Tiger, Tiger – Part sixteen

tiger-stripe

Photo via Visual hunt

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…

Advertisements

Tiger, Tiger – Part fifteen

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

It was harder staying in the saddle than Lilavati guessed it would be. It wasn’t more than an hour after breaking camp before she was regretting her choice. Manas rode up next to her. “You shouldn’t be riding, my dark scholar,” he said.

“I will not be put in a cart, as if I were some kind of baggage,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Why not? There is no shame in admitting you need help,” Manas said.

“There is, in the eyes of your people,” Lilavati said softly.

Manas drew his horse closer to hers. “Why do you say that?”

“Right now, I am simply the outsider, the stranger,” Lilavati said. “I am an anomaly they haven’t been able to catalogue, to put into a slot in their lives. Should I give in and prove I am the burden they suspect? I’ll never have their respect, and my life will be worth nothing to them.”

“You think so little of my people’s willingness to do as they’re told?” Manas asked.

“They’ll do it, but not with the kind of immediacy that is needed when dealing with assassins,” Lilavati said. “If I die because of it, they know you’ll be angry. But they also know that eventually you’ll forget about me and move on. I’m a transitional part of your life until we reach your home. So I cannot show too much weakness in front of them.”

“You’ll do yourself harm by this,” Manas said.

“I will survive,” Lilavati said. She winced as they hit a rough spot in the road. The horse stumbled a little, but recovered quickly. Lilavati was jarred forward but thanks to the strange gift she’d been given at birth, she never fell off. “This is why I chose to ride. I know I won’t fall, though I will be in great pain.”

“At least let me give you something that will help with that,” Manas said.

“I can’t have anything that will influence my ability to think and react,” Lilavati said. “While this is all reflex, there are still things that take conscious thought to deal with.”

“I drink it myself when – when I am in pain as I ride,” Manas said. “I can’t afford to have my wits muddled either.” He passed her a small bottle, concealing the movement with his body. “Don’t let them see you drink this, but take a few swallows. Do it quickly, and make no sound. It won’t be pleasant but it’ll help.”

Lilavati did as he said, fighting back the retching when she passed it back. He openly handed her a waterskin, which he’d already opened. She quickly drank, taking just enough to wash the taste from her mouth. “That was awful,” she said, when he put the waterskin back on his saddle.

“I’ve grown used to it,” Manas said. “It both eases the pain and clears the mind, or so I was told. I’ve needed it for the past few years and I’ve never had issues with it.” He paused. “Though it’s made from northern herbs, and you’re not used to them. I didn’t stop to think of that.”

“We will find out if it helps or harms me soon,” Lilavati said. She smiled. “You can blame the assassin if I get ill from this.”

“That doesn’t make me any easier, my dark scholar,” Manas said.

“Do not worry, my amber eyed lord,” Lilavati said. She took a few deep breaths. “I feel no ill effects now. We just need to watch and wait.”

“I’ll be watching you very carefully,” Manas said. He moved his horse back from hers a bit, though his eyes never left her face.

They rode this way for a few hours until finally Manas relaxed and turned his attention to the road in front of them. Lilavati studied his profile. She frowned. She saw something different, a faint aura she’d never noticed before. It covered him from head to toe.

She glanced back over her shoulder, but saw no such light around any of the others. She looked down at her hands. An aura similar in brightness, though not color, emanated from her skin. She returned her gaze to the road. She looked at everything they passed, and nothing – living or inanimate – radiated the same kind of light she and Manas carried.

As they neared a crossroads, Lilavati shivered. She could hear – faintly – pounding hooves and men shouting. Screams of agony and rough voices sounding their rough battle cries echoed in her mind. She wanted to cover her ears but no one else seemed to hear anything. The sound got louder the closer she got to the large area surrounding the four way crossing.

She looked around as Manas and Ludger consulted the map. Her eyes picked out places where men and horses died on the dry grass that was slowly taking the place of her beloved sands. Yet what she saw wasn’t the sere, dry stalks. It was a verdant land, filled with green and water. Blood ran as freely as the streams that ran where the roads now sat.

She pressed one hand against her forehead briefly, hoping Manas wouldn’t see it. A moment later, his hand was on top of hers. “Do you need to rest, my dark scholar?” he asked softly.

“Tell me quickly, was there ever a great battle fought here?” she asked, her voice cracking as the ghostly visions she saw continued to play out.

Manas looked at her strangely. “This was the site of the war that divided the Northlands and the Southlands nearly a thousand years ago. Why do you ask?”

“Because I can see them,” Lilavati whispered. “The soldiers, their animals, the rivers of blood. I can see it all.” She tilted her chin towards the ground. “We are standing in the middle of a river, and where Ludger is was a great barrier of stone to prevent anyone from crossing here.”

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part fourteen

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

Manas set Lilavati down on a pile of blankets, which his men hastily threw together for her. He left her to rest as the camp continued to shift around her back into the efficient traveling group it had been the previous day. She lifted her face up, feeling the sun warm her skin. “You should wear some kind of protection from that, Great Lady. Or you’ll lose what beauty you have,” a sniveling voice said.

Lilavati turned to see who’d spoken. A thin man in the same kind of clothing as the other servants stood next to her. “As I have none to lose, I don’t see any issue with this,” she said, shifting a little so her hand was on the hilt of her blade. “Who are you?”

“I am Alister, Great Lady.” He moved a few things around before joining another, larger group of servants. She frowned. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt something off about him.

Manas joined her a few minutes later. “You have such a look on your face, my dark scholar. What’s wrong?”

“Do you know all the names of those who serve you?” Lilavati asked.

“I do,” Manas said.

“Then can you tell me about the one named Alister?” Lilavati asked.

“Alister? He’s been with me for five years now,” Manas said. “He’s a good, honest man. He came from another part of the Northlands, much as Ludger did. Alister was in dire straits when we found him, half dead and being stalked by a wolf pack. We chased off the wolves, nursed him back to health, and he became my servant once he could stand on his own two feet.” He looked down at her. “Why?”

Lilavati shook her head. “I see assassins everywhere and all odd sounds and voices send me into a slight panic.” She smiled. “I suppose I must remember that not all your people are the same.”

“This isn’t the Southlands, Lilavati. We aren’t a homogeneous people. We have our own ways, our own laws, and our own ways of ruling over different segments of the population,” Manas said.

Lilavati laughed. “You, a lord who claims to be a scholar, believes the Southlands are only one people? One nation?” She shook her head. “I have much to teach you about my home as you do me about yours.”

“I look forward to the learning,” Manas said. He stooped and kissed her forehead. “We’re ready to move out. All we need is those blankets stowed and you on your horse.” He straightened and held out his hand. “Can you do it?”

Lilavati slid her hand into his and gripped it tightly. He pulled her up and she steadied herself against his supportive arm. She took a few steps and found she wasn’t as shaky as she’d been. She let Manas keep her steady as she went to the side of her horse.

She eyed the animal, who sat there placidly, waiting for her to mount. “I think I’ll need help with this,” she said, feeling the same weakness in her arms that she’d had when she first tried to ride as a child.

“Then up you go,” Manas said. He lifted her again – how can one man be so strong? Lilavati thought – as he helped settle her in the saddle.

She grabbed the reins and adjusted her position slightly, moving with the horse as it moved under her. She waited to see if she was going to fall off. “I think I’m going to be fine. As long as she doesn’t try to throw me, I should be able to stay on.”

“Then lets get on the road. We’re already well behind the schedule I hoped to keep,” Manas said. He smiled at her as he brought his horse next to hers. “And I do not consider it your fault, my dark scholar. It is the doing of the assassins who have chosen to attempt to kill you.” He paused. “Though why they chose you I don’t know.”

“I already voiced my thoughts that they wish to stop our wedding,” Lilavati said.

“I know,” Manas said as they started forward. “But why you instead of me? I’m the logical choice as I am the one with all the power.”

“True, but look how many guards you surround yourself with,” Lilavati said. “Your servants are numerous as well, and they are loyal to you. They would do whatever was necessary to protect you.” She shook her head. “I am the outsider, the stranger, the new one. I am the bride who is, as of yet, unmarried to their lord. They aren’t sure of me, so they aren’t entirely sure about whether or not I’ll make a good wife for you. This is why I am such an easy target for the assassins. I am not so closely guarded.”

“That’s going to change,” Manas muttered under his breath.

“It won’t change until they do, and that will not be until we reach your lands,” Lilavati said. “Even then, their hostility will remain until long after the ceremony.”

Manas took one of his hands off of the reins and rubbed it through his hair. “You have a point, my dark scholar. I will see what I can do to make sure you are better protected.”

“I doubt you can do much,” Lilavati said.

“What I want to do is know who is behind it,” Manas said. “I have no enemies that I know of. Does your father have someone who would do this? An old rival, perhaps? Someone who does not wish him to prosper?”

“I am not aware of any,” Lilavati said. “Then again, I would not know all of his dealings. Women are kept out of that side of our society.”

Manas shook his head and returned his hands to the reins. “We will find a way to protect you and stop this.”

“I thank you, my amber eyed lord,” Lilavati said, choosing a name from his looks as he’d chosen one from hers.

He stiffened in his saddle, but then relaxed. “You noticed what most don’t,” he said.

“I have seen more than just the color,” Lilavati said.

Manas looked at her. “There is much we will have to discuss when we reach my home.” She nodded and they both fell silent. Lilavati relaxed, letting her body shift and bend with the motion of the horse. Behind her she could hear the sound of marching feet. She felt a shiver go down her spine.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eleven

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

The liquid seared her throat and burned its way down into her stomach. Lilavati choked and spluttered, gasping for breath. Manas shifted his grip so he could keep her propped up. “How long will it take to work?” he asked.

“It depends, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “On how much of the poison she’s absorbed and how far it’s worked into her system. If it has reached too many vital organs, this means nothing. She will be dead in minutes anyway.”

Lilavati kept her eyes fixed on Manas’ face. While she didn’t yet love him, she wanted her last sight – if her death was to come – to be of the one man who saw more value in her than in countless more beautiful women he’d seen on his travels. The blur the blood and poison made him kept her from seeing details. That didn’t matter to her. Just the knowledge that someone wanted her was enough.

As she continued watching, more and more of his face became clear. The pain ebbed in some places and her breathing returned to normal. She choked and spit out a clump of blood. Before Manas could say anything, she held up one bandaged hand. “I’m no longer dying, Manas. It was caught in my throat. That’s all,” she said, her voice still raspy from the coughing and the passage of the partially dried blood.

“How do you feel, Great Lady?” Ludger asked.

“How do you think?” Lilavati asked. “Weak, exhausted, and in pain. Bloodrain is not a poison that many recover from.”

“Yes, and those that do often have lingering effects,” Ludger said. “Such as weakened lungs, bleeding disorders, and possible early deaths because their organs are too badly damaged to give them their natural lifespan.”

“If that’s what we have to deal with then we will,” Manas said. “Lilavati, will you be able to ride?”

“I can answer that,” Ludger said. “She will, but you’ll have to tie her to her saddle in some way. She won’t be able to keep her balance well enough to keep from falling off.”

“I’m wiling to try without the bindings,” Lilavati said. “I’ve never fallen in my life, no matter how ill I became. What my face lacks in appeal my body has acquired in balance and agility.”

Ludger gave Manas an odd look. Manas shook his head. Ludger shrugged. “I’d recommend against it, Great Lady. No matter how skilled you are. However, if you wish to attempt it I won’t stop you.” He looked at Manas. “Just make sure you have some kind of rope or other bindings waiting, Great Lord. You’ll need them.” With that, he stalked off.

“Manas, we must burn everything that has my blood on it,” Lilavati said. “Or find something to destroy it. I cannot leave such a rich source of material for any sorcerer who happens along our trail to use against me.”

“Agreed,” Manas said. “Is Sieglinde taking down your tent?” Lilavati nodded. “Go to her. If it’s already down, ask her to help you get cleaned up and into a new dress.”

“I will try,” Lilavati said.

“Do you want me to help you to where you had your tent?” Manas asked.

“That might be helpful, as I’m not sure my legs will support me right now,” Lilavati said. “At least, not very well.”

Manas eyed her and then scooped her up into his arms. “You’re not very heavy, my dark scholar. Do you even eat?”

“I eat enough to satisfy myself,” Lilavati said with a small smile. She was trying to relax, but the feeling of Manas so close to her sent a strange thrill through her entire body.

It wasn’t the sense of desire. It was the lure of mystery. There was something that no one was telling her and she needed to find out what. She had a feeling it was the key to why no one was permitted to go outside at night.

They got back to the place where the black and gold tent had been. Sieglinde was shoving into its pack. “Sieglinde, find Lilavati a place to bathe, and assist her in getting into a new gown,” Manas said. “She was poisoned by magic and is in need of some care before we leave.”

“Of course, Great Lord,” Sieglinde said as Manas set Lilavati down.

Lilavati swayed a little on her feet. Sieglinde came and braced her as she watched her soon-to-be husband stride off. “He is a very strange man, Sieglinde,” Lilavati said as the other woman led her off to the side, a short distance from the camp. There was more cover there so Lilavati could have some semblance of privacy as she got cleaned up.

“Why do you say that, Great Lady?” Sieglinde asked.

“He knew the name I spoke when I mentioned the poison that was killing me,” Lilavati said. “It is an extremely rare poison, even among my people. Yet he is learned enough to have at least heard of it. He travels with a man who seems a giant and yet is a mage?” This was more a question than a statement.

“You mean Ludger,” Sieglinde said, helping Lilavati strip out of the blood caked silk. “He is no giant, Great Lady, though to you I suppose he seems that way. He comes from a land far to the north of Phiri Hu. The Great Lord met him there and they struck up a kind of friendship, though they are still lord and servant. I’m not sure how long Ludger has been with him. He was already in the Great Lord’s household when I took service with him.”

Sieglinde poured water over Lilavati until she was soaked and most of the blood had been sluiced off. “I’ll finish this part, Sieglinde,” Lilavati said. “Please bring me one of my dresses. This whole thing has delayed us enough, and I don’t think Manas wants to be slowed down much longer. Even if he is concerned about me.” Sieglinde nodded and hurried off back to where Lilavati’s saddlebags were sitting. Lilavati continued scrubbing at the blood in her hair and on her face.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part ten

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

Manas pulled the scarf from around his neck and tore it into two pieces. He wrapped them around Lilavati’s hands, trying to stop the bleeding. She started shaking. Her lungs were on fire and her chest was too tight. She tried to cough but her throat closed off and she couldn’t get it out. She was barely able to breathe.

Lilavati realized more blood was trickling down from her forehead as it dripped into her eyes. She looked up at Manas, knowing the fear she was feeling would show on her face. Her knees buckled and she started to fall.

Manas caught her. “You will not be leaving me this way, my dark scholar,” he said through gritted teeth.

“I may have no choice,” Lilavati said. Her voice was no louder than a whisper and she felt as if knives were slicing her throat when she did speak.

“Ludger, I need you,” Manas shouted.

Lilavati’s eyes were filling with blood, but she could still see the unbelievably tall, broad, and lumbering man that limped up. “What can I do for you, Great Lord?” he asked in a gravelly voice. She saw him shake his head. “By the Twelve, what’s going on?”

“She said something was wrong with the mist and then this happened,” Manas said. “Has no one else reported injuries or illness?”

“I’ve had a few complaints about headaches but that’s it,” Ludger said. He held out his hands over Lilavati’s head. “Its a curse, Great Lord. A very potent one. It’s been directed solely at her, using some kind of token tied to her. My guess is either her blood or, more likely, strands of her hair.”

“Can you stop it from killing her?” Manas asked.

“I’m not sure, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “I don’t even know what kind of curse this is.”

“Well, figure it out,” Manas snapped.

“I’ll try, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “But I am no god, though you have named me as one on more than one occasion. I can’t do everything.”

Manas held her as Ludger set his hands over her heart. “Why there?” Manas asked.

“She’s bleeding out of every pore, and soon – if I read the curse right – out of every orifice,” Ludger said. “The heart is what drives the blood through the body, Great Lord. If I can find the curse there, I can remove it.”

Something tickled at the back of Lilavati’s mind but she was too disoriented to catch it. She continued chasing it while the giant of a man used his magic to try to save her life. “She is worsening, Ludger,” Manas said.

“I cannot find the source, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “It’s as if a poison straight from the gods has entered her body.”

Poison. That was what she was trying to remember. A virulent poison she’d seen used once before, on an enemy of her father’s. It was only effective if applied to the skin or breathed in.

Lilavati tugged on Manas’ sleeve to get his attention, her weakness making it hard to even lift her fingers. Manas looked at her. “Poison,” she whispered. She struggled to speak. “Bloodrain.”

Manas swore. “Ludger, can a poison be targeted for a single person with magic, and then spread across an entire group?”

“Yes Great Lord,” Ludger said. Lilavati’s eyes were so caked with blood she could no longer see him, but she heard the intake of breath. “Which one?”

“She called it ‘bloodrain,'” Manas said.

Ludger swore even more fluently and creatively than Manas. “Great Lord, that poison has few antidotes, and I don’t know that I carry any of them with me.”

“Check,” Manas said.

There was silence for several moments, time that felt like an eternity to Lilavati. Finally Ludger returned. “I have one that may work, Great Lord. It isn’t a common antidote because it doesn’t have a high success rate, but it’s all that I can find.”

“How do you use it?” Manas asked.

“I pour it down her throat,” Ludger said. “But it won’t do any good until I clear away the mist that has targeted her.”

“Then do it,” Manas said. “She’s dying and I won’t be able to safe her if you can’t do something about it.”

“Hold onto something, men,” Ludger shouted, deafening Lilavati and making Manas snarl in pain. There was something not quite human in the sound, but Lilavati soon lost track of that thought when a strong wind started swirling around her.

It cooled the burning in her skin, pulled some of the dried blood from her face, and gave her much needed fresh air. The ache in her chest eased a little. When the wind finally died down, Ludger returned. “There’s some color back in her face,” Manas said.

“Then perhaps she isn’t as far gone as I feared,” Ludger said. “Great Lady, can you open your mouth?” It took a moment for Lilavati to realize he was talking to her. Her jaw ached and didn’t want to move. The stubborn flame in her that prevented her from killing herself out of despair all her life, that kept her from giving up during the previous attack by the assassin, drove her to fight once more. With an extreme effort of will, she slowly moved her jaw down until he could fit the stopper of the bottle into her mouth. He dumped the entire thing in.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger – Part eight

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

Lilavati knew Sieglinde was watching her as she worked, so she took great care not to embarrass herself by doing something so stupid as cut or burn her fingers. “Great Lady, how did you learn to cook?” Sieglinde asked from her corner.

“My family was reluctant to let me eat with them because of how ugly I am,” Lilavati said. “So I needed to take care of my own needs. At first I went to the kitchen and the slaves fed me. Then I grew tired of that. So I had one of them teach me to cook. While my family ate what they wished, I was able to do the same.”

“Slaves, Great Lady? Your people keep slaves?” Sieglinde asked. She seemed very disturbed by the idea.

“Sieglinde, Manas gave my father one hundred slaves as part of my bride price,” Lilavati said. “Did you not know that?”

Sieglinde looked ill. “I know the Great Lord said he was going to have to do it, in order to secure you, but I didn’t think he was serious.”

“Slavery is a way of life among my people,” Lilavati said. “Just as servants instead of slaves is a way of life among yours.”

Sieglinde shook her head. “I keep forgetting that not all lands are like the Great Lord’s.” She smiled ruefully. “I wish it were so, for Phiri Hu is a paradise as far as I am concerned.”

“But will I find it so?” Lilavati asked. “I am not the same as you, Sieglinde. As you pointed out, all lands are different and what you consider paradise I might consider part of the eleven hells.”

“Eleven hells Great Lady?” Sieglinde asked. “Is that part of your religion?”

“It is, though I’ve never really given much thought or care for it,” Lilavati said. “The gods cursed me with this face, though they gifted me with cleverness, grace, and an honorable streak that has gotten me into trouble more than once because I wouldn’t divulge secrets I was given in confidence.”

“You can keep a secret well then,” Sieglinde said.

Lilavati nodded. “I find that keeping them is far easier than explaining to the person who confided in me why I broke their trust.”

“Great Lady, do you wish to know anything about where we’re going?” Sieglinde asked.

“Actually, yes I do,” Lilavati said as she stirred the tiny pot that rested over the coals. “I have several questions, though I don’t know how many you can answer. My first is why must we be locked away at night?”

Sieglinde hesitated. “Great Lady, I think that is something best left until we get to Phiri Hu. That is for the Great Lord to explain, as it is his orders.”

Lilavati nodded. “I thought as much.” She tasted what she was cooking. The spices were different from what she was used to, but it wasn’t bad. It didn’t look like the meat was all the way rehydrated yet so she continued stirring. “Sieglinde, is there a curse at work here?”

Sieglinde choked. “Great Lady?”

Lilavati shook her head. “Sieglinde, Manas chose me because I’m intelligent. I’m not a fool. We have to be sealed away in our tents by nightfall. We can’t leave else Manas can’t guarantee our safety. We are still near enough to my city for me to know there are no night prowling beasts here that could harm us. So, the only reason for this edict is because there is some kind of curse at work.”

“I can’t confirm that, Great Lady,” Sieglinde said. “Or deny it. That is something you’ll have to ask the Great Lord in the morning.”

“I believe I shall,” Lilavati asked. The meat looked like it was through cooking and she pulled the pot off the fire. She hooked it to the cunning little bracket on the tripod that held it. She scooped the contents out into a bowl to let it cool a bit before eating. “Sieglinde, everyone here is so pale?”

Sieglinde laughed. “It’s because we come from a land that isn’t as hot as yours, Great Lady. The sun doesn’t bake us. It gives us light and gentle warmth. It feeds our crops, as does the rain.”

“Rain?” Lilavati sat up. “You have rain?”

“Of course, Great Lady. Do you not see that here?”

“We do, but not often. It is a moment of great rejoicing when it does come,” Lilavati said. “It shows the Thousand Gods are pleased with us.”

“You have a thousand gods?” Sieglinde asked. “We only have twelve.”

Lilavati laughed. “I doubt there are really a thousand. But as I said, I question the validity of our religion. I have seen no miracles, no proof of the power of our priests and priestesses. They have given me no answers as to why I was cursed. So I have no desire to pursue a relationship with the gods of my people.”

“Perhaps the Twelve will give you an answer,” Sieglinde said. “They are very close to our people, Great Lady. You will have to learn their ways and how to honor them. But it isn’t hard and I think you’ll find them far more responsive than you’re used to.”

“That sounds quite intriguing, Sieglinde. Now, another question. Just how much water do you have in Phiri Hu?” Lilavati asked.

“Oh, we have lakes that span miles, Great Lady,” Sieglinde said. “And rivers as wild as anything you’ve seen. Phiri Hu even borders the sea, though I’ve never seen it.”

“The sea?” Lilavati felt a rush of excitement. “I’ve wanted to go there since I was a little girl and first learned of it in one of the books I purchased from a merchant of the east.”

“Perhaps the Great Lord will take you there one day,” Sieglinde said.

“That I would love,” Lilavati said.

 

Tiger, Tiger – Part Three

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

One of her father’s slaves had already laid out a nightgown and turned down her coverlet. Lilavati slipped out of her clothes. She went to the large basin of water in the corner. She used the soft rag there to wash the dust of the day from her body, whispering prayers to the gods as she did so. When her nightly ablutions were done, she pulled on her nightgown and went to bed.

The scent of an unfamiliar spice woke her. She sat up, her hand going for the knife under her pillow. A slave was filling a bathtub in the center of her room, pouring in a phial of oil along with the water. Lilavati didn’t recognize any of the spices in it.

“You, what is in the oil mix you put in my bath water?” she asked.

The slave turned around, face blank. His mouth was sewn shut. Lilavati frowned. Her father never did that with any of their slaves. She drew her knife and lunged for the door. The slave dropped the jug of water he was carrying and drew a curved dagger coated in something greenish.

Lilavati fought for her life as she struggled to keep her assassin’s blade away from her. Her cries roused the household and the door to her room was shoved open by her father and two of his guards. Lilavati narrowly missed having her guts torn out by her opponent’s blade.

A crossbow bolt slammed into the mute slave’s stomach. He staggered but didn’t stop advancing towards Lilavati. Lilavati dove to the side, giving her father’s guards a clear shot. Two more crossbow bolts slammed into his chest. He dropped to his knees. A fourth crossbow bolt pierced his throat. The assassin dropped to the ground, dying as silently as he’d fought.

“Lilavati, are you hurt?” her father asked.

“No Father,” Lilavati said. “I am unharmed.” She put her hand to her forehead. “Though I feel a little lightheaded.”

“Remove her from the room,” her father said sharply. “Immediately.”

One of his guards took her arm and led her out into the corridor. All of the windows were open and the early morning air filled her lungs. Her head cleared within a few minutes.

Her father soon joined her. “Father, what kind of poison was in the water?” Lilavati asked.

“I’m not sure, but it was a potent one,” he said. “It nearly took both of us down before we could get rid of it.” He gestured to the other guard who’d stayed with him. “How are you feeling now?”

“I’m fine,” Lilavati said. “The fresh air revived me.”

Her father nodded. “I thought it would. I’ll have the eastern chamber made up for you. It is still too soon for you to be awake.”

“Father, the eastern chamber is for only the most honored guests,” Lilavati said. “I can’t stay there.”

“You’d have me leave you to sleep in a room that could most likely kill you?” Her father shook his head. “You’ll go where I tell you. Now, I’ll send Inderpal with you. He will keep anyone but one of our slaves from disturbing you. I’ll also have one of the women clean your clothes. There are ways to make sure there are no poisons in them, and I want to be certain that no harm comes to you. I do not wish to lose Manas’ favor.”

“You don’t want to have to pay back what he gave you as a bride price,” Lilavati said.

“Do you blame me?” her father asked.

Lilavati shook her head. “I don’t think any woman has had such a high price paid for her in living memory, other than the daughter of the Raasha.”

“Yes, your mother and I will be able to hold our heads high in town thanks to your bride price,” her father said. “Instead of being looked down on because of your face.”

Lilavati shook her head. “You’d better send a slave to set up my temporary chambers, Father. I’m quite tired and I don’t know how much longer I have before I must get up to make myself ready to travel.”

In the distance the temple bells tolled five times. Her father looked at her. “It seems you won’t be going back to sleep after all.”

She sighed. “Then you’d best make certain my clothing is clean and dried by seven tolls. I can’t leave without it, and I’d rather not have wet cloth in the saddlebags. It’s a good way to ruin the silk.”

“Don’t worry about that,” her father said. “I’ll have a bath drawn. Your mother chose your traveling outfit last night and set it to the side in our room, so it should still be safe to wear.”

“I don’t want to put on anything she picked. It’s probably even uglier than my face,” Lilavati said. “You know how she’s always treated me with spite and hatred.”

“I wouldn’t let her do such a thing. That would disgrace me in front of your new husband,” her father said.

“Then you’d better have made sure it won’t fall apart as I ride,” Lilavati said. “That would be just as humiliating for the both of us.”

“I took care of it, Lilavati,” her father said. “Now, stop creating issues and go to the eastern chamber. Inderpal, go with her. I’ll have some slaves set up your bath and you will choose the scents you wish in the water. I wish you wisdom in your selection.” He strode off, his second guard on his heels.

Inderpal fell into step with Lilavati as she made her way to the one area of the house where she’d never been permitted. Only her parents, their guests, and the slaves sent to serve them were allowed here.

As she entered the main bed chamber, two slaves were already there filling a copper tub far larger than the one in her room with steaming water. They turned to look at her. They looked a little frightened when they saw Inderpal. Lilavati sent him outside to guard the door from the corridor. She still carried her knife, and was still prepared to defend herself if she needed to.

One of the slaves looked at her. “Forgive this one for speaking out of turn, Illustrious Mistress, but what scent would you care for?”

“The blue jasmine,” Lilavati said. Unlike her mother and sister, she detested the strong smelling oils. When she was allowed to pick her own, she selected the lightest scents she could. The slave bowed and poured a small amount of the oil into the water.

A moment later another slave entered, after having been cleared by Inderpal. “Please excuse this one for speaking out of turn Illustrious One,” the woman said, falling to her knees. “But the Illustrious One’s Illustrious Mother has sent this to her.”

“Father has no eye for fashion, and mother is a spiteful piece of…” Lilavati trailed off. She couldn’t come up with a word vile enough to express her anger.

to be continued…

Tiger, Tiger

portrait-of-tiger-relaxing-on-sand

Photo via Visual hunt

Lilavati walked among her people, ignoring the stares. She was used to them. She knew why they were there. She’d heard the comments before. How could someone with such an ugly face move so gracefully? That was the predominant one. No man will wed her, which is a pity because the gods gave her such a perfect body.

 

She reached her family’s house and entered with a sigh. “Lilavati, was your errand successful?” her brother Kavi asked with a smile.

“It was.” Lilavati loved her younger brother. He was the only one in the house who cared for her unconditionally.

“Father wanted me to tell you to go to his library as soon as you got home,” Kavi said. “He’s there with a strange man. He moves like you do, but his face is very different.”

“Different how?” Lilavati asked.

“You’re going to have to see it for yourself,” Kavi said. Lilavati went to the basin of water near the door and washed her face, hands, and arms. She dried off on the towel and headed into the library.

The scent of the books and scrolls washed over her and she was drawn back to her days as a child, when she’d been freely permitted to enter the library to study. It wrenched at her heart but she was able to keep herself from showing the emotion. Her father lounged on the cushions near the window. Beside him was a man with hair a strange shade of red, far brighter than any Lilavati had ever seen. His eyes were a peculiar amber and seemed to stare right through her into her soul. She shivered.

“You were right,” the stranger said. His voice was low, almost a purr. “She is quite graceful. A pity about her face, but I am less concerned about that than I am about her mind. How intelligent is she?”

“Lilavati, sit,” her father said, gesturing to a set of cushions near them.

“Yes Father.” Lilavati settled into place. She turned to the stranger. “You wish to test my mind? Ask on any subject. I will answer if I can.”

The stranger smiled, a slow, easy smile. “Let’s see what you know.” This started an intense, rapid fire interrogation that Lilavati enjoyed immensely. She was honest when she didn’t know an answer, but she knew enough to keep up with most of his questions. Finally the man turned to her father. “I am well pleased. You say no man has offered for her? I will.”

“What are you offering?” her father asked.

“I will offer five thousand gold sheaves, fifty horses, and one hundred slaves,” the man said.

Lilavati barely concealed her shock. That was more than any man had offered for a wife in living memory. “Are you certain you wish to give so much? She is hardly a beautiful woman,” her father said.

“As I said, it’s not her beauty but her mind, and that I find perfect,” the man said.

“Then the deal is sealed,” her father said. He pulled out some salt mixed with tiny crystals. Both of them took a pinch and tucked it under their tongues.

“I will have my servant bring the bride price to you tonight,” the stranger said. “I will come to claim my bride tomorrow.”

Lilavati gasped. “It is customary to wait three days, to give me time to make my preparations.”

“True, but I am a busy man and will need to be back at my home to deal with business,” the man said. “So we will be leaving after the temple bell tolls seven times.”

“As you wish,” Lilavati said. The stranger stood and started walking out the door. “Wait. May I at least know the name of the man I’m going to wed?”

He paused. “Manas.” He walked out.

“Lilavati, this will be very odd to you, but he has refused to allow us to attend the wedding. He says he is a private man and once you enter his house, he won’t let you have any guests for a few months,” her father said.

Lilavati played with the tiny figure of a tiger she wore on her wrist. It was her birth totem and she wore it with pride. “Then I’ll accustom myself to his rules. It’s not like I haven’t done this many times in the past.” She glared at her father. “Such as being denied the library though I would have been far better suited to it than constantly wandering the market.”

“You know no woman over seventeen may educate herself,” her father said. “Go prepare yourself. You don’t have much time.”

“Yes Father.” Lilavati rose and made her way to her room.

to be continued……

Wolf sister

girl-with-her-dog-sitting-on-rock-and-looking-at-mountains

Photo via Visual Hunt

Helena scratched behind Aso’s ears as her father continued yelling. It’s okay, Aso. He’s going to wind down soon. He always does, Helena told the wolf through their telepathic bond.

His scent is different today, Wolf Sister. I do not like it, Aso replied. Her hackle were up and she was growling softly.

“Helena, I have decided you must marry,” her father said, turning his attention on his youngest daughter.

“I’m a Wolf Sister, Father,” Helena said. “I’m not allowed to marry.”

“That’s easy enough to resolve,” her father said. He smiled a cruel smile. “Your little bitch will be sent to the village tanner and turned into a pelt. She’ll make a fine rug for your new house.”

“You can’t do that,” Helena said. “You’ll destroy my mind if you do.”

“So? You’ll still be alive. You don’t need a mind to produce children,” her father said. “I’ve already explained that to the man I’ve chosen. He’s perfectly happy to hire someone to care for you.” He moved towards them with a rope in his hands.

Run, Wolf Sister, Aso said. She lunged forward and tore at Helena’s father’s leg. He yelled in pain as the wolf tore the muscles in his leg. He went down.

Helena dashed out the door, followed swiftly by her wolf. The two of them ran out of the town and headed for the one place that no one would follow them – Wolf Peak. The wolf packs roamed freely there, and many Wolf Sisters lived in the dens with their wolf partners as they preferred separation from humans.

She could hear shouting behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. Several of the Hunters had been mobilized along with the city guard. She recognized them because they were wearing the colors of the forest. We have to hurry, Aso. If they catch us, we both die.

The path is not far, and we two are the only ones who can find it, no matter how hard they seek, Aso said. She kept her stride even with Helena’s, even though she could easily outpace her human partner.

Helena ignored the stitch in her side. She wasn’t going to let anyone kill Aso. The two of them had been together since Helena was five. Wolves typically didn’t live long, but Wolf Sisters bestowed their lifespans on their partners. At twenty five, Helena was still fairly young by human standards and Aso was ancient by wolf standards.

The first arrow passed by her ear a few minutes later. It stuck in a tree at the edge of the forest as Helena and Aso entered it. Where is it, Aso? Where is the path? I can’t see it yet and they’re getting closer.

I can smell it, Wolf Sister, Aso said. Do not fear. We will be there soon. Helena cried out as an arrow pierced her left shoulder. She sobbed as she ripped it out, the barbed head doing more damage coming out than it had going in. Wolf Sister, we must stop. They cannot see your blood before the path or they will find it.

How much time before they are upon us? Helena asked as she stopped.

It will be several minutes. They have lost our trail, Aso said.

Helena’s hands were shaking, and her left hand was almost useless as she used her belt knife to cut several strips of fabric from her long tunic. She bound her shoulder as best as she could. Do you see any blood dripping from my shoulder? she asked.

Aso paced around her. No, but you cannot take the arrow with you. It will give us away.

I also can’t leave it here. If they have one of the Trackers among the Hunters, they’ll use their magic to find us. They’ll find the path that way as well, Helena said.

Keep running towards those large rocks and give me the arrow, Aso said. I will be with you again shortly. Helena did as she was told. Aso slipped deeper into the woods as Helena resumed her mad dash towards safety.

Aso caught up to her just before she hit the clearing where the rocks were. Where do we go from here? Helena asked.

Follow me and I will lead you to true freedom, Aso said. She surged ahead of her human sister. She ran into a gap between two very tall rocks and vanished.

Helena could still hear Aso inside her mind. The mountains were too far away, yet Wolf Sisters appeared in her town as if the mountain were only a short distance from it. She took a deep breath and plunged through the same gap.

She staggered a little as she passed through a magical gate. Cold air washed over her face. Hands caught her as her legs buckled under her. “Be easy, Wolf Sister. You are safe,” a gentle voice said.

Aso sat near her, panting from the exertion of running. She was surrounded by several other wolves. Helena looked up into the face of the woman who held her. Soft red curls fell over a badly scarred face. “Thank you,” Helena said.

She was taken to a cave where her wound was properly treated. She was given some clean clothes and food. Once she was feeling better, she and Aso began exploring their new home. They climbed to the top of one of the peaks and sat down. Helena stared out over the green forest below.

This is where we belong, Aso said. Not trapped in a cage.

I agree, Helena said, wrapping her arm around Aso. We are home.

The wandering way

island-curved-from-above

Photo via VisualHunt.com

A quick author’s note – a fit man can walk up to 96 miles in a twenty four hour period and elves in this world only need four hours of sleep, so keep that in mind when you see the numbers in this.

Sheridan sighed as he sat down on one of the many large white rocks along the edge of the path. He rubbed his calves. His traveling companion looked at him. “You grow tired, human. I thought you had the energy of an elf.”

It was the same joke as always. Sheridan rolled his eyes. “Your body outdoes mine every time, Rauvelore. You know that. Besides, we’ve also gone, what, forty miles already?”

Rauvelore chuckled. “Fifty three. Only seven more before we reach our destination. Surely you can last that long.”

Sheridan glanced at the sky. It was getting dark. “Let’s go. The sooner we get there the more sleep I get.” They set off again.

The last seven miles seemed to take an eternity, but finally they reached their next camping spot. Rauvelore got a fire going and Sheridan helped put up the tent. He filled his water bottle with the clear, fresh water.

Their meal was simple, and accompanied by a drink Rauvelore gave him that restored everything he’d lost during the day. It was both bitter and salty, so Sheridan chased it with water.

“You should go get some sleep, Sheridan. I will give you an extra hour since it is close to midnight,” Rauvelore said.

“Sounds good to me,” Sheridan said. “Good dreaming.”

Sheridan crawled into his tent and wrapped up in his sleeping bag. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. His dreams were haunted by the face of the woman he’d loved, the woman he’d killed by his own stupidity.

Emmi was everything Sheridan wanted in life. She wasn’t that pretty physically, but her soul was so vibrant it didn’t matter. It had been her laugh that attracted him to her in the first place. That and her high intelligence. The two of them met at a party and hit it off. She’d given him her number just before the night ended and he’d called her the next day and set up their first official date.

They’d been together three years when he proposed on Midsummer, a holiday the elves had taught the humans about when they emerged from their isolation. She accepted happily, jumping into his arms and kissing him quite thoroughly. They were so happy. She started planning the wedding, which was set for the following Midsummer.

The only blot on their happiness was his alcoholism. He’d started drinking when he was sixteen, a defense against his parents’ fights. It helped him go to sleep regardless of how loud they were. Then it helped him cope with the depression after his mother killed his father and went to jail for it. He was eighteen and didn’t need to go into foster care, but his two younger sisters did since the courts considered him an unfit guardian for them because of his age and financial status.

He continued drinking heavily as he got a job in the finance department of a local bank, went to college on their dime, and graduated with honors – all while drunk off his ass. He’d risen rapidly until – at twenty four – was named the youngest bank manager for a small, newly opened branch in West Virginia, which was where he met Emmi.

Emmi was forever trying to get him to quit drinking. He would try for her, but he kept going back to it when he had a rough time. Finally, one night, he was driving drunk though Emmi didn’t know. His reflexes were greatly reduced and when a car stopped suddenly in front of him he couldn’t stop in time. They slammed into the back of it at full speed. Emmi died instantly while Sheridan escaped with a few facial scars and a load of guilt that still weighed him down. He hadn’t taken a drop of alcohol since.

Rauvelore woke him the next morning, ignoring the dark circles and the haunted look in Sheridan’s eyes. They packed up and got back on the road. Four hours later, they reached a steep hill. “What I want you to see is at the top of this. It is not an easy climb,” Rauvelore said. “No human I have brought here has been able to get more than halfway up. Do you think you can get all the way to the top?”

Sheridan assessed the grade of the path. “I won’t know until I try.” They started climbing.

Sheridan reached the halfway point and wanted to stop. But he also didn’t want to be another failure for Rauvelore. So he kept quiet and continued to climb.

It took three hours to reach the top. By then, Sheridan was exhausted. Rauvelore waited for him to catch his breath before he gently took Sheridan’s shoulders and turned him. Sheridan stood straight and looked out over the countryside.

His jaw dropped. What he saw was a beautiful, hilly land with a long, white, curvy road winding between each hill. “What is this place?” Sheridan asked in a soft voice.

“This is the Long Road, something every Wanderer follows at least once in his life,” Rauvelore said, his voice equally as quiet. “He does not do it alone, though. He goes with a companion, a friend to keep him from feeling the weight of loneliness.” He paused. “I have tried to bring other elves here with me, but none of them have felt right. I am unique among my kind because I am more comfortable around humans. So I started bringing your kind with me. You are the first to reach this place.”

It took Sheridan a minute to process everything. “You consider me a friend?”

Rauvelore nodded. “I know your grief, Sheridan. I too lost a loved one to a terrible mistake.” He paused, his eyes the color of the ocean meeting Sheridan’s. “Will you walk the Long Road with me? To see what’s on the other end?”

Sheridan closed his eyes, thinking of everything held left behind to take up the life of a vagabond, following Rauvelore all over the world. They’d been together for the past three years, and the connection between them was very strong. Sheridan opened his eyes. “Yes, my friend. I will walk the Long Road with you.” Rauvelore smiled and the two of them took their first steps on a brand new adventure.