The Phantom Pilot Ch. 03byFive_Eight©
In this third segment a new female protagonist is introduced. She's occasionally referred to as a child. The author categorically states if the character came to Earth from The Known World modern science would prove she has lived a minimum of 18 years (or as the inhabitants of The Known World would say: "What is a year?") They have a different concept of time than Earthlings, a year for them is perhaps a cycle of seasons, their planet circles its dual suns about every 400 days making their annual equivalent longer than Earth's. On The Known World there are no drugs, artificial preservatives, or genetic seeds mutating edible natural food, therefore girls don't mature around 12 years old like some do on planet Earth because of those very things. Maturation on The Known World arrives at 17 or 18 as a result, hence our new cast member with her budding breasts and peach fuzz is considered a child by the older characters. There is also every possibilty the characters may not be homo sapiens.
Thwart believes himself to be 20, but he is actually 23. Jadda and Danae are 21, Namtor and Kyle are 25 or 26, Portor is 19, and the Sheikh appears to be about 48, but he's likely ten times that; the bastard doesn't confide in me like the other characters.
Before the whip cracked again a clarity of strategy filled my being as it had earlier on the jungle plain when I faced Kyle with my sword. Another plan formed in my mind. I looked up from Kyle, taking a dangerous chance, and watched the Sheikh. He'd flexed his wrist in preparation of signaling the beginning of the next fall. I waited for the snap of his bullwhip. When it came I jerked my arms from around Kyle, pushed both hands down violently on the back of his shaven head. Before his oiled torso could wriggle away I drove his face into the ground. I heard a crunch of bone and threw my entire weight on top of him, pinning him sufficiently to win my second fall.
Two to one!
When Kyle managed to regain his feet I saw I'd broken his nose. His nostrils oozed with blood and he had a split lip. He spit out one of his teeth.
Dirt and strands of grass clung to both of our oiled sweating bodies. Our chests heaved with effort. Rage shook his mighty frame, but a serene confidence returned to me. Without waiting for the starting signal he hurtled at me in a fury. "I'll break you in half, little man," he screamed, give or take an adjective.
My newfound confidence deserted me when I saw that human engine of destruction bearing down. In that awful moment he could have felled an ox. Stepping to one side of his fearful charge was my only defense. He blazed by me and suddenly fell face first. Only when I saw the whip wrapped about his ankles did I understand his feet had been yanked out from under him by the Sheikh. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Kyle has disqualified himself."
Kyle became livid trying to explain.
The Sheikh told him, "You were supposed to await the signal to begin, you overanxious fool."
"He bwoke mya noth," wailed Kyle, "He bwoke mya toof."
The mastery with which the Sheikh wielded his whip he demonstrated with his scimitar, suddenly drawn from his belt, the razor edge poised over Kyle's throat. "Shut your mouth, before I carve you a second one."
"But my noth, my toof!"
"I'm not going to warn you again," the Sheikh gestured with his curved blade. "Thwart is the winner."
A tumultuous cry went up from the crowd.
The Sheikh told Kyle, "I'm going to be magnanimous and spare you the dozen lashes. You have a quarter of an hour before you have to relieve the guard."
Kyle gaped incredulously at the Sheikh.
"That's what you get for cheating in a no-holds-barred match, stupid, all you had to do was wait," the Sheikh looked down at him without pity. "I suggest you get patched up and hasten to the perimeter."
Blood dripped from Kyle's nose and mouth in the flickering torchlight. "Thath not fayh, thath not fayh," he muttered.
Men trampled through the ropes, led by Portor and Namtor, pushed their way into the raked square. They perched me atop their shoulders and carried me in triumph to the dais. I tugged at the wrappings on my hands with my teeth until I got free of them. I sprang onto the dais. Each of the judges took a step forward, but the look in my eye halted them. They sought a sign from the Sheikh. He approached and inclined his head at me. They backed away.
"Enough!" I shouted at the girls. I had to haul Danae off of Jadda to get them to stop.
Then I clasped Jadda's hands, pulled her to her feet. We hadn't been able to talk all day long. I wanted to know: was she or wasn't she angry? I said to her, "I won my choice of prizes. I'm choosing you. Are you prepared to spend the night in my tent?"
She just gazed bright-eyed at me. "Yes."
I guess I was in love with her. My heart jumped into my mouth. I am positive I squeezed her tight enough to hurt, but she didn't complain.
The Sheikh joined us on the dais. He arched his eyebrows at me and said dryly, "I take it you've made your selection?"
"Indeed," I said. Dragging Jadda by the hand I brushed past him.
When we climbed off the dais Namtor pushed a bottle of wine into my hand. "Congratulations, my friend. And to you too, Jadda. You won a lot of folk a lot of money, Thwart. I just thought I'd let you know I'll not be staying at our lodgings tonight. Just wanted to say I hope you don't mess it up. Too much."
I smiled, too weary to laugh. I handed Jadda the bottle. She swilled it gratefully while I said my goodnights.
In a hole in the crowd I watched Kyle stumbling away, alone, perhaps friendless, perhaps indignant of all the indignities in the world. Then Jadda and I stumbled away ourselves. When we left the madness of the crowd behind we agreed to visit in the river. We detoured to my tent where she rummaged around in Thwart's things and produced a cake of soap.
There were many bathers on the riverside, but we found a private spot. She splashed into the water while I took several invigorating drinks of wine. I stripped off, waded into the river. She washed the oil from my body. She massaged my neck and shoulders, back and arms. I wanted to bathe her, but she told me to float in the cool water, to relax.
It didn't take much convincing.
As Jadda completed her bath familiar voices came from among the trees. Danae and the Sheikh. If Jadda heard them she gave no indication, she continued rinsing her hair. Maybe their being there was a coincidence, even with five moons in the sky it was dark. How could they have known we'd chosen that spot to bathe? Maybe selecting the same part of the river as Jadda and I was not an accident. I said nothing to Jadda and tried to ignore them. At one point the Sheikh removed his desert headgear while he swam. In a patch of moonlight I could see his head, shaven like Kyle's.
Except Kyle didn't have a metal plate set into his skull. Nor did he have a robotic left hand and forearm! Searching through my recent memory I realized the Sheikh consistently wore a glove on that hand, his burnoose hid his arm. I'd have to remember to question Danae, and others who might have seen it.
I pondered what caused that, but didn't ponder long. Jadda was ready to leave. We finished Namtor's bottle on the riverbank and returned to the tent.
I flopped onto my couch. Jadda extinguished all the candles except one, then laid down beside me. We kissed. We held each other.
"Was it hard for you?" She knew what I meant.
"The Sheikh has never given me to Kyle before. I didn't like it."
"You were talking to him this morning."
"The rumor was he had some hard candies. All the girls were being nice to him. Maybe he'd give us a sweet."
"You weren't trying to make me jealous?"
"Maybe a little."
"What about you and Danae?"
"What about YOU and Danae?"
"I'd rather it had been you."
"I can do that for you right now if you want," she offered.
"That wasn't want I meant. Was Danae, uh, unpleasant for you?"
"By the seven gray gods, no!"
"Don't be, that's not the first time Danae and I've been in that position."
"I'm surprised even more."
Her voice changed, became quieter, "I don't know why, Thwart, you've seen all that before."
"I still don't remember."
"Well, remember this," she dispensed soft nibbling kisses. "No matter what the Sheikh makes me do, it's you I love."
She was still kissing me when I fell asleep. I have a vague recollection of waking in the middle of the night and making gentle love. Only to fall back into deep sleep. But not before I heard the sound of distant drums.
At sunrise Jadda woke me by stroking my hair. "I must go."
"You're not leaving yet," I said emphatically. I was afflicted with what afflicts every young man getting out of bed in the morning.
"I still have some time," she conceded.
When she finally did go I garbed myself in my red loincloth, sat on the edge of my bed, thinking. I noticed Portor had returned my sword. It lay next to the small chest; Thwart's belongings I kept meaning to go through. In that trunk might be clues to the missing parts of his memory. Thinking of Portor made me think of a fitful dream I'd had the night before. Portor, of course, was in the dream, and Jadda and Namtor. We were in Rishi-Kej. But fragments of dreams are like wisps of smoke, fleeting, impossible to grasp. No suppressed chunk of Thwart's memory returned from out of the blue.
I'd almost made up my mind to root through the chest when Namtor entered the tent.
"With my thoughts."
"Oh," he cocked his head at me. "Well, my thoughts are on breakfast."
"That is on my agenda too." I belted on my sword before we left.
I'd forgotten how hungry I was. After yesterday's morning meal I had had a roasted camel sandwich and nothing else. At the cooking fire I asked for a double ration of bacon and eggs, then another.
"Thanks for the wine last night," I told Namtor as we ate.
"Don't mention it. You earned it. You had quite a day."
"I hope today is easier. It can't be any worse than yesterday."
"You never can tell with the Sheikh."
"And you said it's a good life."
"I meant it too." He changed the subject. "Do you hear those drums?"
"Since the middle of the night."
"Well, the Sheikh's heard them too. When I talked to him this morning he said he liked this location, and the river. Wants to make camp here for at least one more night."
"He's changed his mind about moving the caravan out today?"
"In a word, yes. Those are Askaar drums."
I shrugged between bites. "What's he going to do here?"
"He's leading a small patrol out. We're going to beat the bush for some tribesmen. He stills wants to capture one."
"For information about the witch doctor's tribe?"
"That'd be my guess, but the Sheikh doesn't have much to say on the subject." He placed his eating utensils on his plate.
"Am I on the patrol?"
Along with me and some of his other hunters."
"Not him! That boy hasn't slept in two days." Namtor gave a bark of laughter. "You should've seen him crawling back from the perimeter at dawn."
"I expect more trouble from him."
"I would if I were you."
The time came to ride into the wilds with the Sheikh. Instead of camels, we rode ponies like the outriders of the caravan. We carried sword, spears and slave nets. Six of us forded the river a few kilometers from the camp where it narrowed. We had to dismount and lead the horses in water up to our waists. On the other side we entered the jungle, following the sound of the drums. Their rhythms had become more insistent as the suns rose higher.
The Sheikh led the party. Seeing his ghutra reminded me of the night before. I got Namtor off to one side as we rode, it's easy on horseback to stray away from others. And out of earshot.
"Have you ever seen him without that headdress on?" I asked.
"Three or four times in all the time I've known him," he answered, looking straight ahead.
"What's the story behind that steel plate in his skull, and his arm?"
"Even as well as I know the Sheikh he's never mentioned it to me."
"Do you think it's the reason causing the Sheikh to hunt for this elixir?"
Namtor shrugged, "Anything's possible."
"If anyone would know I thought it'd be you. No ideas?"
"Lots of them, but like you, I can only speculate."
I knew none of the riders in the patrol, except the Sheikh and Namtor, other than seeing them back in camp. After an hour of picking our way through the underbrush on horseback, the Sheikh left all our mounts with a spearman.
"Stay in the saddle," he told him. "Keep all the ponies on a lead and bring them quickly if you hear my summons."
We made our way on foot deeper into the jungle, taking the slave nets. The green foliage darkened to black as we plunged on.
"I don't have to tell anybody to stay alert," the Sheikh said to us. "The Askaar know we're here and they want us to know they know."
"How do they know we're here?" asked one of the warriors, a gruff man with a very scarred face and leathery skin.
"We made more noise than a carnival last night," the Sheikh said.
"The river helped carry the sound, too, Max," said Namtor.
"Those drums started when the camp festivities ended last night," said the Sheikh.
He didn't look at me when he said it. They hadn't been festivities for me. Or Jadda.
"What will we do if we find the drums?" asked Max.
"We're going to have to improvise just like during a normal slave raid. Maybe we won't have to confront any voodoo jungle drums in person. I hope to take one or two Askaar alive."
Namtor said, "You mentioned slaves, and we brought the nets, what about women? A drum council might be held in the tribe. They're liable to have slave girls."
"My top priority at this time is the Askaar," the Sheikh said curtly, to conclude the conversation.
We moved quietly as ghosts through the dark trees and underbrush. The Sheikh ordered us to branch out and, as a staggered line, we advanced. Due to Thwart's excellent sense of hearing I was the first one to hear something. I motioned to the group. At once they halted and crouched.
A man appeared, walking through a path. He looked like one of the painted savages I'd seen on the bluff when I first arrived. A breechclout hung from a strip of leather around his middle, in his hand a long spear. I've walked enough watches in my time to know he was patrolling a perimeter. Before the thought occurred to me I had leaped from my hiding place and tackled him unaware. I slapped the flat of my hand over his mouth so he could not cry out to any companions. I made a fist with my other hand and put him to sleep with two ferocious punches to the neck.
Along with the nets, the Sheikh had equipped us with lengths of cord since chains had a tendency to clank. I bound the savage with cords and stuffed a gag in his mouth and tied that in place. The Sheikh stood beside me before I finished tying him up.
"Good work, Thwart, I didn't think it would be this easy."
"What now? Back to the camp?" I asked.
"I'm going to let Raj take this one back ahead of the rest of us. We're going a little deeper into the interior."
We formed into a line again. I expected to see another watchman at any time, but an hour or more went by without us seeing a soul. Namtor walked beside me for a moment.
He chuckled, "Now that was one of those damnfool stunts I was referring to."
"It's intuition. Lucky for us I took him without any noise. If he'd raised an alarm we might be full of arrows right now."
Namtor grinned and wandered back to his place in the line.
Those tireless Askaar drummers beat a fast tempo on their skins. The drums were so loud they couldn't have been faraway. The fierce rhythms set my nerves on edge. Suddenly all the drums stopped on the same beat. The silence that ensued was as unnerving as the drumming itself. Sweat rolled out of my hair onto my face and down my back. A bird squawked and startled me. I found my sword clenched in my fist, didn't remember drawing it. The Sheikh gestured and we fell in behind him. After a short distance he crawled on his hands and knees. We did the same, coming to a halt at a wall of dense brush.
I parted some greenery. Ahead of me lay a glade. Hand drums were scattered about the grass; about ten Askaar warriors moved toward a platform around which more men stood. Through the press of bodies I couldn't see anything. They began chanting. A man in a red robe took short deliberate steps across the clearing to the platform. In his arms he carried a young girl in a white diaphanous dress who seemed either dead or unconscious. She had long pale hair. The men parted. The man in the robe placed the girl on the platform.
"That's an altar," Namtor said between his teeth.
"A virgin sacrifice in white?" wondered the Sheikh.
"Looks like it to me," Namtor said.
"Such a shame to stick a knife in such a pretty young girl."
"She already looks dead," I whispered.
Namtor said, "She must have swooned. Believe me, they're not going to sacrifice somebody already dead."
"Why are they going to kill her?" I asked him.
"That high priest is making an offering to please their heathen gods," said Namtor, "perhaps that they might be victorious in battle."
"My thoughts exactly," muttered the Sheikh. "They're planning to attack the camp."
"We have a small army in that camp," Max said.
"I prefer not to take any more chances. We should've turned back once Thwart took the prisoner."
The Askaar quit chanting and the priest began intoning words in a language I could not understand. While he droned on he unbuttoned the girl's dress. He slipped it off her shoulders, folded it and placed it like a pillow under the girl's head. She was naked except for a brief white garment below her belly. Her budding breasts were pear-shaped and they quivered when she opened her eyes and saw what transpired around her. From his robe the priest drew a dagger with a curiously shaped blade.
The girl screamed when she saw the knife. As she struggled a man stationed at each of her ankles and wrists held her down. With one wanton hand the priest slid the tiny garment off her hips and down her thighs. When he'd exposed her mound, he traced the tip of the blade through her peach fuzz up to her navel, without drawing blood. She stopped struggling, but sobbed hysterically. The point of the dagger made a dent in her fair skin as the priest inched it across her body. He lifted the dagger away from her and bent his face between her thighs. He applied a lecherous series of slobbery kisses in the vicinity of the girl's mound.
I thought, "High priest indeed!"
The Sheikh said, "I've seen enough, I have no appetite for butchery. Let's get out of here before we're seen."
"What about the girl?" I hissed.
"What about her?" the Sheikh shrugged. "I got what I came for. Let's get going."
Namtor interceded, "Thwart, we need to get back and fortify the camp."
"We can't leave her here to die," I said.
The Sheikh gave me a look. "There must be twenty Askaar out there with that priest."
"I agree, Thwart, we cannot save the girl."
Without another word the Sheikh slunk away from the glade, Max and Namtor at his heels. I looked one more time through the parted greenery. The priest, finally done with his obscene kissing, slowly raised the dagger, I guess for the fatal stab between her breasts. I could count her ribs, see the tears in her eyes. Namtor motioned wildly for me to follow. Instead I stepped into the glade unseen. All eyes were on the girl to be sacrificed.
Drawing my sword I sprinted toward the altar without a battle cry. Two Askaar heads rolled before they saw me. The priest whirled and the men holding down the girl released her to reach for their weapons. I dealt mayhem left and right with my sword, slashing as I ran. Maybe they expected me to stay and fight, not scoop the girl up under one arm and disappear into the jungle. The Askaar stood frozen to the spot, unsure of what hit them.