My Master Ashonno Bīpod, to you,
Salutations and greetings.
It has been a long time since I had anything to report, and I regret that even now I have found no evidence whatever that the family with whom you ordered me to seek employment is in any form communicating with our enemies. I have, in fact, absolutely no reason to believe that they are anything but what they claim to be.
I realise, Master, that this will be a great disappointment to you, and you will doubtless be filled with the urge to chastise me for my failure. But, Master, while I have no evidence of petty political intrigue in what is, when all is said and done, just another minor merchant family, I did find something which, I believe, will be of far greater interest to you.
One day in the recent past I was summoned by the daughter of the family, Roktakto Rakkhoshi – a beautiful but promiscuous young woman, who is carrying on an utterly shameless dalliance with the scion of another merchant family, one Bhishon Boka – and ordered to proceed to a village not far away, where I was to seek out a certain manuscript, and, if it were available, to acquire it by any means I cared to employ. I was intrigued, for in all the time I was in the service of this family, I have never known Roktakto Rakkhoshi to be interested in the written word, and, besides, it struck my mind that possibly this might be the evidence of collusion you were seeking. Therefore, I resolved that if I could find the manuscript, I would read it at the earliest, and, if it proved of any interest, to send it to you.
I therefore journeyed to the village – Nokol Narkel it is called, a most dismal and unsavoury place, whose dwellers are such as seem never even to have heard of the rudiments of civilisation – and there asked around after the manuscript. Rather to my surprise, I was directed to the owner almost at once, and arrived just in the nick of time at her hovel to prevent her from thrusting it into the cooking fire in lieu of other fuel. She was astonished to discover that I was willing to purchase what, to her, was useless trash left over from her grandfather’s time. That worthy, she said, had unearthed a sealed pot while digging in his field, and, fearing that the earthenware contained a malevolent spirit, had declined to open it. Instead, he had kept it in a shed behind his hut, where it reposed for over fifty years.
And there it might have reposed for fifty years more; but, one day, the woman herself accidentally upset and smashed the pot – and left the shed screaming that the evil spirits had been set free and were at her heels. The entire village assembled quickly at the spot, the inhabitants of Nokol Narkel being badly off for entertainment, and quickly ascertained that the pot contained nothing but a mass of parchment, which they, of course, could not read; whereupon they wandered off again. But it made enough of a stir in their lives that they babbled of it among themselves and to all comers, which is almost certainly how Roktakto Rakkhoshi heard of its existence.
Once I made the woman realise that I was serious about purchasing the parchments from her, I acquired them for a relatively paltry sum, and proceeded to go through them as soon as I had left that terrible little village. And fortunate it was that I did, for I immediately realised that it was more important than any insignificant little rebellious political activity could possibly be.
Master, I do not know if you are familiar with the tale of Onek Mangsho the traitor? Briefly, as the story goes, this man had betrayed his tribe and fled with two of his wives rather than give his flesh as food for his people. Legends say that during the course of their wanderings, this renegade and his women accumulated an immense treasure, which is still hidden somewhere, awaiting discovery. Now, the parchments I held in my hand were nothing less than part of the writings of one of these wives, by the name of Chheechkaduni. No doubt Roktakto Rakkhoshi hopes to find clues as to the location of the treasure, which is why she was desperate to get hold of the parchment.
I briefly considered sending the original manuscript to you, Master, and informing Roktakto Rakkhoshi that I had been unable to find it. But then I thought again, and decided that it would be better to earn her trust by giving her what she wanted, so that she would send me again on any future attempts to locate the ancient renegade’s wife’s writings. But I first copied the entire manuscript, and it is this copy that I send to you.
I remain, Master, your most devoted servant and spy,
************************************* *************************************** **************************************
We had just left the Caverns of Konkaler Khuli, where we had tarried for so long, when Onek Mangsho, who was in the lead, held up a hand. “Wait. Something’s wrong.”
“Lord?” Opodartho and I looked around, but all we could see was the rocky hillside, baking in the mid-afternoon sunlight. “What is it?”
Onek Mangsho didn’t answer. He seemed to be watching the very air, tasting it for danger. His heavy spear was held high in his hand, its blade turning from side to side. Instinctively, Opodartho and I both grasped our own weapons, though we could see nothing to defend ourselves against.
“Lord?” I tried again. “Can you tell us what’s wrong?”
Onek Mangsho shook his head and lowered his spear. “I could swear there’s trouble around,” he said tensely. “My instincts are screaming that we’re in great peril...and yet, I can’t see anything to guard against.”
I looked past him down the path. The rocks overhung it on the left, while the slope fell away on the right in a near-vertical cliff. Beyond that, the brown stony plain stretched to the horizon. Apart from a yellow-walled village sprawled across a hillock a long way below us, there was nothing else to be seen.
“What do you suggest we do?” I asked. “Go back to the Caverns?” It was an intensely attractive thought, for we had spent such a wonderful time there, resting and making love.
“We have no food left, Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho reminded me. “That’s why we had to leave the Caverns, you know. Besides, whatever danger threatens us now could find us in there as well, once it knows we exist.”
“She’s right,” Onek Mangsho said. “We’ve got to move on anyway. Let’s try and get down to the plain before nightfall, and then we can decide what to do.”
We scrambled down the path. Loose stones littered the path; apparently no one had come this way in a very long time. The pebbles bounced and rolled downhill from our feet, advertising our coming to anything lying in wait for us. I kept glancing up towards the rocks on the left, expecting any moment to see the heads of a party of ambushers poke up above them, but except for a long brown lizard which scuttled away at our coming, nothing moved.
And then we passed a bend in the path and stopped, as though rooted to the spot with shock at what lay before us.
The path widened here into a wide rocky platform, which was covered with shattered bones and shreds of animal hide and human skin, the dried remnants of flesh, and a scattering of skulls, empty sockets staring up at the sky. It was as though a careless butcher had spent some time cutting up his wares, and moved on, except only for one thing – but for a few dark stains on the rock, there was no sign of blood at all.
As though in confirmation, the wind changed, and brought to my nostrils an odour I had only smelt a few times before, and had hoped never to encounter again.
No wonder Onek Mangsho had sensed danger. It was surprising that Opodartho and I hadn’t, as well. And for this particular danger, we were in the worst place we could possibly be.
We were standing in the slaughterhouse of a vampire hog.
These creatures are rare enough that seldom do people encounter them, and of those who do, almost nobody lives to tell the tale. Not even a dire lion will attempt to tackle a full-grown vampire hog, and I have seen a pack of windwolves turn aside and scatter at the scent of one. Its bite, as everyone knows, is poisonous from the carrion and decaying filth that comprise such a large part of its diet; but, even more than that, it is utterly fearless and impervious to pain, shrugging off wounds that would have killed almost anything else. Unlike any other animal I know of, it is always angry. In fact, it seems to be capable of no other state of mind, so that it is always eager to attack and kill anything that comes its way, even beasts much larger than itself.
And when it makes a kill, it drags the prey off to its slaughterhouse, where it rips open the carcass and drains it of the blood, only settling down to eat the rest when it has rotted enough to be palatable. The slaughterhouse is its larder, its lair, and its den; the very heart of its empire of anger and pain. Even at this very moment, it was probably resting from the heat of the sun in the shade of one of the boulders on the hillside above.
We had just begun to back away slowly when my foot struck a stone which rolled, with a clatter, down on to the platform. We turned to run, but it was already too late.
With a squeal of fury that echoed off the hillside, the vampire hog was upon us.
It came hurtling across the platform, short strong legs pumping, hooves sending pieces of bone flying. Its huge head was a mass of bony warts and bristling mane and short knife-sharp tusks, its muscular flanks wrapped in brown skin tough as a shield. It leaped, striking Onek Mangsho a hard blow with its shoulder, knocking him down and to the side, even as he twisted desperately to avoid the slashing tusks. I was about to rush to his aid when the beast, hooves scrabbling for purchase on the stone, slewed to a stop and turned with another enraged squeal.
And this time it came right for me.
I remember what happened next with extreme clarity. I watched the vampire hog gather its legs to spring. I caught a glimpse of a tiny eye, peering from its fortress of bony warts, its furious glare fixed on me. I saw the mouth opening, revealing the knife-sharp tusks as the hog began its killing leap. I saw my own arm rise, too slowly, the long knife in my hand knocked easily aside by the hard snout, and then the jaws closed on me, and I fell.
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the rock, the breath knocked from my body. Sunlight glittered green off something into my unfocussed eyes. I was vaguely aware of pain, a lot of pain, but far away, as though it was happening to someone else. And somewhere there was a great shouting and squealing.
Slowly, putting every bit of effort I could into it, I raised my head. My sight was hazy and flickering just as my hearing was, but before it faded completely I saw Onek Mangsho, his heavy spear buried in the vampire hog’s shoulder half way up to the shaft, desperately trying to fend off the beast as it tried to push right up the weapon to get to him. I saw Opodartho, stabbing at its back and flanks with her light spear, and raising it high as she aimed a thrust to the back of the creature’s skull. And I saw blood, a lot of blood. The blood seemed to be everywhere.
It was only in the last moment before my consciousness ebbed away that I realised that the blood was all mine.
Somewhere, very far away in darkness, people were talking.
“Amazing.” It was a woman’s voice. “It is astonishing that she is still alive.”
“We thought we’d lost her several times,” another voice, which sounded vaguely familiar, replied. “But somehow she hung on.”
“The question is,” a third voice said, brusquely, and this voice also seemed to be one I had heard before. “The question is, can you save her?”
“It won’t be easy,” the first voice responded. “She has lost a great amount of blood, and of course the bites are poisoned.”
“But it isn’t hopeless?” It was the second voice. “She’s got a chance?”
“As long as there’s life,” the first voice intoned, “there’s hope. Fortunately, I’m not altogether inexperienced in the treatment of these bites. However, with the current situation here, of which you may have heard...”
“We understand,” the third voice cut in. “But we’ll do anything you ask if you cure her.”
I wondered who this person was that they were talking about, and felt vaguely interested in whether they would be able to save her. Maybe, I thought, I should go to them and ask if I could help. But the darkness was profound, the voices very far off, and I would probably lose my way if I went looking for them and maybe fall and break a leg or something. After all, I’d no idea where I was, and there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. It was probably night, and when the sun came up I could find my way. Until then, I thought, I might as well sit down somewhere and wait.
But there was no floor beneath me, and as I tried to sit I toppled backwards into the darkness. The darkness was very soft, very comfortable, though, the most wonderful bed I’d ever lain on, and I just wanted to lie there and sleep. As I drifted off, I heard, from very, very far away, the first voice, its tone alarmed.
“Quick!” it snapped. “Get out of my way – she’s stopped breathing!”
And then the silence closed over me, and I knew nothing more.
“So you’re back among the living,” a voice said. I felt something cold and moist on my face, probably a wet cloth. “Can you talk? Open your eyes?”
“Are you talking to me?” I asked, but all that came from my throat was the faintest of whispers. My eyes felt as though they were filled with sand. With an effort, I forced them open.
A face was looking down at me, a face so broad that it looked wider than it was high. Long grey hair straggled from under a conical leather cap, and two black eyes peered down at me from a nest of wrinkles so deep they looked like canyons carved in the skin.
“Of course I’m talking to you,” the woman said. She wiped my face with the wet cloth once more. “Not that I’d have expected anyone would ever talk to you again, not after what you’ve been through.”
“What I’ve been through?” I repeated, wondering what she was talking about. “I don’t...”
“The Cannibal Spirit probably didn’t like your taste, and threw you back,” the woman said, not unkindly. “You’re still very weak, though, Omanush Ottohãshi. No, don’t try to sit up. Rest, and in a while I’ll give you a little broth.”
“Omanush Ottohãshi?” I repeated, but she’d gone. Turning my head slowly, I looked around. Over my head was a soot-blackened wooden ceiling, and grimy stone walls were on all sides. I was evidently in a small room in a hut somewhere.
But how did I end up here? Why was I so weak? And where were Onek –?
If I could have, I would have leaped out of the bed at that moment. Onek Mangsho and Opodartho! Where were they? And what had happened to me?
I must have made some noise, because the woman bustled back into the room. In one hand she held a small, steaming bowl.
“There now,” she said. “Only just back from the land of the dead, and you’re already getting overexcited. Lie back and open your mouth, Omanush Ottohãshi. You need food to get back your strength. A vampire hog’s bites aren’t something to laugh about.”
At that the memories came flooding back, and I realised what must have happened. Onek Mangsho and Opodartho had succeeded in killing or driving off the vampire hog, and after that they probably carried me down to the village we’d seen from the path. It was the only place of habitation near enough. And, therefore, I must be there still.
“What is this place?” I asked. “Where am I?”
“You’re in Gundar Gondogol,” the woman informed me. “I’m Jhokmokey Jonjal, the healer of the village. Now listen to my healer’s orders and drink this.”
“My companions?” I whispered after she’d fed me some of the broth, which I barely managed to taste. “Where are they?”
“You mean Talpatar Shepai and, what’s her name, Obhodro Oshshosti? They’ve gone on a little, uh, expedition. They’ll be back soon.”
“Expedition? What expedition?”
“Don’t excite yourself. It’s just a little thing they’re doing to help us. Once they’re back, they’ll be overjoyed to see you’ve recovered.” Jhokmokey Jonjal smiled, her wide mouth making her face look even broader. “Now go to sleep, and let yourself heal.”
“I’m not sleepy...” I began, but suddenly I was very sleepy. I was so sleepy that I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer. Jhokmokey Jonjal must have put something in the broth, I realised, as my eyes fell closed.
I stood before Opodartho who sat, quite nude except for a tiara, on a throne on a raised dais. Her naked body glittered with gold dust. It coated her breasts, streaked her hair and drizzled from her toes. “Is that all?” she asked scornfully as she looked me up and down. “Is that all you have to offer me?”
“I couldn’t help it,” I began trying to defend myself. “There were no more to be had.”
“Silence!” she screamed. “There is always more to be had. I only asked for a hundred, and you brought me...” She glanced at a basket by the foot of the throne and back at me. “Thirty-five! I ask for a hundred and you bring me thirty-five!”
“Opodartho...” I began. “This is unfair. I did try my best.”
“Shut up!” she screamed, almost gibbering with fury. “I will not have you talking to me this way. Take her,” she shouted to Onek Mangsho, who I now saw stood beside the dais. “Take her and throw her into the Pit. She can stay there until she starves.”
“But you can’t do this...” I began to protest. It was no use. Onek Mangsho grasped me by the arm and began to drag me away. The last I saw of Opodartho, she was kneeling beside the basket.
“Thirty-five,” she was saying over and over, as though she couldn’t believe it. “Thirty-five!”
“Thirty-five,” I heard someone say. “They want thirty-five now.”
I opened my eyes. The room was almost dark, but flickering firelight through the open door sent shadows dancing on the walls. From the chill, it was late at night. I must have been asleep for a long time.
“Thirty-five?” Jhokmokey Jonjal repeated. “How can they demand this? We’ve already sent twenty-five.”
“They can do as they wish.” The other voice was heavy and final. “What can we do? We’re helpless. If tomorrow they say we’ve to send sixty, we’ll have to send sixty.” He paused, and there was a clinking as of crockery. “How’s your patient?”
“Incredibly enough, she’s alive. In fact, she’s well on the way to recovery.” Jhokmokey Jonjal sounded very tired. “Normally, I’d be proud of my healing skills. But I can’t stop thinking about them and their demands.”
“How’s that going to help? Tomorrow morning we’ll have to go through the village and find ten more to send.”
“The Cannibal Spirit alone knows where we’ll find five more, let alone ten.” Jhokmokey Jonjal sighed so deeply that I heard her from where I was. “How long do we have?”
“They were generous enough to give us till the dark of the moon.”
“That’s, what, ten days? It’s hardly anything at all, considering what they want from us.” Jhokmokey Jonjal’s shadow showed on the wall as she passed before the doorway. “Talpatar Shepai and Obhodro Oshshosti went to see what they could do – that was their payment for my healing Omanush Ottohãshi there – but it’s been days since they left, and I have heard nothing of them since. Not, of course,” she added, “that I expected that they could do much against the Blood Banner anyway.”
“If they actually went at all, and didn’t just run away,” the heavy voice said cynically. “Well, I’ve got to go. I still have other people to talk to.”
“All right, Kukothay Khoifutey. I’ll see you in the morning.”
While I’d been listening to this I’d tried to sit up, and, though the effort left me trembling and pouring with sweat, I’d finally succeeded. I was still sitting up when Jhokmokey Jonjal poked her head round the door.
“Now look at that!” she exclaimed. “I’d thought I’d given you enough of the draught to put you to sleep till morning. And here you’re sitting up and stressing your body already. You’ll burst your wounds open again at this rate.”
“Burst my wounds?” I asked, looking down at myself. For the first time I realised that I had no clothes on. My torso, from just below my breasts to my hips, was wrapped in bandages. I had no desire to know what those bandages concealed. “I didn’t even feel them.”
“Well,” Jhokmokey Jonjal said reluctantly, “now that you’re up, you might as well sit up for a bit. How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” I said. “What were you talking about just now? Who wants thirty-five from you? Thirty-five of what?”
“You heard that?” Jhokmokey Jonjal bit her lip. “Never mind, it’s nothing to do with you.”
“You were talking of On...Obhodro Oshshosti and Talpatar Shepai. You said they’d gone to help. That means it’s to do with me as well, doesn’t it?”
Jhokmokey Jonjal looked at me for a long moment and nodded. “All right,” she said, drawing up a stool. “I’ll tell you.
“This village, Gundar Gondogol, used to be rich once. We used to dig minerals out of the hills, and trade them for whatever we needed with the towns across the plain. But, inevitably, the mines were worked out, and we became poor. The trade died, and we survived on whatever we could find. Some of our young people even became thieves, raiding the towns we once used to trade with, and other things besides.” Her hands twined in her lap as though the admission embarrassed and hurt her. “You understand.”
“Yes.” The three of us had had to resort to stealing, when we had to, more than once in our wanderings. “So what happened?”
“One night, a few months ago, a man came staggering into our village. He was covered in cuts and bruises, gasping for breath, and with the last of his strength begged for shelter and help. Of course we did help – I took him in, as I did you, and he lay in this very bed as I nursed him. He was extremely weak and badly injured, but I managed to save him in the end.”
“Just as you did me.” I fingered the bandages across my midsection, and winced as slight pressure from my fingers made something hurt inside.
“Don’t fiddle with the dressings. Well, after a day or two, when he could talk, I asked him who he was and where he’d been fleeing from, with the marks of weapons on his body. Yes, some of those cuts were spear wounds. He’d been extremely lucky to get away alive at all.
“He said his name was Bishakto Bhondo, and that he’d fled Bhoyaboho Byapar, a town up in the hills. None of us had ever had any dealings with Bhoyaboho Byapar. We were barely aware of its existence. I wanted to ask him about it – why would they want to kill him? Why did he flee the place? But he seemed to be overcome with faintness and weakness, so I thought I’d wait until he was a little better before I asked him anything again.
“But he must have been feigning at least some of his weakness, because when later that evening I returned from my rounds of the other sick of the village, I found he had disappeared, taking with him all the food and water I had in the hut. None of us ever saw anything of him again.
“That very night, our village was attacked. Most of our young people were across the plain, trying to find things in the towns to steal, but even had they been here I doubt if they could have done anything. The enemy was so strong that they overwhelmed us utterly before we’d even understood clearly what was happening.
“They were, they said, soldiers of Bhoyaboho Byapar, and they demanded to know where Bishakto Bhondo was. Somehow or other, they knew perfectly well that he’d been here, in this hut, and they also found some of his clothing left here. So we couldn’t deny that he’d been here; but we could say, with perfect truth, that none of us knew where he was now. And we hoped they’d go away and leave us alone.
“As you’ll have guessed already, they didn’t do that. If we couldn’t produce Bishakto Bhondo, they said, we’d have to give them hostages instead – hostages they’d only free if and when the runaway was recaptured or we handed him back. Unless we agreed to do that, they’d destroy the village and kill us all.”
“So you agreed.”
“Of course we agreed. What choice did we have? They didn’t just want hostages, too. They wanted young hostages, hostages who would be of value. So when they left they dragged off several of the young men and women who remained in the village – fifteen in all.”
“What happened to them?”
“Nobody knows. But after a few days we received word from the Blood Banner that fifteen weren’t enough – we’d have to find ten more hostages, or they’d kill those they’d already taken, and come back to destroy us, too.”
“The Blood Banner?” I asked. “The man you were talking to – what’s his name, Kukothay Khoifutey – he’d mentioned the Blood Banner too. What is the Blood Banner?”
“It’s the name by which the group ruling Bhoyaboho Byapar is known, we think.” She rubbed her eyes wearily. “So we had to send ten more of our young people. None of them, naturally, wanted to go, so we had to force them. Can you imagine what it felt like to round up our own sons and daughters at spear-point to send off to our enemies?”
“Of course those who you didn’t send fled the village immediately afterwards?”
“That goes without saying, doesn’t it? All of them who could, left. About four or five stayed back, those who had old parents to look after or were unable to run for some reason. And those who ran away, of course, spread the word among those of our young people who’d missed the whole thing. So they, too, never came back, and probably never will.”
“And now they want ten more?”
“Yes, that’s what Kukothay Khoifutey came to tell me. You understand why they’re doing this, of course?”
“To pressurise you to find that fugitive of theirs, Bishakto Bhondo. They must believe you really know where he is.”
“Yes, but all they’re actually doing is destroying the village. If we send ten more – if we can find ten more to send – we won’t have anyone any more except those who’re too old or too infirm to be of use to anyone for anything. We won’t even be able to find food for ourselves. Gundar Gondogol will cease to exist.”
“And it was to save your village that you sent Talpatar Shepai and Obhodro Oshshosti to the Blood Banner?”
“We didn’t send them. They asked what they could do in repayment for my taking care of you.” Jhokmokey Jonjal smiled tightly. “You know, my dear, at that time even I had no real hope you’d live. The vampire hog had just about disembowelled you, you’d almost bled out, and your wounds were poisoned from the beast’s bites. Maybe they thought the Cannibal Spirit might have pity on you if they sacrificed their lives.”
“You think they sacrificed their lives? You underestimate them badly if you think they’re that soft.”
“Well, it’s been weeks since they left – you’ve been unconscious a long time, Omanush Ottohãshi – and we haven’t heard a thing from them. So...”
“I’ll wager they’re alive. Nothing has ever beaten us and nothing ever will.” I wanted to tell Jhokmokey Jonjal exactly what I thought. Opodartho, seeing her chance to be rid of me once and for all, would have persuaded my Lord that I was beyond saving, so they should go on their way. At the very thought, though, weariness washed over my body like a tide. I felt myself slipping sideways, about to fall.
Jhokmokey Jonjal was by my side, quickly easing me down on to the bed. “I shouldn’t have tired you out by telling you all this,” she said. “It’s all my fault.”
“I’ll be all right,” I managed. “How much longer will it be before I’m up and about?”
“The Cannibal Spirit alone knows. You ought to be dead, and here you are, sitting up already. Let’s see how you are tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow you’ll be...”
“Looking for people to send,” she said. “Don’t remind me, I know.”
It was two days later that I stepped outside Jhokmokey Jonjal’s house for the first time.
Jhokmokey Jonjal was not happy about this. She insisted that my wounds would reopen and ruin all the healing I’d managed. But I’d been getting steadily stronger, and I’d asked her to make me a frame to hold on to, in the manner of the one I’d used after I’d sprained my foot so badly while escaping the Irritating Irridentist of Idurer Ishara. The frame was heavy and awkward, but with its aid I managed to walk about with almost no strain on my wound at all.
Even Jhokmokey Jonjal admitted herself impressed when she changed my bandage later. “You’re doing excellently,” she said. “At this rate you’ll probably be able to recover enough to move to a city in due course.”
“Move to a city?” I asked. “Why should I move to a city?”
“For one thing, you surely aren’t planning on wandering the wilderness again, are you – not after an injury like that?”
“I don’t see why not. I’m improving every day, and once I get my strength back, why shouldn’t I go where I want?”
“You’ll be alone, won’t you? Your companions are gone.”
“Perhaps I’ll find them again.” Of course, Opodartho would make certain to take Onek Mangsho far away, but they didn’t know that I was alive, and I knew their ways. I was sure I could pick up their traces. And once I found the slut...
“Omanush Ottohãshi!” Jhokmokey Jonjal exclaimed. “What’s wrong? You’re shaking.”
“Nothing.” I took several deep breaths to calm down, pulled on my travelling robe over the bandages and reached for the frame again. “I’m going for another walk.”
“Don’t go far.” Jhokmokey Jonjal turned to her shelves of powders and lotions. “You don’t know your way about, and I don’t want you to get lost.”
From up on the hill, Gundar Gondogol had looked like a large and fairly prosperous village, with its yellow surrounding walls and neat rows of roofs. From here, though, it was obviously falling to pieces. The narrow streets, except for an occasional hurrying figure, were deserted and half-filled with blown dust. The high yellow stone walls were crumbling, in places little more than rubble. And yet, for all that, I felt watched constantly. With every step I took, holding on to the frame, invisible eyes seemed to follow me from the silent houses.
It was when, beginning to feel the first faint flutter of tiredness in my muscles, I decided to turn back, that I saw that at least one of the watchers wasn’t invisible.
The man stood in the middle of the street, watching me. He was only of middle size, but for some reason gave the impression of being much larger than he was, as if a giant had been crammed into a normal body. He was dressed all in the same colour, from a round black hat to heavy black robes which almost swept the ground. His face was in contrast so pale that it looked almost bloodless.
“You are the one Jhokmokey Jonjal has been taking care of,” he said to me, without greeting. I recognised the heavy voice from the night I’d regained consciousness. It was Kukothay Khoifutey. “I thought you were so badly hurt you were at death’s door.”
“I’ve recovered a lot since then,” I said. He was standing right in my way, and I didn’t have the space to squeeze past him with the frame, so I had to come to a stop. “As you can see,” I added.
“Perhaps you’ve recovered,” he said, “or perhaps it’s something else. How do we know you aren’t a spy?”
“A spy?” Even I, with my quick intellect, hadn’t seen that coming. “What makes you say that? Who could I be a spy for?”
“We have enemies, here in this town. Lots and lots of enemies.” The small eyes in his pale face squinted at me. “You seem to have remarkable powers of healing for someone so desperately hurt.”
“I can’t help that,” I replied. “Could you step aside, please? I need to return to the healer’s hut.”
Still staring at me, he moved to one side only just enough to let me by. He smelt of something not even my delicate nostrils could identify.
It smelt like a furnace fuelled by anger.
It was a week after that that the mob arrived.
I’d gained strength steadily, so much so that I no longer even needed the frame to walk about, and when Jhokmokey Jonjal changed my dressings I could see that the flesh was growing back over the holes the vampire hog’s tusks had ripped in my abdominal wall. A few times, when the healer had been away, I’d even taken out my long knife, which Onek Mangsho and Opodartho had left in my bag, and practised thrusting and parrying with it. Little by little, I could feel myself returning to what I had been before that afternoon on the path.
I knew that most of the credit for my recovery belonged to Jhokmokey Jonjal. She fed me broth four times a day – broth I was sure she’d taken from out of her own food supply – changed my bandages, and cleaned out my wounds each evening. And all the while, as I knew, she was anxious and distracted about the need to find hostages. Finally, I’d asked her how the search was going.
“Badly,” she’d confessed. “The word got out, and those who are still here are hiding or have run away. We only found four so far.”
“How do you know they won’t run away? Oh, that’s stupid of me. You’ve got them under lock and key.”
“Yes.” She’d made a face. “There’s no way we’ll ever be able to find the ten the Blood Banner wants. We’re just going to have to send those we have and hope for the best. If we could’ve had even five, that would have been something. We could’ve said we found half the number they want, and we’d send the others when we could. But just four...Kukothay Khoifutey isn’t happy about it either, but what can we do?.”
“Who’s Kukothay Khoifutey, exactly?” I hadn’t told Jhokmokey Jonjal of my confrontation with the man. “Is he the chief of the village?”
“No! We don’t have a village chief. We have a council, though that’s almost fallen apart since the mines ran out. Kukothay Khoifutey isn’t originally from Gundar Gondogol. He used to be a trader, came here once every few weeks to exchange our metal for goods from the towns. Later he began staying here almost all the time and trading with other traders who came. When the mines ran out, he stayed on.”
“And he tells you what to do? People stand for an outsider bossing them around?”
Jhokmokey Jonjal had shrugged. “People are glad there’s someone who’s running things, that’s all. They’re glad there’s someone who tells them what to do.”
I don’t know what I might have answered then, but I was distracted by a growing murmur. In any other village or town it might not have drawn my attention, because there the noise of a crowd would be normal. Here in Gundar Gondogol, though, just about the only sound I’d ever heard was the wind off the plain. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Let me see.” Jhokmokey Jonjal went to the door, but was thrust aside as soon as she’d opened it. Kukothay Khoifutey pushed into the hut, a gaggle of others behind him.
“There’s the witch,” he shouted. “The spy. We’ve got her.”
“I told you,” I said, “I’m no spy. What are you going on about?”
“If you’re no spy,” he screamed, “why are you here?”
“Because I was injured by a vampire hog and my companions left me here,” I explained patiently. “I thought everyone knew that.”
“You lie,” he yelled, drops of saliva flying. “Who ever heard of anyone recovering so quickly from an attack by a vampire hog?”
“She was injured by a vampire hog,” Jhokmokey Jonjal put in. “I’ve been treating her. I know.”
“You keep out of this, old woman. A couple of scratches with a knife, a nice story, and you’re fooled. We’ll take care of this spy.”
“If I’m a spy, what exactly have I found out so far?” I was looking for an opportunity to get to my long knife, which lay in my bag by the door, but Jhokmokey Jonjal was in the way, and I didn’t want to put her in any danger. “As you’ve seen for yourself, I can’t even get around much yet.”
“That’s why we’re going to take care of you now, while we still can.” Kukothay Khoifutey glared around at his companions. “Otherwise she’ll find out all our secrets and send all the information back to her masters of the Blood Banner,” he announced to them. “Isn’t that right?”
“How are you planning to take care of me, as you put it?” I asked sweetly, picking up a large stone jar which was close at hand. Jhokmokey Jonjal winced at it, and I hoped it contained nothing too valuable. “Even hurt as I am, I could smash a few heads easily enough. Are you ready to risk it?”
They weren’t ready to risk it. Even Kukothay Khoifutey took a couple of steps back.
“We’ll get you later,” he said eventually. “Sooner or later you’ve got to sleep, and so does the hag there – and we’ll get you then.”
“Not if I’m no longer here.” I looked at Jhokmokey Jonjal. “Didn’t you say that you wished you had at least five hostages to send the Blood Banner? I’ll volunteer to be the fifth.”
“You?” Jhokmokey Jonjal looked at me in astonishment. “You’re still wounded and far from well. You’d never survive if you went.”
“Nonsense. If I stay back here, with these charming compatriots of yours threatening my life...” I gestured with the stone jar, and Kukothay Khoifutey took another hasty step back. “As I was saying, if I stay here, I’ll die anyway. And I’m much tougher than any of you seem to think.”
“Yes,” someone from the press of people behind Kukothay Khoifutey yelled. “Send the bitch back to her people. Get rid of her that way.”
“Very well,” the black-clad man with the pale face said. “That’s what we’ll do. The hostages go tomorrow morning. You go with them. You, healer, mark this well. You make sure this she-devil is here come morning, or you’ll answer for it.”
“I’ll be here,” I told him. “After all Jhokmokey Jonjal has done for me I’m not going to harm her in any way – or let you harm her.”
Kukothay Khoifutey glared at me a moment longer, and departed. Suddenly the stone jar was too heavy, and began to topple from my hands.
Jhokmokey Jonjal was very quick, and caught me before I hit the ground.
The stone jar shattered, spilling some nameless liquid across the floor.
As we toiled up the mountain ridge, I glanced round at my companions.
My fellow hostages, I was forced to admit, were a poor lot, weedy in build and dispirited looking. No wonder, since, as Jhokmokey Jonjal had said, all the stronger and cleverer ones had left. Two were young men and two were girls. Three of them didn’t even attempt to reply when I tried to talk to them. The only exception was one of the young women, whose name was Dharalo Kãta.
“Have any of you been this way before?” I asked.
Dharalo Kãta shook her head. “I haven’t, and I don’t know anyone else who has. We never had any reason to come this way. All the trading we did was across the plain.”
I nodded. The bag on my back was heavy and unwieldy, filled not only with my things but with as much dried meat and water as Jhokmokey Jonjal had been able to force on me. She’d tried to the last to convince me to change my mind, or, failing that, to sneak away from the village.
“Don’t worry about me,” she’d said. “They won’t dare to touch me. I’ll be all right.”
But I’d insisted, because not only did I not want to risk harm coming to her, but I wanted to get safely away, and the only way seemed to be if I went along with the hostages going to the Blood Banner. I was sure that sooner or later I could find some opportunity to escape. Before I’d left, she’d cleaned and bandaged me one last time, with – at my request – a double layer of bandages, thicker by far than any she’d placed before.
And then she’d kissed me. “Take care of yourself,” she’d said, her wide mouth trembling. “It’s silly to say that, really, since neither of us knows what you’re getting into, but take care of yourself all the same.”
“Why didn’t you run away like the others when you had the chance?” I asked Dharalo Kãta.
“Why should I run away?” she countered resentfully. “I’m not a coward like the rest of them.”
“Is that why they ran away, because they’re cowards?”
“Of course that’s why. They’re greedy too, living the good life in the towns. Well, to the Cannibal Spirit with them.” She’d glared at me, her body a stiff mass of resentment. “Of course, it’s different for you. You’re just going back to your own people.”
“My own people? You mean Bhoyaboho Byapar? Why do you say that?”
“Come off it. Everybody knows you’re a spy for them.”
“Everybody might know it,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster, “but it doesn’t make it true.”
“Why are you asking me why I didn’t run away then? If you’re not a spy, why are you looking for information?”
“Isn’t it a logical question to ask? If you’d run away, you wouldn’t have been in this mess. And I know nothing more about the way to Bhoyaboho Byapar than you do. Why would I ask you if you’d been this way if I knew it already?”
“Silence!” the commander of the soldiers who escorting us yelled. He was, like the others, a thickset man in heavy armour of metal and leather. He slammed the butt of his spear on the ground for emphasis. “I won’t warn you again.”
“You didn’t tell us not to talk, Otishoy Aapod,” I pointed out.
“I’m telling you now,” he replied. He looked tired and angry. Most likely he’d been marching all night to have arrived in Gundar Gondogol so early in the morning. His men seemed equally edgy and were heavily armed besides. I hadn’t found a single moment so far when I could have slipped away. “There’s nothing you need to say anyway. Whatever you want to know, you’ll find out soon enough.”
“How soon?” I asked.
In response, he lifted his spear and pointed. I looked up.
Far off, between two ridges, blue-white walls rose, surmounted by golden-yellow roofs. Something flapped in a gust of wind, a triangle of cloth the colour of clotted blood.
Then we marched downhill into a valley, and it was lost to view.
In all the lands I had seen in all our travels, I’d never beheld anything quite like Bhoyaboho Byapar.
As we walked towards its ornate bronze gates, it towered above us, yet with none of the oppressive bulk of places like the Fanatic Fortress of Fãpa Fondibaj, from which we had only just escaped with our lives, or the Tumbled Temple of Tiktikir Torkari, where I had found the little metal idol which, as I have already described in these accounts of our travels, Onek Mangsho had said was left over from times so ancient that they no longer had a name, and which we had successfully exchanged for food and drink enough to last us for weeks.
Bhoyaboho Byapar was, if I might use so loaded a word for a place like that, beautiful. Its outer walls were golden brown, the tops carved into the semblance of animals the like of which I’d never seen. Inside, the buildings rose high, bluish-white walls surmounted by golden-yellow roofs. Here and there, though, the dark red triangular flags flapped in the wind, reminding us just who held power within these walls.
As the bronze gates swung slowly open before us, I kept my eyes open for potential avenues of escape, for of course it was no part of my plans to stay here for a moment longer than I must. I was already unhappy enough at not having been able to escape on the way, and with each moment that passed, Onek Mangsho and Opodartho were probably moving further away from me.
I shook my head to dispel the thought. I needed all my wits about me now, not uselessly churning in rage at the memory of the slattern’s perfidy. The gates, I saw, were strong and guarded by a pair of soldiers. It wouldn’t be easy to get out that way, and the outer walls were far too high to jump off, even if I somehow managed to climb up there. But there must be a way to escape, I thought. There always was.
“What are you muttering about?” Dharalo Kãta asked. “There always is what?”
I hadn’t realised I’d spoken aloud. “Nothing,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. I’m just tired after the long walk. Not yet fully recovered, you know.”
The young woman sniffed and turned away. I was actually not feeling as tired as I expected, and apart from a dull ache at my side the wounds were not bothering me at all. We followed Otishoy Aapod through a doorway into one of the tall blue-walled buildings, and into a smallish yard.
“You can rest here a while,” he announced, “while we decided what to do with you.”
Sitting with my back to a wall, I looked around. The building rose around us in a hollow square, and we were overlooked by windows on all sides. I had no doubt at all that we were being watched. Dharalo Kãta sat opposite, watching me. She didn’t seem to want anything to do with the other three from the village.
We waited a long time, long enough that the light faded from the sky above and lamps began to glow in the windows around the square. Then a couple of soldiers entered with a pot and set it down before us, telling us to eat. It was a soup of some sort, yellow and greasy, but by now we were all hungry. Certainly I was, and I ate all I was given, with appetite if not with relish. I had no desire to touch the food Jhokmokey Jonjal had given me unless I had to. It was too precious.
Eventually Otishoy Aapod returned. “Come.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, as we followed him into the building.
“To your cells, of course,” he said. “You’re hostages, aren’t you? Do you imagine we’d let you go wherever you want?
“Here,” he said, a little later, opening a door under a flight of stairs to reveal a tiny space little better than a cupboard. “Put your bags inside.”
“Why?” I asked. “You’ve already searched our bags, you know we haven’t any weapons on us, so –”
“Since when do hostages decide what they can or can’t do? Put your bag in here. You won’t need any of this in the cells.”
I complied. “Where are the others?” I asked a little later, as he showed me into my cell. It was the second of a row, all side by side in a long low building like a shed. The cell itself was quite large, and looked less uncomfortable than some inn rooms I’d been in, with a fairly thick mattress on a wooden bed to sleep on. Bhoyaboho Byapar obviously wasn’t hurting for space, since they gave us one cell each. Or maybe they thought being alone would hurt us since we wouldn’t have anyone to talk to. If that was so, as far as I was concerned, the joke was on them. The walls between the cells didn’t even reach the ceiling of the sheds, so one could talk to one’s neighbours even if one couldn’t see them – but I hadn’t the faintest desire to speak to anyone.
“Other what?” Otishoy Aapod, who had stood watching as another man locked my cell door, asked impatiently.
“The other hostages – the ones who came before. Have you killed them off or something?”
Otishoy Aapod stared at me a long moment. “I warned you to be quiet,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you again. Don’t try my patience any further.”
“You can ask me anything though,” the other man said. He had a long nose and a long chin, and sly eyes almost hidden by thick eyebrows. His rough brown tunic was stiff with encrusted filth. “A pretty young thing like you, I’d be glad to answer.”
“Shut up, Bhuribhorti Krimi,” Otishoy Aapod snapped. “They’re hostages, not one of your playthings from the condemned cells. Don’t you dare lay a finger on any of them.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to inform him that if Bhuribhorti Krimi tried to “lay a finger” on me, he would more than likely lose that finger, but I am, unlike Opodartho, for example, a woman who knows when discretion is the better part of valour. I merely sat down quietly on the mattress and watched him walk down past the next cell, which was occupied by Dharalo Kãta, towards the door of the shed. Bhuribhorti Krimi leered at me once more and followed, taking the lamp with him. I heard the door shut, and we were in darkness.
I lay down on the mattress. Somehow, try as I might, I couldn’t figure Otishoy Aapod for a violent man. I’d no doubt that he was capable of killing if necessary, like any other soldier was, but neither he nor his men were like the many, many men I’d met in my wanderings who were violent by nature. And yet it was these people who were threatening to massacre everyone in Gundar Gondogol if they didn’t send hostages. Something wasn’t right here.
Well, I thought, it wasn’t my business anyway. My only purpose was to escape at the earliest opportunity, track down Onek Mangsho and Opodartho, and avenge myself on the harlot. Bhoyaboho Byapar and Gundar Gondogol could take care of themselves.
Still fantasising what I’d do when I got my hands on the traitress, I fell asleep.
It was a blast of cold air that woke me. The shed, though quite long, was low, narrow, and windowless, and in consequence had soon got stuffy. I lay in the darkness, the feeling the cold night air blow along the passage outside, wondering where it was coming from. The only way it could happen was through the door, but I’d watched Bhuribhorti Krimi close the door, and so...
I sat up so quickly the pain in my side made me wince. I could see a paler oblong in the darkness, and feel cold wind blowing on my face. The door was open.
My first thought was that it was Bhuribhorti Krimi, sneaking back in an attempt to rape or kill me. But if so, why hadn’t he already entered my cell? And where was he, anyway?
Then I heard a very soft sound, as of someone treading on tiptoe. And the oblong of the open door was darkened momentarily as a silhouette passed through it...going out.
I knew that silhouette, the small compact frame and the sloping right shoulder. It was Dharalo Kãta, who was supposed to be asleep in the cell on my right.
Not only was she not sleeping, she wasn’t in the cell. She was going out into Bhoyaboho Byapar.
There are times when even a refined woman like me has to resort to crude physical action. It had been no part of my plan to escape my cell without any idea how to leave the confines of Bhoyaboho Byapar, because that would only mean exchanging one kind of captivity for another. But if Dharalo Kãta, being a hostage, could sneak out in the middle of the night somehow, I definitely needed to find out what was going on.
I have said that the tops of the dividing walls of the cells did not reach the shed’s ceiling, probably because they’d been built later. It was not easy, but by standing my rolled-up mattress on top of my bed and climbing on to it, I managed to clamber up to the top of the wall. I am, of course, a slim woman, not a thick-bodied peasant like Opodartho, so with a fair amount of effort, I wriggled through the gap between my cell and Dharalo Kãta’s and dropped to the floor. As I had anticipated, her cell was empty, and its barred door was open.
For the briefest of moments I hesitated. I had no idea what awaited me on the other side of that door. Perhaps Otishoy Aapod and a squad of his men would be coming along at any moment, spears upraised, to impale anyone they caught. But I’d already taken an irrevocable step. There was no way I could get back over the wall into my own cell again. I’d have to move on and see where it took me.
Pausing only long enough to make sure that my escape hadn’t roused my fellow hostages in the other cells, I tiptoed through the door and into the night.
I saw Dharalo Kãta almost at once. She was making her way through the space between this building and the next. From the way she was walking, every step filled with uncertainty and caution, it was obvious that she was herself trespassing here, and that she feared discovery. This was becoming stranger by the moment, I thought, flattening myself against the nearest wall to conceal myself as far as I could.
I followed Dharalo Kãta a long way. She paused at each turning, as though getting her bearings, and moved with such exaggerated caution that even Opodartho might have laughed at her. But I was very far from laughing. Whatever was going on wasn’t funny at all.
I was just beginning to wonder if she intended to keep wandering through the maze of buildings all night when she suddenly disappeared, as though she’d never been.
If I’d not been watching her so closely – depending on her extreme caution to warn me of danger – I would have missed it completely. I just managed to glimpse an arm darting out of the darkness, closing on her arm, and pulling her into the shadow. Feeling along the wall along which we were passing, my fingertips found an opening. It was a low arched passage, and, from within, I saw the faint yellow glimmer of a dim lamp.
I don’t know whether I would have entered that passage and its unknown dangers except that, at that moment, I heard the sound of men marching somewhere behind me, and one of them cleared his throat noisily. Seeing no other option, I slipped into the passage.
By the time I reached the half-closed door at the end of the passage, beyond which the lamp was glimmering, I knew who Dharalo Kãta was with. The smell had told me, even before I heard the heavy voice – the smell I’d once likened to burning anger.
“...didn’t have any trouble getting here?” Kukothay Khoifutey was asking.
“No. Bhuribhorti Krimi slipped me the keys while locking up.”
“Yes, I can always tell who can be bribed, and for how much. You’ll be reporting to me here every night.”
“If you say so,” Dharalo Kãta said. “But I’m not happy about it. It’s dangerous.”
“It’s only for a few days, and the faster you have something to tell me the faster you can be out of here,” Kukothay Khoifutey replied. “So what have you found out? I don’t want any further waste of time.”
“It’s only been one day.” Dharalo Kãta’s voice was resentful. “Nobody’s said anything to us at all. They just fed us and put us in the cells. Maybe if they put us to work tomorrow I’ll be able to see something.”
“What about the woman? You’ve been with her all day, surely you found out something about her?”
“Omanush Ottohãshi, you mean? She’s been trying to get information out of me. She didn’t, of course.”
“Of course not. But that just proves it. The she-hyena was a spy. You’ll have to take care of her.”
“She’s a very stupid woman, Kukothay Khoifutey.” I balled my fists with anger at the little chit, but forced myself to listen. “I think I could get rid of her easily enough while she’s sleeping, since I’ve got the keys to all the cells. But then they’ll be asking questions. I suppose it’ll be better if I wait until I’m ready to leave.”
“You’re right.” There was the noise of a chair being drawn back. “You can go back to your cell now.”
I didn’t wait a moment longer, running on tiptoe back down the passage before either of them could open the door and see me. Kukothay Khoifutey must have taken time to give Dharalo Kãta some last-moment instructions, because I made it to the outside in time.
Fortunately the soldiers I’d heard coming had passed by, because such was my hurry that I hadn’t paused to check for them. For a moment I hesitated, unsure of what to do. I couldn’t go back to the cells, but when Dharalo Kãta returned to them she’d be almost certain to discover at once that I’d disappeared. What would she do then?
I couldn’t afford to hesitate any longer. I could already hear the noise of her feet approaching down the passage. Turning to my left – away from the direction of the cells – I crept away, as silently as I possibly could.
I had, for the moment, no idea where I was. The tall buildings crowded close, making it impossible for me to orient myself in any way. I dodged among them at random, hoping eventually to come to the outer wall, which I could follow until I found a way out. It was a pity that I would have to leave my bag and all my things behind, but there was no alternative. And it would not be the first time either that I’d had to abandon almost everything I owned, as anyone reading this will be aware. I only had to recall the terrible adventure of the Dungeons of Dushchoritro Danpitey, from which we’d escaped with nothing more than the clothes we had on. But then I’d not been alone and wounded, and –
I stopped just in time. Lost in my thoughts, I’d almost walked out into a little open square between the buildings. It was faintly lit by starlight from above and the glow of lamps from some windows, enough for me to see the man crossing it from the opposite side.
It was Bhuribhorti Krimi. I could see from the deliberate stiffness with which he walked, and the way he peered about, turning his shoulders and thrusting out his neck, that he was both drunk and angry. He was coming straight towards me, and as I pressed myself against the wall he passed by, close enough to touch. I wondered if it was Kukothay Khoifutey’s bribe that had allowed him to drink so much. I also wondered what it was that had made him angry.
I decided to follow him, of course. Not only might he lead me to somewhere I might be able to find a way out, but as Onek Mangsho had told us several times, as long as you keep an enemy in sight, he won’t be able to take you by surprise. And Bhuribhorti Krimi was making enough noise to cover any slight sound I might make, which meant that he was good protection for me against anyone who might come by.
I did not have to follow the drunkard long. He turned into a building I’d passed a short while before, down a flight of steps, and into a long torchlit underground passage, which was as filthy as his own clothing. The floor was slippery with matted refuse, and I was glad I had managed to keep my shoes on when I’d escaped from the cell. I did not want to know what I might be walking over.
At the end of the passage there was a door which Bhuribhorti Krimi unlocked and fumbled open. Pausing briefly to do something I should have done long ago, I followed.
“Tomorrow,” I heard Bhuribhorti Krimi announce to somebody. “We’ve fed you long enough. Tomorrow morning, you’re for the knife. How does that make you feel, you maggots?”
There was no reply that I could hear, and the drunken man’s voice subsided to incoherent muttering and then to silence.
The room I entered was large – how large I could not tell, since the far walls were lost in shadow. At my feet, the floor opened out into a series of deep circular pits. I could just about see the bottom of the nearest in the torchlight. There seemed to be someone crouched down there, looking up. Instinctively, I stepped forward to get a better look.
This was a mistake, because the next instant, Bhuribhorti Krimi had grabbed me by the shoulder and slammed me against the wall.
“It’s you,” he slurred, peering into my face. The mingled reek of wine and dirt coming off him was so terrible that I would have thrust myself through the stone to my back if I could. “So that’s why you escaped from your cell? To come to me, huh?” He fumbled at the belt of his filthy tunic. “So you want a real man, hey? Do you?”
“Get away from me,” I said, wriggling in an attempt to escape his grasp, but it was stronger than I’d thought, and his drunkenness seemed to have given him strength.
“All you had to do was tell me,” he said, “and I’d have come to you. No need to escape and get me in trouble. As for the other one...the other one...”
“What about the other one?” I asked.
“She’s...going to pay,” he said, as his crusted brown robe fell open. His naked body was pale and hairy. “She was supposed to be back in the cell...I was promised she would be. But she isn’t.” So our absence had been discovered before Dharalo Kãta could get back into her cell. I wondered where she was now. “And who gets into trouble because of her, I ask you? Who?”
“You, I suppose?” I replied, just before my knee came up between his legs, with all the force I could put behind it.
He fought hard. My long recovery from my wounds had left my muscles weakened, he was stronger than he looked, and he knew how to fight. In moments, he had me bent backwards with my shoulders pressed against the floor, his hands on my throat, squeezing tight. My vision began to go grey. He laughed, squeezing.
Then he stopped laughing as my beloved long knife ripped his guts out.
Before entering the room, I had slipped off my robe and torn open the top layer of my bandages. The long knife, which Jhokmokey Jonjal had wrapped, at my instructions, between two layers of bandage, safe from searches, had fallen into my hand. All I’d had to do was tuck it into the belt of my travelling robe after I’d put my clothes on again.
I had expected Bhuribhorti Krimi to let go of me. Instead, he began convulsing in his death throes, his hands still locked round my throat. Desperately, I pushed at him to throw his carcass off me. For an instant I thought I’d succeeded.
I was wrong. Instead of rolling to the side, we fell over the edge into the pit. I was lucky in that I landed on top of the dying jailer, so I did not hit my head on the stone. His hands finally fell away, and, as he thrashed in a welter of blood and intestines, I crawled away and got to my knees.
The next moment something hit me hard from behind, hard enough to knock me down again, and send the knife spinning away from my blood-slick hand. I twisted desperately, trying to get free, and finally succeeded in turning on to my back, but that was all. I was pinned down and unable to move. All my attacker, straddling my chest, had to do was bend down far enough to rip my throat out her teeth.
Instead, she sat back, releasing me.
“You!” said a familiar voice.
“You!” I replied.
It was Opodartho.
“I thought you were dead,” Opodartho said.
“I thought...forget it.” I picked through the keys I’d taken from Bhuribhorti Krimi’s corpse until I found the one which unlocked the cuff around her ankle, by which she’d been chained to a bolt set into the floor. “Where’s Onek Mangsho?”
“Next pit to the right.” Opodartho massaged her ankle. “We were stupid. They captured us almost at once. It’s surprising they haven’t killed us yet.”
“They were going to do that tomorrow, weren’t they?” I jerked a thumb at Bhuribhorti Krimi. “That’s what he was saying, wasn’t he?”
Opodartho laughed softly and got to her feet. “He came in just about every night and said that. We never knew if it was true, of course, and that added to the torment.” I remembered what Otishoy Aapod had said to Bhuribhorti Krimi about those in the condemned cells. “Now give me a leg up so I can get out of this pit and pull you up, and we’ll go rescue Onek Mangsho. Then you can tell us how on earth you’re still alive...and what you’re doing here.”
I don’t want to describe my reunion with my Lord; words would merely cheapen it. Even Opodartho broke down and hugged me, and we cried on each other’s necks for a few moments. But time was short, and we could not waste it in emotional outbursts, as Onek Mangsho himself reminded me.
“We can talk later, and cry later, if it comes to that,” he said. “But just now we have to...”
“...come with us and talk to the Blood Banner,” somebody announced.
We looked up and found ourselves staring into the eyes of Otishoy Aapod.
“Come on,” he said, gesturing. We didn’t need the gesture – the circle of spears pointed down at us was enough. “The Blood Banner wants to meet you.”
“The Blood Banner?” I repeated. “What?”
“You really like to listen to the sound of your own voice, don’t you?” Otishoy Aapod seemed more grimly amused than angered. “I suppose it was you who killed Bhuribhorti Krimi there?”
“What if I did?” I had replaced the knife inside my bandages, but had no illusions that I could have done anything with it anyway. “He was trying to rape me.”
“He was trying to strangle her as well,” Opodartho added.
“I don’t doubt that at all, and I’m not going to blame you.” Otishoy Aapod pulled me out of the pit, while his men helped Opodartho and Onek Mangsho out. “In fact I’m sure you did us a favour.” He looked at Onek Mangsho and Opodartho and back to me. “As soon as I heard you’d gone, I guessed that you were all together. After all, you were clearly not from that village.”
“You knew? And you brought me along anyway?”
He frowned. “Well, the village seemed as if it was eager to send you, so...where is your friend, by the way? The other escapee?”
“She’s not my friend, and I have no idea where she is. But it was she who escaped. Bhuribhorti Krimi was bribed to give her the keys. I just followed.”
“Oh? Well, come along, and you can tell the Blood Banner all about it.”
We followed him up the filth-floored passage and into the building.
The Blood Banner was a person. A rather small, rather young person.
And she was a girl.
I’d thought that there was nothing more that could surprise me about Bhoyaboho Byapar, but obviously I’d been mistaken. The Blood Banner herself seemed to be mildly irritated at my obvious astonishment.
We were in a large room decorated in red and gold, and lit by lamps hanging from the roof by chains. Otishoy Aapod and his men guarded Onek Mangsho and Opodartho, while the Blood Banner walked back and forth before me. There were several other people in the room, but I’d barely noticed them. All my attention was on the Blood Banner.
“If you’ve done staring...” she said, her pretty face creased by a frown.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I could hardly look away. She was fifteen or sixteen at the most. Her skin was black as night, and as she walked back and forth before us her dark red robe – the exact colour of the flags fluttering over the walls that I’d seen in the afternoon – swirled around her slender frame. Thin gold chains glittered on her wrists and flashed around her bare ankles. “I’m finding this a little hard to believe...”
“What, that I’m the Blood Banner? Do you have any doubt that I am?”
I heard Otishoy Aapod laugh softly. “The villagers don’t know the slightest thing about what the Blood Banner even is, you know.”
“That’s fine with me. Why should they know who I am?”
“You mean your name is the Blood Banner?” I asked.
“It is now. I used to be called Prokando Piprey, but I’m the Blood Banner now, like the Blood Banner before me, and like my successor will be the Blood Banner when her turn comes. Any further questions?”
I shook my head. I had plenty, but didn’t think it was the right time.
“Fine. So you’d better tell me who you are, and why you came to rescue these two assassins.”
“Assassins?” I repeated, astonished. “Of course they aren’t assassins.”
“Of course they are. We were warned that they were on their way to kill me.”
“Um.” My mind whirled. So that was why Onek Mangsho and Opodartho were captured as soon as they’d arrived – Bhoyaboho Byapar had been told to watch out for them. “Could you tell me who it was who told you that they’re assassins? Would it possibly be...” From the corner of my eye I noticed a sudden movement, like someone sliding quietly towards the nearest exit. Someone who looked familiar. “Would it possibly be...Kukothay Khoifutey?”
Everyone turned towards the merchant, who paused, indecisively. “What if it was?” he snapped. “They are assassins, and you’re a spy.”
“Spy?” The Blood Banner looked from him to me and back again. “You’d better explain what this is about,” she said to me.
“I think I am beginning to understand.” My mind was so filled with ideas coming fast that I barely noticed the door behind the Blood Banner open and several people, all but one of whom were soldiers, entering. “Kukothay Khoifutey has been playing a very complex game, and we – that includes you, Blood Banner – are just pawns.”
“Watch what you’re saying,” the Blood Banner said. “Kukothay Khoifutey is a loyal friend of Bhoyaboho Byapar, a friend of long standing.”
“Is he really?” I paused a moment to collect my thoughts. “Let me explain. These two companions of mine – Talpatar Shepai and Obhodro Oshshosti – and I were on a journey, in the course of which we were attacked by a vampire hog.” I gave a brief account of the battle with the hog and what had happened to me afterwards. “The healer was a wonderful old woman who saved my life. In gratitude, my companions decided to come here and find out if they could do something about the hostage situation that is strangling Gundar Gondogol, that in fact is about to snuff out the village’s existence. But Kukothay Khoifutey decided he couldn’t have that, so he made up his mind to sabotage their mission.”
“Why would he do that?”
“From the very beginning, I’ve been wondering about Kukothay Khoifutey. Who is he? Jhokmokey Jonjal – the healer – told me he isn’t even from the village; he’s a trader who settled down there, and stayed on even after the mines were worked out and the young people left for the towns. Why would a trader want to stay on where there is no profit to be made? And then I realised the answer – there must, of course, be profit to be made. And the only thing that ever made a profit in Gundar Gondogol was the mines, so there must be, somewhere, ore still to be found. But only Kukothay Khoifutey knew where it was, and he decided to keep the knowledge to himself.”
Kukothay Khoifutey began to shout something, but the Blood Banner held up a hand. “Let her have her say,” she said. “You can always speak later.”
“Since Kukothay Khoifutey decided to keep the ore for himself,” I continued, “he needed to get rid of the village. Gundar Gondogol was an obstacle in his way. He decided to use you to get rid of it, and was looking for an opportunity.”
“But...” The Blood Banner seemed to think better of whatever it was she’d been about to say. “And so?”
“Kukothay Khoifutey had made himself quite a power in Gundar Gondogol, in place of the defunct council. He knew whatever was going on in the village, and when he heard that your fugitive...what was his name, Bishakto Bhondo...had arrived, he sent word to you that the man was in the village. Jhokmokey Jonjal had told me that the soldiers had seemed to know not just that Bishakto Bhondo was there, but that he was in her hut. That seemed strange to me, but even stranger was the fact that though the man was wounded, and normally would have wanted to rest and heal his injuries, he vanished just before the soldiers arrived. It was, I don’t know, almost as though someone had tipped him off.”
“Really?” The Blood Banner seemed unimpressed. “Well, and?”
“Was it your idea to take hostages to force Gundar Gondogol to return your fugitive? Pardon me for saying so, but from what I’ve seen and experienced so far, you don’t have much of an idea what to do with hostages when you have them.”
“No,” the Blood Banner replied. “It was...” She turned to Kukothay Khoifutey. “You were the one who said hostages would be the right tool to use against them,” she said. “You said you knew these primitives, and how to break their resistance.”
I glanced at the trader. His mouth opened and shut silently. His face was paler than ever.
“So you had your hostages, but that didn’t get you your fugitive, for the simple reason that the villagers did not know where he was. But it also didn’t destroy Gundar Gondogol, because you simply hadn’t taken enough hostages. And so it was that Kukothay Khoifutey told you to ask for more.” I saw the Blood Banner’s instinctive nod. “He also told you to threaten the villagers with death, didn’t he? It seemed strange coming from your men, who are essentially professional soldiers who don’t kill casually. Am I right?”
“Perhaps. I’m still listening.”
“That second group of hostages,” I said, “almost wiped out the able bodied population of Gundar Gondogol, to the extent where the rest resigned themselves to their fates. In fact, I’m fairly sure that in another season or two the village would have vanished. But then something happened that Kukothay Khoifutey hadn’t anticipated.”
I drew a deep breath. “We arrived in the village. I didn’t matter – nobody then imagined I could possibly survive, not even Jhokmokey Jonjal. But Talpatar Shepai and Obhodro Oshshosti went off to try and find out what was happening here, and if possible free the hostages. This was not at all in keeping with Kukothay Khoifutey’s plan. He recognised that they were of a totally different breed from the softer people of the village, and that they were very likely to succeed. So he told you that they were assassins on their way to murder you, and thought that you would have them killed instantly on capture. But you didn’t.”
The Blood Banner shrugged. “I wanted to know who had sent them, and why. That’s why I kept them alive. I might not have had any warnings when the next assassin was sent.”
I nodded. “That is when he decided that he needed a spy in Bhoyaboho Byapar, to find out what, if anything, my companions were telling you – and also to look for information about the hostages you’d already taken. After all, he did not want them released under any circumstances, he knew you wouldn’t keep them forever, and after you spared my companions’ lives he couldn’t depend on you killing the hostages even if you didn’t get your hands on Bishakto Bhondo. He decided that he would find out where they were, and then he’d find some way to have them eliminated.”
“How could he?” the Blood Banner asked, frowning. “My soldiers won’t do that without my orders and –”
“As to that,” I told her, “it’s not necessarily anything to do with your soldiers. He was relying on being able to bribe someone in here to take care of the problem. He’s good at corrupting people; just ask him, I heard him boasting about it only a little while ago.”
I felt Kukothay Khoifutey’s eyes boring holes in my back, but resisted the temptation to look at him. “The only way he could think of to insert a spy who could do the job was with yet another group of hostages. So he told you that a final batch of hostages would be certain to do the trick, and asked for twice the number the village could bear to send. He wanted both to make sure it collapsed totally, and to be certain that his spy was among the hostages sent.”
“Who was this spy?”
“Among the few remaining young people in the village was a woman, brave and hot tempered but not terribly bright. He easily convinced her that she was going to save the village by finding the hostages and the information he wanted – and, of course, he also turned her against me, by convincing her that I was a spy from Bhoyaboho Byapar and therefore her mortal enemy.” I glanced at Kukothay Khoifutey, who was shaking with anger. “Isn’t that so?”
“She lies!” he shouted. “Everything she says is a lie! Every single word...”
“...is the truth,” someone said. We all turned as one to look. It was the small figure who stood between the soldiers who had entered while I was speaking. “Every word she’s said is the truth.”
“Who’s this, Pranpon Polayon?” the Blood Banner asked.
“We caught her trying to sneak out through the gate, Blood Banner,” one of the soldiers replied. “She’s one of the hostages who came in today, one of the two who escaped.”
“That’s right,” I said. “She’s Kukothay Khoifutey’s spy, Dharalo Kãta.”
“Yes, I’m Dharalo Kãta. I was Kukothay Khoifutey’s spy, but apart from that his tool as well, to have the hostages killed. He’d have killed me too, when I was no longer of use. I see it all now.”
“All lies,” Kukothay Khoifutey yelled. “I’ve never seen that woman before.”
“You haven’t?” Dharalo Kãta flared. “I should have known you were using me. I can tell them even more than Omanush Ottohãshi has, all the details of what you wanted to know, and from whom.” Her eyes blazed with anger. “As for never having seen me before, let’s go down to Gundar Gondogol and ask around. I’ll bet every single person there has seen us together. Everybody.”
There was a tiny pause, and then Kukothay Khoifutey ran for it. He was fast, but Otishoy Aapod was even faster.
Kukothay Khoifutey never reached the door.
“Will you let the hostages go now?” I asked.
It was a little later. Onek Mangsho, Opodartho and I had been released, of course, and at my request, Dharalo Kãta had too, and our things had been returned to us. The four of us were in a smaller side room, along with the Blood Banner and Otishoy Aapod.
“There’s no point in hanging on to them any longer, is there?” The Blood Banner looked suddenly even younger than her fifteen or so years. “I never liked the idea of holding them anyway. It’s not the way of my city.”
“Where are they anyway?” Onek Mangsho asked. “We never got to see any of them.”
“Some here, some there.” Otishoy Aapod looked embarrassed. “Omanush Ottohãshi was quite right. We haven’t ever had hostages before, and didn’t even have somewhere proper to keep them. We just put them wherever we could find space.”
“Yes, well,” the Blood Banner replied. “They can go home now, with our apologies. Not that it helps us any. We still have no idea where Bishakto Bhondo is, and from what you say, neither do the villagers.”
“What did you want Bishakto Bhondo for, anyway?” Opodartho asked. “What had he done? Was he a rebel?”
“A rebel? No. Just a traitor – a traitor and a thief.” The Blood Banner sighed and beckoned. “Come over here and let me show you.”
We followed her down several corridors and into a room so huge that it seemed to occupy half the enormous building. In the middle of the room was a high structure shrouded in red cloth. The Blood Banner lifted up one side.
I think we all gasped. The thing under the cloth was a statue, but what it was like, what it was made of, was almost impossible to see, for it was so encrusted with gold and silver, and precious stones of various types, that it seemed composed of them only.
“This is the guardian of the wealth and power of Bhoyaboho Byapar,” the Blood Banner said softly. “Bishakto Bhondo was her priest and custodian. But he betrayed his trust, and stole from her, and ran away.”
“What did he steal?” I don’t know which of us asked the question. It might have been I.
“Look.” The Blood Banner pointed to the statue’s head. One of its eyes was an enormous emerald, almost half the size of my fist. In the lamplight it glittered green. The other eye was a gaping hole.
“He was interrupted before he could gouge both out,” Otishoy Aapod told us. “Unfortunately, he managed to get away with one.”
“It’s the sacred trust of Bhoyaboho Byapar to recover the other eye,” the Blood Banner said. “That’s why we’re looking for him, and we have to track him down, no matter where he is, no matter how long it takes.”
“I assume Kukothay Khoifutey didn’t know about the theft?” Opodartho asked. “I can’t see him letting Bishakto Bhondo escape with the stone. He’d have killed him and kept it for himself.”
“Of course he didn’t. It isn’t something we’d talk about to outsiders.”
I looked at the glinting emerald of the remaining eye, and at the Blood Banner, and as a memory suddenly hit me everything seemed to waver and shrink far away. The sun glinting off something green...
“I can’t give you the thief himself,” I said. “But I think I can take you to where the emerald is.”
Everyone stared at me. It was the Blood Banner who recovered first. “Where is it then?”
“It,” I said, “is where Bishakto Bhondo is. To be more exact, it’s where Bishakto Bhondo’s bones are.”
In the company of a troop of soldiers, the vampire hog’s slaughterhouse seemed curiously smaller and less threatening. The hog itself was nowhere to be seen.
“We couldn’t kill it,” Opodartho had told me. “But we did manage to drive it away. Perhaps it’s looking for other hunting grounds and easier prey.”
Or perhaps, I thought, it was up there somewhere, watching us, but even a vampire hog wouldn’t approach a large mass of soldiers. I walked across the slaughterhouse, my feet picking their way between broken bones and withered scraps of skin and flesh, looking for the spot where I’d been knocked down and mauled by the hog.
“We picked you up there,” Opodartho said, pointing.
At first I could see nothing that might be the emerald, and then I remembered that I’d only seen it when I was lying on the ground after the hog had struck me. Wincing at the idea of soiling the new robe the Blood Banner had given me, I folded myself down on to the rock. It was about the same time of afternoon as when the vampire hog had attacked us, so the sun should be in roughly the same place, and the emerald...
I sat up and looked at the Blood Banner, who stood between Otishoy Aapod and Pranpon Polayon, watching.
“There you are,” I said, pointing. “Will you fetch it or shall I?”
And then the sun and stress and exertion of the past two days suddenly grew too much, and I fell back on the rock, exhausted.
The last thing I heard before my consciousness faded was Opodartho’s voice.
“Here we go again,” she said, resignedly.
“It is nice to see a village come back to life from the dead,” Onek Mangsho said. “Generally, things go the other way.”
It was several weeks later, and Jhokmokey Jonjal had finally admitted that I was well enough to move on. Perhaps she’d seen that I wouldn’t wait any longer anyway. But before she consented to us leaving, the village had thrown a feast for us, and loaded our bags with so much food and other gifts that we could barely walk.
“Jhokmokey Jonjal said it’s how the world works,” I said, turning to wave. In the far distance I could still see the tiny form of the healer, watching us. “She saves my life, we save the village’s life.” Absurdly, I felt my eyes wet with tears. “She’s a lovely person, you know.”
“Well, she’s going to have plenty to do now. The young people are all flooding back. And the new mine will soon be working. There will be lots of injuries for her to fuss over.”
“I don’t see the plains towns taking kindly to Gundar Gondogol again,” I said, surreptitiously wiping my eyes. “They think all the people there are thieves and cheats now.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Onek Mangsho glanced at me. “The Blood Banner said that Bhoyaboho Byapar will buy whatever Gundar Gondogol produces. It’s going to go some way towards mending relations, at least.”
“So where are we going now, Lord?” I asked.
“Let’s get across this plain,” Onek Mangsho said, striding ahead, “and then we’ll see.”
Opodartho had been silent since leaving the village. Now she glanced at me. “Hey, Chheechkaduni?”
“Jhokmokey Jonjal told me last night that when you first came back from the dead, she’d been trying to persuade you to give up on us and move to one of the cities. But you were insistent that we were alive and you’d find us.” She paused a moment. “You could have done that, you know. With your injuries, nobody would have blamed you if you’d given up on this life and settled down. So why did you come looking for us?”
I shrugged. “To tell you the truth, Opodartho, I need to be around you. You’re so stupid and ugly that you make me feel superior.”
Opodartho grinned. “You’re so right,” she said. “I’m sure that was the reason, yes.”
But I could tell, from the look in her eyes, that she did not believe what I’d said. Not a word.
We trudged on across the plain towards the setting sun.
*********************************** ************************************ ****************************************
My loyal servant Bohuroopi Bonmanush,
I congratulate you on your initiative in securing this document, and your ready intelligence in making a copy to send me. I must admit that in so doing, you have achieved, as you suspected, much more than I asked you to do.
You have also, I should tell you, saved your life. I was just about to send a missive recalling you here, for your colossal incompetence in not tracking down any evidence of rebellious activity, and serving you at the dinner party I am organising for my son’s betrothal. But now, you have not just avoided that fate, you have become the most important of all my agents.
Once again, Bohuroopi Bonmanush, I congratulate you.
Since you have copied out the document, you will know just what it says, and you will also know the urgency of keeping an ear open for any information regarding any further writings of the ancient hag that might be discovered. Also, I enjoin you to instantly report any news or rumour about this Bhoyaboho Byapar that might come to your ears. If it is ever located, the jewelled statue that the traitorous harlot wrote about may still be somewhere to be found. And above all, you will be totally discreet about all this. I do not wish the Grand Assembly to get any whiff of any of this.
Succeed, Bohuroopi Bonmanush, and you will have all the food you want, even to the highest grade of food slave. Fail, and you will be food yourself.
The choice is yours.
Chief of the Spy Service.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015