Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty eight

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Photo via Visual hunt

“By the Twelve,” one of the men shouted, a lamp held high in one hand and a sword in the other. “You never said he was that huge.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sieglinde said. Her golden hair was plastered to her head from the rain Lilavati could see falling outside. “Kill him, and find the Great Lady.”

The servants and soldiers that once served Manas started forward. Manas launched forward, landing on the first man. The lantern fell to the ground. The flame went out, but Lilavati saw Manas’ jaws close over the frightened man’s head. He tore the head off and sent it flying out into the night.

Manas let out a snarl mixed with an inhuman cry as a sword slashed against his side. Blood oozed down the fur, crimson mixing with orange. “He can be killed,” the second man said.

“Then do it,” Sieglinde repeated.

“I see the Great Lady,” the third man said. He pointed with his sword. “There, behind the pile of supplies.”

Sieglinde slipped around the fighting. Lilavati watched her approach, rage growing deep inside her. “Great Lady, you need to come with me,” Sieglinde said. She glanced down. “Goodness, you’re not even clothed. We should remedy that and then I’ll help you out of here.”

“You act as if I am not here of my own free will,” Lilavati said, her anger giving her voice more strength. Sieglinde stepped back, eyes wide. “I chose to enter the circle, to learn of my beloved’s curse. I am the one who can stand beside him with no fear. I will not go with you, and I will see you dead for your betrayal.”

Sieglinde scowled. “If you aren’t under a spell you’re as cursed as he is. You must die.” She raised the kitchen knife she carried as a makeshift dagger.

Lilavati moved to the side, letting the strange feline inside her control her movements. She twisted so she could keep her eyes on Sieglinde as the young woman stumbled. “You will never be able to slay me, or my beloved. We will see you sent to your Twelve, and let them judge you for your crimes.”

“We are the chosen of the Twelve,” Sieglinde said, lunging at her again.

Lilavati moved again, gasping as the knife grazed her leg. She fell, rolling to the side to avoid the blade once more. Blood trickled down her leg. The scent reminded her of something, a memory from long ago.

She looked around for a weapon even as she continued to dodge Sieglinde’s attacks. This false strength wasn’t going to last much longer. She spotted Manas’ dagger and dove forward. She got her hand around the hilt and pulled it from the sheath. She dodged Sieglinde again before spinning to face her.

“Do you think you are the only chosen?” Lilavati hissed, her voice sounding almost like a cat’s snarl. “I was granted a gift, one I thought a curse. But I see now I was touched by the Twelve. I was simply forced to wait for my beloved to find me to learn this truth.”

“You think you, an outsider, was chosen by our gods?” Sieglinde asked. She laughed hysterically. “You’re a liar as well as cursed. Die, gods curse you.”

“If you are to be believed, they have,” Lilavati said. She lunged forward, blade in hand.

Lilavati knew nothing of hand to hand combat. Sieglinde seemed to know some, but Lilavati’s swift and brutal flurry of attacks threw her off balance. The natural grace Lilavati was known for in her own land allowed her to move efficiently through a series of maneuvers until she forced Sieglinde back. The traitorous servant reached Lilavati’s barricade and fell over it, the blade dropping out of her hand.

Lilavati ran around to the other side and kicked it out of her reach. “Do you think the Great Lord will kill me? He’ll have your word against mine. I doubt he’ll remember any of this when he shifts back in the morning and I can tell him you attacked us,” Sieglinde said. “We’ve served him for years. He’ll listen to us over you.”

“His memory is clear whether he is in tiikeri form or human,” Lilavati said. She put the knife to Sieglinde’s neck. “And as I am soon to be his wife, as well as being the love of his heart, I think he will forgive me for this.” She slashed the treacherous woman’s throat, cutting as deeply as she could. Sieglinde twitched twice as blood poured from the wound, but fell still.

Lilavati screamed as another blade cut across her back. “Witch,” someone snarled. “Murderess. Vile demon.”

She twisted, ignoring the agony, to look into the mad eyes of Sieglinde’s brother Ansgar. He must have slipped in during the fighting. Lilavati could hear the snarls and screams, which meant Manas was still fighting his own battle.

“It is you who are the vile ones,” Lilavati said, her voice weakening. The strength she’d had fighting Sieglinde was leaving her. She tried to call it back but it drained out of her like water through a sieve. “You who betray your lord and seek to murder him. He has no choice but to answer to this curse, as the demon of his past returned to strike him down.”

Ansgar raised his sword. “He should have killed himself rather than inflict his cursed blood on us. Then we’d be free to seek other masters and prevent our children from being tainted by this dark magic. May the Twelve devour your soul and leave nothing but pain behind.” The blade plunged towards Lilavati’s unprotected body. She couldn’t even raise the dagger to defend herself.

A blast of freezing air slammed into Ansgar, knocking him across the tent. The young man dropped his sword, howling in pain. The rest of the assassins met the same fate.

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty seven

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Manas carried her inside. “Set me there,” Lilavati said, pointing. “This way I am close to the water to bathe myself.”

“I’ll help you with that and get you changed,” Manas said. He winced. “That’s all I’ll have time for, my beloved.”

“That is all I require this night, my love,” Lilavati said. She smiled and ran her fingers across his cheek. He shuddered and looked at her, his amber eyes full of desire.

He got her bathed and then started putting her night clothes on her. She stopped him. He looked at her in surprise. “You don’t want to wear this one?”

“I do not wish to wear anything,” she said. “I remembered something I read while we rode today. An inkosi tiikeri bonds even better with their tiikeri if they are unclothed when they lay against them.”

Manas looked at her sharply. “You aren’t lying to me, are you?”

Lilavati smiled at him. “I do not lie to those I love.”

“And you love me?” Manas asked, his voice low and pleading.

“I do,” Lilavati said.

Manas kissed her gently. He pulled away, groaning in agony. He staggered to the center of the tent, tearing his clothing and the binding off. Lilavati shuddered as once again she heard the cracking of the bones and his screams. When the change was done, she let him stalk around for a few minutes before she struggled to her feet.

She started towards him and dropped to her knees. Her legs were very weak. Stubbornly she tried again. She fell once more. Crying in frustration she watched him still pacing. He needed her. She couldn’t wait. She crawled forward.

Manas must have seen the movement. He turned to look at her. His low growl died in his throat. He moved as close to her as the tent would allow and laid down. She reached him and pressed into his side. He wrapped himself around her and dropped his massive tail over her to provide as much warmth as he could.

She smiled up at him and stroked the short fur on his nose. She closed her eyes and relaxed. Soon she drifted off to sleep.

“Father, father, I am not dead. Do not leave me,” she screamed.

“You are dead to me. You cursed your mother with your presence,” her father said.

“No! She protected me. I did not curse her,” she screamed as the shroud was wrapped around her legs.

“Anup, you will be cursed by the Thousand in your next life if you seal your daughter,” one of the masked ones said. “Are you certain you wish to dare their anger?”

Her father paused, and she could see the fear in his eyes. “Release her, and speak of this to no one. I do not wish to be cursed by those of my own people.”

She crawled off the slab and staggered up to her father, the infected wound on her face making her weep. “Father, father, what did I do?”

Lilavati woke with a start, tears streaming down her face. What were these dreams. This one did not bring fear, but a deep and aching grief. She wiped her eyes and looked up in time to see a bright light. At first she thought the sun was up. A fear gripped her heart. Was it that her presence had kept Manas in his cursed form? Then she remembered what Ludger told them before leaving.

She looked up at Manas. He was watching, a low growl emanating from his chest. She shifted to let him know she was awake. He glanced down at her. “Rise, my love. I can move so you are free to attack.”

Manas got to his feet. She crawled as fast as she could to an area where she could barricade herself with the supplies in the tent. She didn’t move against any of the walls or into a corner, fearing they’d try to cut through the canvas to strike at them.

They both heard the voices. “I don’t see the tent. I know Ludger put it out here.” The first voice was gruff and angry.

“I’m sure he hid it with other spells.” Lilavati’s internal feline snarled in anger. That voice was familiar. It was Sieglinde. She sounded just as angry. “He knows about the Great Lord’s curse.” Her use of the honorific was sarcastic and full of scorn.

“How did you learn of it?” someone else asked.

“I went to check on the Great Lady that first night she spent with him to see if she needed anything. She was curled up against him as if he were nothing but a giant kitten, not a murderous monster,” Sieglinde said.

“He couldn’t have been the one to kill so many of us all those years ago,” someone protested. “He was out fighting with us. The preester was among those who saw him.”

“That may be, but he is just the same as that dark creature,” Sieglinde said.

“Why do you want to kill the Great Lady so much now too?” another voice asked.

“I don’t,” Sieglinde said. “I want to save her. It’s my brother who wants her dead.”

“Are you going to do what he said?” the first voice asked.

Sieglinde snorted. “Do I ever? We get the Great Lady out and kill the beast. We’ll find some way of releasing the Great Lady from his spell once he’s dead.”

“I don’t think Ansgar will agree to that,” the first speaker said.

“Ansgar is my problem,” Sieglinde said. “Look for the tent.”

“There it is,” someone said. Manas crouched, tail lashing, and Lilavati braced herself as a thin blade slipped into the nearly invisible seam where the opening was. It slid down and the small assassination team entered.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty six

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Photo via Visual hunt

 

“I know what follows me,” Manas said. “I’ve known its face since I was a child. But you, what harm have you ever done to anyone that would make them want to hurt you?”

“I do not know,” Lilavati said. “I do not even know why I have become their target, other than I agreed to your offer and my father accepted the bride price.”

“These attempts on your life began before you left your father’s house,” Manas said. It wasn’t a question but Lilavati nodded anyway. “This is maddening. I want to know who’s doing this and if they’re connected to me in any way.”

“They must be, for they did not start until after our meeting,” Lilavati said. “They have continued even though I left my people’s lands. I wish to know who and why.”

“I agree,” Manas said. The promised rain started falling. He helped her get her hood up before pulling his own in place. “I don’t know what to do, my beloved. But we’ll figure something out.”

They rode on well into the time when they should’ve already been camped. Manas watched Ludger as he took over leading the company, his anxiety radiating from him. Lilavati could hear Manas’ breathing grow labored as fear took over his mind.

Finally, Ludger called a halt. “Great Lord, Great Lady, we’ll erect your tent first so we can get you out of the rain.” He paused. “Great Lord, we may not have everyone inside their tents by twilight.”

“You’d better,” Manas said, dismounting and helping Lilavati down. “I don’t care for having my orders disobeyed. Especially when I saw no need for us to press on as far as we did.”

“I’ll explain it in the morning, Great Lord,” Ludger said. Orders were given and people scrambled into action.

“Great Lord, if you wish, I can take over care of the Great Lady now,” Theda said.

“Preester, why is it you seem so determined to insert yourself into our lives right now?” Manas asked. “I am quite capable of taking care of her myself.”

“This late in the day?” Theda asked quietly.

Manas ground his teeth. Lilavati was confused. She leaned in. “Why do you fight her presence so much, my love?” she asked in his ear.

Manas lowered his head so he could whisper directly to her. “I don’t want anyone around me tonight but you. I’m agitated enough I don’t think even the preester’s aura would keep her safe.”

“I see,” Lilavati said. “Yet you do not wish to tell her this because you fear she will try to force us to be apart.” Manas nodded. Lilavati did her best to straighten herself and give the impression she was stronger than she felt. “I am capable of tending to myself that I will be well enough until morning.”

“Are you certain, Great Lady?” Theda asked.

Lilavati nodded. “I am.”

“Very well then. I’ll go help set up the rest of the camp,” Theda said. She walked off, spine stiff and steps quick and hard.

“She isn’t happy,” Manas said.

“We refused her obvious demands when we have never before given her cause to think we would,” Lilavati said. “She is also highly placed in your religion?” Manas nodded. “That is twice the blow to her then, for she is also accustomed to having her own way because of the power granted by her position.”

“Let’s make sure Ludger does what I’ve instructed him to do. We don’t have a lot of time to argue with him,” Manas said. Lilavati nodded. She let him carry her again, knowing that they had little time to spare.

Ludger was working on getting the tent set up. “Great Lord, I hoped to have this done before you and the Great Lady arrived.”

“Yes, in the hopes it would spare you the argument,” Manas said. “This is too close to the camp, Ludger. You know my orders are immutable. Move it farther away.”

“Ludger,” Lilavati said, catching both men’s attention with her soft voice. “The tent is too close to the camp for my comfort. I do not trust these men and women we travel with. Not after what I have experienced since I left my father’s lands. I only trust my beloved and you, though that trust has been given with some reservation. Please do not make him debate this issue with you so late in the day.”

Ludger gave her a crooked grin. “You’ll serve him well as a wife, Great Lady. You understand him, and our politics, better than you think.” He beckoned to the servants and the tent was moved the appropriate distance from the camp. “I’ve renewed all the usual spells, as well as adding a few new ones.”

“What did you add?” Manas asked sharply.

“A charm so someone’s eye will pass over the tent as if it isn’t even here, though that won’t last through a determined search,” Ludger said. “A spell that will allow you to hear if anyone approaches the tent, even if they’re trying to be quiet. If they’re cloaked in some kind of silence ward or spell, you will see light brighter than the early morning sun. Finally, a spell that will -.” Here Ludger lowered his voice. “That will keep the screams of your curse from being heard throughout the camp, since I couldn’t move you farther away.” Manas looked at him sharply. “Great Lord, I’ve known from the day I arrived what form your curse took. I don’t know how the Great Lady is able to survive being with you, but if she is – and brings you comfort – then I’m not going to say anything more.”

“Thank you, Ludger,” Manas said.

“You saved my life, Great Lord. I will serve you until the day I die,” Ludger said, bowing. He led the guards away.

“We need to get inside,” Manas said, casting a look at the sky. Even though it was raining, Lilavati saw enough of the light to know the time was growing late.

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 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 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…

Tiger, Tiger – Part twenty

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Manas joined them at that point. “You don’t what, my dark scholar?”

“She doesn’t regret leaving her home, in spite of your secrets and her new curse,” Theda said.

“Preester, it’s my secret to keep,” Manas said.

“That is something we need to discuss after we set up camp,” Theda said. She gave Manas a look Lilavati couldn’t identify. “Great Lord, this conversation must be held at your tent.”

“Preester, that’s not something I’m willing to do,” Manas said.

“Then this union isn’t going to work and you shouldn’t have brought the Great Lady out of the Southlands,” Theda said.

“Why do you say such things of your Great Lord?” Lilavati asked.

“I call him Great Lord because I’m attached to his household,” Theda said. “We actually hold an equal rank to each other, and those above me in the temples outrank him. Only the High King holds equal power to the Archpriest, but that’s something for another day.” She fixed Manas with a stern look. “Great Lord, I know you think you’re doing this to protect her, but keeping her in ignorance is most likely one of the reasons she’s so susceptible to an assassin.” She paused. “Great Lady, I would ask that – when we get into the discussion – you tell the Great Lord what you remember of your mother’s tales of your facial markings.”

“I will do my best,” Lilavati said. “I must see what I can draw up into the front of my mind.”

“Great Lord, this isn’t a request. We will be having this conversation at your tent,” Theda said.

Manas glared at her but finally bowed his head. “It will be as you say, Preester.” He turned and rode off.

“He is angry,” Lilavati said.

“Of course he is. I challenged his authority and reminded him that while his comes to him through inheritance and secular power, mine comes from the Twelve,” Theda said. “It may not seem like much to you, Great Lady; not with your disdain for your own religion. But for us? This means a lot, and to defy me when I pull what I just did is to argue with the Twelve. That’s dangerous and could lead to so much more trouble for him.”

Ludger called a stop a short while later and Lilavati watched as the camp was laid out. Sieglinde found her talking to Theda, their horses having already been claimed. “Forgive me, Preester, but I need the Great Lady so we can set up her tent,” the golden haired servant said.

“You can set it up yourself, Sieglinde,” Theda said. “The Great Lady and I will be meeting with the Great Lord shortly at his tent.” Sieglinde’s eyes widened. “Yes, he knows we’re coming. Make sure everything is set up for her, and make her something to calm her nerves. She’s most likely going to need it.”

“Yes Preester.” Sieglinde gave what Lilavati thought must be the typical obeisance to a religious leader and scurried off.

“We’ll wait a little longer. Things need to be more settled,” Theda said. She glanced at the sky. “We have several hours yet before we need to worry. Let us hope he doesn’t try to draw it out so we don’t have to discuss all that’s necessary.”

“Manas does not seem to be a man who would delay a situation to avoid it,” Lilavati said.

Theda snorted. “He’s very good at that, Great Lady. It’s one of the many reasons he’s lasted as long as he has at Phiri Hu.”

Manas came up to them a short while later. “Let’s go to my tent,” he said, scowling. “I dislike being forced into things, Preester.”

“So my predecessor told me,” Theda said, looking completely calm. “To the Twelve, what a mortal likes has no meaning. It’s what is necessary for the safety and well being for the whole group that matters.”

“And this conversation will be vital for everyone?” Manas asked, gesturing to the entire band of soldiers and servants as they walked away from the main body.

“It is for you and the Great Lady, and that is the gathering I’m concerned with right now,” Theda said. “I’m already irritated with you right now, Great Lord. I told you not to give the potion to anyone without dire need.”

“I felt it was a dire need. She wouldn’t have stayed in her saddle otherwise, and she brought up a very valid point,” Manas said.

“Which was?” Theda asked.

“That being an outsider was bad enough. If I were to insist she ride in a cart, what little respect my people were giving her would be gone. They would no longer be as diligent in serving and protecting her because she’d be seen as a burden,” Manas said.

“Is this what you saw, Great Lady?” Theda asked, turning to her.

“It is,” Lilavati said. She frowned when they stopped. “Is this where we are going?”

Manas sighed and sat down on one of the large rocks. “Yes, my dark scholar. It is.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eighteen

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Theda looked intrigued. “I’ll exchange one story of our gods for a tale of the way your people look at spirituality,” she said. “We can go on this way until we make camp.”

“I will agree to that, so long as you do not let anyone else call you from my side,” Lilavati said. The latter half of the comment was barely heard, but Theda nodded.

“Then I’ll begin,” Theda said. “And what better place to start than with the creation of our world?”

Lilavati moved unconsciously to allow herself to match the movement of her horse as she turned her attention to the preester. “How do your people say how it was formed?”

Theda’s face grew solemn. “In the beginning, there was the Void.” Lilavati shivered. “Then Bolorrma, Mother of the Darkness, and Ikeena, Father of the Light, joined together and created the sun, the stars, and the moons. They pushed the Void back and sealed it away behind a barrier of light and shadow. Now, there was light in the universe, and some substance, but still no life. So Bolorrma and Ikeena created this world and set upon it twelve beings of the purest form. They gave the care and governing of this newly formed creation into their hands.”

“So those twelve beings are your gods?” Lilavati asked.

“They are. We believe that, when they saw how barren and empty this new world was, they decided to give it life. They covered it with everything they could think of to make it perfect for their children, and then spun our races out of their own essence. They were  young gods, so their creations were imperfect, but in their eyes that made us interesting to watch,” Theda said. “So they watched.”

“If they are so pure, why do they allow such things as wars, famine, and disease to kill so many?” Lilavati asked.

“A very good question, and one I asked many times when I first entered my training,” Theda said. “I was told to seek the answer myself and I would find it.” She smiled gently. “I won’t ask you to do the same thing, as you aren’t a preester with access to all the things I did.” Her face grew serious again. “Great Lady, the reason the Twelve let such terrible things happen to us is the fact that they made us mortal. We can die where they cannot. We are also not a peaceful people. By our very nature, we must fight. We’re made up of weak flesh rather than pure form, and our bodies are vulnerable to such things as disease and hunger. They let these things happen so we can be free of our frail flesh and rejoin them as beings of pure form.”

“Why not simply give all people a certain length of time they have to live and in the end let them go in peace?” Lilavati asked.

“Another thing they have given us, Great Lady, is the freedom of choice,” Theda said. “We aren’t mindless creatures, strictly following the orders of divine beings – though they have given us some guidelines. We get to be who we want to be. Unfortunately those who choose the wrong path can cause suffering for others. It’s not fair, it’s not what those who suffer choose, but it’s the way of life. Things aren’t meant to be fair either, Great Lady. I see that question in your face. But the pendulum of power swings always and things balance themselves out in the end.”

“An interesting idea,” Lilavati said.

“So, tell me a bit about your people and what they believe,” Theda said.

“I cannot say much about the Thousand, not because I do not wish to but because I do not know,” Lilavati said. “I was taught little about them, other than their laws and what I am forbidden – as a woman – to do. Many women chafe under these laws, but as the men prefer it as it stands, nothing will change because there are not enough of us who wish to challenge the laws.”

“I’d think there would be many,” Theda said.

Lilavati shrugged. “Perhaps the way we are taught drives all thought of resistance out of their minds. Our spirituality though comes out of our ties to our home.” She fell silent for a moment. “Each day is new to us, with the spirit of the world speaking to us in whispers of what wonders it could hold as we wake. We listen and make our plans. Water plays a very big part in our ceremonies, whether the little ones we do as part of our daily rituals or the great ones to celebrate the turning of the seasons, ancient festivals celebrating events we no longer even have records of. They are traditional parts of our lives, and we must follow the never ending cycle of our lives until they end.”

“That doesn’t sound very spiritual to me,” Theda said. “It sounds more like a forced tradition that you’ve been taught is spirituality.”

“You may be right,” Lilavati said. “But that is the way I view things.” She closed her eyes. “I do not know how much longer I can stand this.”

Manas rejoined them. “Ludger says there’s a good spot another eight spans up the road where we can camp. He’s muttering about how it’s too early, but I told him the life of my dark scholar is more important to me than our progress. We’ll still get to Phiri Hu with plenty of time to spare before it gets too hard to get through the passes.”

Theda nodded. “I’ll continue riding with you for a little longer, Great Lord, if you don’t mind. I think I’m needed to steady the Great Lady.”

Lilavati opened her eyes and nodded. “Please Manas. Let her stay.”

“Of course, Lilavati,” Manas said, using her name for the first time since the exchange that ultimately freed her from her father. “Be calm. Ludger says we’re almost through this area. We’ll be on to a flat stretch known as the Barrier, and then we’ll be good. Can you hold on that long?”

“What’s the Barrier?” Theda asked.

“Somewhere that’s going to be hard on my dark scholar,” Manas said grimly.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixteen

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Manas’ eyes widened, and he brushed his free hand lightly over his belt, where the flask was hooked next to his dagger. “Has this ever happened before?” he asked.

“Never,” Lilavati said. She felt sick as she watched a boy no older than Kavi have his intestines torn out of his body and placed in his hands by a burly fighter even bigger than Ludger. “Can we please leave this place? I do not know how much longer I can conceal the worst of my reactions.”

“We’re leaving right now,” Manas said. “Ludger, are you certain you know where we’re going?”

Ludger gave him a frustrated look. “You’d know it too, Great Lord, if you’d let me teach you to read maps.”

“Perhaps I’ll let you do that this time, old friend,” Manas said. He held up his hand and the entire group moved out. Lilavati barely concealed a whimper as the sounds of the servants and guards mixed with the specters of the past to create a cacophony of fear in her mind.

Manas kept as close to her as he dared as they rode, talking to her as they went. Though she couldn’t track the conversation for more than a few seconds, she was grateful he was helping her conceal her disorientation. Finally the worst of it passed as they got away from the battlefield.

Something Manas said finally registered long enough for her to form a thought around it. “You say it is going to take a month or more to travel to Phiri Hu?” she asked.

Manas smiled, a look of relief in his cat like eyes. “It is, depending on the roads.”

“And how often we have to stop for the Great Lady’s shadowy assassin,” someone muttered.

Manas heard it as well as she did. He turned in the saddle. “If you would do your jobs and make sure she wasn’t harmed, we wouldn’t have to worry about that. Now focus and do what I pay you for.”

“Do not be so harsh on them, my amber eyed lord,” Lilavati said. “As I told you, they do not know me. I am the oddity they have been forced to admit into their number. They will learn to accept me. Or not. It must be their choice.”

Manas eyed her steadily. “You believe quite firmly in choice, don’t you?”

“Yes I do,” Lilavati said. “I did not have to accept you. My father would have been very angry, and I’d have died at his hands the night we met, but I could have chosen that fate. Truthfully, that did not cross my mind in the slightest until much later. I was too intrigued by why you would pay so high a price for someone considered so ugly by her people, and even by her own family.”

“I heard of you, my dark scholar, because of that description. I chose to approach you because of it. Your father spoke of your intelligence in a pitying voice as if it was a burden you were forced to bear rather than something to be valued,” Manas said.

“Because it is, among my people,” Lilavati said. “A woman should be beautiful, accomplished in the womanly graces, and talented in one thing our society considers appropriate. I was taught all that I needed to be to serve a husband well, but my intelligence was never spoken of when my father attempted to find me a suitor. It was not considered a virtue to be praised.”

“In my lands, an intelligent woman is an asset to her husband,” Manas said. “It’s why my sister was such a highly sought after prospective bride. She very nearly married the prince of our kingdom.” A dark look crossed Manas’ face. “I’m glad she didn’t, but there are days where I wonder if she should have.”

“Did some ill fortune come of her refusal of his suit?” Lilavati asked.

“Yes, and it isn’t something I’m going to discuss on the road,” Manas said. “You’ll have to wait until we reach Phiri Hu.”

“Why do you keep me ignorant of something that does affect me, for I know it is the reason I am locked away at night,” Lilavati said.

“What has Sieglinde told you?” Manas asked.

“Nothing, as you bade her,” Lilavati said.

“Then nothing is what you’re going to get from me,” Manas said.

Lilavati bit back her shriek as they came upon a gruesome scene. Men and women torn apart, as if by some great beast. Blood splattered stone and grass. It turned the river waters red. “What in the name of the Thousand happened in this place?” she whispered, her eyes locked on the horror.

“What do you see?” Manas asked. She described it in as much detail as she thought he could bear. “I’ve heard nothing of a tale of such carnage here. I’ll have to ask around, see if anyone else knows any tales from these lands.” He frowned. “You haven’t heard of anything like this either?”

“What place is this?” Lilavati asked. “I do not know where I am, other than outside my home.”

“Ludger, where are we?” Manas asked, raising his voice to check in with the sorcerer.

“The same place we were not that long ago, Great Lord,” Ludger said.

“The name, Ludger,” Manas said, irritation obvious in his voice. “Lilavati wishes to know where we are specifically.”

“We are at the Dragon’s Barrow, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “Does she know what that is?”

Lilavati bit back a sob and nodded. “I know the story of this place,” she said. “I will tell it to you after we pass it, when I am not so sickened by what I see.” She kept her voice soft, so it would be barely audible above the sounds of marching feet and pounding hooves.

Manas nodded. “I want to know, because what you described doesn’t sound natural.”

to be continued…