Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty eight

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The camp went up quickly, faster than Lilavati had ever seen. A large canopy was set up in the center of it and everyone gathered beneath in. Manas took her hand and the two of them moved to stand in front of the gathered company.

“Great Lord, what evil struck us as we entered this place?” someone asked.

“They were ghosts of a dark past, condemned to relive their terrible deeds on the cursed land at the entrance to this clearing,” Manas said.

“What monsters were cursed to stand here, and why did they attack us?” Dieter asked.

“They were the spirits of soldiers that served my parents, taking pleasure in slaughtering Vengari at my parents’ order,” Manas said. “We suspect we’d have passed unmolested had I not been with the company.” He shuddered. “To my parents and their dead servants, I am a traitor. I betrayed them, giving their enemies the key to ending their reign of tyranny.”

“Great Lord, your parents sacrificed my wife and sons to their dark sorcerer’s god,” a man older than any Lilavati knew said as he made his way to the front of the company. “I would have joined them in death, but the dark sorcerer bound me and forbade me to commit suicide.” The old man shuddered, and then smiled. “It was your telling Lord Emrys and Lord Reinhard about the evil deeds and cursed magic happening in Phiri Hu that truly set me free and released my family’s souls.”

“Get to the point, old man,” someone yelled.

The old man looked over his shoulder and glared at the speaker. The young man shifted uncomfortably where he stood. The old man turned back to face Manas and Lilavati. “Great Lord, their evil deeds carry repercussions that will span decades if not centuries into the future. You can’t let that hold you back. You must continue on as you have been, and you’ll have the life you seek.”

“How does this resolve our current dilemma?” Dieter asked.

The old man smiled again. “There are stories, Great Lord. Stories of what that dark sorcerer did. He might have pretended to be all powerful – and he had some strong magic, it’s true – but there was one weakness to his magic.”

“What was that?” Manas asked.

“Common folk magic could counter some of his spells,” the old man said.

Ludger moved through the crowd and came up beside the old man. “What kind of folk magic do you mean, Micha?” he asked.

“That demon in human form thought he could trap us in our homes by sending the spirits of the dead to harass us,” Micha said. “We were terrified. No one could get out to get more supplies. We were starving. Our local witch, a bright young woman named Sybille, came up with an idea. She walked around the perimeter sprinkling salt and dried pipevine flowers. She said nothing, made no strange gestures. The next time the ghosts arrived they couldn’t pass the barrier she made with those. A short while later,  she added ground quartz crystal and saltpeter to the mixture on the ground. The ghosts were destroyed as soon as they tried to cross the barrier again.”

“I have everything but the pipevine flowers,” Ludger said. “I could put them all together.”

“I think I have the flowers,” Ariane said. “The Temple uses them as a soporific, when acolytes and preesters can’t sleep.”

“Go check,” Ludger said. He patted the old man on the shoulder. “Thank you, Micha. I think I’ll get with you later this evening and pick your brain for other examples of the folk magic you grew up with.”

“I’m happy to talk about it,” Micha said. “Not many people seem to be interested in the old ways anymore.”

“May I join you for that conversation?” Dieter asked. “I feel the histories and folklore of all our people should be preserved.”

“You’re quite welcome to do so, young scribe,” Ludger said.

“So there’s a way to kill them?” someone else asked.

“That is a possibility,” Manas said.

“Great Lord, do you think they’ll come after us?” Odilie asked, her voice full of fear.

“I wish I knew, Odilie,” Manas said. “I want to take every precaution, in case they do. I’ve been told spirits prefer to fully attack at night. We must be ready for them.”

“Can’t Ludger’s magic protect us?” Ariane asked.

“You are a servant of the Twelve,” Lilavati said. “Should your powers not be used in the defense of this encampment?”

“Had I the ability to banish the dead, I’d do it,” Ariane said, glaring at her. “My gifts lay in healing and the translation of dead languages.”

“You are a scholar then?” Dieter asked.

“Not really,” Ariane said. “When I see a language no longer spoken, it is as if one of the Twelve whispers in my ear and tells me what is written. I’ve learned quite a bit in the archives.”

“Ariane, see if you have the pipevine flowers. Ludger, check your supplies to be certain we have enough to walk the perimeter of the camp,” Manas said. He paused. “Ariane, a prayer to the Twelve would be welcome as well.”

“I’ll make sure to offer one before I start my search,” Ariane said. She wore a solemn look on her young face.

“Everyone else, if you are asked to do something to aid in the protection of the camp by Ludger, do it. Don’t argue, don’t ask why. Just do it. He’ll explain it to you later, when we’re not as bound by the necessity of keeping away the ghosts of ancient enemies,” Manas said. There was a low rumble of thunder. Lilavati shuddered and only a soft whimper escaped. It was enough for Manas to hear. “We have one final announcement to make, and it isn’t as full of gloom as the rest.” Everyone looked at them expectantly. “My beautiful Lilavati and I were married by Ariane this morning.”

There were several gasps. “Great Lord, why didn’t you wait until we got back to Phiri Hu?” someone asked.

“The Halls of the Damned,” Manas said.

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Lilavati said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My people have similar tales,” Lilavati said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes Great Lord,” Ludger said.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part sixty one

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Ludger chivvied the cold, wet servants and guards into setting things up quickly. Lilavati retrieved the tent she now shared with Manas and put it up herself. “I have seen it done enough times to know how to manage it on my own,” she said at Manas’ curious look. “However, it does not furnish itself and I am not capable of carrying everything alone.”

“I’ll help you then,” Manas said.

The two of them managed to get most of their things into the tent before a servant helped them carry the rest. Lilavati moved things around until the tent was comfortable for the both of them. “You know me well, katali,” Manas said as he lounged on a pile of cushions instead of in the chair that the servants always brought in. It was pushed to the side.

“I have learned much by observing you,” Lilavati said. “Even though I have not been in the best of shape for much of this journey.”

“You have been ill but not blind,” Manas said. “As you’ve said before.” Lilavati smiled. A crack of thunder made her shriek. Manas was at her side in an instant. He wrapped his arms around her. “It’s all right, katali. We’re safe here.”

“The storm is too close. It will blow down the tents and kill the animals,” Lilavati said, whimpering as she spoke.

“It won’t,” Manas said, stroking her hair with his hand. “Ludger chose this site with the storm in mind. It’s well protected, katali. We are safe.”

The tent lit up as lightning illuminated the afternoon. Lilavati buried her face in Manas’ shoulder, shaking. There was something about thunderstorms that drew more memories of Ishani to the surface, vague and terrifying memories that slipped through her grasp when she tried to capture them. Deep within her the tiikeri growled.

She felt Manas stiffen. She looked up at him. His amber eyes were haunted as he looked into hers. It took her a moment to fight beyond the fear. “You heard her?”

Manas nodded. “How could I not? I’m holding you. She’s very loud.” He tightened his grip on her. “I curse everyone I touch.” This last was said with such bitterness that it tore at Lilavati’s heart.

“No sikha,” Lilavati said, reaching out to comfort him. “This is a thing that happens to all inkosi tiikeri. We draw the spirit of the tiikeri inside of us, and it becomes a part of our own souls. Mine awoke and has been growing stronger.” Another loud clap of thunder sent her cowering into the cushions, abandoning Manas’ arms.

Manas laid down beside her. “Why did she growl?”

“She knows something I do not,” Lilavati said, her voice muffled by the cushion she pressed her face into. Manas gently pulled her over until her face was pressed into his chest.

“Do you have any idea what it could be?” Manas asked.

“It has something to do with Ishani,” Lilavati said.

“Your child name?” Manas asked. He rubbed her back. “Why is that significant?”

Lilavati tilted her face up so she could look at him. “I think, perhaps, some terrible event happened to me as a child during a thunderstorm.” Lightning sent her back into hiding.

“What do you remember?” Manas asked.

“Nothing,” Lilavati said. “The same as I do with almost all of my memories of my years as Ishani.”

“I don’t like this, katali,” Manas said. “It seems to me that someone – be it your father or someone else who held some influence over him – has removed all traces of your life as Ishani.”

“I maintain the knowledge I gained,” Lilavati said. She gave a little shriek as the ground shook from the thunder. Tears filled her eyes as she gazed up at him. “However I cannot remember the things my brother and sister often spoke of so fondly.”

“Such as?” Manas asked.

“Playing in the garden,” Lilavati said. “Uma, the sister you met that I still remember as Nikitha, remembered a time when I would spend hours among the many flowers and trees my father had. She told me of an occasion where I fell and broke my arm, but was more upset because I had shattered the tiikeri charm I wore on my wrist.” She glanced down quickly and saw, to her relief, the bracelet had survived everything they’d been through.

Manas saw her look. “Where did this come from?” he asked, touching the porcelain figurine.

The bloody scene from her visions momentarily blinded her. She came back to herself, gasping for breath with Manas holding her head up. “My mother’s,” she said, trying to draw in enough air to regain her equilibrium. “I think it was my mother’s.”

“Then why let you have it? Why give you something that would remind you so much of your mother, when it’s obvious he went to all the trouble of erasing your memories of her?” Manas asked.

Her tiikeri snarled again, this time angrily. Another vision swam before her eyes. She stood in the desert, her parents in front of her. “Send it away, Upsana,” her father said.

“It isn’t my tiikeri, Anup. I have no control over it,” Upsana said, her voice carrying a hint of desperation. “Take the girls and when I tell you to, run.” She passed the fussing infant over into Ishani’s father’s arms.

Anup took hold of Ishani’s wrist. “What about you, katali?” he asked. “You won’t be able to take on a male tiikeri yourself, especially with no weapons.”

“My soul sister comes now,” Upsana said, gesturing. The massive male tiger in front of them barely moved, his glowing green eyes fixed solely – or so it seemed – on little Ishani. “She’ll help me drive him off.”

The male obviously knew the female was on her way. He wasn’t going to wait that long. He lunged forward with a roar, scattering the two adults and pinning Ishani beneath him. She screamed, but was unable to move. He slashed down her cheek with one paw, opening gaping wounds in her face.

A higher pitched roar and a deeper scream echoed in her ears. The tiikeri was gone, tackled by both her mother and the deep orange female her mother was bonded to. Anup ran over and seized Ishani’s hand. “Let’s go, child. We can’t stay here,” he said, pulling her to her feet and dragging her along behind him.

“But mother,” Ishani said. She looked over her shoulder. The emerald eyed male swatted the female tiikeri out of the way and drove his claws into Upsana’s stomach. Ishani screamed as he slowly tore through her mother’s flesh, leaving her to fall to the ground with wounds she couldn’t survive. “Mother!”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Forty four

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Photo via Visual hunt

Manas and Ludger both stared at her as if they were trying to figure out if she spoke the truth or not. “Your father seemed a man of great convictions,” Manas said.

Lilavati snorted. “Only because you offered him the highest bride price paid for a woman not of royal birth,” she said. “My father is not a man of strength, sikha. He is fond of his comforts, desires more physical wealth, and does whatever he must to secure it.” She glanced at Manas. “Even if it means selling his eldest daughter to a man he has just barely met and knows very little about.”

“Do you regret accepting my offer, katali?” Manas asked.

“I am displeased with all the blood that has been spilled since I came here, much of it my own,” Lilavati said. “I am exhausted by the hostility I sense when I am around your people. If I feel such a strong emotion here, what will it be like in your home I wonder?”

“Your life will be in danger wherever you go in this land,” Ludger said. “Doubly so if we can’t sort out how to get rid of that curse the preester put on you.”

Manas looked at him. “I thought it was because of the drink I gave her,” he said.

“That was the carrier for it,” Ludger said. “She knew you wouldn’t let her go on in pain, and asking either one of us for help wouldn’t occur to you. You had something that could potentially help her with you.”

“So I let her into Lilavati’s mind, and now my katali will go mad because of it,” Manas said, his face twisted with rage and guilt.

“Great Lord, we’re not home yet,” Ludger said. He looked over at Lilavati. “It’s ready now, Great Lady. Just strain it through that cloth there. Yes, that one. Now bring it to me in that mug.” Lilavati carried the steaming liquid over to Ludger. He drank half of it in one swallow, ignoring the scalding heat. He coughed. “A little stronger than I’d make it for any of you, but that’s fine. It’ll work faster on me then.” He finished the drink and set the mug down. His face was flushed and he was sweating. “Great Lady, I can see the fact that you’re cursed, but not what it entails. What exactly is it doing to you?”

“Every time I look out of this tent, I see Theda die again and again,” Lilavati said. “I look to the north and I see pale men and women being cut down by soldiers even darker than me carrying blades like none I have seen. Not even in my father’s books did I see such weapons, curved and jagged at the same time. They slice cleanly when they first go in and tear flesh and bone as they come out.” She turned her haunted eyes on Manas. “Were I to go to the tent we shared I would most likely see all those we killed die over and over.”

“So you’re forced to re-watch battles?” Ludger asked.

“She saw the Barrier, Ludger,” Manas said.

“Did you see the Dragon’s Barrow?” Ludger asked. Lilavati nodded, feeling herself growing more and more nauseous. “That’s unfortunate. If I’d realized just what this was in the beginning, I’d have changed our route as soon as you were cursed.” He looked at Manas. “Great Lord, the route I’ve changed us to will take us through some of the most brutally despoiled areas.” He paused. “Including the Black Waste.”

Manas jerked. “When were you going to tell me this?” he demanded angrily.

“When we were within a day’s ride,” Ludger said. “So we couldn’t turn around.”

“You’re suggesting that I travel through that – that demonic place again?” Manas asked, his voice shaking.

“Great Lord, you were a boy of seven the last time you saw it,” Ludger said.

“Yes, and childhood fears often imprint themselves the strongest on our minds,” Lilavati said. She rubbed her arms with her hands. “Ludger, if we were to return the way we came from, we would run into that beast again. Is this true?”

“It is,” Ludger said, his eyes on Manas.

“Are there no other routes to take back to Phiri Hu?” Lilavati asked.

“Two,” Ludger said. “One by sea, which is unavailable to us because of the Great Lord’s curse.”

“The other?” Lilavati asked, a growing sense of dread filling her.

“The Halls of the Damned,” Manas whispered, face draining of all color.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part forty

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Photo via Visual hunt

The sound of cracking bones woke her. Lilavati pulled away as Manas started his transformation. He screamed in agony as his body returned to normal. He collapsed into her arms. “My beloved,” he whispered, throat raw. “You fought for me.”

“I would die for you, my love,” she whispered.

Manas wept. “You shouldn’t say something like that. The Twelve might force you to make that choice.”

“I already did,” Lilavati said. “Last night.”

Manas leaned forward and kissed her passionately. She returned the kiss with equal fervor. For a moment their desire took hold and they pressed against each other, longing for more than what propriety allowed.

Finally Manas pulled away from her. He was breathing heavily and his need was plain in his eyes. “Beloved, we must remember we’re not yet married.”

Lilavati sighed, an ache inside her she’d never felt before crying out for his touch. “I know,” she said. “Yet I desire more.”

He stood and held out his hand. She took it. He pulled her to her feet. “We should get dressed and call him in here so we can get some answers,” Manas said. Lilavati nodded and the two of them went over to the pile of supplies.

Lilavati dressed in another of her travel gowns and tucked her hair beneath a travel hood. “I do not like having to wear these,” she said as she turned to look at Manas. “I wish we could wed before we reached your home. Then I could let loose my braids and keep my hair free.”

Manas let out a soft moan. “To be able to bury my hands in your hair,” he whispered. “To see your glorious black locks gleaming in the sun as we ride.” He shook his head. “I’m ready to talk to him. Are you?” His cheeks were flushed and there was a mixture of desire and despair in his eyes. Lilavati nodded, ready to weep. “Ludger, get in here.” Manas’ voice was loud enough that, had the spell not been on the tent, the entire camp would have heard him.

The entrance to the tent unsealed and Ludger entered. “Great Lord, Great Lady, I’m glad to see that you’re looking well this morning. I was a little worried I hadn’t managed to restore enough of your strength last night.”

“I have a lot of questions, Ludger,” Manas said.

“I’m sure you do, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, I’ve been less than truthful about my true power for many years. I preferred to keep my skills a secret from the preester because she is far too eager to stamp out magic in Phiri Hu and I didn’t want to deal with that.” He sat down on a cushion. “We don’t have a lot of time so let’s get this over with.”

“I heard you say you chose this camp specifically because of me,” Manas said.

“Yes, and if you hadn’t objected to the first camping spot, I’d have been here a lot sooner and might have been able to prevent most of your injuries,” Ludger said. “As it was, I needed to deal with their lookouts before I could get up here. There are currently eight frozen bodies on display in the center of camp with the glyph for traitors over their heads. All know that mark, so they’ll be waiting for you to explain everything.”

“How are we to justify the fact that we are uninjured when it is obvious they are spattered with our blood?” Lilavati asked.

“Oh, I’ll take credit for healing you,” Ludger said. “Don’t worry about that. I also have their confessions set. It’s just up to the two of you to decide their fates.”

“Execution will be their sentence,” Manas said with a growl. He glanced at Lilavati, who nodded her assent.

Ludger looked at the two of them. “Great Lord, forgive the indelicacy of this question, but have you and the Great Lady consummated your relationship?”

“No, though we’ve been tempted many times,” Manas said.

“Theda won’t wed you two early. She’ll insist on waiting until you get to Phiri Hu,” Ludger said. He smiled. It gave Lilavati the chills. “However, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Or you.”

“What do you mean?” Manas asked sharply.

“Just that should you two decide to become more intimate than laying naked together, she will never find out. Nor will your gods,” Ludger said. With that, he stood and left.

Manas looked at Lilavati. “What did he mean by that?” he asked.

Lilavati shook her head. “There is much power in that man. I do not think we know even a portion of what he is capable of. He is a valuable ally.” She paused. “I think he is suspicious of the preester.”

Manas pursed his lips. “You saw that too. I don’t know what got his hackles up, but he’s never been openly hostile towards her. I think we’ll have to keep an eye on our good preester and see what she’s up to.” He smiled and lifted her to her feet. “Shall we go face my people?”

Lilavati made a face. “I do not wish to do so, but as I am to be your wife, it is a burden I must bear.” Manas laughed as he led her out.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty nine

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Photo via Visual hunt

Ludger strode into the tent, a staff carved with strange sigils in his hand. They were glowing and a swirling mist surrounded them. The assassins lay on the ground groaning. Ludger turned and closed the tent again.

Manas growled. Blood seeped down his hide from the many wounds he took and he was barely able to stand. Ludger put a hand on his shoulder. “Be at peace, Great Lord. I’m here to help,” he said, his gruff voice surprisingly gentle. Manas stared at him for several long moments before flopping to the ground with a grunt.

Ludger went over to Lilavati. “Great Lady, you may relax now. I’m not going to hurt either of you.” He paused. “Though the Great Lord will be a little annoyed at me in the morning.”

“Why?” Lilavati said, letting the dagger fall from her hand and dropping fully to the ground.

“I set a spell on the tent so if either of you were injured, I’d know,” Ludger said. “I didn’t tell him because I knew he would be incensed that I didn’t trust him.” He pointed to Ansgar and Sieglinde. “It was those two I didn’t trust, considering what I overheard while we were on the road today. It’s why we traveled so long, and I would have told the Great Lord this if we’d had more time.” He took his staff and touched each of the assassins with it. They turned pale and seemed to become even more covered by frost. “This should keep them out of mischief until morning.”

Lilavati shivered and looked down at her leg. The wound was still oozing blood. She felt dizzy and laid down. “Ludger, see to him first,” Lilavati said, weakly gesturing to Manas.

“He’ll survive, Great Lady. I know the curse well. You won’t,” Ludger said. “The preester isn’t the only one who can heal people quickly, though I don’t do it quite as pleasantly as she does.” He pointed the staff at her and spoke several guttural words.

Lilavati stifled screams as a searing fire spread across her body. She looked at her leg and the slash was almost completely healed, other than a scar light against her dark skin. When he finished, she was left trembling and covered in sweat.

Ludger turned to Manas. He was growling softly as he licked his wounds. “He will not let you approach,” Lilavati said. “He is too far gone in his instincts.”

“You can hear his thoughts?” Ludger asked.

“At times, yes,” Lilavati said. The tremors ended and she found she had the strength to stand. She got to her feet and limped over to the great tiger. He looked at her, his amber eyes watching her every movement. “I do not understand this gift I have been cursed with. I have no control over what I am able to do, cannot anticipate when something will happen, and can only speculate as to when I will be able to speak with him and have him comprehend what I am saying.”

Manas turned and licked her with his rough tongue. Some of his blood stayed on her skin. He resumed trying to clean his wounds. “Great Lady, try to tell him I have to heal him. If he shifts back with those wounds, he’ll die,” Ludger said.

Lilavati felt her blood run cold. She touched the fur of her beloved, then pressed her entire body against him. She closed her eyes, reaching for the feline inside of her. It ignored her for the most part. She opened her eyes with a sigh. “Beloved,” she whispered. Manas’ head whipped around, amber eyes glowing. “Beloved, you must let Ludger heal you. If he doesn’t, your life will end at dawn.” Manas growled, glaring at Ludger. “Beloved, my great tiikeri, you must. Do you think I wish to see you perish with the first light of the sun? I would follow you into the afterlife, and these pathetic assassins would win. Is that what you want?”

Manas turned his head again and stared at her for several seconds. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she clung to one of the few areas of his fur that wasn’t covered in blood. He heaved a great sigh before laying down. His growls stopped and he closed his eyes.

“I take it that’s a yes?” Ludger asked.

Lilavati nodded. “But if you wish to survive, I would suggest finding some other way than how you healed me.”

“I needed you on your feet fast, quite literally,” Ludger said. “So I sent as much energy as I could safely gather without disrupting things here too much into you. That’s why it hurt so much. With the Great Lord, I should be able to manage without the pain.” He winced. “Though I’ll have to restore his energy when he resumes his human form.”

“If it is necessary he will accept it,” Lilavati said.

“Especially if you’re there to encourage him,” Ludger said with a smile. He stretched the staff out and again the strange mist emerged from the tip. It engulfed Manas and Lilavati.

This one wasn’t cold, but held a gentle warmth. Lilavati caught the faint scent of strange flowers and the air after the rain. The vapor held her in a stupor until it dissipated. She shook her head to clear it.

“Will he be all right?” she asked, looking at her husband to be.

“Yes,” Ludger said. “I cleaned up the blood as well. You’ll want to stay with him, Great Lady. As will I, though I’ll be outside. I’ll take these fools with me to give you two some privacy. When you’re ready for me to enter in the morning, just call my name. I’ll hear you though no one else will.” With a gesture, the frozen bodies of the assassins rose into the air. They floated out the entrance after Ludger. He sealed the tent again.

Lilavati slid down to the ground, using Manas’ side as a brace. As soon as she was seated he shifted his position so he was wrapped around her. His presence eased the last of the chill and she slipped easily into a deep sleep unbroken by dark dreams.

to be continued…

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…

Tiger, Tiger – Part thirty seven

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Photo via Visual hunt

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…