Tiger, Tiger – Part fifty

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Captain Jorg Weiss was a florid faced graybeard who stood taller than Lilavati’s beloved, with what remnants were left of his hair combed behind and fastened with a leather band in a vain attempt to give him some sense of military dignity. His armor barely fit around a midriff gone soggy with too much fine food and wine. There was a faint tremor in one hand as he gripped the hilt of his sword. To look at him would be to count him a useless fool clinging to his long past youth.

Lilavati was no fool. She watched the way he walked, the flash of his eyes, the play of his muscles beneath his paper thin skin. The frail old man was a mask he put on, the same as she did her travel hoods. He wouldn’t be able to fight fairly as he had when he was in his prime and she knew he realized it by the way he rested his hand and shifted his weight. It was his mind that was the more active part of him now. It wasn’t as flabby as his body and that didn’t bode well for the weakening lord and his confused lady.

She took a few deep, calming breaths before linking her arm with Manas’ and walking over to the screaming guard captain. “Captain Weiss, I’ll thank you not to countermand my orders,” Manas said coldly when the old man stopped for a breath.

“Your orders? That dark skinned whore’s orders you mean. My men told me what happened here, Great Lord,” Jorg said. “You’re not in control of this camp any longer.” He jabbed a finger with swollen joints and scarred calluses. “She is.”

Lilavati met his angry stare with her bland, expressionless one. “I do as I am bid by my beloved,” she said coolly, keeping her voice devoid of emotion. “It is his will that I speak and not my own.” A faint hint of a smile twisted at the corners of her lips. “As is proper for a Northern bride.”

Jorg spat on the ground. “You’re no Northern bride. You’re a Southern slut with no manners and legs spread for more than one man I’ll wager.” He reared back and struck her hard enough to send her back a few steps. “A good beating or two will teach you a lesson, and then we can send what’s left back to your shit eating family.”

Manas’ eyes flashed and a hint of the tiikeri returned. Lilavati reacted faster than he did. She was no fighter. The scars inflicted on her naked flesh proved that. But she was a woman who’d been assaulted by men before.

Jorg wasn’t expecting her to fight back, so when her knee and the heel of her hand found sensitive spots on his aging body, he went down. He curled in on himself. “I am neither of those filthy things you called me,” Lilavati said. “Nor am I unfaithful to my beloved. I would not bring such dishonor on myself or my beloved with abominable acts such as you suggest.”

“You’re not married to him,” Jorg said in between gasps of pain. “Your words don’t matter, Southern witch.”

Katali, that was more forceful than necessary, but an important lesson to be taught nonetheless,” Manas said. He knelt beside his military commander. “My beloved stands with me, beside me, and speaks for me in all things. As for not being bound to me in the eyes of the Twelve and the law, we’ll be taking care of that as soon as we reach a city with a temple in it. I’m done with this ridiculousness of her not having the protection of being my proper wife.”

“Your people will never accept her, Great Lord,” Jorg said, dragging himself to his feet. “I’ll see to that.”

“You speak openly of betrayal, Captain Weiss,” Lilavati said. She gestured to several men and women who’d gathered to see the spectacle. “In front of all these witnesses as well.”

“Who will cower before me and not open their worthless mouths if they want to save their lives,” Jorg snapped.

“What of their souls?” Lilavati asked, her voice just loud enough to be heard by those listening. “The high preester is dead, and only an acolyte stands in her place. Can this child who now serves to offer prayers for them grant them absolution for their betrayal of their rightful liege lord?” She wasn’t sure what she was saying, but she hoped it was helping.

Jorg’s mouth opened and closed several times. “She’s dead because you convinced the Great Lord to let that Northern shaman murder her,” he said finally.

Lilavati ignored the unfamiliar word. She tilted her head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “She was proven a traitor, as you become the more you speak,” she said. “Would you have had us let her live?”

Manas rested his hand on Lilavati’s arm. “Captain Weiss, you have your orders. I will be accompanied by two guards, no more, unless I or my lady request them. If you continue spreading these rumors, I’ll have to do come up with a more permanent solution to your continuous betrayals.”

“You can attempt such a thing, Great Lord,” Jorg said with a smirk. He lowered his voice. “We both know what happens when you do that though.” He strode off.

Lilavati flagged down a servant. “Our tent is to be cleaned and moved to the first place where Ludger wished it to be put. It is to be done immediately.”

“Yes Great Lady.” The young woman was grinning and she motioned for a few of the others to follow her. They were already talking excitedly about the upcoming ceremony and how the “old man” wasn’t going to be able to keep getting his own way for much longer.

The other servants left the area, for which Lilavati was grateful. “You are not as strong a leader as I thought,” she said softly. Manas jerked back, shock registering on his face. “He is an enemy, a man to be removed from power. He is the assassin’s blade waiting to strike in the night. Worse, he will not wait but do so when you least expect it during the day. Yet you gave him the weapons he needs to destroy me.”

to be continued…

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Tiger, Tiger – Part nineteen

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Photo via Visual hunt

“What is the Barrier?” Lilavati asked.

“You won’t like it,” Manas said. “But I should prepare you since we’re about to pass into the area and I’m willing to wager you’re going to see it.” He took a deep breath. “A thousand years ago, when the Antinarians and the Velrusians – ancient ancestors to both our peoples, my dark scholar – fought a bitter war over these lands, the Velrusians needed time to muster their forces after a horrific battle. So, late into the night for nearly a week, the Velrusians gathered the dead of both sides and piled them high in a line between them and the Antinarians. They didn’t differentiate between man or beast and they stacked it as high as they could.”

Lilavati gasped as they rounded the corner. She couldn’t hold it in. She bit her lip to stop the sobs welling up inside of her. The only thing that kept her rooted to her saddle and not running in the opposite direction was the presence of the preester.

“I take it you can see it, Great Lady?” Theda asked quietly.

“It stands higher than my father’s house. I dare not look to see how far it extends, for to do so would be to draw more attention to myself than I care to,” Lilavati said. “I am already making more of a stir than I wish.”

Manas glanced over his shoulder. “I think you’re right, my dark scholar. Would you like me to tell you what everyone else sees?”

“They see great rocks stained with something that makes them a washed out brownish red. They do not understand that it is blood that they see,” Lilavati said. “The blood of thousands of men, women, children, and beasts.” She shuddered. “For it was not only the dead of battle they chose, Manas. It was the villagers and townsfolk from nearby. If they were already dead, I could understand. But I just witnessed a Velrusian soldier slit a woman’s throat. Her abdomen was swollen and she was near the time of birthing.”

“How can you be sure of that?” Manas asked.

“Do I need to tell you?” Lilavati asked, meeting his gaze.

Manas looked into her eyes for a moment. He saw what she wouldn’t say. “No you don’t,” he said softly.

“Great Lord, it looks like there’s a good spot for us on a plateau about six spans past the Barrier,” Ludger called. “Is that far enough ahead to suit you?”

“It should be,” Manas said.

“Good. Then we need to turn our track just a bit to the west,” Ludger said. The group shifted and moved on.

Manas drifted between chatting with his soldiers and servants, conferring with Ludger, and making sure Lilavati was staying in her saddle. She knew he wanted to remain by her side, but Theda reminded him he needed to act normal or things would just get better for the dark woman.

Lilavati was grateful for Theda’s presence. She kept the worst of the sickness and horror away, though she couldn’t completely blind Lilavati to what she saw. The preester kept Lilavati’s spirits up as they passed through some of the most horrific, violent, terrifying things she’d ever seen.

They passed through the Barrier and Lilavati was able to straighten in her saddle. “Don’t get comfortable, Great Lady,” Theda said. “You’ll still see random pockets of violence along here.”

“Will I see anything as sickening as what we just passed through at the Barrier?” Lilavati asked. “For as long?”

“As horrific? Quite possibly,” Theda said. “But no, the Barrier is the worst event in history in this part of the country, other than the Devouring – which I know you also saw.”

“What were those creatures?” Lilavati asked.

“We’ll talk about that when I can get you and Manas alone for a while,” Theda said. “Among many things. Great Lady, I think the two of you need to talk, and not just about the curse that’s been placed on your eyes.”

“He refuses to tell me what haunts the camp at night that forces me to seal myself away,” Lilavati said. “But what I would need to tell him I do not know. I have no secrets that I have not told him.”

“Why you were marked the way you were?” Theda asked.

“I do not know why the Thousand – or whoever it is that put this on my face – did it,” Lilavati said.

“Did your parents not tell you any stories as to why you were so ugly?” Theda asked. “In their eyes, at least.”

Lilavati frowned. “My mother, perhaps, when I was little. But my father forbade them when it became obvious I was a scholar rather than something more suited to a young woman in a noble house.” Her lips quirked. “Then again, even at that age I knew I would never win a husband. I was never told I could not be a scholar as an adult so I went through my childhood happily thinking I might attend the chuo kikuu.” The smile turned bitter.

“You wished to be a scholar, Great Lady?” Theda asked.

“It was the purpose to which I dedicated my life,” Lilavati said. “I hoped to find answers to every question I wanted to ask, even the ones I did not yet know. But when my first blood appeared, my father pushed me from his library and banned me on threat of a beating. The one time I defied him, he broke two of my ribs to prove to me that I was no longer a welcome guest in what I once considered our shared domain.”

“Great Lady, have you known no love at the hands of your family?” Theda asked.

Lilavati smiled. “My brother Kavi loved me. It is not the false affection my parents showed when we were around guests. He truly wanted to be with me, even when no other member of my family would look at me. I taught him to love the written word, and to speak the five other languages I know. We talked often of the politics my father forced him to learn and I was able to explain them so he could understand them.”

“Do you regret leaving him behind?” Theda asked.

“No,” Lilavati said. “I do not.”

to be continued…

Racing the Wind, Part 5

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Angharad escaped her ecstatic mother, who was now in full planning mode for her daughter’s wedding. She made her way to the library. Eridan was waiting for her. “Your mother is very enthusiastic,” he said. He was staring out the window and didn’t turn around.

“Both my mother and father were worried about the Right of Inheritance. Without a husband, I can’t inherit,” Angharad. “And you’ve met my brother. He would be the one who took my place.”

“I can see why they wanted me to win,” Eridan said. He turned and settled into a chair, his face in shadow. “Angharad, what I’m going to tell you is not a pretty tale. There is a reason my servants and I left our former liege lord’s lands, and it isn’t entirely because we wished to be free of the memories.”

Angharad settled into the chair beside his. “Tell me,” she said softly.

“I am the Red Bull’s youngest son, but not by his lady wife,” Eridan said, his voice barely above a whisper. “My mother was one of the many maids in the keep. I don’t know how many bastards my father sired, but I was the only one who showed my true parentage. The Red Bull decided that if I was going to appear as his son, he was going to train me to be one.”

“I take it that didn’t go well?” Angharad asked.

Eridan shook his head. “My half brothers despised me. My stepmother had my mother murdered, and then tried to kill me on more than one occasion.” He lifted his shirt and gestured to a thin scar across his right rib cage. “This is one of the few scars I have that didn’t come from battle. It was an assassin’s knife that gave me this. When I killed him, my father decided it would be better for me to join the army. So that is where I was sent.”

“How brutal,” Angharad said.

Eridan nodded. “You must understand, Angharad. I was nearly as tall as I am now at the age of twelve. I was also as thin as a post. I had no strength to speak of. I was uncoordinated, couldn’t even lift a proper sword, and when I tried to draw back a bowstring I might get it back an inch or two and then I’d lose hold of it.”

“That is the truth for any beginner,” Angharad said. “Do you think I could shoot as well as I do now when I first started?”

“I was a lord’s son – bastard or not – and there was an expectation of a level of skill I didn’t have,” Eridan said. “I was beaten regularly, forced to work harder than anyone else, and given very little while others were rewarded with things such as finer food, extra blankets, and more comforts. I grew to hate my father, for it was on his orders that this was happening to me.”

He was shaking. Angharad hesitantly slipped her hand on top of his. He grabbed hold and squeezed it, looking at her with gratitude as she drew him back out of his memory. “You said you were an officer when you first came here,” she said.

“I was, though the Red Bull would have forbidden it if he’d been aware of it,” Eridan said. “He was never very good with my name and when I was out of his sight for a while he soon lost interest in me. When that happened, the harsh treatment lessened and I was rewarded as liberally as the others. In spite of everything, I was still a highly educated young man and I could do things most of the others couldn’t, such as read and write. I picked up on strategy, reading maps, and reckoning distances and time by the location of the stars and the position of the sun and moon.”

“Those are all very useful,” Angharad said.

Eridan nodded. “As I continued to excel, my physical strength increased almost as fast as my mental acuity. I was sixteen when I was placed in control of a small group of scouts who were primarily archers. We were the advance party. We had to see who was in front of us. We did our job well only lost two out of twenty in the two years I served as their commander. At eighteen I was given command of a group of cavalry and led them into so many battles I can no longer recall how many.”

“The Mad King lives up to his name,” Angharad said.

Eridan said. “The Red Bull never disbanded his army. He never let us go home. Even when the Mad King didn’t need him, my father used us to expand his borders. We must have seized the lands of seventeen minor lords from the time I took control of the cavalry to the time my father fell at the hands of the Mad King’s executioner.”

“I thought the Red Bull died in battle,” Angharad said.

“That’s the story my stepmother and half brothers spread as fast as they could, to preserve my father’s honor,” Eridan said. “Instead of having him known as a traitor to the kingdom. But when my father died, I took the opportunity to leave. No lord was confirmed in his place, and all soldiers enslaved by my father were freed. I considered myself as a slave to him so I took one of the Writs of Freedom and left.”

“Who are the men who travel with you?” Angharad said.

“The last two members of my original scouting squad,” Eridan said. “Poor judgment and even poorer tactics wiped out the rest of them. When they saw me seize the chance, they grabbed theirs and followed me out. It took them a bit to find me, but they caught me just as I was about to fall on my sword.”

“Why would you do that?” Angharad asked.

“Look at me, Angharad. You find no disgust with my scars, but you are a rare person in this,” Eridan said. “Others aren’t so enlightened. I was driven from every town and village, usually at the point of a weapon, after being there only for a few hours. I was a monster in their eyes. I was unable to buy food, medicine for the wounds that were festering, or fodder for my horse. We were both starving and dying. I was done. I let my horse rest in a field full of tall grass and went a short distance away. Driscoll and Comgan came up at just the right time.”

“How did they stop  you?” Angharad said.

“Comgan grabbed me and Driscoll took my sword from me,” Eridan said. “We’ve stayed together since.” He paused. “Angharad, I am not going to be an easy man to live with. I think I love you, though I’ve not had much of that in my life so I don’t know that I’d recognize the feeling. I’ll do my best, but I can’t guarantee I’ll always be kind to you.”

“My grandfather, who fought just as you have, didn’t always treat my grandmother and my father well,” Angharad said. “He didn’t always treat me with kindness either, and I was a small child. But he loved all of us and did all he could to make up for those days when his memories clouded his mind.”

Eridan lifted the hand he held to his lips, leaning forward. “You are an amazing woman, Angharad. Nothing like any I have ever met.”

“Here, I was encouraged to be different, and I thrived,” Angharad said.

Ancient drums of war

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Eran Brant stared straight ahead with his whole body rigid. He’d been ordered to stand at attention and that was what he was doing. He was getting very good at following orders. Others around him were whispering or looking around, still rebellious, still angry. But not Eran. He’d learned his lesson after the last attempt at defying the commanding officers. He wasn’t going to do it again.

Lieutenant Nikolic glared at the recruits. “I said be silent and stand at attention. If I hear one more sound or see one more movement, those who are in defiance of my orders will be placed in the chamber.”

Eran shuddered. The chamber was the worst torture imaginable. These recruits who didn’t understand that were in for a horrifying experience. Most of the others fell quiet but there were a few who continued in spite of the threat. These were also the most outspoken against the new law forcing enlistment in the military for all men and women between the ages of twenty and twenty five.

Eran understood in theory. They were at war and it wasn’t going well. The kitathi were more numerous than the humans and their technology was more advanced. They were pounding the hell out of the beleaguered Terran League. People were too scared to join up, not wanting to die. Or worse. The kitathi were fond of taking prisoners and doing horrible things to them. What they returned to the Terran League when they were finished with the prisoners was too horrifying to think about.

“Cadets Lichtenberg, Lacy, Cartwright, and Grosso, step forward,” Lieutenant Nikolic barked.

“Make us,” Cadet Lichtenberg said. Nea Lichtenberg came from one of the most influential families in the Terran League and as such was utterly shocked that the recruitment order included her. She expected to be excluded, as the elite usually were. But the Senate made it clear no one was exempt from this order, which enraged the elite but they couldn’t do anything without running the risk of losing their positions and their wealth.

Lieutenant Nikolic grinned, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. “With pleasure.” He turned to the two stone faced soldiers behind him. “Sergeant Aleshire, Sergeant Ebner, bring those cadets up here. If they resist, use acceptable force.”

“Yes sir.” The two sergeants headed down into the mass of yellow shirted cadets. The rebellious cadets shifted their positions, ready for a fight. Unfortunately for them, the sergeants weren’t going to fight fair.

When the cadets showed they were going to be aggressive, Sergeant Aleshire pulled out a small pistol and shot all three of them. They went down screaming. Eran knew from personal experience that it didn’t shoot regular bullets. What hit you was a condensed electrical charge that momentarily fired off every nerve in your body. It left you paralyzed, barely able to breathe, for a few minutes. More than enough time for the sergeants to drag you to the front.

Which is what the grim faced soldiers did to the limp cadets. Once the three of them recovered enough to be able to stand, Lieutenant Nikolic looked at them coldly. “I think it’s time you three were introduced to the chamber.” He gestured and six other seasoned soldiers stepped forward. These men and women bore the scars of having been on the receiving end of kitathi attentions, though not to the extent of the POWs. They half carried the weakened cadets away. “Now, am I going to have any other insubordination here?” No one moved or spoke. “Good. It’s chow time, cadets. Fall in.”

Eran took up his usual position in the assigned line and waited for the command to march. Following orders was much less painful than being a rebel, and as long as he didn’t get captured by the kitathi his death would be clean and quick. Even if he had to end it himself before they took him. The order was given and he set out at a specific pace, his boots striking the metal floor in a particular rhythm. It matched everyone else’s, echoing through the room like ancient war drums.