The Phantom Pilot Ch. 02


"We'll be stopping for the midday meal in a while. Portor will ascertain you get something to eat."

"How long before we make camp?"

"Probably six or seven hours. I'm riding ahead to see if I can speak to Jadda."

"Don't raise the ire of the Sheikh."

He chuckled. "Not me." As he rode off he said, "Take it easy, Thwart."

He'd called me Thwart and not Walker. He'd shut Kyle up. He intended to talk to Jadda. All that improved my peace of mind. I felt badly about the way I'd reacted this morning when his joking got on my nerves.

The wagon began to advance once more.

I hobbled along.

When the caravan paused for the noon meal Portor brought a loaf of hard bread, sliced in half and filled with cold roasted camel meat. He fed me. Camel tastes much like beef. Apparently Kyle would have to do without luncheon as I'd consumed the entire sandwich. Throughout the rest of the day Portor provided water and adjusted the rags inside my ankle cuffs. He did the same for Kyle. At one juncture Portor said he had tried to talk with the Sheikh, only to be curtly dismissed.

Namtor was nowhere in sight.

After the longest day of my life the suns began to set. Portor told me of a great river a few kilometers away, we would make camp at the riverside before nightfall. When I spotted the river I knew the ordeal was coming to an end. I faced another ordeal in a few hours. As I walked the day away I tried not to think of the barehanded fight that lay ahead with Kyle. I was younger than Kyle, younger than any man in the camp besides Portor, and was in peak condition. The hours of walking had not exhausted me. I knew I stood a good chance against Kyle, but our hatred for each other could lend either of us unwarranted strength, or breed disaster.

I'd tried not to think about Jadda either, but failed. For some reason the thought of Danae's warm kisses and ribald promises occupied my mind.

The wagon halted. I shook the sweat from my eyes and sat. I thought Portor would free Kyle and me, but I saw Namtor on camelback heading to the rear. He slid nonchalantly from the saddle and unlocked my chains. I asked him if he'd spoken to Jadda. He said no. While I massaged my wrists and ankles he freed Kyle from his chains. He asked him, "Have you been keeping your big mouth shut," and I grinned.

I was picking at the dried blood on my back when Namtor and Kyle walked over to where I sat. Kyle looked none the worse for wear despite having missed his lunch. His leather clothing, trousers, breastplate and armbands were soaked through with sweat. If looks could kill . . .

"You two keep quiet and save all that hostility for later," advised Namtor. "The Sheikh says to get cleaned up, rest, eat a meal if you want and appear before him an hour after nightfall. Both of you are to stay away from all females, including the camp girls." He added, " The Sheikh is angrier than I've ever seen him."

"Me too," Kyle jeered at me, "I'll see you later, little man." He departed in the direction of the river. He looked bigger and meaner than he did in the morning.

I said to his back: "Wait till the canteens and waterbags are filled before you pollute the river." He kept walking.

"That Kyle's a big boy, think you can take him?" Namtor asked.

"I hope so, I don't need my skull bashed anymore than it has been in the last two days. Did the Sheikh tell you what he had in mind?"

"No, and I did my best to pick his brain. He's not talking, not about you and Kyle, or Danae and Jadda."

I shrugged.

"Be careful tonight, Thwart," he said. "Come on, let's go get you ready for the brawl."

We went to our tent, but the workers had not finished setting it up. So I took a quick swim in the river, but eschewed eating anything, not wanting to fight on a full stomach. Namtor pestered me until I drank two or three swigs from a bottle of purple wine. By dark a big square of ground had been raked clean and roped off for the event. Two thick poles affixed with chains had been driven into the soil, one at each end of the cleared ground outside the ropes. People already gathered around for a good seat. Several warriors said they had their money wagered on me; that lifted my spirits somewhat.

At the appointed time Namtor and I joined the crowd clustered in the center of camp. Oil lamps hung from tree limbs and torches in niches in wagons lit the scene. I scanned all the faces present for Jadda, but didn't see her. An unoccupied dais covered with cushions and silks awaited the arrival of the Sheikh. The mood was a festive one, wine generously served, a feast laid out on two long tables. Everybody stood or sat on the grass, eating and drinking. I saw Kyle standing with his friends and our eyes met. He blew me a kiss.

On Namtor's recommendation I had girded my loins for the bout, wrapping my middle tightly with a long piece of cloth. I noticed Kyle had done the same. Neither of us, of course, bore any weapons.

I thought I'd be nervous yet a merciful calm had settled over me.

The noise of conversation tapered to a hush when the Sheikh made his entrance. Now that the suns had set he wore only his omnipresent ghutra and a white loincloth, his scimitar over one hip. My heart sank when I noted his coiled bullwhip also depended from a thong on a wide belt. In each hand he held a leash. At the end of each leash was a woman, a brunette and a blonde, naked except for a leather collar. The Sheikh walked Danae and Jadda like a pair of dogs to the dais. The girls looked breathtakingly lovely.

Kohl accented their eyes and cosmetics highlighted their faces. I could have sworn I caught the scent of their perfume wafting in the night air. Both of them knelt on either side of their master while he made himself comfortable on the cushions; they remained kneeling after he'd seated himself. A man in a turban carrying a pile of silk positioned himself behind the Sheikh on the dais.

Two nights ago I'd been drinking coffee in a freezing hangar in France; now I found myself in the middle of a scene of barbaric jungle splendor. I had journeyed an incredible distance in such a short time. The Sheikh began speaking and at the sound of his words my reflections evaporated.

"Tonight may be sport for some, but it is disappointment for me. As I'm sure you are all aware there has been trouble in our camp. Trouble in the top ranks of my men and trouble between two of my favorite women. Each of these men and women have broken a cardinal family rule: fighting. I do not condone fighting in the camp. We fight too many battles in the field to bring it home with us. Let this punishment be a lesson to all gathered here. I have the reputation for being cruel, but tonight's reprisals will be fair and, I hope, entertaining."

He paused, whispering to the kneeling slaves on the dais. Jadda fetched a jug beaded with sweat from among the cushions. Danae held a goblet while Jadda poured and handed it to the Sheikh after it had been filled. They both resumed kneeling. He took a healthy pull from the goblet, uttered something over his shoulder to the man in the turban.

"Thwart and Kyle will now step forward."

Portor had found Namtor and me during the proceedings. They told me to break his neck and each gave me a comradely slap on the back. I stepped up to the dais, faced the Sheikh, Kyle doing the same to my left.

"Thwart will be chained to one pole and Kyle the other," he announced.

The crowd murmured in shock.

Kyle and I looked askance at each other.

Had we not come to fight?

Was there not a ring constructed for such purposes?

Surely the poles were for Jadda and Danae to be chained to during their whipping.

Or were they for us?

The Sheikh, smiling hugely, clapped his hands for quiet. Two men with leather switches tucked into their sashes, whom I soon learned would act as judges, guided Kyle and me to the poles. For the second time that day I had my hands chained behind me. Across the space of the ring from me I saw my opponent being similarly secured. Faces in the mob of people gawked in anticipation.

A camp girl placed a ceramic bowl of oil at Kyle's feet, another at mine.

"Danae and Jadda, please rise," the Sheikh said. For all his professed disappointment he was enjoying himself very much. He took another gulp of wine before giving instructions to them. "Girls, listen carefully, then carry out my commands. Jadda, you will proceed over to Kyle. You will strip him and oil him from head to toe. Danae, you will do the same with Thwart. Then you will kneel before the man you have oiled and fulfill him with your mouth."

Raucous cries of approval burst from the crowd. The Sheikh toasted them with his goblet lifted. When a relative quiet came over the camp he continued, "The first man to spend loses, if you want to consider that losing. The winning girl will be the first to spit conclusive evidence into the bowl. Jadda, I have assigned you to Kyle because I don't want you swallowing Thwart to make it appear he has not yet spent. That would be cheating."

Everyone in the camp laughed except Jadda and myself.

When the merriment subsided the Sheikh said, "And Danae, I know you will perform superbly on Thwart. I understand you've been wanting to do this to him all day."

Danae licked her lips in exaggerated lasciviousness to the encouragement of those present.

When the laughter died down the Sheikh completed his instructions to the girls: "The judges will be watching closely for any impropriety. If they deem either of you is not trying your best the judge will administer the lash until your best effort is put forth. No cheating, understand?"

Both girls nodded. I thought Jadda appeared unamused, although she kept her obedient slave girl face on. Danae smiled like she'd already won.

To the crowd the Sheikh said, "This is the first step of the punishment. Rest assured we have many steps to take before a conclusion is reached. I promise you many surprises. So eat and drink your fill. We have a busy night ahead as well as another long march tomorrow." He clapped his hands together once, "Let us begin. Take your places, girls."

Whistles and cheers accompanied Danae and Jadda on their way through the throng. As soon as the blonde slave girl reached me she eagerly stripped the cloth from my loins. In spite of the audience Danae uncovered me at my most rigid.

"I'm afraid you're going to lose this part of the contest, baby," she smiled boldly, "but what a fun way to lose."

When she stooped to take the bowl of oil, I closed my eyes. Under such circumstances I had no wish to watch Jadda with the repugnant Kyle. Oil spilled onto my chest and back; Danae rubbed it into my skin. The people of the camp hooted uproariously as things progressed. After I was greased up like a pig the judges started a countdown from ten. The crowd took up the count, shouting each number. I had never been so ashamed in my life. When the count reached one Danae's warm mouth immediately enveloped me and my senses whirled.

I tried to block out the noise and hold myself in check, concentrating on what the consequences of the loser in this little charade would be. Danae had obviously spent untold hours honing her skills. Her talent rivaled that of Jadda, although Danae possessed a different, and most effective, technique. I became aware of what she meant when she said I would lose because no man could hold out long against the vacuum of her mouth. My knees shook and grew as weak as my resistance. Above the racket I thought heard Jadda being switched.

A lewd roar rang through the night.

I opened my eyes briefly. Jadda suffered three or four stern lashes from the switch before her head promptly bobbed fervently. I squeezed my eyes shut against the indignity of it all. Danae endured not a single lash. She was enthusiasm personified; I was doomed. Danae talked with her mouth full: "Don't hold back, Thwart, I want to taste you. Hurry, baby, I want to hear you moan." I moaned all right. I squirted powerfully the first time and her mouth left me. Danae began to spit while I still spurted helplessly. When I opened my eyes I saw I'd painted her face prodigiously. It dripped onto her breasts and ran in streaks down her belly. She leapt to her feet to display her badge of honor with great pride to the onlookers.

Her proud smile turned downward upon discovering Jadda declared the winner. A warrior handed Jadda a wine cup. She rinsed her mouth out and spat at Kyle's feet. An implied insult to avenge last night on the perimeter? She hurled the cup back into the crowd to howls of delight. I found myself unable to look away. I couldn't tell if Jadda was angry. She smiled at all the cheering though and raised her arms in victory.

Sweat poured off my face. Mixed emotions of pleasure and shame ran through me.

Somebody gave Danae a towel to wipe herself off. She seemed to be taking her loss with good grace. She tossed the towel aside after tidying herself, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me. I shut my mouth against her tongue. She reached back a hand to slap me.

A judge grabbed her by the wrist. "Kneel!"

Danae dropped instantly, her face to the grass, her bottom pointing our way. Her trim cheeks parted to betray the excited state the contest left her in. The judge released me from the chains on the pole. I snatched up the length of cloth where Danae discarded it in the grass and wound it about my loins once more.

Such noise issued from the revelers that the mere clapping of the Sheikh's hands failed to quell. A few melodramatic cracks of his bullwhip got everyone's attention. He ordered, "The judges will return the girls to the platform and the men will enter the ring." He cracked his whip for effect one last needless time. "Kyle, you go stand in one corner. Thwart, get in the opposite one. Good, good, now face away from one another."

We obeyed.

Danae clambered back onto the dais, followed by Jadda. The Sheikh put an arm around each girl and hugged them to him.

"Well, Jadda, you are our winner. If it's any consolation to you, Danae, she only beat you by ten seconds." The audience reacted as expected to his comment. "Would you like to know what you've won, Jadda?"

"Yes, sir."

He thrust the girls away from him and kicked at the cushions and pillows until they were scattered about the dais. "You've won your choice of top or bottom. Which do you prefer?"

Jadda played the game. "Bottom, I guess."

"An excellent choice, my dear, it's easier on the knees." He made an expansive gesture with the palm of his hand to the disarray at his feet. Lie down, Jadda."

She lay on her back, moved a nearby pillow underneath her head. She looked straight into the sky to avoid looking at anyone, her arms at her side, legs slightly parted.

The Sheikh spoke, frequently interrupted by vulgar catcalls and obscene hollering from the men. He said: "As stated earlier I won't tolerate fighting among my people. So Jadda and Danae are now going to kiss and make up. Danae, get on top of Jadda. No, no, girl, not face to face! Put your head between her thighs. There you go, much better! And Jadda, you mustn't turn your face away! You will each pleasure the other while our main event takes place. The same rules apply as in our previous contest. The judges will lash either one of you for not putting forth sincere effort. Go ahead and begin." The Sheikh watched them writhe on the dais for several minutes, turned to his audience and said: "Whoever wins the big fight gets his choice of which one of them he takes to his tent for the rest of the night."

"What does the loser get?" shouted a drunken voice from the crowd.

"I was hoping someone would ask," smiled the Sheikh. "The loser gets to relieve the guard at the farthest end of the perimeter and stand watch till dawn. Since the judges are occupied here, I will personally judge the fight."

Having said his piece he hopped off the dais and motioned for the man in the turban carrying the pile of silk to follow him.

He uncoiled his whip as he approached the ring.

The attention of the drunken crowd seemed divided between watching the lovemaking of the girls on the dais, and the impending violence in the raked square. The man in the turban stopped in front of me, bid me to stick one of my hands out, fingers extended. "Just like that, don't make a fist," he said. Selecting several scraps of silk from his pile he swathed each hand until they appeared to have bandages the size of boxing gloves. He picked up his rags, circled around to Kyle and repeated the process. Among the spectators I saw Namtor and Portor talking excitedly among themselves, smiling from ear to ear. Kyle's friends looked none too happy.

How could a man inflict any damage with hands done up like that?

How could blood be drawn?

Sections of the crowd booed.

The Sheikh cracked his whip and glared at the naysayers. "Did I promise a fight to the death? These two would gladly kill each other with their bare hands if I let them. And after all, these men have work to do tomorrow. There will be no rules to govern this no-holds-barred match, except two. There will be no gouged eyes and no crotch kicking. Being slathered with oil ought to provide ample sport. They shall wrestle three out of five falls to determine the winner."

With that he went to Kyle's corner and spoke into his ear. Then he came over to me and said in a voice so low only I could hear: "This morning I told you you were a lucky man. This is the final time you will be so lucky under my command. Disregard my rules again at your own peril."

He stepped into the middle of the ring. "Listen up! After each fall, rise and return to the center of the ring. If either of you continues fighting after a fall you forfeit the match and I'll award you a dozen lashes. The sound of the whip signifies the beginning and the end of each fall. Thwart won the endurance contest so he'll start out in the dominant position. Kyle! To the center!"

Kyle dropped to his hands and knees. Beside him I knelt on one knee, an arm around his waist, the other around his neck. We looked at the Sheikh for the starting signal. He whirled his bullwhip around and around his head and snapped it loudly.

I tried to establish a breakneck hold on Kyle, but my oiled arms couldn't get a purchase. The brute surged upward quickly like a force of nature and slid from my hold. With both of us on our feet, we grappled. Kyle slammed his hands down on either side of my neck and kicked my feet out from under me. I fell and he fell right on top of me like a house, pinning me.

The whip cracked.

We separated and returned to the center of the ring. Kyle made the pin so I got on my hands and knees. He put his arms around my chest and neck. The bullwhip sounded and he tried to flatten me under his superior weight, but, thanks to the oiliness of our skin, I broke the hold and slithered away. He came after me and we tangled again on foot. Ineffectual punches were thrown, along with some kicks, which weren't illegal in the Sheikh's book of rules.

Kyle tried to get me on the defensive and I was having none of it. I'd made up my mind not to let him win the match by just falling on me. He had the advantage of weight, but I had speed and dexterity on him. Jadda was a motivating factor for both of us: he wanted to use her that night; and I wanted to prevent him having her even more than I wanted her for myself. Another long night of watch duty on the perimeter would also be deserving punishment for him after all of the nonsense I'd put up with.

He jumped at me. I kneed him in the belly. He doubled up, struggling for air, and I clubbed him over the ear with my padded hands. A forceful blow to the temple would kill him. He hit the dirt stunned, but very much alive. I followed him down trying to crush his windpipe under my left knee. I failed in my intent however he remained on his back long enough to qualify as a fall.

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