Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty four

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Manas frowned. “I thought your father told your mother not to say anything about that.”

“To me,” Lilavati said. “There was never any censure on her when she left the house.”

“So she could have easily told the entire city what you were,” Manas said. Lilavati nodded. “Aren’t those with your gift valued among your people?”

“It would depend on the method of the emergence of the power,” Lilavati said. She would have continued, but her mare stopped and tossed her head. Her body was stiff and she was sweating. “Manas, something is not right here.”

She looked up and gasped. Littered all around the vast field they faced were piles of dead. Some she could see were real, and in varying stages of decay. Others were the mere shadows she was growing accustomed to seeing. “What in the name of the Twelve?” Theda asked, putting her hand on the handle of the mace on her belt.

Lilavati could hear the feline deep within her snarling. “It’s here,” she said. “Watching us.”

“I doubt that,” Ludger said as he joined them. “Nothing would attack a party this large.”

“She’s right,” Manas said, his amber eyes filled with a hunter’s gleam. He looked around, watching and listening.

“I sense something dark in that direction,” Theda said, pointing.

“It is not there,” Lilavati said.

“Then where is it?” Ludger asked. Manas looked at Lilavati, who shrugged helplessly. “I’m more inclined to go with Preester Theda’s information. The power of the Twelve wouldn’t drive her wrong.”

“Then send ten men to investigate, but they’re not to engage whatever it is until they report back,” Manas said. “I want an idea of what we’re fighting.” Ludger nodded before heading back towards the ranks. Manas turned to Lilavati. “My dark scholar, can you sense it?”

“No,” Lilavati said. “Only that it is watching us and not where the preester is being led by the Twelve.”

“You’re certain of this?” Manas asked. Lilavati nodded. “How?”

Lilavati cast a look over her shoulder to make sure no one else was within hearing distance of her weakened voice. “Something awoke within me the first night we spent together. It is like a great feline itself. I have heard it speaking to me twice, and just now it has alerted me to the presence of danger as a cat would.” She patted her mare’s neck. “Also, she is near panic and our hooved sisters are taught to fear nothing.”

Manas put his hilt on his sword. “I wish I had the instincts I do when I am in beast form,” he muttered.

Lilavati looked at him, eyes wide. “You do not? All those under the curse of the shape shifter in my land do. It is a part of the change. The learning to hear and heed those warnings is most difficult, but it is possible.” She paused. “Especially if there is an inkosi tiikeri to help them.”

“Do you know how to awaken this awareness?” Manas asked, still looking around.

“I do not. I was not trained as most of my kind are,” Lilavati said. Her voice cracked. “I am useless in so many ways, and now I cannot even do what little I am capable of to any great extent.”

“You aren’t useless, Lilavati,” Manas said. “You barely know what you are. It’s only because of a single comment made by your mother, that she was punished for, that you have any inkling. We’ll learn what it means together.” Lilavati jerked her head up at the same time he did. “Pull back!”

Lilavati was able to pull her mare back before the beast landed on the road in front of them. The horse screamed in fear, giving voice to the sound that her rider couldn’t let out on her own. “By the Twelve,” Theda shouted. “What is that thing?”

Lilavati stared at the creature, struggling to keep her horse from bolting like so many of the others. The beast’s legs were covered in fur but scales covered the rest of its body. The face was that of a monkey, but in place of fur it had scales. Long pointed fangs extended from its jutting lower jaw. Black eyes glowered down on the traveling group.

“Lilavati, have you seen such a thing before?” Manas asked as he moved in front of her, his sword drawn.

“No,” Lilavati said. “It is unknown to me.”

“Not to me,” Ludger said, joining them. “It is a guljter medveda. They are drawn to places with stagnant magic.”

“We passed this way before. Why weren’t we attacked then?” someone asked.

“Figure it out later,” Manas said. “Ludger, how do we kill it?”

“We don’t. Only Master Magi from the capital could take it on and survive, and that’s if they were lucky,” Ludger said.

“How do you propose we get past it then?” Theda asked.

“We turn and run. It won’t follow us,” Ludger said. “We go back five spans and then turn to the west. A good three or four spans that way should get us out of its range.”

“You four, ride at Lilavati’s back,” Manas ordered, pointing to four of the battle ready soldiers. “Defend her.”

“Yes Great Lord,” one of the men said. Lilavati could see their expressions. A sense of dread filled her.

“I’ll ride with them,” Theda said.

“Stay with your guards, my dark scholar,” Manas said. Lilavati nodded. With the chaos swirling around them he wouldn’t hear her voice. She headed back down the road, those sworn to protect her at her back.

They were just past the line of sight of the rest of the group when her mare shuddered and let out the scream of a dying animal. It fell, taking the frightened woman with it. As if they hadn’t seen anything, the preester and her guards rode on. Unable to cry out, Lilavati fought to free herself from the saddle.

A strange wheezing growl froze the blood in her veins. She looked up into a pair of cold, black eyes. Another guljter medveda stared down at her, drool dripping from its gaping maw. She screamed with what little strength she had as it roared and lunged towards her.

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty two

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Hearing those words sent shivers through Lilavati, and with them another vision of the mortuary priests. This time she saw the terrible wounds on her mother’s body. She shuddered and buried her face in Manas’ shoulder.

“I am tired of these visions,” she said, her voice muffled. “Everywhere I turn I see nothing but death.”

“I know, my dark scholar,” Manas said. “I know. You’ve told me some of what you saw at the Barrier, Theda told me a little of what you saw on our way, and now these dreams of being buried alive. Ah, I have cursed you with my own madness. I should never have taken you from your father’s house.” She heard the bitterness, the anger.

“No.” She lifted her tear streaked face and met his amber gaze. “Do not ever say that. For I truly believe that if you had not come for me, I would not have lived another year.”

“You feared someone in your city?” Manas asked, stroking her back.

“No,” Lilavati said. “Within my own home.”

“Who?”

“My mother,” Lilavati said.

Manas continued rubbing her back, but said nothing. “Can you tell me why you think that?” he finally asked.

“My mother was a cruel woman,” Lilavati said. “No one saw this. Those outside the home saw a kind, generous woman who showed great charity in not throwing her ugly daughter out into the streets. There was no kindness there. My father would not permit it.”

“If she couldn’t throw you out, you think she wanted to kill you?” Manas asked.

“I was poisoned eleven times until my father spoke privately with my mother. Then they stopped. Even though I am as graceful as I am I would often have falls so dangerous that they nearly did end my life. Again, my father spoke to my mother and those incidents stopped,” Lilavati said. “How can I not think she sought to kill me?”

Manas stroked her hair. “Hush, my dark scholar. She can’t threaten you here.”

“No, but others can,” Lilavati said. She fell silent for a few minutes. “Manas, what are we to do? My curse will drive me mad the closer we draw to Phiri Hu. I will be no fit bride for you by the time we enter your halls.” She wept softly. “I am nothing but a burden to you. Perhaps it would have been best if the assassin’s arrow had ended my life.”

“I don’t ever want to hear you say that again, Lilavati.” The snarl of the tiikeri was strong in his response to her statement. He forced her to meet his eyes. “I can’t live any longer without you at my side. We’ll find a way to do something about this curse on you.” He paused, then started swearing. “I’ve not taken a drink since it affected you so badly. I’m beginning to wonder now if this is truly an accident.”

“You think this was done deliberately to harm you?” Lilavati asked.

“I’m not sure,” Manas said. “It makes more sense than some strange northern herb giving you the ability to see the dead.” He kissed her forehead. “I need to check with Ludger, to see if my suspicions are correct.” He paused. “I don’t want to leave you alone.”

“It is better to know if strange magic was used. There may be some way to end this blight if we know the truth,” Lilavati said, pushing back her fear of being left alone.

Manas pulled her close again. “I don’t know how, but I can sense your fear, my dark scholar. I’m not going anywhere. I can talk to Ludger as we travel.”

“I feel so foolish, so useless,” Lilavati said, the tears returning. “I have no strength to aid in any way. I am no seer or cleric to give my advice as the gods or stars speak it to me. I have no magic, so I cannot protect myself, let alone anyone else.”

Manas cut her off by kissing her. “Lilavati, you are far from useless. You’re the one person here who truly knows me. The preester knows my story, she’s seen my transformation, but I’ve never let her near me. You, you can approach with no fear.” His voice was just a breath in her ear. “Even when you were ill, I forced the preester to bring you to me. You clung to me while I was in my beast form. It was as if you knew I was there, that I wasn’t going to let anything harm you. She even said you were more at peace when you were with me. That’s why I wouldn’t let her take you anywhere else, even during the day.”

“How long have we been stopped because of my illness?” Lilavati asked.

“Does it matter?” Manas asked. “Lilavati, you are worth as much to me as my own life. I’ll find an inn and stop for the rest of the summer and all the way until next spring if I must. I will have to talk to the preester about finding a way to contain my curse during that time, but it can be done. We’ve managed it before.”

“No,” Lilavati said. “Ludger said it would take two months, if we did not have more delays. Would it not be better to bring your people home? Give them the end to the journey they must desire by now?”

Manas smiled, his amber eyes full of a deep emotion that warmed Lilavati deep into her soul. “I knew you’d say something like that. That’s why I told Ludger to find a particular saddle. I have one that should prop you up and keep you on the back of your horse. I know that under normal circumstances you can stay mounted once you’re on, but in your weakened state I don’t think that’s possible right now.”

Lilavati thought for a moment. “No,” she said. “I would most likely fall.”

“Well my dark scholar, I shall be your servant today,” Manas said, slipping out from under their blanket. He wore nothing but his breechclout. He smiled. “I saw to it that your laundry was properly dealt with while we were stopped. “Is there one particular traveling gown you’d like to wear?” He held up the white one with the stripes reminiscent of his own. “Perhaps this one? Along with the hood?”

Lilavati managed a laugh. “I would very much enjoy wearing those,” she said. Manas lifted her easily and took her over to a tub. He helped her bathe and easily slipped her into her clothing before donning his own. He sent a guard for Ludger, Theda, and a few other servants. As she watched him move, she saw in him the sleekness of the tiikeri, something she’d missed before.

She shivered and ran her hands up and down her arms. Inkosi tiikeri.

to be continued…

 

Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty one

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Lilavati knew that Ludger and Theda were watching her the entire time they were traveling that day. The storm drew closer and Lilavati could see everyone pulling out cloaks and covering things that were in burlap and canvas sacks.

Ludger tossed something to Theda. “Here, Great Lady,” Theda said, helping Lilavati put on a strange article of fabric. “The Great Lord sent this for you. It’s his spare rain cloak.”

“He said to tell you that you’re to stay in the cart, even when they cover it with canvas,” Ludger said. “Which is the same thing you were going to hear from me, so it’s good to know he understands how fragile you are.”

“How soon before we need to cover it?” Theda asked. The sky darkened and a blast of wind caused Lilavati to pull the cloak tighter around her.

Ludger smiled wryly at Theda. “How about now, Preester,” he said.

Theda jumped out and started helping where she could. It didn’t take long before a large piece of canvas was thrown over the top of the cart. Lilavati curled up on her side and waited.

“Let me out. Father, please let me out. I am not dead. Mother is. Father, let me out.”

Lilavati jerked, as if she’d been stabbed. She opened her eyes wide and tried to sit up. Her head brushed the canvas, but to her, it felt like wood. She shuddered and struggled against the cloak, which was now a burial shroud that she should never have been given.

“Father, father, I am not dead. I did not die. The tiikeri killed mother, not me. Why am I being wrapped in a burial sheet with her? Father, why will you not answer me? Father, why are you letting them say I am dead? Why do they call me a spirit? Father, they are hurting me. Father, father, do not go. Do not leave me!”

Lilavati screamed and thrashed around, struggling to find a way out of the hellish vision that now held her attention. She screamed her throat raw and still no one came. A little voice in the back of her mind told her that he was coming, her tiikeri. The one who would protect her, who was her mate, who stood with her. Once again she let the darkness consume her.

She woke but didn’t know where she was. Lilavati shuddered and tried to sit up. She was weaker than before. Someone sensed her movement for an arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her closer to a very warm body.

Lilavati turned her head. She found herself staring into a pair of accusatory amber eyes. “I told you to rest, dark scholar,” Manas said. “I wanted you to stay beneath the canvas, and yet I was told you nearly ruined the supplies by pulling it off. Why?”

Lilavati closed her eyes. The tremors started again. “It was a vision,” she whispered, not realizing she was speaking in her own tongue. She felt Manas pull her even closer, until her head was against his chest. She rested her cheek against it, listening to his heartbeat.

“What kind of vision?” Manas asked.

“Of my father,” Lilavati said. “And – I think – myself and my mother. Yet it was not my mother, for this woman was dead and my mother lives.”

“Tell me,” Manas said.

“We were being wrapped in a burial sheet. Mother was dead, which was why she was being prepared for her tomb. But I was still alive. My father watched everything happening. He was glaring at me, as if he hated me,” Lilavati said. Her voice broke. “I was pleading with him, asking him why I was being buried with my mother since I was still alive. He walked away, never answering me.”

“Do you know how your mother died?” Manas asked.

“A tiikeri,” Lilavati said. “She was killed by a tiikeri. I was telling my father it killed her, not me. I could not see either my mother’s face or my own body. But I saw the cold masks of the mortuary priests from the temple, and I saw my father’s hatred.” Lilavati burst into tears.

She heard muffled speaking, and then Manas’ voice cut across everything. “I don’t care what you say. Ludger, I’ve been weaker than this and still ridden. You’ve also said you had a few other saddles similar to mine. Do you have one that will fit Lilavati’s horse? And be comfortable for her?”

“Yes, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “But -.”

“There will be no more discussion,” Manas snapped. “I have given my orders. You will obey them.”

“Yes, Great Lord,” Ludger said. He stalked stiffly out of the tent.

“Great Lord,” Theda said, her tone sharing with them both her feelings.

“Preester, I am well aware of your thoughts on this. You’ve been telling me every chance you could get for the past two days,” Manas said. “No harm came to Lilavati, other than what her visions gave her. You say you can’t, as of yet, rid her of these dark dreams?”

“No, Great Lord. I’m not even sure what it was in the potion that affected her, and I’d rather not make the Great Lady even sicker by experimenting,” Theda said.

“I see,” Manas said. “Either find a way to end the curse, or start searching for a way to preserve my dark scholar’s mind when we draw closer to Phiri Hu.”

“I’ll do as you say, Great Lord,” Theda said.

“The rest of you, leave,” Manas said. “I’ll send one of my guards to summon you again if I need you.” Lilavati heard several soft voices, and the sound of fabric being moved. Then there was silence. Manas held her for a few heartbeats before drawing her in as close as he could. “My dark scholar, don’t ever do that to me again.” His voice cracked. “You are the other half of my soul. You are my life.” He paused. “You are the inkosi tiikeri, and I am your beast.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty

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Theda helped Lilavati to the low seat next to Manas’ as everyone gathered for the morning prayer. Lilavati slumped forward, her strength failing her. A strong arm wrapped around her. “Lean on me, my dark scholar,” Manas said, kissing the top of her head. “I’ll hold you up.”

Lilavati gratefully relaxed against him. Theda led the morning prayer, admonishing everyone to be on the lookout for traitors and to care for Lilavati as they were asked to because she was their lord’s savior. There were several grateful looks cast in her direction at the end. Manas kissed the top of her head again but released her when Ludger came to claim her.

“Great Lady, how’re you feeling today?” Ludger asked.

“Well rested,” Lilavati said, smiling up at him. “I do not have the strength I want however.”

Ludger shook his head. “You won’t for a long time. Most likely not until we reach Phiri Hu.”

“How long will that be?” Lilavati asked.

“Well, barring the stop we need to make to get you some proper clothing, we shouldn’t need to make any more unscheduled breaks in our traveling pattern,” Ludger said, frowning in thought. “So I’d say a month and a half if we’re lucky, but more likely two months.”

Lilavati nodded, suppressing a shiver. She had two months to find a way to break the curse of her haunted sight. Ludger pulled her to her feet and steadied her as they walked to the carts. He sat her on the ground on a cushion while the one he wanted her to ride in was loaded.

Manas came to check on her. “Are you all right, my dark scholar?”

“No,” she said. “But I cannot speak of why at this moment.”

“Will you tell me later?” Manas asked. Lilavati nodded. “Then I will be satisfied with that.” He knelt down beside her and leaned closer. “I wish you could ride. We would be able to talk more easily then.” His voice was soft in her ear.

“As do I, for I have much I wish to know and you are the only one who can tell me these things,” Lilavati said. She looked at him longingly. “How I wish I were not so weak.”

“You’ll get your strength back, my dark scholar,” Manas said. He kissed her before rising to his feet. “Ludger, make sure she’s comfortable.”

“I will, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “The preester will also be riding with her, so she’ll have some company to keep her from getting bored.”

“That’s good to know,” Manas said. He looked at Lilavati once more before striding off.

Lilavati wiped the tears forming in her eyes. It was foolish, but she was afraid every time Manas walked away from her it would be the last time she saw him. Ludger jumped down and lifted her up. He set her on the back of the cart before pulling himself up next to her. He got her settled against the pile of cushions and tucked a light blanket around her.

“The weather is clear, for now,” he said, squinting at the sky. “I don’t know if the storm I sense will break before or after the sun goes down. But if it does start before we reach our next campsite, I do have a cloak for you. The preester will help you put it on.”

“Thank you Ludger,” Lilavati said.

“You are quite welcome, Great Lady,” Ludger said. He patted her shoulder before leaping from the wagon.

“Ludger is unique, even among his people,” Theda said as she climbed in. “I’ve been to the area of the Northlands where his tribes live. They’re a hardy people. All of the men are tall like Ludger, and as well muscled, but Ludger towers over even them. He would have been an outcast among them, which is why I think he was willing to take the Great Lord’s offer of employment.”

“He is different from other sorcerers I have heard of,” Lilavati said. “The ones in our city were cold, aloof. They never mixed with the populace and if you wished their aid they would demand a high price. Those who received such assistance never talked about what they paid, but from what I knew of the few my father did business with, it was not coin that the sorcerers wished.”

Theda nodded. “There are some sorcerers out there like that, Great Lady. Such as the dark sorcerer that ensnared the minds and hears of the Great Lord’s parents. You will find Ludger is nothing like them. He craves knowledge and the Great Lord can provide him with that.”

The women were silent for several minutes as the caravan finally got under way. Using the noise of the cart and pounding feet as a cover, Lilavati lowered her voice and said, “Theda, how do I rid myself of this curse? I cannot enter Phiri Hu in two months and retain my sanity. I will not let Manas see me go mad because of the depravity of his parents.”

“I don’t know, Great Lady,” Theda said. “I’ve been praying to the Twelve for help, but so far they’ve given me none.”

“We have to tell Manas,” Lilavati said as the strange feline that now dwelt in her soul spoke to her for the first time. “He may have some ideas.”

“Great Lady, he’ll feel guilty that he cursed you in the first place,” Theda said.

“Perhaps,” Lilavati said. “Then he’ll want to do everything in his power to release me from it before we reach his home.”

“Great Lady, if Ludger is right, there will be a storm this evening. It won’t be safe for you to be out with him,” Theda said.

“I will decide that,” Lilavati said coolly. “As will Manas. I will consult him before I make my decision.”

“Great Lady, in your weakened state you could fall deathly ill,” Theda said.

The feline spoke again. “When I am with him, when he is changed, as long as I am covered and protected from the weather, I will be fine,” Lilavati said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty nine

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Manas’ screams turned to roars. The cracks, pops, and tears completed and the giant tiikeri laid on the ground in front of the two women. Lilavati waited patiently until Manas regained his senses. “I will go to his side now,” Lilavati said.

“I’ll help you, Great Lady,” Theda said.

“No,” Lilavati said. “It will not be safe for you.”

“Great Lady, you don’t have the strength to walk to him,” Theda said.

“I trust in him,” Lilavati said, her voice quivering a little. She took a deep breath and stood.

Manas watched her as she took a few shaking steps. As her legs buckled, Manas lunged across the clearing and spun around so she could fall against his side. Theda was on her feet, but as Manas helped Lilavati slide down to the ground, she sat back down.

“Great Lady, are you all right?” Theda asked.

Lilavati didn’t answer at first. She soaked in the intense feeling of the bond between her and the immense cat now at her back. “I am well,” she said before Theda could get too worried. “I did not think I would be able to experience this again. I truly thought I would die.”

Manas growled softly and shifted until he was wrapped around her. She laughed and curled against him. His side rose and fell as he breathed and she listened with delight to the sound. Her eyes grew heavy and she relaxed.

“Great Lady, do you want me to wake you in the morning?” Theda asked. Lilavati wasn’t sure what she said, but Theda’s laughter told her that the preester understood. She slipped into the troubled sleep of a dreamer caught in the midst of nightmares.

It took Theda actually calling her name to wake her the next morning. Lilavati uncoiled from the ball she was in and looked over at her. “Good morning, Preester. Was I so deeply asleep you could not come close to wake me?”

“No, Great Lady. But the Great Lord would not let me approach,” Theda said.

That was when Lilavati realized Manas was growling low in his throat. She leaned against him and dragged herself to her feet. “My amber eyed love,” she whispered. Manas’ head snapped around. “I must go now, else there will be difficulties.”

Giant teeth seized her arm. There was no pain, only pressure. “He doesn’t want you to go,” Theda said. “Don’t anger him, Great Lady. Stay for now. We have time.”

“All right,” Lilavati said. She slipped back down to the ground. Manas looked at her and she could see the anxiety in his eyes. She reached up and rubbed his nose. “I am fine, my amber eyed love. I am with you still.” Manas laid his head down and closed his eyes. Lilavati could tell that he wasn’t asleep though. His tail lashed back and forth. “My love, relax. I will not leave you until the change comes again.” The tail stopped moving.

When Manas pulled away on his own, Theda came over and helped Lilavati to her feet. Manas’ body shifted back to human. The agony plain in his screams tore at Lilavati’s heart. When he was back in his human form and had dragged himself to his knees, she pulled away from Theda and went to him.

“My dark scholar, thank you,” Manas said hoarsely. “I wasn’t sure how much longer I could pass another night alone and maintain my sanity.”

“My amber eyed love,” Lilavati said, pressing one shaking hand to his cheek. “I will be here every night, as long as I am able.”

Manas pulled her close. He kissed her with all the passion he could. “You should go now, my love. You don’t want to be caught with me in this condition.”

Theda was finally able to pull Lilavati away from Manas. She got her back to their shared tent and helped her bathe. Lilavati was able to dress herself, but found herself with something of an issue.

“What’s wrong, Great Lady?” Theda asked.

“I have no clean travel hoods,” Lilavati said, rummaging through her baggage. “At least none that I can find.” She fell back. “And I have no more strength to look.”

“Let me see if I can find one,” Theda said. She dug through Lilavati’s packs. “Hm. I can’t find one either, Great Lady.”

“I cannot bring another curse down on Manas. I have to cover my hair,” Lilavati said.

“Great Lady, I heard your prayers last night,” Theda said. “The Twelve shared them with me. They have taken you as their child, though you were born to the sands. Do you think they will let an evil from a foreign land harm any of us when it’s obvious they approve of you and your bond with the Great Lord?”

Lilavati played with one of the ebony plaits that fell to her waist. “I do not know your gods,” she said slowly. “But they granted me what I asked for, so I am more inclined to believe in them than my people’s false deities.”

“Don’t expect them to do that every time,” Theda said. “Our gods are more likely to make you solve your own problems. This was definitely a situation where they needed to intervene though.”

Lilavati took a few deep breaths. “Then I will leave them uncovered.”

Theda reached out and took her hand. “You’ll be fine, Great Lady.”

Lilavati looked out of the tent and shuddered. She saw more dead dancing in nonexistent breezes as they hung from the trees. “Theda, Phiri Hu is Manas’ home,  yes?”

“It is, Great Lady,” Theda said.

“Is it the site of his parents’ atrocities as well?” Lilavati asked.

“It is.” Theda blanched. “Great Lady, your visions. Phiri Hu will drive you mad.”

“Then I must find a way to end my curse,” Lilavati said. “Else Phiri Hu will become my tomb.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty eight

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Lilavati dozed off. It was Ludger’s voice that drew her out of troubled dreams. Opening her eyes, she barely managed to bite back a cry as they passed beneath a tree. Hanging in ghostly horror were hundreds of men, women, and children, each stacked on top of each other.

“I didn’t mean to startle you, Great Lady,” Ludger said.

“It was not you, Ludger,” Lilavati said. “My dream was not a fair one and I was still lost in it when you woke me.” The tree was gone and she relaxed a little.

“Ah, that’s a common occurrence after nearly dying, Great Lady,” Ludger said. “You’ll probably have them for a long while.”

“How close to death was I?” Lilavati asked.

“We feared a few times that you’d actually stopped breathing, Great Lady,” Ludger said. “The Great Lord didn’t fare well at all while you were unconscious.”

“How long was I in darkness?” Lilavati asked.

“Four days, Great Lady,” Ludger said.

“When may I resume tending to myself? Riding my horse at Manas’ side? Walking through the camp with him?” Lilavati asked.

Ludger sighed. “I don’t know, Great Lady. I have no idea what poison was used, nor do I know how it affected you since you’re not from the north. We’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Lilavati tugged at the skirt she was wearing. She saw the dirt on it. “When we stop, I would at least like the chance to bathe and put on clean clothes.” She gestured to her travel hood. “To the outfit that matches this, preferably.”

“Great Lady, pale clothing doesn’t do well on the road,” Ludger said.

“If I am confined to the cart,” Lilavati began.

Ludger chuckled. “You bring up a good point, Great Lady.” His face grew solemn. “The preester says you wish to stay with her at night.”

“She is a woman, and I feel more comfortable with her help for certain things,” Lilavati said. “It is also a matter of morality. I am to be Manas’ wife. I cannot let another man see me in any way that could compromise my virtue.”

Ludger shook his head. “Great Lady, you worry me sometimes with how quick your mind works,” he said. “How can you possibly think of these things so soon after waking up?”

“I cannot move very swiftly without aid,” Lilavati said. “I was barely able to move myself into this position on my own. What else, then, do I have that I am free to use but my mind?”

Ludger chuckled. “I think I agree with the preester. The Great Lord chose correctly when he plucked you out of the sands.” He shifted his bulk around until he was kneeling next to her. He held up a waterskin. “I need you to drink this. It’s going to taste awful, so swallow as much as you can as fast as you can.”

“How much must I take in?” Lilavati asked.

“A good six or seven gulps should do,” Ludger said. “I’ve got water and something else to take the bitter out of your mouth when you’re done.”

Ludger helped her hold the waterskin. His rough hands dwarfed hers as she squeezed the bag of liquid. She barely managed to get down the required amount. Ludger handed her a cup of water and she drank it. “Ludger, is it common for the mouth to burn after drinking this?” she asked.

“Yes Great Lady,” Ludger said. “Which is why I brought you something else.” He handed her another waterskin. “You can drink slower on this one. It’s also harmless, so you don’t have to worry about it making you ill.”

Lilavati drank carefully, pausing after each mouthful to see how she felt. The burning faded. She passed the waterskin back to Ludger. “Thank you for your aid, Ludger. I am most appreciative of being in the capable hands of both a skilled magic user and a cleric.”

Ludger chuckled again. “You’re very welcome, Great Lady. And I’ll say this for you – you’re far easier to deal with than the Great Lord. When he gets sick he can become violent.”

“Truly? Is it only because of fevers?” Lilavati asked.

“Most of the time, yes,” Ludger said. “Other times?” He shrugged. “I’m not sure what goes on in his head. But I’m loyal to Lord Manas, Great Lady. No one will ever change that.”

“I am pleased to hear this, Ludger,” Lilavati said. “He needs those loyal to him around him.”

Ludger furrowed his brow. “What do you know of his need for loyalty, Great Lady?”

“Do you know the story of his past?” Lilavati asked. Ludger nodded. “So do I.”

“Who told you?” Ludger asked.

“He did.”

Ludger reared back on his heels. “You’ve certainly won his heart, Great Lady. I hope you don’t break it.”

“He is part of my soul, Ludger. It would be as if I was slicing away a piece of my own body were I to harm him,” Lilavati said, her voice barely above a whisper.

The giant sorcerer heard her. His shoulders sagged. “You speak truer than any woman he’s ever taken into his heart, Great Lady. You don’t know how many times he’s been hurt. Preester Theda has never given such an admonition as she did the day you were injured, and I’ve never seen such devotion in the eyes of any of the others. I think you’ll do.” With that, he jumped over the side of the cart.

Lilavati dozed off and on during the rest of the day. Theda came to her as the company stopped for the evening. “I’ve made arrangements to have my tent set up close to the Great Lord’s. I’ve said it’s to offer him a chance to visit with you before we seal ourselves away for the night.”

The camp was set up and as twilight drew closer, everyone closed their tents. Manas, Theda, and Lilavati sat together in a clear area far from the camp. “Are you sure you want to do this, my dark scholar?” Manas asked.

“Yes, my amber eyed love,” Lilavati said. She was shaking and she struggled to hide it. She didn’t know what was going to happen. She knew the great wildcats attacked the weakest animals, and she was prey in her current state. Manas groaned, stripping off his clothes. It was time. He screamed and all Lilavati could do was cling to Theda’s hand and pray to the Twelve for the first time in her life, hoping they would hear a woman not of their people.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty seven

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It was the jerking and creaking of the cart that finally woke her. She opened her eyes to find Theda sitting next to her, a very concerned look on her face. A look of relief flooded her face when she noticed Lilavati looking at her. “Praise the Twelve,” she breathed. “Great Lady, you live.”

“I do,” Lilavati said, her voice little more than a weak whisper. “What happened? I do not remember much.”

“Alister was sent to end the union between the two of you,” Theda said grimly. “Since he couldn’t kill you, and he apparently tried several times, he decided to go after the Great Lord. You chose to take the arrow for him. But you were poisoned as well as shot since the arrow contained a vial that broke when it struck you. I am no great healer, and Ludger did all he could. But without knowing what you were hit with, we couldn’t do as much as we wanted to.”

“Is Manas safe?” Lilavati asked.

“He is, and I’m about to get his attention. He wanted to be told when you woke,” Theda said. “Unless you don’t want to see him?”

“No, I must see him,” Lilavati said. The feline in her was yowling in distress. She needed to see that he was all right before she could settle down again.

“All right,” Theda said. She vaulted over the side of the cart. A moment later she was on her horse and trotting up to the front of the line. A few heartbeats later, Manas was next to the card.

“My dark scholar, you’re alive,” Manas said, joy radiating from his face.

Lilavati smiled, the sensation of needed to feel his touch getting stronger as she watched him ride beside her. She stretched out a shaking hand. He leaned to the side and caught it in his. That touch satisfied the strange hunger inside her and the feline that seemed agitated inside of her relaxed and curled up once again.

“My amber eyed love,” she whispered, now knowing the truth of her feelings.

Manas’ eyes filled with tears. “I thought I lost you,” he said softly. “Why did you do that?”

“You told me the meaning of love before Alister chose to attempt to fulfill his mission,” Lilavati said. “I could not let it happen. I made my choice at that moment to preserve your life.” Tears trickled from her eyes. “You are too precious to me for me to allow those who follow the dark path to deliver you to your Twelve.”

“But to lose you, that would have destroyed me,” Manas said.

“And what life would I have had without you?” Lilavati asked. “I have none. To return home would bring death. I have no tie to these lands. What would I become?”

“I love you, my dark scholar,” Manas said.

“And I am now convinced I love you, my amber eyed love,” Lilavati said.

“Ludger and Theda will be tending you for now,” Manas said. “Listen to them so you can regain your strength.”

“I will.” Lilavati clung to his hand for a moment longer before releasing him so he could return to the head of the line.

Theda climbed back into the cart. “Did that help?” she asked. “I could feel the chaos in your soul.”

“It did,” Lilavati said. She looked at Theda. “I must be with him tonight.”

“Great Lady, you’re too weak to move very far,” Theda said. “Ludger and I haven’t been able to heal you that much.”

“I have no care for that,” Lilavati said. She heard the urgency in her own voice, weak as it was. “I do not know why, but I must be with him. There is something wrong and I need to be there to protect him.”

“Great Lady, you could die if you have to protect the Great Lord,” Theda said. “I can go to keep him safe.”

Lilavati struggled to sit up. “No. You are not a inkosi tiikeri. It is I who must be there.” She managed to work herself up and propped herself against a pile of bags. Sweat poured down her face. A few of her braids fell into her eyes. She put her hand up and found she wasn’t wearing a travel hood. “Why am I so undressed?”

“We needed to watch you for fever, and your travel hood covers a good portion of your forehead. We had to leave it off, Great Lady,” Theda said. “I’ll help you put one on now.” Theda rummaged in a pack and pulled out one of Lilavati’s travel hoods. It was the white one with the stripes. “Now I think this one is appropriate.”

Lilavati smiled. “As do I.” With some help she got all of her hair tucked under it. She felt much better when none of her braids were showing. “I shall have to wash my hair soon, as well as my body.”

“I bathed you myself yesterday, but I couldn’t wash your hair because I didn’t know if I was supposed to take the braids out or not,” Theda said.

“No woman removes her braids until she is with child for the first time,” Lilavati said. “There is a way to clean them thoroughly without releasing the hair.” She rubbed her left wrist. “Preester, you will find a way for me to be with Manas tonight.”

Theda inclined her head. “As you wish, Great Lady.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty six

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Their walk to the gathering area garnered a lot of attention. It was obvious that Manas’ servants and guards hadn’t seen their lord happy in a long time. Nor had they expected to see him so attached to Lilavati so soon. She kept her head high. Her steps were as graceful and sleek as always.

They reached the gathering area. Only a handful of the camp was there, but Manas assured her that the rest would be joining them soon. Manas took her to a seat that had been set up especially for him. There was no room for her to sit with him though. He frowned and beckoned over a servant. “Isn’t there another seat similar to this one in the stores?”

“I believe so, Great Lord,” he said, bowing.

“Then go get it for Lilavati,” Manas said.

Lilavati shivered. Hearing her name from Manas’ mouth sent a thrill through her, the way he lingered over it slightly. The servant must have replied because he scampered off. It took several minutes for him to return, and by then almost everyone was there and seated.

Manas and Lilavati settled onto their stools and waited. Theda appeared a moment later, clad in pale silver and blue raiments. Her long black hair was twisted into a simple knot on the top of her head. A headband wrapped around her forehead, keeping the loose tendrils of hair that had fallen from the knot out of her eyes.

Theda smiled at everyone. She took a deep breath and began. “Grace be to all.” The gathered servants, guards, and Manas murmured the phrase back at her. “We have been given many blessings on this journey. Among them is the presence of a woman who eases the burdens of our Great Lord’s heart. She is worth more than the many treasures he paid for her bride price. I have looked into her soul and witnessed beauty there above and beyond what man can see. Thank the Twelve now for her presence, and for her obvious love for our Great Lord.”

Lilavati was startled by the pronouncement at the end. Did she really love Manas? Everyone bowed their heads, so she did the same. She sneaked a glance at Manas and found he was doing the same thing. His expression was full of curiosity. She mouthed the word later and he made the faintest nod.

“Grace be to all,” the crowd said as they lifted their heads.

“Let us travel down the road with light hearts and steady minds, strong in our faith in the Twelve and in the choices of our Great Lord and Great Lady,” Theda said. “Grace to all.” She turned and walked away.

Manas took Lilavati and led her away from the group. “Is Theda right?” he asked. “Do you love me?”

“I am not certain of this,” Lilavati said. “I have never known real love from anyone, except perhaps my younger brother Kavi. So how do I know if I love you? What is love?”

“I don’t know what everyone else’s explanation is,” Manas said. “But I know mine.”

“What is it?” Lilavati asked.

“I believe love means you’re willing to take risks to be with the person you care about. It is the willingness to risk your life for them. It is the willingness to accept them for who they are, no matter what their flaws,” Manas said. “Love means you will do what you can for the other person, no matter the personal cost. It is the desire to spend your time with the person above others.”

Lilavati stayed silent for several minutes. Manas waited, a sweet smile on his face. “I was willing to die to face you last night,” Lilavati said softly. “I wish to be in your company above all others. You have become the center of my world. Is this love?”

“It can be,” Manas said. “If you choose it to be.”

“I do not know,” Lilavati said, frowning. She reached out and placed her fingers on his cheek. A shock went through her fingers and for an instant she could feel the turmoil in Manas’ heart. She stepped forward, leaving her hand on his face. “I choose this feeling, and you, over all things in this world.” Her voice was soft, and she slid into his arms.

“My dark scholar, I chose well,” Manas said. He pressed his lips against hers again. This time the kiss was filled with fire and passion. Lilavati felt a stirring inside, a feeling of the satisfaction of a feline at the end of a successful hunt. The kiss ignited a hunger and satisfied a longing. She basked in the feeling even as she felt a strange prickling on the back of her neck, as if danger lurked behind her.

Manas released her and took her hand once more. Lilavati smiled, but the uneasy feeling didn’t pass. As they walked towards the wagons a movement that seemed out of place caught her attention. She turned to see Alister pointing a strange weapon at them. It looked like a very odd bow.

As he released the arrow, Lilavati pushed Manas out of the way. The arrow pierced the back of her right shoulder, tearing through muscle. Her arm went numb and she dropped to her knees, gasping for breath. Tears ran down her cheeks. Manas shouted for the guards to take Alister down while he grabbed for Lilavati. He tried to get her to answer him but she couldn’t hear him. Blood rushed in her ears. Her vision narrowed to her focus on his amber eyes. And then everything went dark.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty four

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Lilavati put her hands over her mouth to stifle her screams as she heard bones snap and joints pop. She watched as patches of fur covered Manas’ skin. His body contorted into unnatural shapes before he ended up on his hands and knees. She saw his legs shift and bend until they were the hind legs of a tiger. His hands and arms did the same thing.

His back arched and his spine elongated. A tail sprouted out at the base of it. He was now a beast covered in fur shaded orange with black stripes and a white underbelly. His face was the last thing to change. The look of pure agony changed as his nose and mouth were pushed forward as his skull grew larger and changed into that of the giant feline.

His mouth widened and great, long fangs grew in place of his human teeth. His nose flattened and widened across the flat area above his mouth. His ears moved to the top of his head. They lost the shape peculiar to humans and became the fur covered ones normal to all cats.

The roar ended and the tiger – far larger than any Lilavati had ever seen – lay sprawled on the ground. “Be very quiet,” Theda whispered. “This is when he’s the most dangerous. He hasn’t yet regained his human senses.”

Lilavati sat frozen, her hands still clasped over her mouth. Theda grabbed them and pulled them down into her lap. Lilavati remained unmoving, her crimson eyes focused on the beast in front of them.

Manas opened his eyes and stood up shakily. Lilavati watched as he shook his  head. He wandered around, staggering a little. She wanted to reach out to help him, something inside of her pulling her to the massive beast. But she held firm where Theda sat. She knew the preester was her only protection right now.

Finally, Manas seemed to gather himself. He turned and his gaze found the two women. He growled a little before he settled his eyes on Lilavati. He fell silent. He sat down and seemed to be waiting for something.

“Is this a normal occurrence?” Lilavati asked, her voice a faint whisper.

“No,” Theda said. “I think he expects you to go to him.”

“Then that is what I shall do,” Lilavati said. Ignoring the preester’s hissed warning, she stood. She moved slowly, with the same grace – a feline grace, she remembered it being called once – towards Manas. He didn’t growl. He didn’t shift his position. He didn’t even twitch his long tail. He just waited.

She got within touching distance of him and stopped. She held out her hand. He tipped his head down and buried his nose in it. He sniffed it for several seconds before licking it once with his rough tongue. Lilavati laughed breathlessly as she finished closing the distance between them.

Standing beside him, his head was level with hers. She leaned against him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Lilavati buried her face in his fur and took in the scent of blood and spice. She looked up at him and whispered, “I do not fear you.”

Manas let out a sigh and dropped to the ground at her feet. He wrapped his tail around his nose and closed his eyes. Lilavati moved around to where she was next to him and sat down. She leaned her back against his side. He simply moved his tail to make room for her.

Theda approached them cautiously. Manas raised his head and growled, but when Lilavati put a hand on him he settled back into his resting position. “Great Lady, no one has ever dared do what you just did,” Theda said in a quiet, awe struck voice. “Weren’t you afraid?”

“No. He needed me and I answered that call,” Lilavati said. She yawned and closed her eyes. “If I had a tail I would wrap it around myself as he has done. It is a chilly night and I did not think to bring a blanket.”

“I’ll get you one,” Theda said. “I think you’ll be better off staying with him than joining me for the night. I have a feeling he’d attack me if I tried to move you now.”

Manas’ tail fell over Lilavati. Lilavati laughed softly. “I think you are right, Preester.”

Theda moved off softly and returned a short while later with a blanket and a small bit of food. Lilavati ate while Theda watched and handed the bowl back to her. Theda made sure she was properly covered up before leaving the two of them alone. Lilavati closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

It was cool skin she woke to just after dawn. She started to rise but a strong arm pulled her back down. “You were here all night,” Manas whispered, his voice cracking. She could hear the emotion in his voice though she couldn’t name it. “You never left me.”

“No, I did not.” She rolled over so she could look at him. There were tears on his cheeks and a mixture of fear and something she’d never seen before shone in his eyes. “Manas, you are my maitearean. I do not know what the word would be in your language, but for my people, it means our souls are intertwined. We cannot be separated. We are bound to each other in a way no other would understand.” She brought one hand up and rested it on his cheek. “And I do not fear you.”

Manas choked on a sob. “My dark scholar, I chose right.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty three

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“The marks on her face are similar to yours, though not as deep, Great Lord,” Theda said. “It could be you chose her for more than just her mind, without even knowing what guided you in the choosing.”

“You’re saying this demon that now clings to my soul, devouring my will to live and destroying all that it sees, can be tamed by a woman from a land I’d not even heard of before I started this journey?” Manas asked, his voice rough and shaky.

Theda shrugged. “Who knows? Can you honestly tell me that you’d have ignored those scars on her face if you weren’t convinced there was more to her than just her intelligence?”

Manas opened his mouth but closed it again. He stared deep into Lilavati’s eyes, his amber boring into her crimson. “Dark scholar, how is it your eyes are that color instead of the more natural brown or green of your people?”

Lilavati shook her head. “That is something I cannot tell you for I do not know. Neither of my parents mentioned it, and when I asked I was punished for my curiosity.”

“Were you ever not punished for things?” Manas asked irritably.

“Great Lord, it isn’t her fault her family kept things from her,” Theda said. “And it was her mother, not her, who was punished for talking about the scars.”

Manas took hold of Lilavati’s hands and pressed them to his lips. “Forgive me, my dark scholar. Talking about that evil creature, and thinking of the possibility of hurting anyone during the fulfillment of the curse, sickens me.”

“Great Lord, the Great Lady and I will be here tonight. I’m not going to lock her away in her tent. She needs to see this, and I want to see if my hypothesis is correct,” Theda said.

“And if it isn’t?” Manas asked.

“She’ll still be protected as I’ll be with her,” Theda said. “I won’t let you hurt her.”

“Very well,” Manas said. “For now, we should rejoin the others. I’ll have Sieglinde set up her tent anyway. My dark scholar will need some sleep.”

“Have her things moved to mine,” Theda said. “I think I want her to stay with me tonight, just in case.”

“Very well,” Manas said.

They rejoined the group. Sieglinde hurried over to them. “Great Lady, come. We must set up your tent,” she said.

“The Great Lady will be staying with me tonight,” Theda said. She smiled. “I’ve been enjoying our conversations on how her religion differs from ours, and I wish to continue them.”

“I too desire this,” Lilavati said, returning Theda’s smile. She wondered what terrible form the curse took at night, when Manas made his people hide away from him.

“Then I’ll move her things to your tent, Preester, and put my things in with the other servants,” Sieglinde said. “I hope you can answer some of her other questions as well. Or she’ll be asking me even more when we go back to sharing the same tent.”

Theda and Lilavati laughed. If Lilavati’s sounded strained to her, Sieglinde made no mention of it. “Trust me, Sieglinde,” Theda said. “By the time I’m done with her, she’s going to have so much to think about she won’t have time to think of any more questions.”

“I don’t know, Preester. You answer one question and she has five more ready,” Sieglinde said with a mischievous smile. Lilavati and Theda laughed and Manas just shook his head, grinning like a boy. “I’ll go get your things, Great Lady.” She bowed to Manas and scurried off.

“Sieglinde is a very odd woman,” Lilavati said.

“She’s perfectly normal for a woman of the north,” Manas said.

“Not quite,” Theda said. “She’s been given more freedom than most, so she’s a little less restrained. The Great Lord treats his servants well, and offers them many things that they wouldn’t receive from another Great Lord. So she is much freer with her laughter and jests than she would be elsewhere.”

“That’s true,” Manas said. “I’d forgotten that. I think it’s a carryover from seeing how my parents treated the servants during their rule.” He shuddered, the haunted look returning to his eyes. “I never want to be like them.”

“You’re nothing like those depraved lunatics, Great Lord,” Theda said. “You are a fair, compassionate ruler and we’ll let no one speak against you.”

“Thank you, Preester,” Manas said. Someone called for him and he strode off.

“Are you truly all right with this, Great Lady?” Theda asked. “I’ve taken away your choice in this and I apologize. If you don’t want to witness this, tell me and I’ll let the Great Lord know. We can spend the evening in my tent answering each other’s questions.”

Lilavati took a deep breath. “I will see this through,” she said. “I must know what it is that has happened to him, so that I may understand him better.”

“Then we will join him just before sunset,” Theda said. Lilavati helped the preester carry some food to her tent and sat down to enjoy a late lunch. Theda convinced Lilavati to take a nap so she’d be ready for the night ahead. Lilavati, exhausted by the emotional upheavals of the day, complied.

Just before sunset, Theda led Lilavati to where Manas’ tent was set up. He was pacing outside of it. “I don’t want her here, Preester,” he said when they arrived. “I changed my mind.”

“Obviously,” Theda said with a wry smile. “But she hasn’t.”

“Manas, I do not wish to leave,” Lilavati said. She moved in front of him, forcing him to stop. She cupped his face in her hands. His moved to cover hers. “I would have learned of this when we reached Phiri Hu. Let me see it now, when I have more time to think on what I see.”

Manas kissed her forehead. “I fear I may harm you, my dark scholar,” he whispered, tears in his eyes.

“The preester will protect me,” Lilavati said. “I am not afraid.”

Manas pulled her into a tight embrace, pressing his lips to hers. Lilavati returned the sweet, gentle kiss willingly. He let her go and glanced at the sky. “Return to the preester’s side. Now.” Lilavati ran to Theda’s side. As the last rays of the sun started sinking behind the horizon, Manas stripped out of his clothes. He tossed them to the side. When twilight spread itself over the land, Manas let out a scream – that turned into a roar.

to be continued…