THE LADY OR THE TIGER
In the days of Alexander the Great, a young Greek soldier must choose between love and duty. A romantic retelling of a classic tale. Please comment nicely!
"Will Alexander never tire of conquest?" My voice was pitched low, so that only my best friend Lemnos could hear me. The tall, golden-haired captain was in charge of our small scouting force, and we had just come to the tree-lined mouth of an unknown valley somewhere in the Afghan hills.
"It is man's deepest instinct to seek out new challenges," Lemnos replied softly. "Few are wise enough to count the cost." Speaking in a louder voice, he addressed our troop. "All right, you sons of sluts. We camp here for the night. Alexander has ordered that we go no further until he arrives. If there's a battle ahead he'll want the fun of going in first. And I'll wipe out any tin-plate hero who spoils the man's fun."
We made camp quickly by a small swift-flowing stream. The shadows were growing long in the valley when the sound of tinkling bells announced the arrival of a visitor.
"Get a whiff of that?" I asked my companion. Lemnos had sharp eyes but the whole company knew my sense of smell. I could sniff an enemy soldier eating onions a mile away – a trick that saved us from ambush more than once.
"No, but I see a lady approaching in a curtained sedan chair. My eyes can't see through silk, but I'd guess she's beautiful – and filthy rich. What does your nose tell you, Tlepolemos?"
"It's sandalwood. Perfume that expensive spells princess, but there's a beast smell too. Tiger on the hunt." The bells and the fragrance were carried to us on the evening breeze. The whole camp was buzzing now, the men crowding close.
"Form ranks, there!" Lemnos bellowed. "Spears high, lads. We're greeting a guest, not preparing to spill enemy guts."
We all stood up as straight and tall as we could. There was a murmur of stunned, almost reverent appreciation as the lady within the covered litter threw back the curtains, revealing a fresh, youthful face and a most appealing smile.
"Hello, soldiers. I am Princess Zilla, daughter of King Araxes. Is Alexander here?" Her Greek was shaky, but that smile would have melted armor plate. Princess Zilla looked to be about nineteen years old, with wavy jet-black hair, bright blue eyes, and a blooming lily and rose complexion which suggested she had not braved too many winter sandstorms. How could anyone send a girl like this into an enemy camp, alone and unprotected?
"We hate to disappoint a beautiful princess like you, sweetheart," Lemnos said, with a dazzling smile of his own. "But the fact is our commander is not yet here. We'd be honored to have you as a guest in our camp till he arrives. My name is Lemnos, Captain of the Macedonian Guards. I am entirely at Your Majesty's service."
"I'm grateful, good Lemnos. But do you have room for two?" A lively tiger cub jumped up from the floor of the litter and landed in the princess' lap. "I am the only mother he has," she said, gently stroking the beast's furry orange ears.
"How did you do it? How did you tame that wild beast?" My curiosity was so great that I stumbled over the words, drawing chuckles from my captain and the other men. It was widely known that my father was an Athenian scholar. Some men ridiculed my thirst for knowledge, but Lemnos never did.
"Princess Zilla, allow me to introduce my second in command, Tlepolemos the Scholar. This tall, dark fellow is the real brains of our troop. I'm just the beauty."
"It is a pleasure to meet you, good Tlep . . . Tlepto . . . Tleptopotamus!" The princess' struggle with my Greek name brought still more ridicule my way, but it was hard to feel very angry when she blushed and laughed so charmingly. Her blue eyes twinkled as she smiled an apology just for me. "Only a clever man could manage such a long name!"
"My friends all call me Clip, lady," I forced out, bowing a little. I felt a bit weak in the knees. The lively barbarian princess was beautiful beyond all words. "I hope that you will too."
"Clip is always asking questions about the ways of nature, how animals behave, and why men do the things they do," Lemnos explained, clapping me on the shoulder. "It would be a real kindness, princess, if you would allow him to supervise your slaves as they prepare a resting place for your little friend. That way he could observe the beast and perhaps make a new friend. Meanwhile you and I could do the same."
Our captain had a way of making women fall in love with him. It started with the low, intimate tones of his voice, and the boldness of his off-hand suggestions. I never blamed Lemnos for his ways, and I never grew angry when a woman responded, though I knew how things would always end. This time I had to remind myself that Lemnos was my friend.
"I would be pleased to dine with you, captain," Zilla said gravely. Her manner showed she was a woman, not a child. "But I hope that Clip can join us later. I have precious gifts for Alexander, and words of warning for all of you from my royal father."
The little tiger cub seemed no different from other babes. He liked it when people petted and made a fuss over him. I allowed a few of our troops to come close and offer him scraps of meat, but before long it was time to mount guard for the evening. As I passed on my rounds, I looked into Lemnos' tent two or three times, and saw Princess Zilla laughing and drinking wine with the golden-haired captain. Lemnos seemed very interested in her, but I wondered what sort of warning she had for our mighty all-conquering troops.
"Apparently there's another path to the south, a roundabout route that bypasses the girl's home valley," Lemnos explained, when I stopped in his tent at the end of my watch. "Araxes warns of dire misfortune if we invade, but pledges Alexander eternal friendship if we take the other route."
"And is Princess Zilla just one more present for Alexander?" Gleaming gold coins and heaps of jewelry lay scattered around the tent, but what drew my eyes was the girl herself. She was fast asleep on a small cot that Lemnos had covered with a tiger fur. Nothing indicated that she had been harmed in any way, save for the gold wine goblet in her hand.
Lemnos laughed. "She's a funny kid," he said, carefully removing the empty gold goblet from her limp white fingers. "Before she went under Zilla told me that she's a priestess in the temple of the tiger. She's under divine protection, see?"
"I just hope Alexander respects that fact when they meet," I said, with a worried look at the girl's sleeping face. Her lush red lips were still stained with wine. "He's usually pretty good about keeping the troops in line. We don't want to lose our heads, captain, just because there's a pretty girl in camp."
"Are you worried about her or me?" Lemnos gave me a hard look, not liking the polite warning I tried to give him. "You don't think I've got designs on the girl, do you Clip?"
"The lady's slaves took off as soon as it got dark. But the boys have set up a tent for her right over there." I paused. "Want to help me move her?"
"She's comfortable where she is, don't you think?"
"No, I don't."
"Be careful, Clip. You really don't want a fight."
The two of us sized each other up. Lemnos was bigger than me, stronger, with more fighting experience. With most men I had no fear, but this was the man who had made me a soldier. It was hard to look in his eyes without backing down.
"Just be careful, all right? I have a feeling this girl is different from the others."
The captain grinned, sensing my fear. "I'll be a good boy, Clip. I promise. After all, we're both officers, aren't we? Even if you are the only one who can read the fancy scrolls. Get some sleep, my friend. In the morning we'll deliver the goods to Alexander unharmed."
I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking of my friend Lemnos, of jokes he'd told, battles we'd fought, times when he'd saved my life. I loved Lemnos and I hated him. But I didn't know how to fight him. I wept on the hard ground on the far side of the camp.
Towards morning there was a terrible scream, the sound of a man driven mad by terror, and then the roar of a beast. I ran towards Lemnos' tent along with half the company.
"He's dead, sir!" I pushed my way past our veteran sergeant and entered the tent with my sword drawn, ready to kill the beast who had slain Lemnos. The captain's torn body lay on the ground. His eyes were open, but his handsome face was ripped to shreds. A dazed Princess Zilla was lying on the cot nearby, covered with blood that was not her own.
"What happened here?" I asked, shaking her.
Zilla couldn't remember anything. She had been sleeping, and felt someone's hands on her body. She screamed, and woke up covered with blood.
"It's her. She did it. She killed the captain!" Men were pointing and whispering as I helped the trembling princess from the tent, wrapped in my spare cloak. Zilla was obviously in shock. It was up to me to protect her, guilty or not.
"Silence, there. I'm in command now! Bring me a horse and supplies. I'm taking the prisoner and her pet to Alexander."
"What about the girl's things, sir? What about the treasure?" Pylos was our sergeant, a battered, flat-nosed old campaigner. He was a decent man with six children at home.
"You take charge of the treasure, Pylos. Understand?"
As soon as we were out of sight I circled around, moving cautiously. The men would be busy all morning dividing up the treasure in the tent. I wished them well; they deserved it. But I still didn't want them to see us as we slipped away.
"You argued with Lemnos last night," Zilla said, much later in the morning. She was only now waking up from her shock. We were riding double as we entered her sacred valley, the tiger cub trotting at our heels. "Thank you for speaking up for me, Clip. That was very brave."
"I tried to warn him about you." The more we bounced along, the more her body seemed to melt into mine. Zilla was like a child, innocent and trusting. Yet she had the most luscious curves. And she had only been faking sleep while two fools lusted after her. "Did Lemnos really attack you, or did you kill him just to send a warning to Alexander?"
"I told you, I don't remember anything. I'm not like other girls, you know. Sometimes the tiger inside me breaks loose. But I would never hurt anyone. I couldn't!" Zilla sounded completely sincere, and very unhappy. "Besides, what warning would stop Alexander the Great?"
"I don't know, princess."
We soon stopped at a place where the valley was narrow. I showed the princess how one man with a lever could trigger an avalanche that would bring down half the mountainside. In the morning the two of us will give that a try.
I doubt if it will really work, of course. A mere avalanche won't stop Alexander. He'll find a way to crush the princess and her people just for spite. But tonight we'll camp up here together. Zilla has been smiling at me all day. At some point before dawn I'll go to her, just as Lemnos did.
I wonder if I'll meet the lady or the tiger.
A/N: Years ago I saw a picture of lovely Liv Tyler holding a tiger cub, and that gave me the spark for a romantic retelling of the classic tale. But the story didn't take form till I read THE AFGHAN CAMPAIGN by Stephen Pressfield.