely on experience rather than strength in battle.”

“What do you know of politics in the Northlands?” Manas asked. “You are not from here. You cannot know our ways as well as I do.”

Lilavati’s temper flared. She stalked as close to him as she dared. He leaned back, eyes wide. Hers was the gracefulness of a hunting cat and the great feline inside of her was awake and very angry. It snarled at him as she spoke.

“I know only what I have read, and that is little enough. It is true I am unfamiliar with how to govern in your lands,” she said, her voice low and husky. She bit off every word. “However, I know how to deal with men who seek to exploit every weakness they see. It is how I survived among my people for so long without becoming another corpse on the street. I see a hunting animal who has sighted you as his prey. You have walked into that trap and continue moving inexorably towards the slaughter he has planned for you. Whether that means true death, or the disintegration of your power over your people, I do not know. But you have given him the authority to have me killed, and he knows you will mourn and rage but can do nothing against him because you are too frightened of him to try.” With that, she returned to Ludger’s tent.

“Great Lady, I can tell you’re angry from here,” Ludger said. “I take it the confrontation with the good captain didn’t go well?”

Lilavati launched into a diatribe with scattered epithets from her own homeland when she couldn’t find something in the Northern tongue to fit her rage. Deep within her the great feline – she could see it now, it was a tiikeri like her beloved’s – roared in agreement. “He is a fool, Ludger. He does not see the danger,” she said, finally wrapping up her comments. Only then did she realize she was pacing and she sat down on a pile of cushions.

“Oh, he sees it, Great Lady,” Ludger said wearily. “He’s never learned how to deal with it. Theda was always there to shelter him from it. Her or Elfriede Brose, Magistrix and the only one of his parents’ advisors to actually give a damn about his welfare.”

“Magistrix?” Lilavati asked, repeating the unfamiliar word.

“The woman in charge of all of the secular magic users in Phiri Hu,” Ludger said. “She was the only person there who knew just what I was. She promised to say nothing to anyone, and it looks like she carried that knowledge to her grave.”

“How did she die?” Lilavati asked, curious yet afraid of the answer.

“It was said she passed of natural causes,” Ludger said. “Neither the Great Lord nor I agree with that assessment. We know she was poisoned and we knew by whom. We could never prove it though, which is why Theda was still free to continue her campaign against the Great Lord.” Ludger sighed. “I’m so sorry you got caught up in our mess, Great Lady. You must think the worst of Northerners now, with all of the political machinations and assassination attempts.”

Lilavati tapped one finger against her bottom lip as she contemplated what he’d said. “No, my thoughts do not run along those lines,” she said finally. “I have seen much worse in my homeland. The kinds of things the priests can do to a person, for the right price, is far more appalling even than what was done to Theda. It is akin to what I saw at the Barrier, or what I’m seeing here with the strange dark men and their cursed blades.”

“Ludger, Ludger, you need to come quick. Something’s wrong with the Great Lord,” a servant yelled from outside the tent. He rushed in. “He’s collapsed near the mouth of his tent and no one can rouse him.”

The servant helped Ludger to his feet. “Great Lady, you’d better come with me,” Ludger said. “You might be needed.”

Lilavati’s heart hammered in her chest. “Of course, Ludger,” she said, rising. The three of them hurried out of the tent and down the path.

to be continued…

Recipe in flux – Gingerbread Pancakes

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(These aren’t my pancakes – I forgot to take a picture. But there are gingerbread pancakes.)

I’m attempting to find a good recipe for gingerbread pancakes to make for Christmas Day. I tried one I got off of Genius Kitchen. It was abysmal. It tasted nasty and there was no gingerbread taste.

Instead of continuing to hunt online for a recipe, I decided to take it into my own hands to make my own recipe. I took our base pancake recipe, use my gingerbread muffin recipe (which everyone loves because it does taste like gingerbread) as a guide, and make a new batch. I’m sharing with you my current recipe. The pancakes tasted more like gingerbread, but they’re not quite perfect yet.

Gingerbread fluffy pancakes

1 1/2 c milk
1/4 c white vinegar

2 c all purpose flour
1/4 c sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cloves

2 eggs
1/4 c vegetable oil
3 T molasses

In a separate bowl, mix the milk and vinegar together to sour the milk.

In a large bowl whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the eggs, oil and molasses to the milk and whisk those together, then add to the dry ingredients. Whisk together well, but leave some lumps.

Heat up a griddle. Using either a 1/4 c or a 1/2 c (depending on how big you want these) measuring cup, pour onto the griddle. Cook until done all the way through.

For me, I got 13 large pancakes using the 1/2 c measuring cup. You might get something different, and with the 1/4 c measuring cup you’ll definitely get more.

For those of you who are cooks, what else would you recommend I do to make these taste more like gingerbread? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty

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Captain Jorg Weiss was a florid faced graybeard who stood taller than Lilavati’s beloved, with what remnants were left of his hair combed behind and fastened with a leather band in a vain attempt to give him some sense of military dignity. His armor barely fit around a midriff gone soggy with too much fine food and wine. There was a faint tremor in one hand as he gripped the hilt of his sword. To look at him would be to count him a useless fool clinging to his long past youth.

Lilavati was no fool. She watched the way he walked, the flash of his eyes, the play of his muscles beneath his paper thin skin. The frail old man was a mask he put on, the same as she did her travel hoods. He wouldn’t be able to fight fairly as he had when he was in his prime and she knew he realized it by the way he rested his hand and shifted his weight. It was his mind that was the more active part of him now. It wasn’t as flabby as his body and that didn’t bode well for the weakening lord and his confused lady.

She took a few deep, calming breaths before linking her arm with Manas’ and walking over to the screaming guard captain. “Captain Weiss, I’ll thank you not to countermand my orders,” Manas said coldly when the old man stopped for a breath.

“Your orders? That dark skinned whore’s orders you mean. My men told me what happened here, Great Lord,” Jorg said. “You’re not in control of this camp any longer.” He jabbed a finger with swollen joints and scarred calluses. “She is.”

Lilavati met his angry stare with her bland, expressionless one. “I do as I am bid by my beloved,” she said coolly, keeping her voice devoid of emotion. “It is his will that I speak and not my own.” A faint hint of a smile twisted at the corners of her lips. “As is proper for a Northern bride.”

Jorg spat on the ground. “You’re no Northern bride. You’re a Southern slut with no manners and legs spread for more than one man I’ll wager.” He reared back and struck her hard enough to send her back a few steps. “A good beating or two will teach you a lesson, and then we can send what’s left back to your shit eating family.”

Manas’ eyes flashed and a hint of the tiikeri returned. Lilavati reacted faster than he did. She was no fighter. The scars inflicted on her naked flesh proved that. But she was a woman who’d been assaulted by men before.

Jorg wasn’t expecting her to fight back, so when her knee and the heel of her hand found sensitive spots on his aging body, he went down. He curled in on himself. “I am neither of those filthy things you called me,” Lilavati said. “Nor am I unfaithful to my beloved. I would not bring such dishonor on myself or my beloved with abominable acts such as you suggest.”

“You’re not married to him,” Jorg said in between gasps of pain. “Your words don’t matter, Southern witch.”

Katali, that was more forceful than necessary, but an important lesson to be taught nonetheless,” Manas said. He knelt beside his military commander. “My beloved stands with me, beside me, and speaks for me in all things. As for not being bound to me in the eyes of the Twelve and the law, we’ll be taking care of that as soon as we reach a city with a temple in it. I’m done with this ridiculousness of her not having the protection of being my proper wife.”

“Your people will never accept her, Great Lord,” Jorg said, dragging himself to his feet. “I’ll see to that.”

“You speak openly of betrayal, Captain Weiss,” Lilavati said. She gestured to several men and women who’d gathered to see the spectacle. “In front of all these witnesses as well.”

“Who will cower before me and not open their worthless mouths if they want to save their lives,” Jorg snapped.

“What of their souls?” Lilavati asked, her voice just loud enough to be heard by those listening. “The high preester is dead, and only an acolyte stands in her place. Can this child who now serves to offer prayers for them grant them absolution for their betrayal of their rightful liege lord?” She wasn’t sure what she was saying, but she hoped it was helping.

Jorg’s mouth opened and closed several times. “She’s dead because you convinced the Great Lord to let that Northern shaman murder her,” he said finally.

Lilavati ignored the unfamiliar word. She tilted her head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “She was proven a traitor, as you become the more you speak,” she said. “Would you have had us let her live?”

Manas rested his hand on Lilavati’s arm. “Captain Weiss, you have your orders. I will be accompanied by two guards, no more, unless I or my lady request them. If you continue spreading these rumors, I’ll have to do come up with a more permanent solution to your continuous betrayals.”

“You can attempt such a thing, Great Lord,” Jorg said with a smirk. He lowered his voice. “We both know what happens when you do that though.” He strode off.

Lilavati flagged down a servant. “Our tent is to be cleaned and moved to the first place where Ludger wished it to be put. It is to be done immediately.”

“Yes Great Lady.” The young woman was grinning and she motioned for a few of the others to follow her. They were already talking excitedly about the upcoming ceremony and how the “old man” wasn’t going to be able to keep getting his own way for much longer.

The other servants left the area, for which Lilavati was grateful. “You are not as strong a leader as I thought,” she said softly. Manas jerked back, shock registering on his face. “He is an enemy, a man to be removed from power. He is the assassin’s blade waiting to strike in the night. Worse, he will not wait but do so when you least expect it during the day. Yet you gave him the weapons he needs to destroy me.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part forty nine

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“Great Lord, have servants clean and replace everything in your tent,” Ludger said. “Then get them to move it to the spot I originally chose. Visit with those willing to talk to you, and then go get some rest. Perhaps nap this afternoon if you think you can. Great Lady, you need to stay with him no matter what anyone says.” Ludger glared at Manas. “I know you around one man in particular, Great Lord. If he should come to counsel with you, the Great Lady remains at your side.”

Manas nodded. “I know who you mean, Ludger. I won’t be able to face him alone. I don’t have the strength.”

“Who is this strange monster that commands so much control over you, sikha?” Lilavati asked.

“Captain Jorg Weiss,” Manas said. “The commander of my guards and the one who leads what military forces I have with me.”

“That’s the wrong way to look at it, Great Lord,” Ludger said with a weary sigh. He shifted positions. Lilavati rose and helped him into a more comfortable spot. He smiled in gratitude before looking back at Manas. “He doesn’t command or lead anything. He relays your orders to your soldiers.”

“Why do you give this man so much control over you if he is but a servant?” Lilavati asked.

“He was put in place right before the uprising. I can’t get rid of him because the few times I’ve tried to, he’s murdered his replacement. He knows I can’t prove it was him because he’s always in plain sight at the time of the deaths, but he’s also aware that I know it’s him,” Manas said. He pressed his hand against his chest. “I’m not sure just how much he knows.”

Lilavati looked towards the tent flap. She’d sworn she would never return to her homeland, that she would stand by her husband-to-be’s side for all time. More and more she longed for the clean death her father would give her rather than these constant cloak and dagger escapades. Something flashed in front of her eyes and she was once again drawn into a vision.

She screamed as the strangely shaped blade gouged her face. “Leave her alone, Anup,” a weak, tremulous feminine voice said. A blood soaked hand pulled at the elaborately embroidered sleeve of her father’s robe. “She is but a child. What harm has she done?”

“She has done no harm, but you have,” Anup said, turning the weapon on the woman behind him. He slashed down with the weapon, tearing great gashes in her chest and abdomen. The woman fell out of the bed she was on, dragging herself away from her raging attacker. Off to one side an infant screamed. “This is your doing, Upsana. You and your cursed blood.”

“Ishani is innocent, Anup,” Upsana said, great gurgling breaths marring her words. “So is Nikitha.”

“I know Nikitha is,” Anup said, still pursuing the weakened woman around the room. Ishani saw the weapon now – it was an oversized blade that resembled a tiikeri’s claws. “The priests cast their spells on her long before she was born. I should have paid them to do that to Ishani too.”

“You gave to the Temples what is Ishani and Nikitha’s by birthright to force the Thousand to purge our younger daughter of a taint that is not even there?” Upsana asked. She collapsed, blood foaming at her lips. She cast a desperate, crimson eyed look towards her bleeding daughter. “Do…not…kill…her…” Her eyes went blank and she lay still.

Anup took several minutes to mutilate her mother’s body. Ishana couldn’t move. She huddled in the corner, her face burning in agony. Anup stood up. His fancy robes were soaked in blood. Nikitha was whimpering now. He set the weapon down and went to soothe her. He turned to face his older daughter. A cruel smile crossed his face. “I will not kill you,” he said coldly. “The gods may do it for me.” With one swift blow, the world went dark.

“Katali,” Manas said, shaking her shoulder. The vision slipped away, leaving behind only terrible fear and the knowledge that she couldn’t walk away from him. “What’s wrong? You were so still and for a moment it looked like you stopped breathing.”

“A vision,” Lilavati murmured, shivering. She fought off the fear of the child at the horror she could no longer remember. “I cannot say of what. I only know that I cannot go home, though I offered to free you from our contract. My death would not be swift and painless as I desire. Instead I fear my father and mother would make it as painful and bloody as possible.”

“Why do you say that, Great Lady?” Ludger’s gaze was on her face, his eyes unwavering as he stared at her.

Lilavati hesitated. “The only thing I remember of the vision is my father covered in blood,” she whispered. “And fear. Pure, mind shattering fear.”

Ludger rubbed his temples. “Great Lady, I fear the Halls of the Damned may prove unforgiving to you too. There is something beyond his curse and your strange gift that ties you two together. We must find out what it is before it kills you both.”

“You’ll have no arguments from me there,” Manas said with a shaky laugh. He fumbled for Lilavati’s hand. She caught it and held tight. “She is my strength now. What little I’ve managed to hold on to is slipping away from me.”

“If I am your strength, you are mine,” Lilavati said.

Manas brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it. A loud voice outside began a rather impressive dress down of the soldiers that had remained behind when Lilavati and Manas dismissed the others. “And there is the good Captain,” Ludger said, disdain dripping from his every word.

“Would you care to meet one of the nine banes of my existence, katali?” Manas asked. His tone was light though there was no amusement in his voice.

Lilavati rose to her feet. She took a deep breath and pulled the remnants of the travel hood off her head. She straightened her braids and smoothed her skirt. “Let us remind him that there are now two powers he must deal with, not just one,” she said, her voice firm.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part forty eight

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Lilavati glared over her shoulder. “I said disperse. Only two of you need to remain. The rest are more of a threat towards me than protection for him,” she snapped.

“You aren’t the one in charge, Great Lady,” one of the soldiers said with some scorn in his voice.

“She is my voice in all things even as I am hers,” Manas said, one hand pressed to his chest. He stood up as straight as he could. “If she has ordered you to disperse, then do so.”

“Yes Great Lord,” one of the other men said. “Shall we pass this along to Captain Weiss?”

“Tell him what I’ve said, and have him come speak to me later. I know he’ll have questions, objections, and will attempt to force me to change my mind,” Manas said, wincing. “He always does.” All of the men snorted before departing, leaving two of their number behind.

Lilavati got him inside Ludger’s tent. Ludger was trying to sit up straighter. Lilavati got Manas seated and then went to help Ludger into a more upright position. “Great Lord, what’s happening?” Ludger asked.

“The curse mark is spreading. It’s never done this before,” Manas said. “Katali, come help me get my shirt off so he can see.” Lilavati helped him in getting his tunic off.

Ludger sucked his breath in between his teeth. Lilavati looked down. She gasped. Here, where there were no distractions, she could see just how much worse the curse mark truly was. It had spread both above and below the binding Manas wore to cover it. The deep gashes that went to the bone and showed his organs – whether it was mere illusion or not – weren’t as pronounced, but were showing as deep marks in his flesh.

“Great Lord, when did this happen?” Ludger asked.

“I saw it this morning, when I got dressed,” Manas said. “Then, when I lifted my shirt to show the scars left even after you healed us, I saw it was even worse than when I first rose.”

“What has changed? Why are you suddenly constantly in the middle of -?” Ludger stopped.

Lilavati stared down at her hands. She didn’t need to see them to know they were both looking at her. “My very presence has changed the curse of the tiikeri,” she said softly. “I would rather face death at the hands of my father than lead you down a path that will bring your demise at the hands of your people, which is where this will all end if what was done to you becomes well known.” She smoothed her skirt and choked back a sob. “I will return to the Southlands.”

Inkosi tiikeri,” Manas whispered.

“Yes, that is what I am,” Lilavati said, looking up. There was an uncharacteristic hint of anger in her voice that startled both men. She kept her voice low. “I am the tiger’s keeper. And yet what has it done? It has led to the both of us nearly being killed more than once, your curse growing, and the deaths of so many of your people. How many more lives am I to be responsible for?” She raised her hand before either of them could speak. “As your wife, as one who would rule as a partner, that is one way of bringing lives into danger. That is not always preventable.”

“And this is?” Ludger asked.

“My presence here is what led to that,” Lilavati said, gesturing to the new marks on Manas’ torso. Her hands shook and her voice cracked. “Theda is dead. Sieglinde is dead. So many have died, and all because of me.”

Katali, you can’t know that,” Manas said.

She fixed her crimson eyes on his amber ones. “You can say that your people would have betrayed you? That you would have almost died time and time again? Or would you have ridden home safely, to be protected by those truly loyal to you, and had time to discover the secrets of the preester,” she said.

Manas squirmed. Ludger answered. “Great Lady, he would’ve been dead by the time we reached Phiri Hu had Theda been permitted to go on like she was, with or without you here. I have a feeling it would have been the same no matter what wife the Great Lord chose,” he said.

“Yes, but they would have been more willing to follow a woman of the Northlands, would they not?” Lilavati asked. “There would not have been the troubles that came about because I am a child of the desert, of the sun, of the sand.”

“Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Ludger said. “The Great Lord wasn’t looking for a bride from among the noble houses because he knew none of them would be able to handle his curse. They’d run home to their families as soon as they first witnessed the change and Phiri Hu would fall to whoever could bring in enough allies to take it. He was looking for a wife who didn’t have family connections, who wouldn’t bring anything into the marriage but herself.”

“This angered many people,” Manas said as he struggled to pull his tunic back on. Lilavati went and helped him once more. His smile was faint as he looked up at her. “My advisors – the same ones who served my parents, who are still trying to control me to this day – kept screaming at me to take a ‘proper wife.'”

“Do they know your affliction?” Lilavati asked, seating herself on a stool beside him.

“I don’t know,” Manas said. “I thought they didn’t, but now that I know the preester was playing me false, I have no idea who knows what.”

“There is a way to find out, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “It would take a great deal of sacrifice from you.” He looked at Lilavati. “From the both of you.”

“What do you mean?” Lilavati asked.

“He means the path through the Halls of the Damned,” Manas said, turning as white as bone. “Theda will most assuredly be there. As will my -.”

“As will your mother and father,” Lilavati finished.

“To get the answers we need, will you face them, Great Lord?” Ludger asked, his voice so low it was barely audible.

“Yes,” Manas said.

“Great Lady, you too must walk the path of the Damned. I am no visionary, but when I see him standing at the gate, you’re at his side. Whether it’s to hold him up or to face your own demons, I don’t know,” Ludger said. “But you have to be there. Can you do this? Will you do this?”

Lilavati looked at Manas’ pale face, at Ludger’s grim one, and at the faint traces of blood still caught in her fingernails. “Yes.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part forty seven

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There were some murmurs, but soon the crowd dispersed. Manas pulled his shirt back down. Lilavati moved over next to him. She settled into place next to him. Before she could speak, the soft spoken young man approached the both of them. “Great Lord, Great Lady, just how badly were the both of you injured last night?” he asked.

“We most likely would have died if Ludger hadn’t shown up,” Manas said. “Thank you for your aid with the mob, Dieter.”

Dieter smiled. “Great Lord, you saved my life. I would be hard pressed not to at least attempt to save yours.”

Lilavati looked between the two men. Manas managed a small smile. “I earned Dieter’s service in much the same way I did Ludger’s, though in a much more interesting fashion.”

Dieter shuddered. He turned to Lilavati. “You do know the Great Lord despises dark sorcerers, don’t you, Great Lady?”

“I do,” Lilavati said.

“There was one who’d taken over my village. He was experimenting on the children, trying to create soldiers for his private army. Those who didn’t match his expectations were cast aside and left to die,” Dieter said. “Once you were taken, none of the villagers would have anything to do with you again because you were cursed.”

“That is terrible. A child has no way to fight what is being done to them,” Lilavati said.

“No we didn’t,” Dieter said softly. “And seeing what happened to our siblings only made it worse.”

“Dieter had a twin sister. The two of them, along with an older brother and sister – also twins – were taken by the dark sorcerer,” Manas said. “We found the whole mess only after the torture and attempts to manipulate and change the children had begun.”

“I don’t know what happened to my older brother and sister,” Dieter said, his voice cracking. “But I saw what happened to Eleonora. Her body was changed as well as her mind. He tried to give her the body of a soldier, but instead gave her one of a monster. Her mind snapped and she became nothing more than a ravening beast. The dark sorcerer wasn’t happy with the failure of his experiment and threw her into a pen with others like her.” He looked Lilavati in the eye. “Great Lady, these were hulking male beasts with claws as they’d been in there for some time. They tore her to shreds.”

“That is a fate I would not wish on even my worst enemy,” Lilavati said, her voice carrying the horror she felt.

“Once he was done with Eleonora, he turned his attention to me. I was a very scrawny child. I was very sickly and one leg was lame. This displeased the dark sorcerer. The first thing he did was force changes on my body to restore it to health permanently and fix the leg,” Dieter said. “The pain was – unimaginable.” Lilavati nodded. “When that was over, he gave me a few days to recover before resuming. He wanted a keen eyed archer to stand atop the tower of his citadel and take out his enemies. So that’s what he focused on.”

“Ludger and one of my other servants created those spectacles on his face,” Manas said. “Without them, he is completely blind. He sees nothing. Ludger put magic into them – though he won’t say if the magic is in the lenses or the wires holding those lenses in place – and now, as long as he wears them, he sees as plainly as you and I.”

“Most of my new health left me when the Great Lord took me out of the citadel,” Dieter said. “The Great Lord offered to take me somewhere, but I chose to stay with him. I’m now one of his scholars and scribes.”

“That is an honored position indeed,” Lilavati said.

Dieter’s smile was bitter. “Perhaps it is in your land, but it isn’t here,” he said. “Here, scholars and scribes are expected to be available for anyone to use. We’re supposed to be available for whatever people ask.”

Lilavati’s eyes widened. “Is there no way to prevent you from working for a single person?”

Dieter shook his head. “Not unless someone names me their personal scholar, Great Lady. And the Great Lord has forbidden it.”

Manas sighed. “I’ve said that none of the servants can’t monopolize your attention. I never meant that to mean you couldn’t have someone take you as a personal scholar.”

“You still leave me with few options, Great Lord,” Dieter said.

“We’ll look at fixing that when we get back to Phiri Hu,” Manas said. He put his hand to his chest. His eyes widened and he paled. “I need to talk to Ludger.”

“Do you wish me to accompany you?” Lilavati asked. Manas nodded. Lilavati looked at the quiet, grey clad man in front of her. “Dieter, I will not promise more than I can keep. When we reach Phiri Hu, I will make certain Manas does not forget what he just said.”

“Great Lady, with all that’s been happening – and the fact that this won’t be the last time you’ll have to defend each other – I doubt you’ll remember that promise,” Dieter said.

“My memory is undiminished by unpleasant events, even those that may cost me my life,” Lilavati said. “I only lack the memories of how time and events flow around me during the times I am completely incapacitated because I am not conscious. So do not think so lightly of me.”

Dieter blinked. “I’m justly rebuked, Great Lady.”

Katali, please, I need to see him,” Manas said, wincing. Dieter bowed and walked away. Lilavati helped Manas up and carried him back towards Ludger’s tent. Manas looked over his shoulder at where several of his guards stood off to the side, trying not to look too obvious. “Pass the word. We don’t move today.”

“As you say, Great Lord,” one of the men said. He headed towards the rest of the camp. The rest continued to wait.

to be continued…