6 The gift
That had hurt. It had hurt like hell. And it had left Tarzan with a bitter taste on his tongue. But the trick had worked. He’d broken that murderous grip.
Tarzan had wormed himself free of that life-robbing crush on his chest. By begging. No sooner were the sounds of his agony out than the monster threw open his arms and Tarzan crashed to the earth.
It hurt like mad for Tarzan to beg. But that hold could have broken bones. Where would that have left him? A small price to pay .. to let Nkonu hear him beg.
No cracked ribs .. on hands and knees .. panting like mad .. humbled into begging for the agony to stop. It had worked. Free of that danger. Tarzan would find the strength to fight another day.
His legs had given way. The constrictor’s agonising squeeze on him had opened and powerless Tarzan had fallen. Collapsed, his knees had buckled under him and Tarzan had crashed helpless into the dust. Down in the dirt on his hands and knees, Tarzan lifted his head. That half-deranged champion was stood like a rock, arms raised, posing for the crowd. Showing off the strength that had broken the apeman .. bathing in the cheers. Tarzan felt sick to the pit of his stomach .. not with shame, the trick had worked. But the sight of Nkonu gleaming as his champion paraded his triumph before the tribe .. even knowing Tarzan had tricked them into breaking that hold .. still that hurt.
Stuck down, catching his breath, panting like fury on hands and knees Tarzan felt their scorn. Mockery rained down on his bent back. Laughter lashed down at him .. like dozens of vicious canes striking out at his back. Humbling himself had worked. But it pained him .. small victory that he had tricked the tribe into thinking he was beaten, broken. That hurt. But his plan had worked. Tarzan was still intact .. even if his ribs hurt like hell.
But he was in shape to take advantage when a chance came. No broken bones. And who knew how many more tricks Nkonu had up his sleeve? How many more champions he had lined up? Nkonu was years ahead of Tarzan in thinking this through. Tarzan was racing to catch up. But at least he was in shape to grab that fighting chance when it came.
“Can you believe it, Tarzan?”
Nkonu was grinning across at Tarzan. He had managed to haul himself to his feet, Tarzan had used the upright to drag himself up. Feeling their scorn turned on him, every inch he wormed himself upright. Torn. Part of him goaded into showing Nkonu he was not broken, he was still into this fight. And another part counselled him to play along. Let his own pride fool Nkonu into thinking he had got Tarzan on the run. He still had not decided what was best when Nkonu had sauntered over to the stakes. Cheers hailed his success. It hurt Tarzan to see Nkonu looking so pleased with himself. But he let it ride.
Nkonu had just glanced over at young Mwale when he’d spoken to Tarzan. The young peacock had returned. Maybe drawn by the thunderous cheers that had greeted Tarzan collapsing to the dirt. Tarzan followed Nkonu’s gaze. Neither of them could miss the renewed intensity of his nephew glaring at Tarzan. Greedily eyeing the prize he’d brought back to the tribe. Tarzan looking bruised and broken.
“The cheek of this young lion.”
Nkonu was a few safe paces away from Tarzan. His head indicated over his shoulder at the glowering peacock.
“Would you know what he said? The audacity.”
Nkonu was grinning at his nephew in a benign way. A mismatch between the implied criticism of the young man and Nkonu’s evident fondness for him.
“Wanting the right. To take your life.”
Despite the tone of the words, Nkonu was looking at his nephew like a proud father.
“I ask you! For his services. For his success. He has claimed that right.”
Nkonu was shaking his head. In mock disbelief.
“Your life. The death of the lord of the jungle. As his right …”
He was smiling genially at Tarzan.
“Preposterous!” Nkonu laughed.
“I told him,” he winked confidentially at Tarzan. “No way!”
This amiable conversation between prisoner and executioner was bizarre. But Tarzan saw there was no geniality on young Mwale’s face. His features did not match his uncle’s cordial tone. His stare was focused only on Tarzan. And there was no affection in that look, no geniality. No joking around. The peacock had returned. And his hard-packed being spoke it loud and clear. That was exactly what he wanted. What he’d asked of his uncle. Tarzan’s life. He’d meant what he said. Every sinew in his proud and muscular body claimed that right. Revenge.