The Phantom Pilot Ch. 06byFive_Eight©
"I think the old fool has ingested too much rhino horn," spat the Sheikh, "but do as he says."
I knew it foolish to object, any protest of the charade would be overruled.
Vananella climbed out of the saddle. She stripped off her bottoms and pulled the top over her head. Men voiced their approval on both sides of the temple walls. She hung her clothes from her saddle horn, stepped timidly forward, separating herself from the men on horseback. Picking her way through the grass, naked in the fog, elevated her beauty: the weight of her ripening breasts, the slope of her belly, her rounded pudenda, saucy bottom and long slender legs. Her buttocks quivered deliciously with every step she took. She stopped next to one of the rhinoceros statues in the garden. From there she and the man on the ramparts conducted a tense conversation. At times Vananella spoke sharply. Even in a foreign language I understood her to be arguing with him. So did the Sheikh. He acted like it was my fault.
"The little bitch is going to get us killed if she doesn't keep a civil tongue in her head."
"She's negotiating," I said.
"I'm warning you, Thwart, she better not ruin this parlay."
"Are you threatening me, Sheikh?"
He scowled at me. I expected words with him, but Vananella ran back to the statue and threw her arms around me.
Her entire body shivered nervously.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"What were you saying to them?" the Sheikh asked angrily.
"They have agreed to meet with you."
Before the Sheikh said anything we heard the grating of metal and the big temple gate creaked open halfway. From the ramparts the men descended and filed through the opening. They walked through the garden to where Vananella had stood and stopped. The hoods of their robes were down, they had sleek black hair and bronzed skin. All had young faces except for the spokesman, a wizened old man. They held their scrolls and their bamboo tubes at their sides, their knives and swords sheathed. I counted eleven of them.
"They're meeting us in the middle," the Sheikh said. "Namtor, have a few men dismount and follow us out there. Thwart, bring the saddlebags from my horse." He took Vananella's hand. "Come with me, dear, we're going back to meet with them and talk."
The man in the burnoose led the naked girl forward, three warriors and Namtor right behind them. I unhitched the saddlebags, they weighed a lot. The Sheikh was willing to spend much gold to regain the vigor of his youth. Our delegation met their delegation. After introductions and an exchange of salutations Vananella was instructed to ask about a potency elixir.
"What is that?" she asked the Sheikh.
"Just tell them," he said.
"I have to know what you want, so I can make them understand."
The Sheikh had to get into more personal detail than he'd rather divulge. I tried not to smile while he patiently explained the problem for Vananella to translate, barely keeping a lid on his fury. Finally she conveyed the message and struck a deal. The Sheikh wanted ten liters of elixir; they wanted three kilos of gold. From the way they kept licking their chops I'm certain they wanted Vananella too, especially the old one. The saddlebags lay at my feet, my hand rested on the guard of my sword.
The simple deal had its complications. The Sheikh demanded proof that he wasn't buying rainwater. The old man offered to verify the effects of the elixir whereupon he removed his robe. A stoppered vial hung from a silver necklace. He displayed how limp and uninspired he was, manipulating his flaccidity to no avail.
The Sheikh barked, "Vananella, parade your nudity in front of the old man. Arouse him."
She protested, "I don't want to touch him!"
"By the seven gray gods you don't have to touch him. Try to excite him."
"Pose suggestively for him," the Sheikh said, "show him what he wants to see."
Vananella stretched and undulated like a slave girl attempting to entice a man to pick her to spend the night in his tent. Appreciative murmurs accompanied her performance and emboldened her to allow generous glimpses of the intimate slopes and valleys of her flesh. Her display had no effect on the limp old man although the same could not be said of me. Out of disappointment Vananella finally grasped and stroked his limpness as her finale.
"He's hopeless," she pronounced.
She released him, backed a few steps away. The old man spoke to her.
Vananella translated for the Sheikh: "He wants to know if you believe he is incapable of being excited."
"That almost got a rise out of me," the Sheikh complimented her. "Tell him I believe him."
The old man babbled at Vananella. Her interpretation was, "He will now drink the elixir to remedy his social embarrassment."
He uncorked the vial on the slender chain around his neck and swallowed half the clear liquid it contained. Within moments he appeared as potent as a young lad, without visual or tactile stimulation. The Sheikh was impressed and took the vial when the old man handed it to him. He downed it like a Brandy neat. Then he lifted his burnoose to bare his own flaccid malady.
"Take me in your hand, Vananella."
She formed the word no on her lips, but a look from his hypnotic eyes silenced her. Tentatively she reached toward him.
The situation deteriorated deplorably for me over the last ten minutes. I didn't care greatly for the way things were going, but now was not the time to let Thwart's rebellious passions take over in a maelstrom of bloodletting. While gritting my teeth I had a premonition of disaster. But I put down the thought to only being impetuous. With ten to one odds in our favor, what could go wrong? I fought the urge to snatch Vananella and flee. Then a lot happened at once. The old man dropped swiftly to his knees, got his blow-gun to his lips and a mist swam about the Sheik's head. Vananella ducked in time, but the distracted Sheikh had been caught with his pants down. Behind the old man four others stepped in close to our party and unleashed the mist from their bamboo weapons. The Sheikh toppled. I avoided the fumes, others did not. Namtor fell next, along with two more. The old man sprang to his feet and threw the cringing Vananella over one shoulder. Seven robed men advanced with their steel drawn. My sword struck twice before I knew it was out of its scabbard. I went headlong after the old man who retreated with surprising quickness. Maybe the elixir enhanced all kinds of strength. As I slammed against bodies and dodged sword jabs I saw the Sheikh being carried off through the garden. Fate, or maybe the seven gray gods, offered me a choice.
Vananella, or the Sheikh?
I sliced the top of a man's skull off and sprinted after the girl.
Where had the Sheikh's mercenary horsemen got to? Two dozen archers on the ramparts launched a thicket of arrows into our ranks. Then another volley. They probably decimated the Sheikh's riders, but I concentrated on Vananella. If they got her inside that temple she'd either come out dead, or never the same. Chaos erupted and no one paid me any mind after the hail of arrows. I overtook the old man easily, slashed murderously at the backs of his knees. He crashed down like a house of cards. I caught the girl under my left arm before he hit the dirt. I ran. I hoped to circle around various skirmishes among the statues, snare a few riderless ponies for our departure. My plan unraveled when two men in robes attacked us. Without the element of surprise they took more time to dispatch. The first one came in low, a knife in his hand. I kicked the sole of my foot into his face, crunching bone like eggshells. The second man whirled his sword. Our edges met three or four times. I left him with a nice incision across his stomach. He clawed to hold his entrails inside as I dashed for the horses.
Only two of the original eleven inhabitants of the temple escaped our steel, but those who survived had captured Namtor and the Sheikh. The gate shut behind them. They were prisoners inside the Temple of the Rhinoceros. Seven of our riders were dead, ten wounded. The others had moved out of arrowshot, but, with their leader gone, moped indecisively. They discussed their options. Should they drive the whole caravan onto the temple grounds and fight? Or had their terms of employment come to an end, releasing them from any trifling loyalties?
Keeping an eye out for archers, and the Sheikh's men, I recollected the saddlebags crammed with gold coins. They nestled forgotten in the tall grass where I'd left them, not many knew the contents of the bags anyway, but I was surreptitious as possible. Except for Namtor I might have ridden away with the gold and the girl. I got Vananella onto a pony, not the tame one she'd been accustomed to. We joined the discussion of the Sheikh's horsemen. In time of emergency they looked at me, not her.
I asked them, "Have you placed anybody in charge in the Sheikh's absence?"
They said no.
"I appoint myself," I said with authority. "Anyone wishing to desert is free to follow his own conscience. Those staying with the camp will follow me. Any arguments?"
There were none, no deserters either. I posted four riders at each corner of the temple so all sides could be watched. A minimum of two riders rode together at all times, if a matter needed tending to. Most of the wounded could still manage in the saddle, but some needed help. The rest of the riders I detailed to protect and aid the wounded on the way back to camp. They were to get the caravan headed this way, it would arrive this afternoon. An advance team of riders was promised in two or three hours with food and water. And reinforcements.
A few grumbled, but acquiesced.
No other alternatives presented themselves. I planned for the warriors to storm the temple although I didn't mention it then. I had other plans too, the best way to get Namtor and the Sheikh out alive was to get inside soon, very soon. They wouldn't be alive a few hours from now without outside help. And, what to do with Vananella? I couldn't take her into that deathtrap any more than I could just leave her to her own devices.
As the wounded rode away from the temple Vananella insisted upon interrupting my thinking, "You're in command now?"
"For the time being."
"Is the Sheikh dead? He fell right after inhaling the mist."
"I don't think they'd've bothered with him or Namtor if they were dead. More than likely they're just unconscious. They want them alive for some reason," I said, unsure if I believed it.
"They used sleeping powder in their blow-guns?"
"Sleeping powder or something like it."
"What are we going to do?"
"I'm going to have to get inside the Temple of the Rhinoceros."
"Pardon me," she smirked, "but have you taken leave of your senses?"
"I'm getting Namtor out of there."
"The Sheikh too?"
"The Sheikh too."
"You could be in charge if you left him to rot. Or we leave on two fast ponies now that you're rich."
You didn't fly anything under her radar. Vananella combined brains and beauty. She also weathered well under pressure and when in danger. She and I had been in danger before now. The more I got to know about her the more I admired her wit and cleverness. Before long the Sheikh and Danae would have nothing on Vananella.
"What makes you think I'm rich?"
"I saw you pick up the gold the Sheikh intended to pay for the medicine with."
"That belongs to him," I said, "not me."
"That's a lot of temptation to resist."
"I've had a lot of practice resisting temptation lately."
"What if you don't get him out alive?"
"At that time the saddlebags may come into my possession." And the only person I trusted leaving the gold with had a sudden yen to be wealthy.
I was beset with conundrum after conundrum. Sneaking into the Temple of the Rhinoceros would be suicidal, but carrying riches in the company of a beautiful virgin: madness. Earlier I hadn't noticed Max in the excitement and aftermath between the two delegations. He was among the men who stayed behind. I called to him. Vananella blanched at his sight.
"He'll eat me and throw the bones to the hyenas," she said quickly.
"No, he won't, he'll be your fairy godmother," I chuckled as Max rode over to us.
"What needs to be done, Thwart?"
"Would you assume an added responsibility?" I asked. "It's not without its rewards."
Max looked at Vananella and back to me.
I handed him a gold coin. "Here's part of your reward. You get a second one when we're out of here."
"What do I have to do?"
"Watch over her, don't let anyone near her." Vananella had arranged her hair to cover her breasts. "Maybe you can find her some clothing too."
"Where are you going?" asked Max.
"Into the temple," said Vananella.
"Now?" he asked.
"If you're bringing the Sheikh out, and Namtor, I should be going with you."
"Me too," said Vananella.
"I need both of you outside. If I break them free we will need to leave in a hurry. Make sure ponies are saddled and ready for them, Max." I turned to Vananella, "You'll watch my horse, won't you?" She knew I meant the saddlebags.
Max spurred his horse several paces away to give her and me privacy. We conversed in whispers.
I told her if I died in there, she could use the gold to buy her freedom. "Don't let it out of your sight, it's your future."
She looked down sadly. "Why don't you take me far from here now?"
I said, "I cannot desert a friend."
"You're deserting me. To go to your death."
"I have to see inside to know what's possible. If it's impossible I'll be right back."
"Don't take the chance, getting out isn't as easy as getting in."
I replied, "Will you say that tonight when I'm making you a woman?"
Tears formed in her eyes. She kissed me sweetly. I dismounted, placed the reins in her hands.
Inside the temple I wanted to blend in, not attract any attention. The best way would be to have a disguise. I lurked through the garden of rhinoceros statues. No one watched from the walls as I stole the robe from one of the deceased delegates. I found one not drenched in blood, folded it under my arm and melted into the jungle. Even though I had riders posted at all four corners of the temple I had not circled it completely on foot. I wanted to determine the best way in for me. Something told me Thwart could scale those walls with little effort, all I needed to do was pick the most accessible point.
I began my climb where the vegetation of the jungle grew closest to the temple. Using the interstices of the massive blocks as a ladder I progressed upwards until carvings protruded from them. They made convenient and solid handholds. Up I went, unchallenged, just another shadow on the wall. In very little time I scrambled over the ramparts. I drew on the robe I had secured to my belt for the climb, pulled the hood over my head.
Stone stairs led down, but I sought something not so open, like a door. I walked with confidence, like I belonged there. Ahead an archway opened onto a corridor. The rooms within the hallway yielded nothing informative. More stairs spiraled down a stairwell. I had no confrontations until I came to a landing. A man in a robe with the hood drawn back walked toward me, but we crossed paths without speaking. He went up the stairwell and I followed the landing into another corridor. At the end was a walled bridge that joined to one of the obscene domed towers. I crossed and looked down from a mezzanine into a rotunda. A ceremony took place.
It would've been convenient to find the Sheikh and Namtor below in the company of a lone guard, but they were nowhere to be seen. They might still be unconscious if I found them. What would I do then? Levitate them out? I hoped they'd be able to move under their own power when the time came and put the thought from my mind. I had to locate them first.
In the rotunda a group of naked men ringed around an altar, all of them young-faced men with black hair. An unclad temple slut lay on her back. Some of the men held her wrists and ankles while others inserted phallic objects of onyx or obsidian deeply into her mouth and the orifices between her thighs. The ones holding her attempted to contain her throes of pleasure rather than restrain her. The slut participated enthusiastically. Her moans and cries echoed through the hall. Her olive skin shone with sweat, black hair clung to her face. She was about the age of Vananella. I suspected I watched the first scene of a play containing many acts and had neither time nor inclination to play white knight. I was in a fertility temple and wouldn't change things, or further my cause, by interfering in one of their rites. Just before moving on I noticed a minor character squatting at the edge of the stage.
A second temple slut, hands chained behind her back and forgotten, waited to be the next victim. Lustrous black hair fell over her face and shoulders; she had her wrists chained behind her and wore no clothing. I searched for a way into the ceremonial hall and saw two different stairways. The one I chose wound behind a series of arches near the girl. With everybody's attention glued to the altar, including the second girl, I bounded down the stairs three at a time. When I crept into the rotunda the girl had her back to me, knees pressed to the marble floor. At the altar they were too preoccupied to notice so I simply swept her up in my arms. With a hand clamped over her mouth to silence any outcry I leapt back up the stairs. I raced across the bridge and into the one of the empty rooms off the corridor.
I motioned for the girl to keep quiet, "Nod if you can understand what I'm saying."
She nodded without speaking.
"Do you know where the old man is?"
"How about the two prisoners brought in a few minutes ago?"
A shake of her head. No matter, the old man should know the location of Namtor and the Sheikh. Ideally I could save them without having to kill or confront any of the temple's defenders, but that wasn't going to happen. An idea got me to thinking. "Is there a dungeon, or rooms with bars on the doors, in this place?" When the girl nodded I told her to show me. She might be missed any moment by the men in the rotunda so I urged her to great haste.
Making our way down through the levels of the temple we met several people in corridors and on stairways. I acted like I guarded the temple slut and was leading her somewhere. I kept one hand squeezed around her upper arm and the other on my hilt. No one said a word to us as we passed; the ploy worked time and again. Away from the upper floors the temple grew gloomy and dark. A moist and fetid smell swirled in the air, almost tangible. In the murk I saw paintings on the walls, scenes of orgies and abominations.
We headed for the lowest level, perhaps a basement or underground chamber. Like the wishful thinking of immediately discovering the Sheikh and Namtor in the rotunda I knew it would be too good to be true to reach our destination without a fight.
Two men rounded a corner, their eyes widened at the girl.
"Celeste? What are you doing down here?" they said.
Then they looked to me.
They took steps toward me.
The girl, and the hood, had finally done me in. I was the only hooded person among those inside. Had I not worn it I would have been identified at once. Since a military situation transpired outside I assumed, despite the ritual in the rotunda, most people had been hurrying to either a battle station or some secure place and had not paid us much mind. I whipped my sword from the scabbard. A short exchange of blades left the first man bleeding on the flagstones. One was down and losing blood before the next one got his sword in hand.
As astounded as I am about Thwart's abilities I can now recognize the genesis of the feints and jabs and shifts before they occur. One particular trait of his swordsmanship I marvel at is his use of combinations. Thwart does not hack and slash clumsily, hoping to make a cut. My favorite is a slash, slash, thrust pattern with the blade. The brilliant thing is Thwart can deliver either slash backhanded or forehanded. Perhaps some Samurai influence exists or it's purely Thwart's innovation. I can only imagine what else is lost in his memory because I've never seen anyone wield a sword with the finesse of a tennis racket. Neither had my opponent. I sent his sword flying in one direction and brought my edge back along his throat. A red mist in the air coated a section of the wall as he fell.