My darling Roktakto Rakkhoshi
I am, as I write this, still shivering at the narrowness of my escape. If you only knew, my darling, how close you came to losing me forever! But let me explain.
For a long time after my purchase of the parchments penned by the terrible old witch Chheechkaduni, which you now have in your possession, I wandered about looking for more of her writings. Occasionally, I would hear rumours of mysterious scraps and fragments of old manuscripts and documents, but in each and every case they turned out to either be baseless stories or – in the instances where I managed to track them down – nothing to do with Chheechkaduni at all.
I was beginning almost to despair – yes, even I, your Bhishon Boka, who knows how necessary it is to our future that we locate the hidden treasure of this woman and her spouse and co-wife, was beginning to think of giving up the search and looking for funds somewhere else – when one evening in a little inn on the outskirts of the old city of Kumirer Karshaji an evil-looking man came up to me.
“You’re the one who’s looking for the writings of Chheechkaduni?” he asked.
I was surprised, because I’d put it about that I was looking for old parchments or other documents from a particular period, without naming any names. But I thought he’d probably put two and two together, since apart from the works of this harlot, nothing else from that period of history is of the slightest interest to anyone.
“Perhaps,” I responded. “Do you have any information that might lead me to them?”
He bared stained teeth in a grin at me. “Better than that, young master, better than that. I can sell you a box of the woman’s works. But I warn you that I expect a lot of money for them.”
This was, of course, what I’d expected, and I invited him to sit down so we could begin bargaining over wine. But he refused.
“I have enemies in this city,” he said, looking quickly around. “I dare not spend too much time here in case I come up against them. But if you want to buy the parchments, come to the broken tower northwest of the city at midnight, and we will talk.”
“I will need to examine the material to ensure it is what you say it is,” I said.
“You’ll have ample opportunity to do so,” he said, with a feral gleam in his eye. “But remember what I said about money.” Without a further word, he turned around and vanished into the night.
The innkeeper had watched him go and now came up to me. “What did Kukurer Kamor want?”
“That man? He says he has some writings that might be of interest to me.”
“A likely story,” the innkeeper snorted. He was a big man with a squint and a permanently sour expression on his face. “He’s a petty thief and hoodlum, who has never done an honest job of work in his life. If he has anything at all you can be sure he stole it from someone.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I said.
“Be sure you do. He will either seek to cheat you of your money or cut your throat. Perhaps he will try to do both.”
“Thank you,” I said. But inwardly I was shaking with excitement at even the prospect of getting my hands on more of the ancient slut’s writings. I knew, as the innkeeper didn’t, that if the documents were genuine, I had to get my hands on them. So, shortly before midnight, I left the inn and – making my way through the city gates, which lay open and unguarded – went towards the broken tower, which in some bygone era had served to protect the city from enemies but now lay desolate. Inside the sash on my waist was a bag of coins, and another slung on a thong round my neck; but tucked out of sight in the top of my boot I took a good knife as well, just in case. I had no light, but the moon was nearly full and showed my way.
I had barely reached the tower when there was a hiss in the shadow and the man I’d met in the inn, Kukurer Kamor, emerged. “Do you have the money?” he asked.
“Where are the parchments?” I countered. “Show them to me first.”
Looking around quickly like a fugitive slave, Kukurer Kamor took a small box from under his robe and gave it to me. Inside, I found, it was wadded with parchment, and you can barely imagine my excitement when I recognised the handwriting to be the same as all the other accounts penned by the evil harridan Chheechkaduni herself that I had read.
“How much do you want for them?” I asked, peering closely at the parchments.
“Just your life.” Kukurer Kamor whistled shrilly, and three villainous-looking individuals jumped out from behind the tower, where they must have been hiding. Before I knew it, they had taken advantage of my preoccupation with the parchments to grab hold of me and throw me to the ground.
“Let me go,” I said, struggling, but the villains were experts at this work. In moments they had not only pinned me helplessly to the ground, but found and ripped the bag of coins from my neck. One of them then stripped off my boots and found my knife.
“Oh ho,” Kukurer Kamor said. “The young master isn’t such a fool as he appears. But then nor am I, eh?”
“What do you want?” I asked, giving up the futile struggle.
“For starters, all your money. And then, you. We’re hungry.” Picking up my own knife, Kukurer Kamor stepped towards me, a grin on his face. “We’ll have money for inns in the future, but for now you’ll have to do.”
I closed my eyes, waiting for the blade and wishing I could have said goodbye to you, my love, to have held you and kissed your bloodstained lips one last time; but instead of the cutting pain, there was a sudden rush of feet and a shout. The hands holding me down disappeared, and I heard the sound of a heavy blow. As I opened my eyes and struggled up I found that I was surrounded by fighting men. A moment later the skirmish was over, and Kukurer Kamor and his three companions lay dead on the ground while the innkeeper was helping me to my feet.
“I’m glad I had my staff follow you,” he said, wiping the blood off his meat axe on the late Kukurer Kamor’s own robes. “A moment later and it would have been too late.”
“I am most grateful to you.” I mumbled, watching his men began to butcher the dead criminals for easier carrying back to the inn. I was beginning to shake with the narrowness of my escape, and scarcely noticed the innkeeper find the bag of coins Kukurer Kamor had ripped from my neck. The squint-eyed man shot a quick look at me, decided I hadn’t noticed, and slipped it into his pocket. Then he found the box, looked into it, and – finding only parchments of no interest to him – casually tossed it aside. “Come on,” he said to me. “We might as well go back now, before the smell of blood brings dire hyenas.”
So I followed them back to the inn, still shivering, and now sit sipping at a mug of hot blood-brew to calm my shattered nerves. The innkeeper has already given me to understand that he intends to charge me for the rescue, even though, of course, he has already profited by the bag of my coins he took off Kukurer Kamor – not to mention the inn’s larder, which is now filled enough with meat to last a couple of days.
However, it’s not a totally gloomy scenario. Tomorrow, I will send this missive to you, along with the box which I contrived to pick up when the innkeeper had his back momentarily turned and whose contents I have had no opportunity of reading. If it turns out indeed that the parchments contain the secrets of Chheechkaduni’s treasure, they will repay a millionfold or more what the sour-faced innkeeper will exact from me by way of payment. And I still have the bag of coins in my sash, of which no other person knows but you.
With many kisses and much love,
************************************ ************************************** **************************************
By the third day out of the Defile of Durdanto Dabanol, it was already evident that the caravan was going far too slowly.
“You should talk to the caravan master, Lord,” Opodartho said. “Every day we lose depletes our food and water further, and it is still a very long way.”
“Besides,” I said, agreeing for once with the woman, “the season of desert storms is almost upon us. You know as well as I do what that means.”
“I’ll talk to him.” Onek Mangsho glanced over his shoulder at the plodding line of the caravan, men and beasts. As usual, we were walking out to the front, our weapons in hand, scanning the horizon for danger. “But we’re merely his employees for the duration of this journey, so he can ignore us if he wants, I’m sorry to say.”
“He is a stupid man,” Opodartho observed, “but it isn’t really his fault. The caravan is far too large to move quickly.”
The sun was glaring off the white sand so strongly that it hurt my eyes. I’d never seen a desert quite like this before, flat and white all the way to the horizon, broken here and there by large stony mounds on which scrub bushes grew. And the sand, when I picked up a little, was salty to the taste.
“It’s probably all that’s left of a sea –” Opodartho had said, when I’d told her about it.
“Sea?” I’d scoffed. “There was never such a thing.”
“Well,” Opodartho had said, as though speaking to a small child, “assuming, for the sake of argument, that there was a sea, and it dried up, this could be its old bottom.”
“And those stone mounds and hills?” I’d asked, pointing. “What would you say they were? Did your sea have water that froze into stone?”
Opodartho had tilted her head and examined me as though I was one of the tiny flies that swarmed in clouds here when the evening brought respite from the heat. “They were islands, of course,” she said. “When the sea went, they were left like this.”
I might have made fun of her, but looking at her eyes, I’d suddenly realised that she actually believed this claptrap. Besides, we’d have to get ready to start off soon, so I’d walked away, merely shaking my head at her ridiculous ideas. Of course, being a peasant, she naturally had a greater tendency to believe these fairy tales than someone of my greater intelligence, and I was slightly sorry for her.
Now I turned to Opodartho. “If Beraler Ãchor,” I said, “knew what he was doing he wouldn’t have made his caravan so big. It’s all greed, that’s what it is.”
“But if he hadn’t made it so big,” Onek Mangsho pointed out, “he wouldn’t have been able to afford guards, and we’d have had to pay for our passage across this desert, rather than be paid for our services. You know as well as I do that we could never have carried food and water enough to cross it by ourselves.”
“At this rate I don’t know if we will ever get across it,” I muttered. “At least we haven’t had much to guard against.”
This was true. A small pack of windwolves – not more than seven or eight in all – had been trailing our caravan for days, but only at a distance, probably hoping for stragglers whom they could pick off. Apart from that we hadn’t seen a thing.
“It might not always stay that way,” Onek Mangsho said. “I’ll talk to the caravan master.”
We waited for the caravan to catch up. In the glare of reflected light the men and their beasts were alternately stretched out into giants and crushed into squat puddles of shadow, so that it became really uncomfortable to look at them for any length of time.
These beasts, especially, I watched with mingled fascination and repugnance. They were tall, spindly-legged, with long necks and shaggy pelts that left their legs and faces bare. Though loaded with merchandise, they had contemptuous looks on their long faces, as though they were better than the humans who led them and knew it. Beraler Ãchor had offered us three to ride on, but after a very brief experience we’d all declined as politely as possible. My legs still trembled and my stomach felt queasy when I thought of the experience.
“I wish we were out of this white desert at least,” I muttered. “It makes my eyes ache.”
“There’s still a long way to go once we pass this, if the stories the men tell round the evening campfires are accurate,” Opodartho reminded me. “And the next part is through the Plain of Pashan, where the ground is made of jagged stone, and even thick boots aren’t enough to protect the feet.”
“Well, you won’t get me on one of those beasts of theirs again,” I told her.
“No, and not me either,” she agreed. “And after that it’s still a long way to the legendary city of Utkot Gondho.”
“It had better be worth the effort of going there,” I said. “After all the effort, if it turns out to be another disappointment, like the time we raided the Pleasure Palace of the Princeling of Pãch Poisha and came back empty-handed, well...”
The first of the plodding beasts had come up, with Beraler Ãchor squinting at us from its back. “Why are you waiting for us, Joghonyo Jontu?” he called. “Is there something wrong?”
Onek Mangsho stepped up to the animal and began talking earnestly. Beraler Ãchor sat back in the saddle and stared at him. The caravan master was a long thin man with a long neck and a supercilious expression, much like one of his beasts, and he seemed totally unimpressed by what Onek Mangsho was telling him. In the end he shook his head and spoke a few words. My Lord shrugged and turned back to us.
“No good?” I asked.
“No.” Onek Mangsho shook his head. “He says they can’t go any faster without dumping some of the merchandise, and he won’t reduce his profits simply on the basis of what we think. He also said that he’s done this journey before, even later in the season, and nothing’s happened. Besides, he said he hired us to guard the caravan, not to give him advice, and we should do as we’re told. So I don’t think...”
“I think he won’t have a choice in the matter much longer,” Opodartho said suddenly. “The caravan is being followed.”
“Followed? You mean by the windwolves?”
“I do not mean by the windwolves, Chheechkaduni. There are men following us.” She pointed down the line of plodding beasts. “I’ve been watching them for a while. I wasn’t certain about it – one can’t really see much in this glare – but I’m sure now. They’re far behind us, but they’re there.”
Onek Mangsho and I shaded our eyes and peered along the line of her finger. In the distance, I thought I could make out a small group of black dots. “How do you know they’re following us?” I asked.
“When our Lord stopped the caravan to talk to Beraler Ãchor, they stopped too. When the caravan started again, they came on again. What else could it mean but they’re following us?”
I did not, of course, like the strumpet’s contemptuous tone, but it was no time to tell her what I thought of it. “Who do you think they are?” I asked instead.
Onek Mangsho had been studying them fixedly under his shading hand all this while, and it was he who answered. “They must be desert bandits,” he said. “It’s not a large band, so they’re just following us for the moment while they call in more men. Only when they have a large enough group to overwhelm us will they risk an attack.”
“There are only three of us to guard the whole caravan,” Opodartho pointed out. “They could overwhelm us now if they wanted.”
“True,” Onek Mangsho said, “but they don’t know that.”
“What do we do then?” I asked. “Warn Beraler Ãchor?”
“Not right away,” Onek Mangsho said. “He’s far too stupid to understand what this means. He’ll merely say that it’s our responsibility to keep the bandits at bay, and they’re such a small group that we should be able to do it without trouble. By the time he admits to the danger it’ll be far too late.”
“So what should we do?”
“We keep an eye on the bandits and wait for them to get closer...and then, before they too strong, I’ll tell Beraler Ãchor about them.” He hesitated. “You’ll realise, of course, that we can’t outfight them? These merchants are useless. They can dicker endlessly over prices, but they don’t even know how to hold a spear. It’ll be just the three of us against the bandits.”
“Yes...so what can we do?” I looked at the tiny dots in the distance. They seemed so small and insignificant, but even I, who knows no fear, felt a shiver go down my spine at the thought of these bandits. They’re the vilest of the vile, so pitiless and evil that they might give even a dire hyena or a vampire hog pause. “Surely you aren’t suggesting we fight to the death in defence of these stupid merchants?”
“Of course not.” Onek Mangsho looked back up the line of beasts and then to the dots in the distance. “Let’s all try and think of a way out. There must be something.”
For the next hours we kept plodding through the white, salty sand, as the sun rose even higher into the sky and rained down heat like fire. But try as I might, I couldn’t imagine how we might find our way out of this situation.
“We could, of course, probably fight our way through them,” I ventured. “If the three of us attacked at the same point, then we could probably get through. They’d satisfy themselves with the merchants and their booty rather than follow us.”
“I’ve already come to the same conclusion,” Onek Mangsho responded gravely. “But then what? We’d be left out in the desert without food and water.”
Opodartho snorted. “Besides which,” she said, “these desert vermin have all the time they want to hunt us down again once they’re done with the caravan.” She pointed up ahead, where, except for a huge, looming mass of stone and rock hulking up to the left, bristling with dry scrub, the desert lay flat and empty as far as the eye could see. “There’s a lot of space to hunt us down in.”
“So what should...” I began, and noticed the sardonic look already forming in the slattern’s eye. “Forget it.”
The sun had dropped towards the west when Opodartho spoke again. “I can see the second group of bandits now.”
“Where?” Onek Mangsho asked. “There aren’t any new ones behind us.”
“It’s on the right, out there,” Opodartho said, pointing. “They’re coming out of the desert.”
“So they’re planning to take us from two sides,” Onek Mangsho said. “There’s only one thing to do, then. Let’s go talk to Beraler Ãchor and tell him about it.”
“And if he doesn’t listen?” Opodartho asked.
“I know he’s stupid,” Onek Mangsho told her. “But I don’t think he’s that stupid.”
Beraler Ãchor was deep in conversation with his deputy when we arrived, and was none too pleased at being interrupted. “Joghonyo Jontu,” he said, with a deep frown. “What is it this time?”
“Bandits, caravan master.” Onek Mangsho indicated with his spear. “They’re behind us and to our right. They’ll probably attack us from two directions as soon as it’s dark.”
Beraler Ãchor squinted at the desert perfunctorily, without even attempting to halt his beast, and turned back to Onek Mangsho. “I don’t see what the problem is,” he said. “There are only a few of them. Surely you can fight them off. After all, what are we paying you for?”
“The three of us can’t hold off two groups attacking from two directions, sir. And if you don’t mind me saying so, you merchants aren’t exactly warriors.”
“I should have known you’d be no good,” Beraler Ãchor began. “For the money we’ve spent on you, we could’ve bought a retinue of slaves, and...”
“So what do you suggest we do?” the deputy interrupted. He was a short, round man called Mathakhali Morkot, and had already shown that he had at least a smidgen more intelligence than the caravan master. “Since you obviously know more about this kind of thing than we do, what solution do you have?”
“There’s only one way out,” Opodartho said directly to him. “We haven’t a chance if we keep going out into the desert. The only thing we can do is go in there.” She hooked her thumb over her shoulder at the towering mass of stone and scrub forest to our left. “Once we’re in the scrub, you merchants can disperse and hide your beasts and merchandise. The bandits will be forced to split up to look for you, and in those close conditions, we will have a fighting chance.”
“You, Anari Agontuk?” Beraler Ãchor scoffed. “A woman? What fighting can you do?”
“You were saying just now that the three of us should be enough to fight the bandits off, weren’t you?” Opodartho countered. “And you hired us as guards. Obviously you thought all that time that Shanghatik Shomoshya...” she pointed at me, “...and I could fight well enough.”
“Enough,” Mathakhali Morkot said. “This is no time to quarrel among ourselves. Clearly, your solution is the only sensible one. Caravan Master, I suggest do as they say.”
“Well, I don’t there’s any need for such a drastic course,” Beraler Ãchor began. “We should call a meeting of the whole caravan and decide...”
“I’m afraid we don’t have any time for that,” Onek Mangsho told him. “The bandits will be on us long before that.”
“I’m making the decision right now, on behalf of the caravan,” Mathakhali Morkot said. “We’ll do as you and your ladies suggest, Joghonyo Jontu. You agree, Caravan Master?”
“Do whatever you want then,” Beraler Ãchor said, seeing himself isolated. “On your own head be it.”
As he signalled and the caravan began, slowly, to change course, the three of us studied the two bandit groups. They had obviously realised they’d been spotted, and were closer now, no longer attempting to hide. But as yet they were far enough away that we’d be able to get the caravan into the forest before they got to us.
“They must have realised what we intend to do,” Opodartho said. “But there aren’t many of them, so they won’t risk rushing us right off while it’s still daylight.”
“Once it’s dark, the advantage will be ours,” Onek Mangsho added, as we walked off towards the caravan, which was now almost at the fringes of the stone and scrub. “If they have any sense they won’t come into the forest till tomorrow morning, and by that time we can prepare for them.”
“Isn’t it fortunate,” I said, “that the bandits are so stupid?”
“What do you mean, Chheechkaduni?”
“Well,” I said, “if they had sense, they’d have hidden their men in the forest there, and attacked us as we came past. Then we wouldn’t have had any place to go but the desert, where they could hunt us down easily.”
Opodartho stared at me as though she’d never seen me before. “Chheechkaduni,” she said, “why do you have these flashes of brilliance so infrequently?”
“What do you mean?” I answered, angrily.
“Because that’s exactly what they’ve done. They’ve been herding us right into a trap.” Opodartho turned towards Onek Mangsho. “Lord...”
It was already too late. The edges of the scrub seemed to come alive with bandits. They boiled out of the crevices of the rock and from inside the bushes. They’d been lying so still, and their grey-brown clothes so matched the colour of the stone and dried vegetation, that they’d been invisible to our eyes.
“To me,” Onek Mangsho cried. “Quick!”
Opodartho and I darted forward to him. We stood back to back with our weapons – my Lord with his heavy spear, Opodartho with her light spear, and I with my beloved long knife. We said nothing to each other. By that time the panicked shouting of the merchants and the bleating of their beasts had merged with the yelling of the bandits into a cacophony of sound so great that we could not have heard anything anyway.
The dust from the stamping beast hooves and running feet began dying down, and we saw that around the three of us was a ring of seven or eight bandits. They made no move to attack us, seeming content for the moment to keep us surrounded. The rest of the band – the ones who had ambushed us, and the two groups out in the desert who had steered us into the trap and had just come up – were busy tying up the merchants and securing the animals.
“What do we do now, Lord?” I asked quietly, when we could hear again.
“Wait and watch,” Onek Mangsho replied. “What else?”
“How long...” I began, but the circle of bandits around us parted to admit one of the tallest men I have ever seen. I knew the men of the desert were tall, and I had seen some very statuesque ones; but this man would have topped them by a head and more. Not just his height, but his clothing marked him out. Where the other bandits wore drab brown and grey, he was dressed in bright emerald green, with a scarlet sash round his waist and boots black as the night. Around his head was a white cloth, one end of which fell rakishly over his shoulder. And apart from a knife thrust into the sash, he had no weapons at all.
That this was the robber leader was so obvious that none of us thought necessary to mention it. He stood with his hands on his hips, looking us up and down, and then spoke with an unexpectedly soft, almost cultured voice.
“Your merchants didn’t even raise a fingernail to stop us, and that’s exactly how I like my victories: short and sweet. But I see you three want to make a stand. Do you really think you can get away with it?”
“The question,” Onek Mangsho responded as politely, “is not whether we can get away with it, but what you intend to do now.”
“I have a lot of men,” the lanky man said, “and there are only three of you – of whom two are women.” His triangular face was split in two by a sharp-toothed smile. “Very charming women, I may add.”
“That’s as may be,” Onek Mangsho retorted, “but you’ll find that my charming women know how to defend themselves quite adequately.”
“Apart from which,” Opodartho said, “I notice that you’re taking good care to stay out of range of our weapons.”
I felt that I needed to say something, if only to relieve the pressure building in my chest at the realisation of the predicament we were in. “You have a lot of men, but you won’t have so many left if you take us on. Which of you wants to be the first to die – especially since your victory is already won?”
The towering robber chief seemed quite unfazed. “You have a point,” he admitted. “My men wouldn’t want to throw away their lives at this time, when we’ve just laid hands on more riches than almost longer than I remember.” He cocked his head as some piercing screams sounded from the scrub behind him. “There you are. But you do realise that we can simply outlast you? My men can keep watch in turns until you drop from exhaustion.”
“Or we could simply attack your men before we reach that point, and destroy as many of them as we can before you cut us down.” Onek Mangsho raised his spear slightly, and the nearest of the ring of robbers took an involuntary couple of steps backward. “I do not think they will like that very much.”
“True,” the elongated man nodded, smiling again, but I noticed how his black eyes glittered with venom. “I must think about this. Oh, I am sorry, I neglected to introduce myself.” He paused for a moment. “I am Thorohori Kompoman.”
It was all I could do to repress a start. The name was one which we had heard many times, in taverns where men told tales of a bandit king as cruel as the desert and as powerful as the molten heat of the sun. To meet him, it was said, was a fate so much worse than mere death that only the curse of the Cannibal Spirit himself could bring one to such a pass.
“I think I’ve heard that name somewhere,” Onek Mangsho said, “once or twice.”
“In the inns where braggarts and drunkards sit swapping gossip over mugs of blood wine,” Opodartho added. “We didn’t pay much heed to them, did we, Shanghatik Shomoshya?”
It took me a moment to remember that that was supposed to be me. “I barely even noticed it,” I said, not altogether convincingly even to my own ears. “In fact I had to try and recall where I had heard it before.”
Thorohori Kompoman grinned and shook his head, the thick gold ring he wore in one ear glinting in the fading sunlight. “You need to do better than that, young lady,” he said. “You’re practically trembling at the knees.”
I, of course, was doing no such thing, and successfully resisted the almost overwhelming urge to look down at my knees. Thorohori Kompoman stared at me for an uncomfortably long moment and then turned to the others.
“So,” he said, “we would appear to have reached an impasse. You can’t get away, and I can’t win without suffering damage we can’t afford. Have I stated the situation correctly?”
Another scream sounded from up in the scrub, and we waited until its echoes had faded away. “I’m willing to challenge any of you to a fight to the death for our freedom,” Onek Manngsho suggested.
“Oh, no, no, that won’t do at all. If you win, we’ll be out of a good man, and we’ll still hunt you down in the desert, simply for revenge. If you lose, of course...” He smiled, but his eyes were still black pools of hate. “You see the problem.”
“Why don’t you just tell us what you’re offering?” Opodartho asked. “It’s more than obvious you’ve got some kind of plan in mind.”
Thorohori Kompoman looked at her with interest. “You’re a bright woman,” he said. “If things were different, and we were on the same side...” He shrugged. “Well, yes, you’re right. I have an offer for you. The three of you are obviously fairly experienced warriors, and unless I’m much mistaken you’ve been through your share of danger and more. We need people like that.”
“We aren’t joining your band, if that’s what you’re offering.”
“Of course not. We could never trust you, and you’d never be able to depend on one of us not slipping a knife between your ribs one dark night.”
“So what is your offer?”
“This.” Thorohori Kompoman bit his lip and looked over his shoulder, up the slope. “Up there, in the hills,” he said, “is the ancient temple of Ghinginey Girgiti. It’s derelict now, and has been for hundreds of years...perhaps thousands of years. It’s old, really old – older by far than even the worship of the Cannibal Spirit. The people who built it worshipped other gods, older gods. Now, there’s something in this temple that I want. I want it quite badly.”
“If you do, why don’t you just go and get it yourself?”
“I’m going to tell you.” Thorohori Kompoman took a deep breath. “A couple of years ago, we had a stroke of great good fortune – one of our raids brought us a windfall, a box full of gold and precious stones. It was enough to make us rich, and we intended to distribute the contents equally among the band...after I’d taken my half share, of course.”
“Of course,” murmured Onek Mangsho. Thorohori Kompoman shot him a dirty look.
“Now, one of our men, Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey....”
“Watch it!” Opodartho snapped, raising her spear. One of the bandits jumped back quickly. I took a firmer grip on my knife and fixed the bandit opposite me with my best death-glare.
“If your men make any further attempts to sneak up on us while you tell your story, Thorohori Kompoman,” Onek Mangsho said, “I am afraid we will have to take action against them – and you.”
“Step back,” the robber king snapped to his men. “Leave them alone.” One by one the bandits retreated several paces, leaving only Thorohori Kompoman himself near the three of us.
“As I was telling you,” he resumed, “we had a man called Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey. I’m afraid I had the bad judgment to make him my second in command, which is why he was entrusted with the box of jewels. He had the idea that he could do better for himself by making off with the entire box – so, that very night, after we’d returned from our raid, this is what he did.
“It didn’t take us long to discover that he’d disappeared. I’d sent for him to talk over our plans, and the man I sent came back to report he couldn’t be found. And it took only a few moments’ search to discover that the box was gone, too.
“Of course I immediately sent out a search party with orders to find him and bring him – at least partly alive – and the box back. They found his traces without too much difficulty, since he was concerned more with speed than concealment, and followed him through the forest. After some hours’ tracking, it became obvious he was heading in the direction of the old temple of Ghinghiney Girgiti.”
“Why there?” Onek Mangsho asked. “You said that the temple was abandoned long ago and wasn’t even dedicated to the Cannibal Spirit. Why should he have gone there?”
“It seems he had injured himself somehow during his flight, because on the second morning my men found blood trails in the scrub. He probably intended to lie up in the old temple until he could continue his escape.” Thorohori Kompoman stroked the line of his jaw with one long brown finger. “None of us knew anything about the temple itself. We’d seen the ruins in the distance, but never thought the place worth entering. It’s huge and rambling, overgrown with scrub, and he probably thought there were so many hiding holes in it we’d never find him. And if he had actually managed to lose himself inside, we probably wouldn’t have, either. But his injury slowed him down.”
“Why didn’t you think it worth entering?” Opodartho interrupted. “I’d have thought it was the sort of place that would attract desert bandits. It would offer you shelter, and possibly there might be things left over from olden days that you could use.”
“Uh...there were old legends that we’d heard, that the temple had had a guardian set over it, to protect it against all comers. Besides, it’s totally ruined, not much more than piled stones and broken walls, really.”
“Is that so? Go on.”
“On the second evening, just before dark, the search party caught sight of Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey. He was almost at the temple, near the broken outer walls. My men were still a fair distance away, though close enough to make out that he was still carrying the box; and though they went as fast as they could, darkness had fallen by the time they reached the ruins.
“Still, it was obvious he couldn’t have got far. He’d been limping badly when the men had seen him, almost dragging one leg. They were confident they’d catch him, even in the darkness, within the first room or two of the ruined temple.
“And then there was a terrified shriek, so loud that it seemed no human throat could have uttered it – and something flew through the darkness and fell at their feet. In the light of their torches they saw it was the head of Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey.”
“Go on,” Onek Mangsho said. “What happened next?”
“My men are not cowards,” Thorohori Kompoman said. “It’s not as though they’d never seen anyone beheaded before either. But in the dark, among those unknown ruins, they were caught at a disadvantage. And then something attacked them.”
“They don’t know.” Thorohori Kompoman glanced over his shoulder at the darkening forest and back at us. “Those of them who came back did not get more than a glimpse, and those of them who saw it clearly did not live to come back. In the dark, with only the light of a fallen torch or two for illumination...” He shook his head. “Each of them said a different thing. It’s impossible to tell what it really was like. But it definitely wasn’t a dire lion, and I know of no other creature which can tear a man’s head off his shoulders and throw it far away.”
“Surely you must have sent another group of your men to search the temple,” Opodartho said. “It would have been a more heavily armed group, not just a search party, and it would have been in broad daylight.”
“Of course I did. As soon as the survivors of the search party returned with their story, I sent a much stronger group to the temple.”
“And? Didn’t they find the box?”
“Nobody knows.” Thorohori Kompoman hesitated. “None of them ever came back again.”
“How do you know that they didn’t take the box for themselves and run away?” I asked, and then answered my own question. “Oh, of course you were watching from outside the temple. Silly of me.”
“Yes,” Thorohori Kompoman said. “I saw them go in, and none of them ever came out again. We watched for over a week, day and night – and not one of them ever emerged.”
“So this is your offer?” Onek Mangsho asked. “We go into this ruined temple, bring out your box of jewels, and in return we get our lives and freedom?”
“That’s the offer,” Thorohori Kompoman nodded. “What do you have to say?”
I was astonished at Onek Mangsho’s response. “No. It isn’t enough.”
Thorohori Kompoman was equally flabbergasted. “It isn’t?”
“Of course it isn’t. Even if you kept your end of the bargain – and you’ll understand our reluctance to believe that you will – we’d still be out in the desert without food or water. My offer is our lives and freedom, and the lives and freedom of all the merchants your men haven’t killed off yet – along with the animals and half the merchandise from the caravan. Is that acceptable?”
“Or we can just continue this face-off until we kill each other, and even if you happen to survive, you’ll never get your box back. Your choice.”
“You seem to be pretty certain you’ll live long enough to get the box out of the temple,” Thorohori Kompoman snapped. “You know what happened to my men.”
“We aren’t your men. That’s why we’re willing to go in there but you aren’t.”
There was a long silence. Then Thorohori Kompoman crooked a finger at one of his bandits.
“Tell them not to harm any more of the merchants,” he said. “We’ll see what these three can do.”
“When do we start?” Opodartho asked.
“Right now, of course. Do you think we have time to waste?”
“If you come out of the temple without the box.” Thorohori Kompoman said, “we’ll kill you.”
It was late the next day. In the waning light of the afternoon sun, the walls of Ghinghiney Girgiti rose greyish-black out of the sea of scrub that filled the low valley in between. At first sight they looked formidable, but here and there one could see breaches where time and weather had broken the stones down.
“You’ve told us that before.” My Lord adjusted the straps of his bag. The three of us had been allowed to fetch our belongings and weapons from the caravan, so we each carried spears as well as knives, and Onek Mangsho had the thick bone club he’d taken off the Horrid Hangman of Hatenatey Hathkora. Besides, we all had torches and flint to light them. “Don’t worry, we’ll bring your box out – and then we’ll make sure you keep to your part of the deal.”
“Do you think he really will keep to his part of the deal?” Opodartho asked, as we started down the valley, watched by Thorohori Kompoman and his men.
“Of course he won’t,” Onek Mangsho snorted. “He has no intention whatsoever of keeping to it. But once we’ve got the box, we’ve got a powerful bargaining chip in our hands.”
“Are you so sure we will get it?” I asked. “Remember what he said about a guardian set over the temple to protect it.”
“I’ve never met a guardian yet that wasn’t flesh and blood of some sort,” Opodartho replied. “And what’s flesh and blood can be killed.”
“Besides, it’s not as though we’re taking something belonging to the temple,” my Lord said. “It’s probably just an animal, anyway.”
“The bandit we talked to,” I reminded him. “The one who Thorohori Kompoman said was the only member of the search party he’d sent after Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey who’s still alive. What he said doesn’t resemble any animal I know.”
“All he said was ‘The darkness came alive’.” Opodartho laughed shortly. “The darkness came alive, and he saw the torchlight reflected off the air. That doesn’t sound like a description to me.”
“Whatever it is,” Onek Mangsho told us, “remember that it has destroyed two well armed groups of robbers. So it won’t be a pushover.”
We had descended to the bottom of the valley, and now began climbing up towards the walls of the temple. The scrub was thick, dry and spiny; it scratched our hands and faces, and I could feel it through the soles of my shoes.
“I hope we don’t have to try and run through this,” I observed. “No wonder Thorohori Kompoman’s men couldn’t catch up with Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey, even though he was limping.”
“I might have an idea or two about that,” Opodartho said. But the stupid slattern always had ideas about everything, so I ignored her.
“It must have been a magnificent structure once,” Onek Mangsho observed, as we climbed the slope. “Even now, you can see that it must have been immense. I wonder who built it, and when.”
“It must have been people who lived here back when the desert was a sea, and this was a huge island,” Opodartho said, returning to her delusion. I snorted as expressively as I could, but she ignored me.
“Thorohori Kompoman told us that’s the breach by which Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey and both the parties of robbers entered the temple,” Onek Mangsho said, pointing. “Remember, the man was badly injured and killed soon after entering the temple, so he can’t have hidden the box somewhere deep inside. It should be not too far from the break in the wall.”
“There’s been a lot of time for scrub to have grown over and covered it, though.” I eyed the wall as we approached. The breach was high and narrow, as though a gigantic axe had smashed down part of the wall, and the slope below was treacherous with crumbled stone. “It’ll be dark soon, Lord.”
“Yes.” Onek Mangsho turned to both of us. “We’ll take it in turns. One person stands guard while the other two search. And don’t be in a hurry. We don’t want to miss the box because we aren’t looking carefully enough.”
“If we don’t find the box before dark, we aren’t going to light the torches, of course,” Opodartho said.
“Of course not,” Onek Mangsho agreed, before I could ask why. “The last thing we want to do is blind ourselves and attract the attention of anything in there.”
“So we sit out the night and start searching again in the morning?” I asked sceptically.
“Do you have a better idea, Chheechkaduni?”
Before I could think of anything to say to that, Onek Mangsho held up a hand. “Quiet now, both of you. We have to be able to hear anything coming.” Except for the sound of our feet on the crumbled stone, though, there was silence.
Before we passed through the breach in the wall, I looked back over my shoulder. Far away, across the valley, I could see a few tiny figures, watching. One of them was markedly higher than the others. The sun illuminated his green clothes, making them blaze bright like emerald.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” I muttered, prodding through dried grass into a crevice with the blade of a spear. The broken black stone walls rose all around, hemming us in. Overhead, the sky was a riot of red and orange, and I wished I could have paused a moment from my labours to enjoy it. “Not easy at all.”
“Nobody said it was going to be,” Opodartho said over her shoulder, from where she was kneeling next to a pile of rocks she turned over one by one. Her thick, coarse peasant hands, of course, were well suited to such work. “You missed a hole on your right, Chheechkaduni.”
“I was looking in the likelier places first,” I retorted. “Shouldn’t you be keeping your mind on your own work instead of checking up on mine?”
“What did I say about being quiet?” Onek Mangsho asked from atop the block of stone on which he was standing guard. I glanced towards him, and frowned.
“No, there’s nothing now. But I fancied something was looking down at us just now from that wall there.”
Onek Mangsho and Opodartho both turned to look. “What?”
“I don’t know. It was just for a moment, and I’m not even quite certain I saw it. It looked...” I tried to find words to describe what I’d seen. “...as though the sky above the wall twitched,” I managed. “It shimmered like things get on a hot day over the desert, but just in one spot.”
We all looked up at the sky. The last purple and orange of sunset painted it with colour, but that was all.
“Why did you think that it was something looking down at us?” Opodartho asked. I’d have thought that she would be mocking me, but her tone was completely serious.
“I can’t say exactly. It might have been that the shimmering area appeared and suddenly vanished, like someone ducking back into cover. Or it could have been the outline of the area.”
“What about it? Was it like a man’s head?”
“No – nothing like a man’s head. But it gave me a feeling as though it was a head. And it was big. Very big. Much bigger than a man’s head.”
There was a brief silence while we all scanned the walls around.
“I think we’d better find a spot where we can spend the night safely,” Onek Mangsho said at last. “It won’t be possible to see to search much longer anyway.”
It was just before total darkness fell that we found shelter, and it was Opodartho who found it.
It was a small niche in a wall to one side of a yard near where we were searching, a yard that might once have been a huge room but whose roof had collapsed long ago and merged with the broken stone littering the ground. It was so thickly overgrown with dry brown grass and stubby trees that it was difficult to see more than a couple of arms’ length through it, but by the same token, Opodartho said, nobody could see us.
“Nor can anyone come through this without making a noise and tipping us off,” Onek Mangsho pointed out.
For my part, I was examining the niche without too much enthusiasm. It might once have been a small room in its own right, but now it was a hole in the wall open on one side and with an aperture on another at chest level that probably had served as a window. Outside the scrub crowded like a wall of threatening spears.
We ate a little dried meat and drank enough water to take the edge off our thirst, then sat down to wait with our backs to the wall and our weapons across our knees. Fortunately, despite the exhaustion of two full days without rest, there was no question of our falling asleep. With darkness, the temperature dropped, and it soon became cold in the niche. First it was merely cold, then bitterly cold, and then such bone-deep, aching, unbearable cold that I could no longer sit in one place.
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said softly as I rose to my feet, “what are you doing?”
“Trying to warm up before I freeze to...” I turned to the square hole of the window and the words died in my mouth.
The faded moon faintly illuminated the spiky forest of scrub growing outside, and in that glimmering light I saw something. It was a shivering in the air, as if the moonlight was reflecting off something invisible in the space between me and the scrub. I had an impression of something immense, fast moving and powerful, that was in the act of climbing through the window at us. Instinctively, I raised my spear and thrust it into the middle of the thing as hard as I could, though I knew that it could meet nothing but thin air.
It did not meet thin air. The end of the spear bit into something tremendously tough and heavy, something that jerked so hard that it nearly pulled the spear out of my grasp. Yanking it free, I stabbed again as hard as I could, again, and then a fourth time.
And then, suddenly, the thing was gone.
I became aware that Onek Mangsho and Opodartho were shouting in my ears. “Chheechkaduni,” one or the other yelled, “what is it? What are you doing?”
I was shaking so much that I nearly dropped the spear. “Something,” I said, trying to control the chattering of my teeth, which was not altogether from the cold. “Something...crawling down the wall, from the outside. It was trying to get in through the window. It was...invisible. I just saw the moonlight reflecting on it.”
“The darkness came alive,” Opodartho quoted softly. “The torchlight reflected off the air.”
“Yes,” my Lord said. “It’ll probably attack through the door next. Be ready.”
Crouching tensely, we looked out at the scrub. In the wan moonlight, the twigs and their shadows meshed until it was as though it was an impenetrable barrier made of silver blades and spikes and black cold iron.
“Can you hear anything?” I asked at last.
“Shh.” Opodartho raised a hand. “Here it comes now.”
In the next moment we all heard the rustling, an instant before we saw the bushes bend and part as something forced its way through the dry vegetation towards us. I think I heard Opodartho gasp. I knew I wasn’t far from gasping myself.
We had all, I imagine, been expecting that whatever it was would walk upright, like a man; but the scrub above merely swayed back and forth. It was at ground level that the twigs and stems were pushed apart and broke as something rushed along towards us at terrific speed.
“Come on!” Onek Mangsho shouted, bracing himself against the wall by the door as he held his heavy spear under his arm like a pike. “Beside me!”
I jumped to obey, though my own spear was only a light one, and I knew that it could not long withstand the power of the thing I’d stabbed through the window. I’d expected Opodartho to be on my Lord’s other side, but there was no sign of her.
I was just about to shout out about her cowardice when something sputtered behind us and a lighted torch went arcing over my shoulder...and then another, and a third.
The scrub was dry as ancient parchment. It flared to life as though it had been waiting eagerly for the touch of flame.
In the light of the fire, reflected in red and gold, I saw it for a single moment – something long and low to the ground, running on thick stubby legs while needle jaws worked furiously in a face that I was glad I couldn’t see more closely. It came in complete silence – except for the noise of the broken scrub, and the new crackling of the fire, there was not a sound. Then a burning branch fell across its back, and the thing twisted round and rushed away as fast as it had come.
“Did you see that?” I shouted. “You saw it, didn’t you?”
“We all saw it, Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said. “There’s no need to shout.”
“That was your idea?” Onek Mangsho asked Opodartho. “To set the scrub on fire?”
“There was nothing else we could do,” she replied. “As long as it’s ablaze, at least, I don’t think it’ll be attacking us again.”
“But we’re trapped ourselves,” I said, “and we’ll probably be burned or suffocated to death now anyway.”
“Not on your life. This is an open yard – the smoke will be carried upwards and away, and the flames won’t burn us in here because the fire will draw in cold air from outside. Can’t you feel it?”
And as she spoke, I did feel it, too – a strong breeze that came in through the side of the window, and carried the smoke and heat away from our niche. For the moment, it seemed, we were safe. The flames had warmed the niche up to the point where it was uncomfortably hot, but that was all.
“What do you think that creature we saw was, Lord?” I asked.
“I have no idea. I’ve never heard of anything like it. Whatever it is, it’s transparent. That’s why we couldn’t see it except by the light reflected off it.”
“And that’s why it could kill the bandits. They were expecting something they could see.” Opodartho peered past me at the wall of flames. “I did say that we never met a guardian that was anything but flesh and blood. I don’t know if this thing has blood, but it’s obviously not proof against fire.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “But what do you intend to do when the fire burns out? It won’t go on forever.”
“We keep moving through the temple and setting fire to the scrub, of course,” Opodartho said, as though that was the most obvious thing in the world. “There’s lots of it, and it’s a large temple. And when it’s daylight we’ll be able to see well enough to defend ourselves...now that we know what to look for.”
“What about tomorrow night?” I asked spitefully. “You have all the answers, Opodartho, so what about tomorrow night?”
“What about it?” she answered evenly. “Do you intend to still be here this time tomorrow? I don’t.”
“None of us wants to be here a moment longer than necessary,” my Lord said. “Let’s rest while we can. We’ve a long night ahead of us, unless I am much mistaken.”
We sat down again with our backs to the wall, and watched the fire burn.
I do not have a clear memory of the hours that followed.
It did not take very long for the fire in the yard to burn down. The scrub burned quickly, and as it crumbled to glowing embers we picked up our bags and weapons and moved out. The ash was so hot that it singed the skin of my feet right through my thick desert boots, but I barely noticed it then. We moved on to the next scrub-choked space, and Opodartho and I set it on fire after Onek Mangsho cleared a space in the scrub big enough for us to wait in safety. And once that began to burn out, we moved on again.
Opodartho and Onek Mangsho both said they saw the transparent shimmering creature during this time. Opodartho said she saw it crawling along the side of a wall, clinging with its many legs like a fly, while the fire burned bright under it. Onek Mangsho told us he glimpsed it scurrying away as flames suddenly shot up like a tower from a clump of tinder-dry scrubby trees growing out of an aperture in the rock. But I did not see it at all. All I saw was the wall of fire.
And it was sometime in the latter part of the night that the wind began blowing the flames back towards us.
I was the first one to realise it. We were in a narrow space between two yards, passing from one – which was burning well – to the other, which we’d already burned, when I realised that the second one was far too bright. At most there should have been a few red embers on a field of dark ash. Instead, orange flames were licking the walls and creeping back towards us.
“Lord,” I said, and clutched at his arm to attract his attention, for he was concentrating on the walls overhead in case our transparent enemy was crawling along them. “Opodartho. The fire’s coming back this way.”
It had already come a long way back, and only a narrow strip separated us from the advancing flames, whose flickering tongues danced about our faces. We rushed across as quickly as we could, our feet sinking into the ash almost to the tops of our boots. The heat was so intense that I felt the ends of my hair frizzing, and smelt it burn. And then we were in another yard, which was still unburned and blessedly cool.
We’d made it to safety, but it was only temporary. The wind was blowing up to a storm, and everywhere we looked, we could see flames approaching.
“The winds are blowing the flames together,” Onek Mangsho said. Over the sound of the gale and the rustling and crackling of the fire his voice was almost inaudible. “This whole place is about to become a cauldron of fire.”
“How can it be burning the scrub we already burned?” I wondered.
“That’s simple,” Opodartho snapped. “It’s incinerating the roots and lower stems, and all the twigs and branches which it missed the first time. By the time it’s through the earth will be baked to brick. Lord, we’re going to have to leave the Temple.”
“Thorohori Kompoman and his people –” I began.
“To the Cannibal Spirit with the robber chief and his men. If we don’t leave right away we’ll be barbecued alive.”
“That’s right,” Onek Mangsho agreed. “We’re going to have to take our chances with the bandits.” Raising his spear, he pointed. “Fortunately, we aren’t far from the outer wall. Come.”
I still remember every step of that dash towards the outer wall, leaning into the wind which seemed intent on throwing us back into the fire. Little puffs of flame danced around our feet, and the stone walls were so hot the air around them felt like an oven. Then we were in a round space, which had perhaps once been a hall of some nature. It hadn’t felt the touch of flame yet, and was carpeted with dried grass and thorn; but on the other side, the fire had just taken hold. And beyond the fire was the outer wall, and in it, a cleft of liquid black, a breach.
We were running across this open round space when Onek Mangsho happened to look back over his shoulder.
“Here it comes,” he shouted.
What with the flames and the storm, I had quite forgotten the existence of the transparent thing to beat which we’d set the fire in the first place. It was a moment before I realised what he meant, and, instinctively, I turned to look.
“No time for that,” Onek Mangsho yelled, pulling me by the shoulder so hard that I almost fell over. “We’ve to get past the fire!”
In the instant before I turned back to flee I saw it again – a shimmer scuttling across the space behind us, red and orange flames glittering off its skin as it came. Its front end was raised off the ground, the needle jaws working, jaws that would tear off a head as easily as I would break a shell open for the nut inside. Then I turned and ran, as quickly as I could, towards the welcome, protecting fire.
We were almost there when Opodartho, who was just ahead of me, caught her foot on a root, stumbled and fell.
I reacted totally instinctively. If I had had time to think, I’m not certain what I would have done. Perhaps I would have tried to help her up. Or perhaps I would have left her behind and run on. I simply don’t know.
What I did was whirl around in a crouch, my spear held up before me, to meet the thing’s charge.
I was just in time.
It struck like a hammerblow, with such force that I was knocked over backwards, my light spear snapping cleanly off halfway up the shaft. I lay on my back, more than half-stunned, waiting for those jaws to get to work on my body, waiting for them to wrench my head off my shoulders and fling it away like that of the long ago bandit Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey. Instead, I felt hands on me, lifting, and a moment later Opodartho and Onek Mangsho, their arms around my shoulders, were helping me through the flames.
“The creature...” I managed. “What...”
“It won’t be following us just now,” Opodartho said. “It’s busy.”
“You drove your spear right between its jaws and down its throat,” Onek Mangsho explained succinctly. “The last we saw of it, it was pulling at the shaft trying to get it out.”
We passed through the broken wall into the wonderful, cold darkness of the night.
“We aren’t at the same point at which we entered the temple,” Onek Mangsho said. “With any luck, we’ll be able to bypass Thorohori Kompoman’s bandits and make our way back to their camp.”
“Why do we need to go to their camp?” I asked. Possibly it was a stupid question, but my head was still ringing like a bell. “Shouldn’t we be trying to escape?”
“We need to free the caravan and the beasts, Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho reminded me. “Thorohori Kompoman brought most of his men to keep watch here, with only a skeleton guard over the merchants. If we can get past his cordon, we should be able to escape before he knows we’re gone.”
“The fire will be burning at least the whole of the day,” Onek Mangsho said. Even from here, partly down the slope, we could feel the heat at our backs and the rushing wind in our faces. “He won’t know what happened to us till tomorrow evening, with any luck.”
We hurried as quickly as we could down the slope, keeping to the darkest of the shadows and once or twice dropping to hands and knees to crawl through the scrub. None of us seemed to have come through unscathed. My body was still aching from the force with which the creature had struck me. Onek Mangsho’s beard had been burned mostly away. As for Opodartho, she walked hunched over, and it was only because I knew her crude peasant body that I didn’t wonder if she had cracked a rib or burst open some organ inside her belly.
It was full daylight before Onek Mangsho called a halt. “We should have passed their watchers by now,” he said. “We need a short break and then...”
That was all I heard. The world spun once around my head and went black.
I woke to Opodartho shaking me and lightly slapping my face. “Get up, Chheechkaduni. We’ve got to move on.”
“I need a little more rest.” My entire body cried out in protest as I sat up. “Lord, tell her to let me rest a little more.”
“We can’t delay, Chheechkaduni,” Onek Mangsho said. “The fire is totally out of control. It’s spread out of the temple. It’s feeding on the forest, and if it traps us we’ll be done for.”
I turned my head painfully to look. The sky in the direction of Ghinghiney Girgiti was black, painted with a sullen reddish underglow.
“Not just that,” Opodartho said. “Thorohori Kompoman’s sentries will be driven back by the fire too, and at least some of them will come this way.”
So I clambered to my feet and stumbled on. I was still half asleep, and just followed behind Onek Mangsho and Opodartho. They were talking quietly to each other, but I hardly listened to a word. Only when the wind blew the smoke towards us, burning my eyes, nose and throat with its acrid heat, did I momentarily wake, before sinking into a doze again.
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said. “Wake up, Chheechkaduni. Wake up!”
My eyes snapped open. Hours had passed, and the sun was far down in the west. The smoke from the fire floated overhead, burnt fragments of leaves drifting down in eddies and spirals. “What happened?”
“We’re almost at the bandit camp. Can’t you hear it?”
For a moment I didn’t understand what she meant, and then I heard it too, the restless bellowing of the caravan’s animals. “They’re frightened of the fire,” I said.
“Yes. The fire’s following close behind us. The guards Thorohori Kompoman left must be worried too. Get down, we don’t want to be seen.”
Crawling almost on our bellies, we went down a grass-choked groove in the ground between two ridges. The vegetation was already giving off wisps of smoke as burning leaves falling from above began igniting small fires. I could feel the soil warm beneath my hands.
“Here we are,” Onek Mangsho said, rising slowly to his knees. “We’re just in time, it seems.”
We shuffled to his side. Below us, in a bowl-shaped hollow in the ground, the caravan’s animals milled, while, under the spears of the bandit guards, the remaining merchants hurriedly loaded them down with everything they could carry. It was obvious that Thorohori Kompoman’s minions were preparing to pull out with whatever they could salvage.
“Now,” Onek Mangsho said softly.
We struck like an avalanche. There were even fewer guards than we’d anticipated – some of them must have gone to look for Thorohori Kompoman and his men – and their attention was fixed on the merchants and animals, so we took them totally by surprise. My long knife slipped easily into the back on one huge robber, while from the corner of my eye I saw Onek Mangsho’s spear neatly take the head off another. Then we were through to the caravan, the merchants were turning towards us with amazement on their faces, and the remaining bandits were scattering, routed. Victory was ours.
Or, rather, victory would have been ours in just a little while more.
But it was at this moment that most of Thorohori Kompoman’s men arrived, just ahead of the fire.
They rushed into the camp in a crowd, waving their weapons and shouting, their faces and clothes smoke stained, their faces crazed with fear and the lust to kill. Even disorganised as they were, they were far too many to fight. I began to retreat quickly towards the cover of the scrub, expecting Onek Mangsho and Opodartho to abandon the caravan and do the same.
Instead, incredulously, I watched Opodartho vault on to one of the pack animals. Standing high on the creature’s back, she raised something soot-blackened in her hands. It was a wooden box.
“Look here, you lords of the desert,” she screamed, opening the box and flinging handfuls of its contents in all directions. “Look! Here are your jewels!”
I was watching this open-mouthed when there was a loud crack and a cloud of sparks swept over me, head to foot.
The fire was here.
It rushed forward, roaring like a charging dire lion, as though eager to make up for failing to consume me in the temple. It reached out with arms of flame, hungering to hold me in its embrace, to hug me close as its many tongues licked and tasted me, turned my skin and muscle, eyes and bones, into heat and light and ash. It flung itself high overhead, looking for branches and trees to burn, to fall on me from above and hold me in place for it. It growled in anticipation, twisting and turning as it flowed around me, to cut me off from my only way of escape, the open white desert.
With no thought in my mind but escape, I ran.
The next moments passed in a blur. Burning twigs and branches slashed at me, scraped at my hands and face and plucked at my clothing, tried to hold me back. Something huge and heavy came down from above, in a slow descent of noise and flame and spinning showers of sparks, so slowly that I managed to duck out of the way just in time. And then it was hard white sand instead of burning grass under my feet, and I was out in the desert.
Behind me everything was ablaze. The fire was a solid red wall that came down to the desert’s edge, licking even between the rocks where nothing grew but a blade of glass or two. The heat and smoke blew over me like a furnace, searing my nose and the inside of my head, turning my lungs into cavities filled with pure agony.
Choking, eyes streaming, I collapsed on my knees on the white sand.
When I looked up again someone was standing before me. When I saw who it was, I found myself leaping to my feet faster than I could have believed myself ever capable of doing again.
Thorohori Kompoman looked horrible. His clothes were half burnt away, and he had a huge raw wound on one side of his face. One of his eyes was swollen shut, but the other was staring down at me, and now he made no attempt to smile or hide the pure liquid hate filling it.
“You,” he said. His wound twisted his mouth awry. “You destroyed my band.”
I fumbled for my long knife, but it wasn’t there. Then I saw it on the sand. It must have fallen from my belt while I was stumbling out of the burning forest. I backed towards it, my eyes on the bandit chief, knowing I would never reach it in time, knowing that this was, after all, the end.
“You destroyed my band,” Thorohori Kompoman mumbled, shambling towards me. He had a knife all right, a huge one, dangling from his hand. “Now,” he muttered, “I’m going to destroy you.”
And it was then that the windwolves struck.
The pack, as I have said, had been following the caravan for days, waiting for a straggler, and must have been famished. Now they had the smell of blood in their noses, they saw the chance of a kill, and they weren’t about to let it go by.
The first windwolf hurtled past me on the right, a silver-grey blur of fur and fangs, death on four flexing legs. It slammed into Thorohori Kompoman’s side, jaws slashing, and the robber king screamed and fell, a huge gash spouting red in the charred green cloth of his robe. He raised his arm, the big knife stabbing at the windwolf’s throat. Graceful as a dancer, the animal skipped away from the blade just as the second of the pack vaulted right over Thorohori Kompoman, and clamped his wrist in its mouth. Even from where I was I heard the crunch of breaking bone. The heavy knife fell to the sand.
After that it did not take long. By the time I’d retrieved my beloved long knife, the whole pack was in a blood-crazed snarling mass over the remains of the bandit chief. In only a short while, they would reduce him to a few fragments of bone and tattered cloth.
And then, naturally, they would turn on me.
As soon as I realised this, I began to back away, trying not to attract the pack’s attention. It was a forlorn hope, of course. The second windwolf, the big black female who had broken Thorohori Kompoman’s wrist, looked up from her feeding. The amber eyes in her narrow intelligent head gazed into mine. Soon, she seemed to promise. We haven’t forgotten you. Soon.
I backed away a couple more paces and then my heart seemed to stop as I bumped into something huge and hairy just behind me...
“Having fun wandering about in the middle of the desert, Chheechkaduni?” Opodartho’s voice sounded in my ears, and I fainted.
“You realise, of course, that this was all your fault,” Beraler Ãchor said.
“How do you figure that?” Onek Mangsho asked.
“If it hadn’t been for you,” the caravan master said, “we wouldn’t have tried to get to the forest, and then the bandits...”
“...would have run us down in the desert,” Mathakhali Morkot finished. “Instead, we’ve got most of our things back, and it’s the bandits who are finished. And it was Joghonyo Jontu and his ladies who rescued us, don’t forget.” He turned to me with a smile. “How are you doing, my dear?”
“A lot better, thanks,” I told him. It was true. I had spent a miserable few hours on the back of the pack animal Opodartho had been riding when she had come looking for me, coughing up soot; but my lungs had finally settled down and the ointment Mathakhali Morkot had smeared on my face and hands had soothed the pain of my burns. “I’m almost all right now.”
“Good. Don’t worry, nobody’s blaming any of you for this.” The deputy glared at the caravan master, and it was Beraler Ãchor who looked away first. I suddenly realised that there would probably be a reshuffle in the chain of command of this caravan at the end of the journey. “As long as we get safely to Utkot Gondho, you’ll get paid as promised.”
“Thank you.” Onek Mangsho nodded and turned away, and Opodartho and I followed him to our usual position in front of the caravan. My legs were still uneasy, but I was so glad to be off the beast’s back that I hardly noticed the discomfort.
“What happened at the camp, Opodartho?” I asked as soon as we were out of earshot of the caravan. “When did you...”
“Find the box? I did tell you while we were on the way back from the temple, but you were asleep on your feet, so I’m not surprised you didn’t hear it. You remember when I fell and you stabbed the creature?”
“I wouldn’t think you’d forget that.” Opodartho laughed shortly. “I’d thrown out my hands to break my fall, and one of them went into a hole in the ground. I felt something under my hand, and caught hold of it instinctively, to use as a weapon. It was only after we’d got out of the temple that I realised I was still holding it, and then I thought to see what it was.”
“And why did you throw the jewels away afterwards?”
Opodartho shrugged. “Robbers aren’t soldiers. They have only greed, no discipline – they’re in it for personal enrichment and nothing more. When I threw the jewels here and there, it distracted them long enough for us to get away. And after that, of course, they had the fire to contend with.”
“Some of them must have survived,” I said. “In fact, a lot of them probably survived. And they must have retrieved some of the jewels, at least.”
“Of course.” Onek Mangsho hit the sand with the butt of his heavy spear, and a small puff rose in the air. “But it’s obvious that after his experience with Chhoddobeshi Chamchikey, Thorohori Kompoman never appointed another second-in command. That group was held together by Thorohori Kompoman alone. Now that he’s gone, it’s certain to disintegrate. I don’t think those robbers will be in a position to bother anybody in a long time.”
“Don’t,” Opodartho added, “forget the creature either. I don’t think we killed it, but even if we did, I doubt it’s the only one of its kind. It’s quite possible the scrub forest up in the hills beyond Ghinghiney Girgiti is swarming with them. After the fire, they’ll be hungry and homeless and looking for prey. The nearest prey will be our bandits.” She laughed again. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually sorry for them.”
“Still,” I said wistfully, “I wish we’d saved some of those jewels...”
“Um,” Opodartho said. “About that, Chheechkaduni, I didn’t exactly throw away everything.” She fished something out of her robe. “Come here.”
I looked over her shoulder at the object she had in her hand. The three rubies were red drops of blood in the exquisitely crafted gold and silver skull.
“It’s not big,” Onek Mangsho said. “But it’s the best of those in the box, by far.”
I glanced over my shoulder. In the far distance, a smudge of smoke hung over the hump of shadow atop which lay the temple of Ghinghiney Girgiti.
Then I turned back to my companions, and I did not look back again.
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Bhishon Boka, my beloved,
My heart is still hammering as I think of your narrow escape from those vile criminals. I wish I could rush to you, to be by your side, and to help you search for the accursed harridan’s writings. But I realise fully that my place is here, to receive what you send me, to keep them safe, and to glean them for clues as to the location of the ancient witch’s treasure.
I must tell you that I have begun asking around on my own, among those who had, as I’d written you, told tales of the doings of Chheechkaduni and her two equally egregious companions. In the mess of story and fable, rumour and fancy, I might be able to find a nugget or two of fact. If so, be assured, my darling, I will follow them up with all the fervour you know me to be capable of.
Sometimes – I know this might be a shocking thing for you to read – but sometimes I wish you and I had lived in the times of Chheechkaduni and her companions. They are, of course, vile beyond redemption, but their lives, in stark contrast to ours, had excitement and meaning instead of yearning and endless waiting.
With all my love, and kisses to those lips of yours I ache to feel on mine again, I am your own,
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015