Tiger, Tiger – Part eighty seven

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More spirits of those who died in her service appeared. The last to arrive was Vera, the arrow still sticking out of her chest. “I do not regret taking your life,” Lilavati said. “I never will. Nor will I forgive you for murdering Odilie.”

You’re a fool, Vera said. Do you really think you’re going to be able to pass Magda off as a legitimate child of the Great Lord?

“We will make every attempt to do so,” Lilavati said. “I will fight for her until I am no longer able to, even if it means I must go to the king of these lands and demand he name her my beloved’s trueborn child.”

You care for that sniveling little brat that much? Vera asked. She seemed surprised.

“I love her as if I had birthed her myself,” Lilavati said. “Why do you find it so hard to believe that someone could love that beautiful, intelligent, loving child?”

She is none of those, Vera spat. She is a lying, sneaking little manipulator who claims to have visions to force people to do what she says.

“She has proven to us both that she does have visions, Vera,” Lilavati said. “She knows far more than a child of her age has a right to, and has articulated what she has seen in a way that we can understand while using what vocabulary she has learned.”

Vera blinked. My sister, she said, glowering. That stupid bitch. She swore that she’d come back to help Magda, just not in any way I’d recognize.

“Go back to whatever hell the Twelve decreed for you, Vera,” Lilavati said. “I have no more time to waste on you.”

Vera smirked. You’ll wish you continued to banter with me when you see what’s up ahead, inkosi tiikeri. With that, she vanished.

Lilavati couldn’t move. How had the woman known those words? She was fairly certain no one but Theda, Ludger, and Manas knew them. Not even Ariane had heard them, unless Theda told her. Shaking, she started forward, her steps dragging as she moved along the cracked black path.

Two tigers, as immense as Manas when he was in his cursed form, lay on each side of the pathway. Sitting on the ground in between them, was a woman so manged by claw and fang, Lilavati couldn’t identify her at first. Then it finally came together with a sudden rush of insight.

“Upsana,” she said. “Ama’ana.

I haven’t heard that word since the day I died protecting your worthless father and the two of you girls, Upsana said. Though there was nothing left of her face and throat, her words came out clear and strong. Lilavati clung to the sound, as she did the beauty of her people’s language. I’m sure the others told you to fear me.

“I was told I’d face the greatest sorrow I’ve ever known when I came here,” Lilavati said. “It’s you, isn’t it? Or you have something to do with it.”

I do, Upsana said. You are inkosi tiikeri, as I was. But you were never meant to leave Pasir Naik. Your sister-soul waited in the sands for you for many years until she died of a broken heart. It wasn’t your fault, my Ishani. Anup broke his word to me. He knew what the marks on your face meant, your unnatural grace, the way the tiikeri were drawn to you as they’d been to me.

“Why would he keep me away from them then, if he knew I was destined to be with them?” Lilavati asked.

He hated my power, Upsana said. Hated and feared them. He’d lost his own twin sister to a tiikeri. He didn’t want anything to do with them, yet his father forced him to wed an inkosi tiikeri since it both carried a great deal of prestige as well as wealth since my father was one of the wealthiest men in the city at that time.

Lilavati felt a pang of sorrow, and a strong desire to know what would have been had she joined with her sister-soul instead of coming to the northlands. She shook her head. “I may have been destined for a soul-sister in Pasir Naik,” she said. “But here I’ve found more than just a piece of my soul. I’ve found someone who also makes my mind and heart whole.”

Upsana shook her head. Ishani, you can’t stay with him. You belong in the sands. I know you’ve bonded to him, and it’s going to be hard to break it. Especially since you claim to love him and that little cub he sired. But you don’t have a choice. You will take your sister-soul, who waits here with me, and return to Pasir Naik.

“How can I do that? I’ll be killed as soon as I set foot in the city,” Lilavati said. “Father was paid the highest bride price for a daughter not of noble blood. He won’t take it well to find me back on his doorstep – especially with a tiikeri at my side.”

It isn’t to him you must go, Upsana said. It’s to my father and brother. Hasn’t Anup introduced you to my family at all?

“No. He remarried, a woman who’s the epitome of spite and petty evil,” Lilavati said. “I’ve only ever known her as my mother since I believe he used some rogue sorcerer or one of the priests to either eradicate or at the very least block my memories of you and the way I got these scars.” She touched her face.

Upsana shifted her position. That thrice cursed son of a sandworm and a slime crawler,  she snarled, sounding very much like the tiikeri that surely lived inside of her as Lilavati’s did in her. He’s destroyed you, Ishani. He’s taken away the very things that made you special in the eyes of our people.

“Has he?” Lilavati said. She started pacing, something that disturbed the two very large tiikeri next to her mother. “It’s true he refused my bond to my soul-sister. That’s one of the cruelest things he could have done, to both of us. I would rather have bonded to her than anything else. However, I was given an education as no female child was ever allowed. I learned to read, write, and speak seven languages. I learned history and folklore for five different lands. I studied mathematics, science, and the stars. Up until I reached my adulthood, I was allowed to be a scholar. After I took my adult name, I was denied all of that. I was made useless, obsolete, a burden on the family as I waited for a proposal that would never come.” She smiled. “Then my beloved came and freed me.”

He’s imprisoned you, Upsana shouted. If you can’t see that now, then I must force you to, Ishani.

“I am not Ishani any longer, mother,” Lilavati said. “My name is Lilavati. I am a free woman, I am bonded to my tiikeri, cursed though he may be, and I will not give him up.”

So be it, Upsana said. She rose to her feet, as did the two tiikeri beside her. Now it’s time for you to die.

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part eighty six

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The two days sped by, too quickly for Lilavati’s peace of mind. Even Manas showed the strain of the upcoming resumption of their journey. The two of them spent as much time as possible with Magda during the day. They relaxed in peaceful quiet at night and in the mornings their desperate passion only heightened their fear that each time would be the last.

Ludger helped get the camp packed up again and they were back on the road. The storms were over and bright sunlight shone down on the rapidly drying road. The horses ridden by the anxiety riddled lord and lady knew something was wrong, and gave the two of them no end of trouble. Finally, Ludger gave them both a calming draught that allowed them to focus more on the road and less on their fears.

Three days were nothing but a fleeting glimpse of time soon to be lost. As they approached the gates to the Halls, a scent so abhorrent to her filled the air that Lilavati gagged. Everyone was doing the same thing as her.

“Fall back,” Manas called. He dismounted, handing the reins of his horse to one of his guards. “We have to go forward on foot, katali.

Lilavati slid off her horse. “I would not subject an animal to the horrors of such a place,” she said. She patted the horse’s neck. She glanced over her shoulder. Ludger, Dieter, and Ludger’s two chosen guards had all formed a protective ring around Christel and Magda. Christel knew of the plan, though Magda did not. At least, Lilavati hoped she didn’t. She was already anxious enough as it was. Fear of having to flee to a new land completely unfamiliar to her was something she didn’t need right now.

Manas took her hand. “Come, katali. Our fates await.”

The two picked their way across the increasingly rugged countryside until they reached a pair of gates that seemed to be made of bone and flesh. “What demon created these fell things?” Lilavati asked, holding one sleeve over her mouth and nose.

“It’s said this was actually created by the Dark of the Twelve,” Manas said, following her example and covering his face. “They wanted a place to test those who wished to serve them. When the rest of the Twelve realized what they’d created, they all imbued it with their own powers and it became the testing ground for some and a punishment for others.”

“How do they open?” Lilavati asked. “I see no latch or bar.”

“Those who seek entrance just touch them,” Manas said, his voice shaking. “If you’re supposed to go in, you’re dragged in. If you’re not, you’re teleported back to wherever you started from.”

“Then let us hope neither of us is sent back to Ludger and the others, for it will mean all visions were wrong and we will be alone and unaided in there,” Lilavati said.

Manas seized her hand. “Together then?” Lilavati nodded. “On the count of three. One. Two. Three.” They touched the horrifying gate at the same time.

A swirl of blood colored smoke surrounded them. Clawed hands made of bone seized hold of them and dragged them through a portal. Even though they struggled to keep a tight grip on each other, the bony appendages forced them apart. Lilavati was thrown one way as Manas was tossed another. Lilavati screamed his name before darkness descended and he was lost to her.

It was the cold that revived her. The cold and the damp mist that engulfed her. She pushed herself to her feet. Something that reminded her of blood soaked her skirt. Sieglinde appeared before her, flesh rotting and one eye hanging from its socket. All I wanted to do was save you from the curse he put on you, Great Lady, she wailed, the gaping slash in her neck spurting blood. Why did you slay me?

“You meant well, Sieglinde,” Lilavati said, trying not to retch at the sight of the dead woman. “I know you did. But the fell preester lied to you, and when you attempted to force me to leave him and I refused, you tried to kill me. I protected myself the only way I knew how.”

Do you feel no remorse? Are you so cold that you can’t accept the fact that you’ve deprived a mother of her daughter, a father of his beloved child? Sieglinde snarled.

“Do I feel remorse for your death? Or guilt? No,” Lilavati said. “I did what I was forced to so I might survive. Do I grieve for your family? I do, and though it will be of little comfort to you I fear, I shall do what I may for them when we return to Phiri Hu.”

You shall never reach the white mountain, Sieglinde spat. The blood of those you’ve murdered will drown you. The flesh of those who’ve died for you will suffocate you, for you are nothing without him. She vanished.

Lilavati shuddered and swallowed a few times to settle her stomach before moving forward. It didn’t take long before another spirit appeared. This one was someone she didn’t recognize.

He was dressed in the armor Manas’ soldiers wore. His stomach had been torn open and his intestines were pouring out of him in long ropes down to his feet. Blood trickled out of one corner of his mouth. Great Lady, why was I forced to die for an outsider who has no care that I’m dead? You don’t even know my name, let alone when I died.

“You are right in saying I do not know your name,” Lilavati said. “I grieve for that. You were a brave man, to face the abominations that attacked us. I do not know if this eases the pain of the dead, but you are responsible for my daughter surviving. For that, I will be grateful for all of my life in this world and the next.”

The soldier tilted his head to one side. You don’t know my name, but you know what battle I died in? he asked.  How is that possible?

“Your injuries,” Lilavati said. “I saw the dead, brave warrior. I know the wounds caused by the talons of those foul beasts.”

The soldier seemed more at peace, something Sieglinde hadn’t been. Great Lady, my name is Gerhardt. Please tell the Great Lord to let my wife know I fell in battle, and to please aid her and my infant daughter. He paused. Great Lady, a sorrow greater than any you’ve yet faced awaits you. I pray to the Twelve you are strong enough to face it. He saluted her and vanished. Lilavati took a deep breath and moved on.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eighty two

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Lilavati rose to her feet. Her tiikeri roused and imbued her with all of its power. She didn’t let her fear dominate her. “Lay down, Manas. Let me see your wound,” she commanded, her voice ringing in the tent. Manas snarled, stalking forward. Her tiikeri increased her strength. “I said lay down.”

Manas shook off the control in her voice and continued his steady pace forward. Lilavati darted to the side and pressed sweaty hands against the wounded leg. Manas’ size worked against him and he couldn’t turn easily to get at her.

The scent of putrid flesh assaulted her nose. She peered at the small cut that was now magnified a hundred times by the cursed shift. “By the Twelve,” she whispered. “What evil is this?” Skin rotted and fell away even as she watched.

Manas jerked away from her at last and turned, snarling. He lunged for her face. She swiftly moved to the side. He followed. There was a red tinge to the amber, a sign that madness was taking hold.

“What do I do?” she whispered. Her tiikeri answered.

Taking a deep breath, Lilavati sprinted for the front of the tent. She’d almost reached the door when Manas cut off her escape. He slammed a paw into her, knocking her halfway across the fabric walled room.

Lilavati gasped, the breath knocked out of her briefly. Manas pounced, claws and teeth bared. Lilavati rolled away. Her heart pounded in her chest. She tried to reach the entrance again, but he blocked her once more.

Now she understood that she wouldn’t be able to escape him. Her soul cried out in agony as she thought of the devastation her death would cause him, especially if it came at his hands in his wild state.

She looked around wildly and saw several cushions covered with a tough leather and an empty crate. She snatched up the cushions and threw herself into the crate. She covered the top with the cushions, and packed as many of the others around herself as she could without sending herself into a blind panic. Outside her hiding spot, Manas slammed his paws into the cushions and scraped at the wood with his claws. Her hiding spot would only be safe for a short time.

She closed her eyes and called to her tiikeri. She was just as confused and afraid as Lilavati. The woman felt the need to both laugh and cry. She’d come to rely on her internal feline too much, and now that they were faced with a task neither of them knew how to deal with it was overwhelming them both.

Absently, Lilavati started playing with the tiger charm on her wrist. Her fingers stroked the patterned metal as she begged the Twelve to make her death swift and painless. As the cleverly crafted fur passed along her flesh, she felt her tiikeri shudder. She too felt the chill crawl up her spine. Goosebumps appeared all over her body. A new idea entered her head, one that would most likely get her killed if it failed. If it worked, it would save them both.

Lilavati took a few deep breaths and then pushed up as hard and as fast as she could, startling Manas into jumping back as he was hit in the face by several sturdy, leather covered cushions. She leapt out of the crate and ran for the brazier in the middle of the tent. She seized one of the longer pieces of wood that was still burning. It scorched her hands, but she ignored her own pain.

Manas couldn’t seem to collect his wits as she darted around him. She didn’t stop to think, just did what she and her tiikeri felt was right. She pressed the burning brand into the wound. Manas roared in agony. His body went rigid as she burned the putrification away. She let the fire rest in his blood for a few seconds. It didn’t put the flame out, but a golden glow spread through him. Manas shuddered and fell to the ground.

Lilavati threw the wood back in the fire, only now noticing the blisters forming on her palms and fingers. She went to the basin and poured cold water in. She sank her hands in up to her wrists and held them there for several minutes, relaxing as the cool liquid gave her some relief.

Behind her she heard a mixture of mewling and growls. She turned to find Manas staring at her. The crimson ring was gone from his eyes. He now looked at her with agony filled amber ones

“It is all right, sikha,” she said, pulling her hands out of the water and carefully drying them. She went to where she kept her old traveling gowns. It was awkward with her injuries, but she managed to cut several long strips of fabric. These she wound around the open gash. “You did not harm me, and now you will be well again when you change back in the morning.” He made the same quiet mewling sound, quite a feat for so large a beast, and gently nudged her hands with his nose. “These are nothing compared to saving my life and your sanity, sikha. Rest now. We will speak in the morning, when we can both tell our sides of it.” Manas sighed and closed his eyes. Lilavati slid down his side and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

Human hands woke her, as did tears falling on her cheek. “Katali, how badly did I hurt you?” Manas asked in a hushed voice.

You did not hurt me. I injured myself while saving the both of us,” Lilavati said, rolling over and gazing into the face of the man that she loved. “I will ask for help in tending to the burns.” She pushed herself up on her elbows. “How much longer until we reach the Halls of the Damned?”

Manas seemed confused by her question. “How long? I don’t know. We’d have to look at Ludger’s map. I’m not entirely certain where we are compared to them. My guess would be a week out, give or take a day or two.”

“Then it is time we began our preparations for the fight we will encounter,” Lilavati said, leaning up and kissing him. “Send someone for Ludger and his map, as well as Ariane and her salves. This must be dealt with now, before we let ourselves be distracted again.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part seventy seven

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“I do not care for being right,” Lilavati said. She fingered the chain on the necklace around her neck. On impulse, she pulled it off and put the amulet on Magda. “Little one, this was given to me by Ludger for protection. I am now giving it to you. Do not remove it until I say so.”

“Yes mother,” Magda said, smiling up at her. She played with the pendant.

“Great Lady, she’s so young for such an adornment,” Odilie said.

“It isn’t just a necklace, Odilie,” Manas said. “It’s to protect her should the spectres return to the camp and break through our protections.”

Odilie turned pale. She swallowed hard and nodded. “Then I’ll see to it she doesn’t take it off.”

“Thank you,” Lilavati said. “I also wish you to make a double ring of salt around the tent you will share with her at night.”

“Two rings, Great Lady?” Odilie asked.

“One ring out a short way from the tent, as everyone does,” Lilavati said. “Then another, closer, that you do not close until you seal yourselves inside.”

“One openly visible and one less so,” Manas said.

Lilavati nodded. “It is not that I have any fear of those here,” she said. “I do not trust that there will not be human agents of the spectres arriving soon to aide them.”

Manas frowned. “That’s something I never considered possible,” he said. He glanced at the sky. “I hope Ludger wakes before twilight. I want to ask his opinion on this.”

“It is best to be prepared for such an occurrence, so should he not awaken we have our defenses set if it becomes a reality,” Lilavati said.

Manas smiled. “You’re right, katali. I don’t want to be caught, to use a parlance of my soldiers, with my trousers around my boots.” Lilavati and Odilie both laughed. Magda looked confused. “I’ll get Captain Dittmar to start making preparations for an influx of both physical and spectral attackers this evening.” He stood and strode away.

“Great Lady, do you really think that we’ll see living soldiers with the dead ones?” Odilie asked.

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Lilavati said. “It does not hurt to be prepared for all circumstances.”

“Great Lady, what can we do if the Great Lord isn’t free to walk among us at night?” Odilie asked. Lilavati raised an eyebrow. Odilie flushed. “Great Lady, we might not know what shape it takes, but we’re all aware he’s been cursed. We know he’s the reason we have to stay locked in our rooms at the keep and in our tents while we’re on the road.”

“My father is cursed?” Magda asked.

“He is, but it is not a thing you need to be worried about at this time,” Lilavati said, kissing the top of Magda’s head. “We will explain it to you when it is right that we do so.”

“Which means I’ll be a grown up before you do,” Magda said with a scowl.

Odilie giggled. “Magda, have you had a bath today?” she asked.

“No,” Magda said. “Vera brought me here before I could get one.”

“Then let’s get you cleaned up and into a fresh dress,” Odilie said. “I’ll have you back here in time to have lunch with the Great Lady.”

“Mother,” Magda said, and then she stopped. “Do I have to use the formal word all the time?”

“No,” Lilavati said. “What is the most common familiar phrase?”

“Mama or mum,” Odilie said. “At least that’s what I’ve heard.”

“I don’t like those,” Magda said. She smiled shyly at Lilavati. “They’re northern words and you’re not northern. You and my father don’t use northern words for each other. I want to use something special for you too.”

Lilavati hesitated, looking off into the distance. Her visions returned to her, and her own childish voice calling for her mother, echoed in her mind. She glanced down into a pair of innocent eyes – one blue, one amber – and smiled in spite of the chill the memories gave her. “You can use the word children in the place I came from call their mothers,” she said.

“What is it?” Magda asked eagerly.

Ama’ana,” Lilavati said.

Ama’ana,” Magda repeated, stumbling a little over the pause in the middle of the word. Lilavati corrected her and the two of them practiced until Magda felt she had it right. By that point, Manas had returned and now all thought of a bath was forgotten since he brought lunch with him.

“What have you two been doing?” he asked.

Ama’ana has been teaching me a new word,” Magda said, grinning.

Manas chuckled. “We’re going to have a very fluid vocabulary in our home, aren’t we?” he asked, looking at Lilavati.

“I see no reason for our children to only know your tongue,” Lilavati said. “When both my language and my culture are as much a part of me as yours are a part of you.”

“I would want nothing less for them,” Manas said. “I’m a scholar as well as a warrior and a lord. You’re also a scholar. Our children should have the benefit of the best education we can provide for them.”

“I wish them to continue that as adults,” Lilavati said. “Regardless if they are male or female. I do not believe that any person should be forced into a lifestyle they do not wish to be in.”

Manas nodded, a pained look on his face. “I think we’ve both learned the folly of that kind of upbringing.”

Ama’ana,” Magda said, swallowing the last bite of her food. “Can I go take my bath now? I want to put on a new dress.”

Lilavati laughed and handed her over to Odilie. “Keep close watch on her, Odilie. She is quite precious to us and we do not wish anything to happen to her,” Lilavati said. Her tiikeri growled quietly. Lilavati cast her eyes around. She saw Vera watching them, a look of pure hatred on her face. “Take your guard with you. I fear there is one who would do her harm.”

“Of course, Great Lady,” Odilie said. She took Magda’s hand and led her away, the four guards following along.

“What is it, katali?” Manas asked. Before Lilavati could answer, screams brought both of them to their feet. They could hear the clash of steel on steel.

Lilavati looked towards the border. The former warriors of Phiri Hu had returned, and with them were creatures so vile she felt the need to run into the surrounding forest. “Your parents’ thralls have returned, sikha. They have brought abominations with them, such as I have never seen,” she whispered.

“Then I am off to battle them,” Manas said, kissing her. “Come into the central camp. I can’t protect you here.” He charged off, drawing his sword. Lilavati ran towards the camp.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part seventy

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“How do you know so much, my katali?” Manas asked with a fond smile.

“Books,” Lilavati said with a sigh. “Though I would trade some of that knowledge for far more life experience, my sikha.

Manas brought Lilavati’s hand to his lips. “Then you wouldn’t be my katali and my beautiful scholar.”

Lilavati smiled and leaned on Manas’ shoulder. “Don’t you two make a pretty picture,” a sour faced woman sneered. “I wonder how well your children will be received, being of a mixed breed. They’ll be abominations in the eyes of the Temple and the King.”

“I strongly doubt that, Tanje,” Manas said, wrapping his arm around Lilavati’s shoulder. “Given that the lord of Stuhi Detit and the lady of Bitxi Nirea are both mixed breeds themselves and they are in the highest councils of our king.” He gave the woman a stern look. “If all you wanted was to come here and insult my lady, then you can leave.”

“You asked us to bring you our folk magic, Great Lord,” Tanje said. “I have something that I remember from our village witch.”

“What is it?” Manas asked.

“Salt, Great Lord,” Tanje said. “Salt is a simple protection from evil spirits. They will be able to enter the camp, but if we pour rings of salt around the tents they may not be able to enter them.”

“We have quite a bit of salt,” Manas said thoughtfully. “If Ludger and Ariane fail in their task to find the ingredients, we might just use it.”

“We should use this information even if Ludger and Ariane are able to accomplish what they say,” Lilavati said, earning a surprised look from Tanje.

“Why do you say that, my katali?” Manas asked.

“What if the barrier does not hold them back? There should be another layer of protection. Our people are far more important than any common ingredient such as salt,” Lilavati said.

“Tanje, tell Bjorn to pull out as many of the sacks of salt as he can. I don’t know how much we’ll need. Just before we retire for the night we’ll pour the circles,” Manas said.

“Of course, Great Lord,” Tanje said. She turned and hurried away.

“Good thinking, my katali,” Manas said. “Though you seemed to startle her with your suggestion.”

“No one has ever seen me disagree with you. They simply assume that I am always going to agree with you,” Lilavati said. “To them, I have no mind of my own even though you call me a scholar. I do not think they believe I am as educated as you claim.”

“Then we must prove them wrong, katali. You’re my equal, my balance, my lovely lady,” Manas said. “You are also my stand in when I have to be away, or when I’m ill. You will be taking my place at certain events because I’ll have other duties to attend to. You’re my beloved and my partner.”

“Then I will work hard to learn my place in your lands,” Lilavati said.

“You’ll do fine, my katali,” Manas said.

A few others came up to speak with the pair, but all they did was repeat Tanje and Micha’s suggestions. Then two more approached them. Manas stiffened as they approached.

Lilavati looked at them closely. It was a very nondescript looking woman, of average build with brown hair and eyes, and – she blinked in astonishment – a child. The girl looked no more than five, and appeared so fragile that the strong winds that they now faced seemed able to pick her up and break her in half. She had peculiar eyes, one was amber and the other was a starling shade of blue.

“Hello father,” the girl said with a shy smile.

“Hello Magda,” Manas said, holding out his arms. Lilavati saw the reluctance in the eyes of the older woman in releasing the child’s hand, but she let go.

Magda threw herself across the narrow distance between her and her father and locked her arms around his neck. “Father, I’ve missed you,” she said in a high, lilting voice that nonetheless carried a hint of her father’s deeper tones.

“I’ve missed you too, princess,” Manas said, drawing her up on his lap. He turned his attention to the brown eyed woman. “I see you’re disregarding my orders as usual, Vera.”

The woman flashed him a smile full of venom. “You told me that once you wed you’d spend more time with her. You announced just earlier today you’ve taken a bride, so why shouldn’t I bring Magda to see you? Especially since you haven’t seen or spoken to her once since we left the Southlands.”

“Father, Vera told me that when you brought your new lady home, you’d send me to live with the servants. Is this true?” Magda asked.

Manas flushed, and looked over at Lilavati. Lilavati held out a hand. “Kikaii imera, mikri,” she said with a smile for Magda.

Magda looked confused. “What does that mean?” she asked.

“It means ‘fair morning, little one,'” Lilavati said. “It is what you say to a child in your family in the morning.”

Magda released Manas’ neck and shyly moved over to stand in front of Lilavati. “Vera told me you would curse me if I spoke to you,” she said.

Lilavati chuckled. “I fear many thought I would curse them if they spoke to me,” she said. “It is the way of people to think that of those things that frighten them.”

“Why?” Magda asked with the simplicity of all children.

“Magda, come away now,” Vera said.

“Magda stays here, Vera,” Manas said. “You brought her to visit and of course my wife must get to know her stepdaughter. So leave her here and be on your way. I’ll send Magda to you before dark.”

“Great Lord, you’re very busy right now,” Vera said.

“He is, but in truth I am not,” Lilavati said, still smiling. Magda looked at her father for approval before taking Lilavati’s hand. Lilavati slowly pulled the girl into her lap. “I am quite happy to sit with her.” It was obvious Vera didn’t like that, but she turned and walked stiffly away. “You will have to explain all of this to me, sikha.”

“I will,” Manas said, a haunted look in his eyes. “Later though.”

“Of course,” Lilavati said, smiling at Magda. Her tiikeri purred in delight as the child curled up against her. “Innocence should be kept as long as possible.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty seven

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The first of the spectral weapons struck Ludger. He let out a cry, holding his leg. There was no blood, but it was obvious he was in pain. Lilavati shrieked and curled in on herself as an arrow slammed into her shoulder. Manas let out a shout and hunched over as a sword embedded itself in his stomach.

“Ride faster,” Ludger said, his voice coming through labored breathing.

Lilavati urged her horse into a canter. The spectres tried to stop her, but the horse was unaffected by the insubstantial attackers. She could hear the confused talking behind her. “We will have to explain this to the others once we make camp,” she said, her voice weak and trembling.

“We’re crossing cursed land,” Manas said. His voice was stronger than the other two in spite of the ghostly sword embedded in his stomach.

As the company made its way through the spectral forces, there were some screams. “They are no safer than we are,” Ludger said. He was sitting up taller in his saddle.

“Then the cursed land will be easier to convince them of,” Manas said. Lilavati turned her head. The sword was beginning to fade. She caught sight of the arrow in her shoulder. It too was vanishing.

Ludger sat up straighter. “That was not a pleasant experience.”

“I was not aware that they could see me,” Lilavati said. “I have never experienced such a phenomenon before.”

“None of those others that you’ve seen have paid attention to you?” Ludger asked.

“No,” Lilavati said.

“What if it wasn’t my katali?” Manas asked quietly.

“What do you mean, Great Lord?” Ludger asked.

“They were my parents’ soldiers, and we’re making our way to the Halls of the Damned,” Manas said. “Katali, was there anything different about these spirits?”

Lilavati thought hard. “I saw more color, and the screams were louder. As was the laughter and crude commentary.”

“They could have been cursed for their actions,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, did the Vengari raise weapons against us?”

Lilavati had to think hard for a moment. “No,” she said. “It was only those who wore armor and the colors of my sikha‘s parents.”

“What kind of trouble do you think they’re going to cause for us as we camp?” Manas asked, looking at Ludger.

“I’m not sure, Great Lord. I wasn’t aware the area was cursed. The last time I was through here nothing like that happened,” Ludger said.

Manas looked over at Lilavati. “Katali, I don’t believe you’re the cause of them noticing us. I think they would have attacked us regardless of the fact. I believe they would have come after me, as the traitor in the family.”

Sikha, you cannot blame yourself. You were a frightened child who was treated with extreme disregard and hatred by those who were meant to be your most ardent supporters,” Lilavati said, reaching out one hand and touching his arm.

“I know,” Manas said. “It doesn’t make it any easier knowing that I’m responsible for their deaths.”

“No, Great Lord. You’re not,” Ludger said. “Their murderers are answerable to the Twelve for their own actions, which included enticing a child to betray his own parents.”

“I was willing, even eager, to tell of their atrocities,” Manas said. “I needed to let someone know what they were doing.”

“Yes, and had it not been you, someone else would have escaped their grasp and spoken to whomever would listen of the evil spreading in Phiri Hu,” Lilavati said. “And you would have been slain in the ensuing battle, for the enemies of your parents would have sought to eliminate the entire bloodline, would they not?”

“Your early scholarly pursuits serve you well, katali,” Manas said with a lopsided smile. The cries of those behind them soon died down. He looked over his shoulder. Lilavati stole a glance of her own. There were pale faces and some tears, but no one seemed injured.

“We must push on,” Ludger said. “We can set up before the storm worsens.”

“Will these spirits come hunting for me, I wonder?” Manas asked, a hint of fear in his voice. “I can’t protect my people at night if they do. And it’s said a ghost’s true power is in darkness.”

“My people have similar tales,” Lilavati said.

“As do mine,” Ludger said. “Let me think on this, Great Lord. I might be able to come up with something to protect us.”

“I only hope you can,” Manas said. “They’re losing faith in me as it is. We’ve seen so much death since we left the Southlands.”

“Pasir Naik,” Lilavati said, as a tear slid down her cheek.

“What’s that, Great Lady?” Ludger asked.

“It is the true name no one seems to wish to give my home,” Lilavati said. “Pasir Naik.”

“Is that your city’s name?” Ludger asked.

“There are no individual cities, as you see here in the north,” Lilavati said. “We are what the northern scholars call city-states.”

“Essentially each city is its own country,” Manas said, grasping at the distraction.

“There is a ruler of all city-states,” Lilavati said. “His is a position granted by the gods, and not even the priests and priestesses will counter his orders. Our history is littered with the corpses of men and women who sat in that position, and those who paid for their depravities.” She paused. “It is said that those who bear the gift of the inkosi tiikeri come from the bloodline of the first God-King, the man who united the Southlands so long ago his name has been lost. He is now only known as the God-King.”

“You’ll have to tell us that story later, katali,” Manas said. “It’s not a tale I remember reading in my search for information on your home.”

“It is not one that is commonly told,” Lilavati said. “I am not even certain where I heard it, only that I know the tale.”

“The camp is just there, Great Lord,” Ludger said, pointing.

They rounded a corner and found themselves face to face with a vast, rolling, open area. Off to one side was a small nook where Manas’ tent could be pitched. The rest of the camp could be set a short distance from it. “I don’t like how close it is,” Manas muttered.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” Ludger said. “But look up.”

Manas did so. Lilavati followed his example. She gasped. Never had she seen so many shades of green in the trees of the north. Branches wove together and the different varieties of leaves tangled with each other in a kind of natural tent, protecting the clearing. Very few raindrops got through.

“We will be well protected from the weather here, sikha,” Lilavati said.

“Make camp,” Manas called. He turned to Ludger. “Then gather everyone together. We need to talk.”

“Yes Great Lord,” Ludger said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty six

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The three hours passed too quickly for Lilavati’s taste. Once the storm was done, the camp was torn down faster than usual. They were back on the road within twenty minutes.

It was still raining, so she wrapped herself in her rain cloak. “How are you faring, katali?” Manas asked.

“I am cold,” Lilavati said. “But the cloak is keeping me dry.”

“That’s its purpose,” Manas said with a smile. “How’re you feeling?”

“I am well,” Lilavati said. She gave him a sly look. “Though I would not mind a repeat of what you did to comfort me during the storm.”

Manas laughed. “That can be arranged, though not until after we make camp.”

“This pleases me,” Lilavati said with a hint of a purr in her voice.

Manas flushed, then gave her a dirty look. “You aren’t helping make this ride comfortable for me.”

Lilavati laughed. “My apologies, sikha. I will behave now.”

Manas just shook his head. “I have a feeling you are going to be quite a handful, my katali.”

“I have always been one,” Lilavati said. “I am simply changing my methods.”

Manas snorted. He opened his mouth to answer but his horse stopped and started shying. Lilavati’s horse did the same thing. Both of them pulled on their reins. Manas raised his fist. The company behind them stopped.

“Great Lord, why are we stopping? There’s another storm moving in,” Ludger said.

“There’s something here that’s frightening the horses,” Manas said.

A hiss caused the horses to whinny in fear. A rather large snake crossed in front of them, hurrying to get out of the rain. It hissed at them again before vanishing into the underbrush.

Lilavati rubbed her horse’s neck as he started to calm down. She kept her eyes on the road. When the horse was calm, she looked over at Manas. Manas nodded and raised his fist again.

“What was it, Great Lord?” Ludger asked.

“A large snake attempting to escape the storm,” Manas said. There were a few weak, relieved chuckles. After the past several weeks, Lilavati couldn’t blame them for being so fearful.

They’d traveled for a few hours when a distant rumble sent a shiver down Lilavati’s spine. Ludger joined them. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a fork in the road. “Follow the left path, Great Lord. We’ll find our next campground there.”

Lilavati bit back a shriek. “I will take my risk in the storm,” she said, unable to pull her gaze away from the ghostly slaughter she saw taking place in front of her.

“Great Lady, the next nearest place – with the pace we’d be forced to keep because of the storm – will put us at a campsite after the sun sets,” Ludger said.

“Ludger, do you know what happened in this place?” Lilavati asked, her voice cracking.

Ludger frowned. “What do you mean, Great Lady?”

“What do you see, katali?” Manas asked.

“Men, perhaps a hundred that are all well armed and armored, butchering so many,” Lilavati said. Her voice was loud enough to be heard by the two men but not by the others. “I see strange wagons painted bright colors that look like they would be drawn by horses, which are shot down by those men before their inhabitants can react. I see their victims coming out of the wagons and dying before they can reach for their own weapons. Then some of the armed ones go into the wagons and drag out all who are left inside. They are just women, children, and some elders.” Lilavati was glad the rain hid the tears on her cheeks. “They are killing them all.”

“There is no history of such a slaughter here,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, can you describe the clothing the men are wearing? Or the clothing of their victims?”

“The men all wear some kind of dark leather armor,” Lilavati said, trying to focus on the details rather than what she knew was coming. “There is a long vest they all wear belted at their waists. It bears the same pattern and what I am assuming is some kind of insignia or crest.”

“What are the colors?” Manas asked.

“The pattern is in black and silver,” Lilavati said. “The crest is harder to see, it becomes covered with blood so swiftly.”

“What of their victims?” Ludger asked.

“Men and women with skin lighter than mine though darker than yours,” Lilavati said. “Their clothing is full of bright color. The women wear skirts in jewel tones, and the men wear embroidered vests made up of all colors of the rainbow.” She stifled a gasp as she saw a child no older than two or three get beheaded. “The crest, I can see it.”

“What is it?” Manas asked.

“A black tree trimmed with scarlet,” Lilavati said. “It looks like it is weeping blood from its branches.” She heard the creak of leather as Manas clenched his fists. She tore her gaze away from the horror. “You know this crest?”

“It was my family crest, before I became lord,” Manas said. “And slaughtering the Vengari sounds like something my parents would order their soldiers to do.”

“Vengari?” Lilavati asked.

“They are nomads, Great Lady,” Ludger said. “Some are thieves, some are sorcerers, and others are just simple traders trying to make a living.”

“There are more of the last than there are of the former two,” Manas said. “But that wouldn’t have mattered to my parents. If they took any kind of dislike to a Vengar of any tribe, they’d have set out to slaughter however many Vengari they could get away with. And since the king in their day despised the Vengari, he’d have turned a blind eye to their soldiers chasing down the camps.”

“Great Lady, we don’t have a choice. We have to go through there,” Ludger said. “The site I want is far back in the trees. With luck we’ll ride past the length of your vision.”

“Close your eyes as we pass through,” Manas said. “I’ll make sure you don’t go astray.”

“You do not understand,” Lilavati said, her voice cracking even more. “It is not just what I see, but what I hear. I know every scream, every blade striking flesh. I know every laugh of those soldiers, the pleading of the women, the terror in the men’s voices as they struggle to protect their families.”

“We have to ride through it, Great Lady,” Ludger said.

“I will try not to show anything then,” Lilavati said. “It would do great harm to let those within this company know of my strange curse. I cannot promise I will be able to hold back however. Not with all that is happening there.”

“Just try, katali,” Manas said.

They turned left and drew closer to the entrance to the area where Ludger wanted to set up camp. As they started to pass through the edge of the fight, everything stopped and the eyes of the spectres turned on her. “They can see me,” Lilavati gasped, terror gripping her as the ghosts of the past aimed their weapons at the three living who rode at the vanguard of the company.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty five

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Ariane swiftly left the tent. “So what truly led to this?” Ludger asked.

“My desire to take her to my bed in more than the simple way of sleeping up against her,” Manas said. Lilavati felt her cheeks go warm. “Also my thoughts on the Halls of the Damned.”

Lilavati heard the not so subtle growl, but it wasn’t one of anger or fear. It was what you’d expect from a protective mother or perhaps a mate. “I do not think she intends on letting you face them alone,” Lilavati said, meeting Manas’ amber eyes with her own. “Nor do I.”

“‘She?'” Ludger asked.

“I have a tiikeri sleeping inside of me,” Lilavati said. “She awoke the moment I touched Manas, though I did not recognize it at first. Gradually, as I became more aware of myself as inkosi tiikeri, I heard her more often. Now my sikha hears her.”

“Interesting,” Ludger said. “We know so little of your people and even less of the strange powers you have.”

Lilavati laughed. “Ludger, even I do not know anything of this gift I carry. I learn more of what it means every day as I spend time with my – my husband.” She turned a glowing smile on Manas, who returned it with equal fervor.

Their idyllic moment was shattered by the sound of thunder. Lilavati shrieked and dove for cover under the blankets they’d just been sharing. “I see she isn’t fond of thunderstorms,” Ludger said.

“No she isn’t,” Manas said. “Neither am I, for traveling conditions.” He glanced at the sides of the tent and saw how dark it had gotten. “This one moved in very fast. It wasn’t but a few minutes ago that the sun was out.”

“I was worried about that,” Ludger said. “Great Lord, this is still the Daughter of the Twelve throwing tantrums. It’s nothing magical, but she’s going to be very unpredictable. I barely sensed this storm coming in. I need to get out there and see what I can do to help make certain our supplies are salvaged so we don’t go hungry.”

“Any idea how long this’ll last?” Manas asked.

“A few hours,” Ludger said. “I can feel the power behind this one. After that, if I’m reading the currents correctly, we should be able to move on. I’ve got a few campsites in mind that are close to this one in case we have to dive for cover. They’re not as well protected as the one I’d like to reach today, but they’ll do in an emergency.”

“Thank you, old friend,” Manas said. Lilavati felt a blast of cold air. The warmth returned quickly. She knew when Manas settled in beside her. “Katali, you can’t keep doing that. Phiri Hu is famous for its spring and summer storms. You won’t make an effective lady, not to mention give a poor impression to my neighbors, if you’re running and hiding from them.”

“Then I will make that poor impression,” Lilavati snapped from under the blanket. “I have no control over this fear, sikha. It is as if it is a part of me, just as my leg or my arm are.”

Manas slipped under the blanket and pulled her close. “Katali, I know how afraid you are,” he whispered in her ear. “But now, since we have the time and I am free to act, may I try to help ease your mind and pull you away from the fear?”

“How?” Lilavati asked.

Manas nibbled on her ear as he slid one arm forward, cupping a breast in his hand. “Like this.”

Lilavati gasped as he moved down to her neck. “Sikha,” she murmured, twisting so she could reach him. He caught her mouth in a kiss that shook her to her core. It left her trembling with desire. She reached up and pulled him back down, his desire for her pushing all fear of the storm out of her mind.

Within her, she could feel the need of her tiikeri as much as her own. When Manas pulled at the laces on the top of her dress, she let him untie them. She helped him remove her dress before assisting him in getting out of his clothing. The tension between them rose higher and higher until their bodies and souls sang in ecstasy as their mutual desire was finally satisfied.

Lilavati felt his heartbeat against her fingers as they lay tangled in the blankets, trying to catch their breaths. “My kalati,” Manas murmured, still gasping. “I have never wanted any woman as much as I’ve wanted you.”

“Never has any man caught my eye and held it for so long,” Lilavati said, taking deep breaths. The scent of his body was enough to send a faint thrill through her core once more. “And never has anyone excited my passion the way you have.”

Manas kissed her gently. “If ever there was more proof needed that what we did was right, listen.”

Lilavati frowned, then caught what he meant. Within her, the tiikeri was purring. She seemed as satiated and satisfied as Lilavati was. Lilavati smiled. “She is pleased this happened,” she said. She glanced at Manas’ chest. “Sikha, look to your curse mark.”

Manas glanced down and let out a choked cry. It had shrunk again. Not much, but it was still noticeable. “Katali, you do more for me than you know,” he said, his voice cracking. “All these years it’s only gotten larger. Now, with you in my arms, it’s gotten smaller.”

“It may begin growing again,” Lilavati said. “We cannot be certain it will continue to shrink, or stay the same size.”

“I know,” Manas said. He pulled her closer. “For this moment though, I’m going to enjoy the fact that it’s gotten smaller and that I have you here in my arms.”

Lilavati relaxed against him. “I will do the same,” she said. Deep within her, she could feel the hackles go up on her tiikeri, though she continued to purr.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty two

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It was Manas shaking her that broke the hold of the vision. “Katali, Lilavati, what happened? Your tiikeri was so loud I’m certain even those outside heard her, and you were sobbing and calling out something.”

Lilavati was still sobbing. She clung to him, heedless now of the storm, as the gruesome vision replayed itself before her eyes. A cool breath of air crossed her face as someone entered the tent.

Soon a cup of warm liquid was pressed to her lips. “Great Lady, drink this. It will help calm you,” Ludger’s voice rumbled in her ear.

Lilavati did as she was told and soon was able to regain some semblance of control over herself. Ludger rose to leave when both Manas and Lilavati each put a hand on his arm. “Unless you have a pressing need to be elsewhere, old friend,” Manas said, giving Ludger the new honorific. “I think the both of us would prefer it if you stayed here for a while.”

Ludger seated himself beside them again. “Only until just before the sun goes down,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of your curse to last me for a while, Great Lord.”

Manas grimaced. “Think how I feel, having lived for so long with it.” He shook his head. “Katali, now can you tell me what it was you saw?”

“Another vision of my parents with me and Nikitha,” Lilavati said, the warmth given by the tea draining away. Manas wrapped his arms around her and drew her up against him. “This time it was not of a hidden room in my father’s house, but outside the city. My mother was inkosi tiikeri, and we were walking in an area familiar to her. Her soul sister was off hunting, I think, and we were attacked by a large male.”

“What did this male tiger look like?” Ludger asked.

“Bigger than a normal tiikeri, though not even to your shoulder, sikha,” Lilavati said. “His eyes were pure green, almost the color of grass or emeralds. He had no fear of us and his attention was only on me. That was what it appeared as to me, at least. My mother was waiting for her soul sister to return when the great male pounced. My parents were knocked away, my father still clinging to Nikitha. The male drew his claws down my face.” Lilavati put her fingers on the claw scars.

“Then what?” Ludger asked when she was silent for too long for his comfort.

“My mother’s tiikeri arrived,” Lilavati said, curling against Manas. “The two of them attacked the male while my father pulled me to my feet and dragged me towards the city. The last thing I can remember seeing is the male slowly rip my mother open, as if he were enjoying the sight of my mother’s agony.”

“You were saying something as you cried, katali,” Manas said.

“What was it?” Lilavati asked.

Ama’ana,” Manas said. “You were saying it over and over again.”

“It is the child’s way of saying mother,” Lilavati said, her voice barely above a whisper. She pressed one palm to her forehead. “What is going on? Why am I having these visions? What do they mean? Which is true? Why can I not remember?” These final words she wailed, and the wind howled with her.

“What’s going on?” Ludger asked. Manas filled him in on the now two very different versions of how Lilavati got her scars, and how her parents were portrayed in both. He frowned. “Great Lady, someone has taken a great deal of care in blocking, changing, and quite possibly even erasing many of your childhood memories. I don’t have the necessary skills to break the blocks or to restore any that were damaged by the tampering.”

Lilavati choked on a sob. “How am I to know which of these is a true memory then, and not a fabrication of the foul dark magician who corrupted my mind?”

Ludger shrugged. “I don’t know, Great Lady. I’m not an all powerful being, like the Twelve. I’m also not as strong a sorcerer as you two seem to think I am. Yes, I can do certain things very well – such as what I did to Theda and those who followed her. In reality I can do a few large things with a certain degree of proficiency, but mostly I do small things immensely well and have learned how to chain enough of them together to make things work more efficiently.”

“It is the smallest pebbles that can bring down a mountain,” Lilavati said.

“Where did you hear that?” Ludger asked.

“It was in one of the books I read,” Lilavati said. She frowned. “This is why I am so puzzled. I retain all the knowledge I gained reading, but none of the memories of my actual life.”

“We’ll figure it out, Great Lady,” Ludger said. “You will have to talk to someone with different skills than me, though. I’m not the one to help you with this.”

“Thank you, old friend,” Manas said.

“I’m sorry I can’t do more,” Ludger said. He gestured. “I’ve put the same protections on this one that I did the last time. The only differences are that this time it isn’t if you two shed blood – it’s if someone means either of you harm – and no one will hear anything from this tent other than faint murmuring and then silence once the light goes out.” He paused. “Great Lady, as close as we are in here – and I had them place the Great Lord’s tent as far away from the main camp as I could and still have him protected from the weather – I suggest putting out the light before he goes through his change this evening.”

“It would give it away too easily if people were to see the shadows on the canvas,” Manas said.

“That’s not the problem,” Ludger said. “It simply won’t happen. It’s the sound, Great Lord. Even my spell may not be enough to blot out all of the sounds of your change if the lamp is still lit. Only when it is dark will you be fully protected.”

“I will be certain no light shines in this tent by the time my beloved must face his curse again this night,” Lilavati said. Ludger stood and, nodding, limped out of the tent. Lilavati became aware of the thunder once more and buried herself in Manas’ arms.

to be continued…

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