The Phantom Pilot Ch. 02byFive_Eight©
The Sheikh bid us good morning. Namtor and I wished him the same. Then he said to me, "How are you feeling today?"
I managed to remain calm, "The knot's almost gone from the back of my head, but my memory's still blank."
"Well, you might want to remember not to rile up the girls."
I started to protest when a sideways glance from Namtor told me not to offer any excuses. I settled for: "Yes, sir."
"You might also remember the camp rule that the men are not supposed to associate with the slaves without my permission." The Sheikh fixed his hypnotic stare on me. "Thwart, you're a lucky man. You're young, you're tough, a good-looking boy. Enough of a stud to cause women to fight over you. The men in the camp envy your swordsmanship and your popularity with the girls, but they respect you. And you know you have my respect as well." He added with a threatening undertone, "Be careful not to lose it."
When he marched off to oversee the breaking of the camp his departure left a hole in the air.
Namtor said, "Man, I never saw him crawl up your back like that before. You know you aren't supposed to be around the girls."
I ground my teeth in fury. Was I mad at the Sheikh? Or Namtor, or the whole world. "How do you think he knew what happened?" I demanded.
"The Sheikh has more than just two eyes. One of his snitches probably ran and told him."
"Kyle? He was standing over there a minute ago."
"Maybe," he said thoughtfully. "Look, man, try to relax." He tried a smile on me, but it didn't work. "Why don't we get breakfast before it gets too late? We've got a hard ride ahead of us."
I let out a deep breath. "Where did you say we were riding to?"
"Deeper into Askaar country. The Sheikh is not content to merely caress his slave girls and have them lick his body. He's after that witch doctor's aphrodisiac. We'll be in the saddle all day."
I tried to calm down, but remained irritated by the morning's turn of events. A good meal definitely couldn't hurt so I followed Namtor through the camp to find the cooking fires. Even though I'd smelled bacon earlier it surprised me to sit down to a traditional breakfast of bacon and eggs. No coffee though, we drank water from skins. A young man like Thwart didn't need coffee to get started in the morning like old man Walker. After eating I still felt nettled, but said nothing when Namtor took me to the pens to introduce me to my camel. The animal seemed to know me and showed more affection than the one I'd encountered earlier.
"I believe Thwart has given this beast the name of She-she," Namtor informed me.
Was he joking by referring to me in the third person, or making an innocent comment? The words chafed, fueled my anger. Since waking in Thwart's body I had thought it prudent not to divulge my secret to anyone, for my own safety. Superstitious people who believed in gray gods, and who knew what else, might draw and quarter me as a heretic if I told the truth. For that reason Namtor's comments were getting under my skin. His joking could get me killed.
Also, I feared I was having trouble controlling Thwart's young man's temper. I took a deep breath, forced myself to relax.
She-she squatted docilely to allow me into the saddle. I had only ridden horses on Earth and soon discovered the difference in riding a dromendary. The cosmic humor of my trading a Sopwith Camel for a real camel was not lost on me. Before I got fully acclimated to my new mount the cracking of the Sheikh's whip signaled the caravan to get underway. About that time it dawned on me that I had yet to look through Thwart's possessions. Worse, I hadn't even packed for the day's journey.
"What about our tent, and our gear?" I asked anxiously as Namtor and I rode side by side.
"The caravan workers take care of that. Our belongings are secured with our tent. These same workers also beat the bush to keep the wild animals away from us. They'll set up camp at the end of the day and lay our things out nice and neat." He chuckled, "Which you will promptly make a mess of."
Was he trying to bait me?
Weary of his jokes and innuendo I steered She-she away from him to do some exploring on my own. I had it in my mind to find Jadda regardless of orders or whatever rules existed, but that could wait till I felt more confident in the saddle and regained a measure of my composure.
At the head of the caravan several men with great cleavers like Namtor's cleared a passage through the underbrush. When the party finally lumbered onto the southern trail the men had less clearing to do, but their work was far from done. Some obstruction or other constantly slowed the progress.
Our outriders consisted of men on swift ponies who rode up and down the line, prepared to mount an attack on any foe menacing the caravan, be it savage beasts or savage tribesmen. The camels I'd seen resembled their Earthly counterparts whereas the horses appeared to be either much larger or smaller than the ones of Earth. I tried to imagine the size of the elephants and the ferocity of the lions that populated that godforsaken jungle. Archers with crossbows and men on foot carried spears in defense against predators from the wilds.
Once comfortable on camelback I decided to ride over to the coaches. I still hadn't gotten to talk to Jadda and wondered what she would have to say. Careful not to let the Sheikh see me I rode toward the coach I'd seen Jadda enter. Ahead of me Kyle sat astride his camel, conversing with some slave girls who leaned from the windows of that coach. When I drew nearer I saw the conversation took place between Jadda and Kyle.
The morning had started out pleasant enough for me, but after Danae's kiss everything had gone straight to hell. I'd been humiliated by a camel in front of my peers, dressed down by the Sheikh, had fallen out with Namtor and had had a devil of a time reeling in Thwart's red hot temper. This latest development was trouble waiting to happen. Thwart's urges proved stronger than Walker's sense or I would have ridden away. I should have talked with Jadda later, saw no need to confront Kyle, neither with my suspicions, nor in the foul mood I was in.
In the end I directed She-she toward the coaches.
I thought about what to say, taking it easy and making no judgments until I knew Jadda's feelings. Pledging to myself to ignore Kyle, no matter what he said, I drew up alongside the coach.
"How are you today?" I asked Jadda.
She had been laughing at something Kyle said and pretended not to hear my question. Kyle made it apparent he didn't like his conversation intruded upon. His sneer warned me to get out of his sight. I ignored his truculent stare. Last night I'd done the same when I felt like breaking his jaw. Kyle and I both knew that sooner rather than later we would cross swords.
The anger built inside me, I knew I should have stayed away.
Jadda finally glanced at me, her words full of condescension: "Did you say something, Thwart?"
Biting my tongue I repeated, "I asked how are you today."
"I'm going to be punished tonight because of you." So she was mad! She couldn't resist adding, "So is your friend Danae. Which will make it worth it, for me. She can't handle the lash like I can."
"I wanted to explain about that. Danae came up and kissed me."
"You didn't seem to be doing much objecting," she said, wrinkling her forehead.
Danae chose that moment from the coach behind us to say, "Hi, Thwart."
"Hi, Thwart," mimicked Jadda. "Why don't you go give her a kiss?"
"But . . ."
Kyle sniggered at my awkwardness. "Did you know a camel spit on him today, Jadda?" He laughed when he said it.
"Is that so?" said Jadda gaily.
"Funniest thing I've ever seen, Thwart thrashing around like a drowning rat. Everybody saw it, he almost got his head stomped flat."
Enough was enough. Although my irritation had reached the boiling point I maintained a calm exterior and smiled my cockiest smile at him, "There's a lot of that going around. It could happen to you, baldy."
Laughter sounded from the girls inside the coach. Jadda was smiling; not at me, but at what I'd said and I felt better already.
"What did you say?" bellowed Kyle.
"Speak up, I didn't hear you."
His face got red. "I told you to repeat what you said!"
"What are you going to do, spit on me?" More laughter. I was ahead on points, but he outweighed me by four stone.
"I'm ordering you away from the coaches and these girls, Thwart! You know the rules."
"What are you doing here?"
"The Sheikh assigned me to guard the slaves today," snickered Kyle. "And I'm ordering you to get away from here, son."
"Or you'll inform the Sheikh?"
"It's my duty, I'm just doing my duty. Now get out of here so Jadda and I can finish making plans for tonight."
He was lucky my sword didn't send his head rolling among the weeds. I made eye contact with Jadda, but she maintained an empty face.
I said, "Her plans are to get out of your sight as fast as she can so she can spend the night in my tent."
"That's not what she told me."
"I'm sure you can convince some camp girl to take pity on you."
The slaves laughed, one and all, and Kyle's face reddened again.
"Last night I patrolled the perimeter. Today I'm riding herd on the girls. Tonight I get my pick of the Sheikh's favorites. Is there any doubt who I'm going to make scream with joy, punk?"
"I was wondering what Jadda's punishment was going to be." I looked at Jadda, "You have my sympathies."
The slaves laughed louder than ever.
Kyle and I taunted each other like two boys in a schoolyard. Finally his wit ran dry and he cursed me like a commoner.
"I hear the Sheikh calling you, Kyle. He's changed your assignment; he needs someone to gather camel dung for the fires."
The laughter issuing from the coach at Kyle's expense finally got to him. He fixed the evil eye on the girls to silence them. They hushed immediately not knowing the next time they would be chained and at his mercy.
"You've had your last warning, boy," Kyle snarled.
"Stop, you're frightening me," I mocked him.
He lunged his dromendary against She-she in an effort to knock me to the ground. My steel left its scabbard a second before his, my point a centimeter from his Adam's apple. I had him dead to rights, but he revealed little fear, his sword steady in his hand. Now what? I could no more kill one of the Sheikh's top hands than he would whip the skin off a prime slave girl; not unless I wanted to be flayed to the bone with his bullwhip. We faced each other for an endless minute. Kyle called the play, and a clever one at that. Suddenly he jammed his heels into his mount and the animal reared back, removing Kyle from harm's way. Spooked by the other camel She-she bucked and threw me from the saddle. I hit the turf hard on my back. My head slammed the ground. Agony lanced from the knot on my head through my entire body.
Despite the pain, I still possessed Thwart's excellent sense of hearing, detected the quiet pads of Kyle's dromendary bearing down. When the beast was almost upon me I rolled away through the tall grass at the final moment. Somehow I managed to stagger to my feet before Kyle got the camel turned around for a second pass. From behind me I heard the cries of slave girls and the yelling of men. Like me, Kyle is right-handed so I stood to the right of his mount when he charged me. I wanted him to think I meant to engage his sword from that side. In those fleeting seconds a battle strategy formed swiftly and with clarity in my aching head. Casually I sheathed my sword. The camel raced nearer; Kyle's blade raised to deliver the triumphant chop. At the last second I sprinted left underneath the long neck of the camel before its paws crushed me, snatching at the left stirrup. Letting inertia drive me I hauled myself up feet first, driving my heels under Kyle's left arm. Off he went. Ideally I'd hoped to gain the saddle, but that part of the plan failed. My feet came down, I lost my footing sprinting backward next to the camel while pushing myself away from it at the same time. I took a hard tumble in the grass. Sheer bloodlust had me on my feet before Kyle got to his.
When he saw me coming with upraised sword he scampered up quickly to parry my blade. A mighty oath burst from me as I sped forth. I lashed down for the killing blow, astonished that Kyle turned my blade at the last instant. There was no finesse in his counterstroke, he accomplished what he did solely through brute strength.
The next exchange would be different.
The next exchange would belong to me.
Our blades met in a blur. When the exchange was finished his blade flickered through the sunslight to land in the grass fifteen meters away. I had mine clenched firmly in both hands with the point at his heaving chest. For the first time I saw fear in his eyes. I lifted my sword slowly overhead for effect. Before I could split his miserable skull I heard the whistling of the Sheikh's bullwhip, felt it winding around my blade. Snaring my sword neatly with his whip the Sheikh yanked the weapon out of my fists.
I went at Kyle with my bare hands.
At the same time I heard Portor screaming my name.
Halting in my tracks I realized a circle of archers surrounded Kyle and me. Had either of us made a move we'd have been full of arrows. Portor had his crossbow aimed at Kyle. "Go ahead, take a swing at Thwart," he invited, "I'll put a quarrel between your eyes."
Kyle remained as still as a statue.
"Enough!" yelled the Sheikh, the first time I'd ever heard him raise his voice. "Gather up their weapons and put them in chains."
A dozen hands jerked Kyle backward while an equal number fell on me, twisting my arms behind me. We both went facedown in the grass under the weight of numbers. Chains rattled and manacles went around my wrists and ankles. Keys turned in locks and no longer had I any freedom of movement. When the men finished fettering me they hauled me to my feet. Kyle and I were brought before the Sheikh.
He sat in the saddle of a beautiful white charger coiling his whip. After he looped it from the saddle horn he dismounted and approached us. Kyle stood to my left, arms shackled behind him, a short length of chain attached to a cuff on each ankle that would permit him to take only the smallest of steps. I didn't have to look down to know I was identically chained.
Portor hastened to the side of the Sheikh. "I saw the whole incident, sir. Kyle started this."
"Thwart wouldn't leave the girls alone, Sheikh, I was only doing my duty," Kyle explained.
"Silence," the Sheikh roared.
A quiet descended except for the clink of chain and the wind whispering through the verdant greenery. A bird screeched in the jungle.
The Sheikh stood so close to my face I smelled his fetid breath. He said nothing for a long time. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. Disdain painted his face almost black, sadness lurked in the corners of his dark eyes. His ghutra billowed around his head. He walked around us, his men standing well out of his way.
When he faced us again he spoke softly, "If I hadn't paid such a high price for you two I'd leave your heads stuck on spears in this field to bleach in the suns. But you've done good work for me. Both of you." He shook his head like a father whose sons recklessly committed folly after folly. "That won't excuse you though." The Sheikh turned his back on us and said bitterly between his teeth: "I have to discipline two of my top girls tonight and, now, two of my top men. This pains me very much, but how can I let these offenses go unpunished?"
The Sheikh faced us once more, said evilly: "So you two want to fight? All right, I'll give you your chance."
He got back in the saddle of his charger. To Portor he said: "Chain them to opposite sides of the last wagon and let them walk all day."
"But, Sheikh," protested Portor, "this man fell off a cliff yesterday."
"Do you question my decision?"
"Then do exactly as I say." Before the Sheikh rode back to the head of the caravan he said to Kyle and me, "I'll see you two roosters in camp after the evening meal tonight. Then we'll find out which one of you rules the barnyard."
A spearman ushered Kyle away. Someone handed Portor my sword. Slowly he unbuckled and removed my swordbelt. Sliding my weapon back into the scabbard he carefully wound the belt around it.
As we trudged to the rear he said, "I'll take good care of this for you."
"Her too," he promised. "I'll make sure you get fed and watered today."
"Don't make trouble for yourself with the Sheikh on my account."
"Don't worry about it. I'll see if I can't explain to him after he's calmed down."
"Why are you endangering yourself for me?"
"Because of the time you saved my life in Rishi-Kej."
Of course, I did not recall the incident. We walked in silence.
The spearman who escorted Kyle had had the driver stop the last wagon. Portor attached a long chain to my collar then fastened the other end to a ring in the side of the wagon.
"I hate to do this, Thwart. If I had the key to your cuffs I'd at least put your hands in front of you. I'll be back shortly with some water."
I nodded gratefully to him. Blood streamed down my neck. I guessed my fall had opened a wound on the back of my head, probably at the knot. My head not only hurt, it throbbed with pain. The wagon started to move again. I had to take quick steps to keep up with it. The leg irons prevented me from taking a full stride. Fortunately for me, and I suppose Kyle, a pair of camels pulled this wagon instead of horses. Their plodding gait made for slow going, but I still had to work to keep pace.
"Can you hear me, Thwart?" Kyle called out from the other side of the wagon. At least it was piled high with tents, coils of rope and trunks so I didn't have to see him. "The Sheikh is going to let us fight. You may be able to best me with a sword, but you don't stand a chance against me in a bare-knuckled fistfight. I'm going to break that pretty face of yours, you little punk. We'll see how much the slave girls like you then."
The sound of a blow reached my ears. Kyle wheezed in an out-of-breath voice: "That's damned low slugging a man with his hands tied behind his back, Namtor."
"Anytime you're ready to even the score you know where my tent is, tough guy," I heard my friend say. "As of now, I'm bringing up the rear. If I hear a peep out of you I'm going to chain you by the feet to this wagon and drag your face through all the camel dung and horseshit. And might I point out there's quite a few camels and horses ahead of us. Comments? I didn't think so."
That made me feel better mentally, but not physically. My head hurt. I needed a drink of water. I expected to Namtor to appear and talk to me, but a glance over my shoulder revealed only the hindquarters of his camel. He must have been keeping a close watch on Kyle.
The suns were at their zenith, sweat poured off my body. Interminable minutes of walking passed. My ankles would be bleeding inside an hour at that rate. Well, so would Kyle's. Portor showed up with a waterskin in one hand, his crossbow in the other. Strips of cloth dangled from his belt. He motioned for the driver to stop the wagon. After giving me water he tucked some strips of cloth inside the metal ankle cuffs. Then he disappeared, I expect, to do the same for Kyle. I heard them talking.
Namtor rode his camel around to my side of the wagon.
"I understand you almost handed Kyle is head."
"You heard right."
"Wished I could've seen it."
"The Sheikh's going to let us fight it out tonight, you'll get to see that."
An uneasy look crossed his face. He surveyed the terrain around us then asked, "How you holding up?"
"I'll make it."