Blackest Arts! Cruelest Death! Ancient, Savage Customs! [Weird Tales Contest Co-Winner]
|"It was rum business, the rummest I ever knew," rumbled Sir John. He sank deeper into his leather chair as we all looked over at him in surprise. His rheumy eyes were fixed on the crackling fire, and the chin of his great head pressed into his chest.
"Rum business, but it couldn't be helped," he murmured. "No one wants to see a girl—any girl—come to such an end."
We all glanced at each other. We'd been speaking of the very striking Stratton sisters, and I supposed those famous girls must have reminded Sir John of another. Then I saw Humphreys smiling to himself, and Boxall-Burke winked at me. So I realized—newcomer as I was—that I was about to be inducted into the one of the lesser mysteries of the Indagatus Club.
Sir John Augustus Licinius Hardwicke slapped the side of his boot with his ivory-handled swagger stick. It was a handsome piece of work with a streaming tassel. Horsehair, I supposed it was, though it was a deep, lustrous red and curled like a flame. He swung it about as he reminisced.
"Magnificent woman," he continued, "with hair as fiery as her temper, and the very devil to get along with, as I discovered not long after she hired me."
"She demanded to be taken upriver," Humphreys interjected for my benefit. "There were two brothers and a cousin with her, all searching for an uncle lost in the country back of the Transvaal." Sir John ignored the proffered clarification.
"Africa is no place for a woman, and hardly a place for a civilized man," he brooded, "and I won't trouble you with stories of the crocodiles, pythons, and stinging insects we battled as we steamed up the Zampopo, not to mention the fevers and infections and parasites under the skin. We legged it from Williamstown after the river dried up, and forced a pass into the country beyond. Bakalangaland," he muttered darkly. "Haggard fashioned his Kukuana from rumors of it, but he didn't know a tenth the real horror of the place.
"Suffice it to say we were cornered and caught, though we mowed down the finest flower of their manhood first. They treated us gently for all that, to our great surprise initially, before we learned the truth of what they intended."
Sir John tugged at his moustache.
"They had a great stone city, mostly empty and tumbled down in earthquakes. But the remaining column work, and the triumphal arch at the center, and the amphitheater testified to the shocking truth. A lost column of Roman soldiery must have penetrated that benighted land in the mist-shrouded past, and stamped their mark on the place and the people before they dwindled and perished. The dark-skinned king even wore a toga still, and a leafy crown. And the most barbaric Roman custom was still practiced there, though one onto which the Bakalangas had fixed their own, even more appalling rite.
"They fed us to the lions," he said in a near whisper. "In stone pens beneath the arena they kept them, as in the days of Nero and Commodus and Heliogabalus.
His voice hardened. "First, though, they forced the most vile brew down our throats. Thick like tar and burning like liquor, and stinking of dung and wet hair. It made us all ghastly sick, and we crawled moaning in the dust under the hot sun after they threw us onto the floor of their circus. I think the other menfolk must have expired from the poison of it, and I was near enough done for when the gates rose, and the first of the lions came out.
"No one cheered or chanted, though, which I had just the presence of mind to mark. They were all very silent and intent.
"The beast gave us a wide berth as it prowled the circuit. I had one bullet in the pistol I'd hid under my body, saving it to use on her when I judged affairs finally hopeless, which it near enough was by then, you might agree. I hadn't the strength to raise it, though, before the cat bounded at her, and then I could only flop over with a groan and watch."
Sir John's face had lost its color now, and his forehead streamed.
"She was made of stern stuff," he said hoarsely, "sterner than the rest of us, and that must have been why the poison worked itself fully upon her while only killing or maiming the rest of us. She screamed as it leapt at her, but as she screamed her voice became a roar. Such a magnificent mane of hair she had, red as magma with smoke caught in the tresses, and as I watched it became indeed a mane, and her clothes fell from her and her white skin turned tawny and then—"
His lips worked.
"And then by God there were two lions in that arena, clawing at each other."
The fire crackled in the silence that followed.
"And what happened then, old man?" Boxall-Burke asked with lazy insolence.
"She killed it, and I shot her," Sir John said. "Directly between the eyes as she advanced, snarling, on me. She never knew herself when she was in a temper," he muttered.
"Cynthia has a temper too," Humphreys said, and then we were back on the subject of the Strattons.
"But how did Sir John make his escape?" I asked later as we prepared to go out into the night.
"He says he played possum until they threw him on the dung heap, then he crept back to the Natal by slow inches," Boxall-Burke explained. "He says he cut a memento from the dead, well, lioness, but he never reveals what it was."
He seemed bored by it all, as I suppose he was. The tale was, obviously, incredible.
But then I thought of the tassel at the end of Sir John's swagger stick—hair the color of flickering flame!
Entry for the Weird Tales Contest: November 2017.