Talia looked down from the tree limb on which she was stretched and saw the beast climbing onto a lower limb. It was no ordinary gorilla. It was a breed she had encountered only once or twice, here in the Ghost Jungle where she now lived. This breed of gorilla was larger, faster and stronger than the ones she had occasionally encountered before coming here. It was, she was convinced, more intelligent, more cunning and more capable. .
This one was also hungrier.
Slowly she closed her hand around the handle of her knife. Carefully, she pulled it from its sheaf.
She was about to make her move when she heard a voice call out in the common language of the Ghost Jungle. “Be careful of her, Targoff! The Beast Woman is awake.”
The gorilla looked up and saw her staring at him. He gave forth a great growl and shook the tree with anger. In her haste to grab the tree limb on which she lay, so that she would not be hurled to the ground, Talia lost her grip on her knife. It fell, striking the gorilla’s forehead and bouncing off into the thick foliage below.
Again the gorilla clasped the trunk of the tree and continued its climb upward. The tree shook as if they were in a hurricane. It took all Talia’s strength and agility to keep from being thrown to the ground. She scrambled to her feet as the gorilla reached the limb and pulled itself up. Now it was standing on the limb, and moving rapidly toward her.
It grabbed her, closing its great arms around her in a nearly bone-cracking embrace. Talia tried to scream but her effort came out only as a muffled gasp. The gorilla had the strength to break every one of her bones, to crush the life out of her in seconds. Her consciousness and vision blurred. Her eyes unfocussed and she could perceive only a confusion of colors, green for the leaves, black and dark gray for the tree bark, brown for the gorilla. The heavy, dank animal smell filled her nostrils and mouth like water. Her ears began to ring, her head to swim. The ringing rose, louder and louder. Her consciousness seemed to drift away as if it were willfully abandoning her.
Everything became dark. Her only awareness was of the heavy animal smell, and then of falling.
And then of hitting the ground, very hard.
Talia’s consciousness ebbed. But she could not have been unconscious very long, because she was soon aware that the gorilla was climbing down the tree.. Her whole body, not to mention her head, ached. Her head was clear, but she could not bring herself to move.
Targoff was almost to the ground now. It dropped the last two or three feet, shaking the ground Talia lay dazed on, as it landed. Suddenly she felt its hand close roughly on her ankle.
She fully expected it simply lift her off the ground by her ankle and swing her around, dashing her brains out against a tree trunk in the process. But instead the monster lifted her into its arms and.threw her over its shoulder. Now carrying the still dazed girl, it plunged into the jungle one huge paw against her back, and moved rapidly toward an area of the Ghost Jungle Talia had never been to. It gave another roar, as if signaling – and Talia shuddered at the thought of there being very many other gorillas of this size, and her being at their mercy. Why it had not yet split her skull open and killed her by now, she could not say.
She bounced painfully against the beast’s shoulder. Like a heavy weight, the monster’s paw pressed against her back, rendering it impossible for her to do more than squirm uselessly, even if her strength had been fully recovered. Her head was ringing. Painfully jostled as she was, it was hard to take air into her lungs, even harder to keep it there. She fought to stay awake, hoping for some opportunity to escape to present itself. None did.
The huge body of her captor protected her from the slap of branches and tree limbs as she was carried along, though that hardly seemed intentional on the gorilla’s part. It seemed to move through the undergrowth in a straight line, paying no heed to her safety or comfort as it held her. Where it might be taking her or why she was still alive were unfathomable mysteries.
Abruptly the gorilla stopped.
She tried to look around, but before she could even attempt to figure out where she was, she heard a voice – the voice of a woman, the same one she had heard before, speaking in a tongue Talia had learned since coming to the ghost jungle – “Take care of her, you fool. She’ll escape if you’re not careful!”
As if it understood every word spoken to it, the gorilla growled and turned to watch Talia. At the same moment, Talia moved to ease her pain. The gorilla roared and kicked her in the ribs,
It held back most of the force of which it was capable, as if it understood and cared that her mistress did not want Talia dead or too seriously injured – yet.
Talia lay on the ground, too weak and in too much agony to do anything but feel pain and hatred. The beast squatted nearby, not taking its eyes off her. She could not see the woman she had heard and as yet she still had no idea who or what she was – or why she was doing this.
The eyes of the gorilla burned with hatred and contempt, and the desire to crush Talia in its arms.
But right now, there was nothing Talia could do about that except be patient. Her time would come and her head was filled now with thoughts of what she would do. Whether or not she would ever discover who that woman was, and why she was doing this, Talia swore an unspoken oath that the woman’s death would not be easy or painless. The gorilla, Targoff, was another matter. It was too strong, too vicious to take chances with and its death would probably have to be sudden and as unexpected as it was possible for death to be in this environment.
She would have to be careful, of course, and she realized that it was more important to escape than anything else. Hesitation of any sort, in any way, would likely prove fatal. Revenge could always wait for anther time.
It was getting late. The light was starting to fade.
At last she saw her true captor – the woman who commanded the gorilla. She came into view, carrying lengths of cord in her hands. Roughly, she rolled Tallia over and just as roughly she tied her hands behind her back. Then she bound her ankles.
In a hoarse, low voice she almost could not recognize as her own Talia said, “I will kill you.”
Laughing, the woman stood up. Like Talia, she was almost naked, covered by animal skins. Talia still did not recognize her.
The woman kicked her in the ribs as the gorilla had done, earlier..
Tallia cried out with pain.
The woman laughed. “Do you know who I am, jungle girl?”
Talia said nothing. The woman laughed again.
She said to Talia, ”You are She Who Must Die Slowly.”
”I am She Who Will Kill You,” Talia said.
The woman said, “My name is Agnes. Do you know that name?”
”You, who are named ‘Talia’ and nothing else, ask another what her second name is? Like you, I have no second name.”
”I gave you a second name a moment ago. Now I give you another: ‘Devil Who Will Soon Die,’” Talia said.
Agnes laughed. It was a low, cold laugh, perhaps meant to sound gentle from her lips, though it certainly failed.
”How bold you are,” she said. She squatted down beside the helpless Talia. “You are but recently come to the Ghost Jungle. At first I thought you were hunting me, but I have watched you carefully for some time now, and realize you seem not to be searching for anyone. I conclude you come here to escape your enemies. That’s a stupid thing. Anyone who comes here looking to avoid old enemies will only find new ones in an even greater number. Have you any idea why I hate you?”
Talia said nothing.
Agnes laughed again. “In this hell hole I’ve lost track of time. It may have been two years, it may only have been half a year, maybe it has just been hours, but in that time I have dreamed only of having you at my mercy, so that I may show you no mercy at all.
”What ever the time ago, I came to the jungle where you formerly lived. Four men were with me. They were pearl thieves. I was just with them, having stolen nothing, though one of them had promised me a share of the pearls. Do you know what pearls are, Talia.”
“I know what they are, Dead Woman.”
”You know what they are … But you do not value them, do you? You have handled a fortune in pearls but you have never worn pearls, never kept any of them. You threw them away where no one is ever likely to find them again, didn’t you? Well, that does not matter. I don’t want pearls, now. I want you.”
She took hold of Talia by the hair and yanked her to a sitting position. Twice, she slapped her hard. Then she kicked her again, letting go of her hair. In pain, Talia rolled on the ground and groaned.
From a worn backpack that lay nearby, Agnes took a coil of strong rope and formed a loop in one end. She slid the loop around Talia’s ankles. Then she threw the rope over a stout tree limb that was well above the ground and pulled on it until Talia was hoisted off the ground and hanging head down. Talia was high enough above the grass that her long, blonde hair did not brush against it.
Agnes let her dangle like that all night.
Hours later, it seemed to Talia that every bone in her body ached. For a long time, as a small fire burned nearby, Agnes watched her. Talia watched her back.
After a time the fire died down and Agnes went to sleep.
Talia’s head swam. She was cold. Her body ached.
Slowly, as she swung from the tree branch, Talia began working on the knots that held her wrists.
Early the next morning Agnes unfastened the rope from where it was tied around another tree trunk and let Talia drop to the ground.
Talia struck the round hard and gave a groan. She rolled over on her back and lay on the ground watching as Agnes walked toward her, her eyes glistening with hatred.
”Did that wake you up, Beast Woman?” she asked as she came next to her. “That is what they call you, isn’t it?”
”Yes it is,” said Talia.
She had spent most of the night working on the ropes around her wrists. She had occasionally passed out but always, as she regained consciousness, she started in again, working to loosen those ropes.
Now they were loose enough. Slipping her hands free, she sat up.
She clutched one of Agnes’ ankles and yanked it as hard as she could.
Agnes howled with a mixture of pain and fear as she struck the ground. Talia instantly had a hand on the handle of the knife Agnes wore at her waist. It pulled free of its scabbard and Talia drove it into her enemy’s stomach. Agnes screamed and Talia felt warm, wet blood spilling across her body.
Targoff’s nodding head leaped up where he sat a few feet away. .From the expression on the gorilla’s face, he was obviously confused, and that probably saved Talia’s life. She used the knife to slice the rope around her ankles and scrambled to her feet.
Her feet were too numb to stand on. As the gorilla charged, she forced herself to her knees, held the knife low, and as the gorilla almost reached her, Talia fell to one side, rolled away and leaped up. Almost by sheer will power, she forced her legs to support her as she turned behind the gorilla and drive the knife deep into the back of the creature’s neck.
The gorilla screamed with agony. Talia yanked the blade out of its neck and jumped away as the thing turned, long, powerful arms flailing the air. The gorilla failed to strike her.
Great gouts of blood gushed from slashed arteries in the animal’s back. Rivers of it streamed down its back, clotting its hair. It was panicking in pain, momentarily forgetting the woman who had stabbed it.
Talia took advantage of the animal’s momentary panic and moved in and out quickly, slashing it again. She took a chance on one more attack and again the creature suffered before it realized she was in its reach. She moved out again, unscathed.
There would be no more opportunities to attack the beast without it grabbing hold of her. She backed away. The gorilla stumbled and fell, roaring in pain and anger. Blood streamed from its wounds. Almost at once, it rose again, still screaming.
Talia reached a tree and pulled herself up. As quickly as she could, she climbed as high as the tree would permit. When she looked down, Targoff was trying to climb after, but before it could reach her, it slid down the tree trunk and could not climb up again.
The ground around the beast was coated in blood. Again it tried to climb the tree and again it failed. As more blood poured from the gaping knife wounds on its back and sides, the gorilla’s movements became more and more sluggish. It looked up at her, well out of its reach, and she saw pure hatred in its eyes and face and snarling mouth. But there was nothing it could do.
Agnes lay unmoving on the ground near by. Her dead eyes stared unseeing at the sky.
The angry roars of the gorilla gave way to weaker and weaker moaning.
After a while, Talia grew tired of watching the helpless agony of Targoff. She moved off along the tree limb, studying the other trees nearby. In a few minutes, she found the one she wanted and swung over to it.
And so it was that she moved off from tree to tree, until she could find a place some distance away, to pause and tend to her own wounds.
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