My dear old friend Roktakto Rakkhoshi,
It’s been so long since I last wrote to you that I don’t know if you even remember who I am. But I still think often of those days, back when we were girls together. Do you recall how we sneaked off to Kanakhora Koshai’s butcher shop to steal pieces of slavemeat when he wasn’t looking? It wasn’t that difficult, because he was half blind and lame in one foot, so that he couldn’t chase us even if he did see us. And do you remember how we once tried to make bloodjam out of a recipe your grandmother gave us, and how it never worked because we’d forgotten half the ingredients? Or how we hung around the Temple of the Cannibal Spirit, dressed demurely in the manner of supplicants, so we could ogle the boys under our hoods?
Ah, those were the days.
Yes, my dear, it’s been a long time since then. You probably know that I now live in Pyãchano Protisruti. I don’t know if you’ve ever visited this town, but if you haven’t, my dear, you really ought to. It’s so advanced compared to all other places I’ve seen that I have no hesitation in declaring it the greatest city the world has ever known. Why, in numbers alone, the population must number quite twenty thousand! You can almost drown in the sound of voices in the marketplace, and that’s even without the shrieks of the food slaves being led to slaughter. And the shops, my dear, the shops! You can buy anything in them, I do declare, but anything, from boots that reach halfway up your thighs to knives that can cut a hair in two, to dresses that caress every crevice of your body like a lover’s kisses. I would love to take you around them and buy gifts for you.
The box that I’m sending you along with this letter is something I bought in one of the shops, a curious place off the main market which professes to deal in magical goods. Of course, magic does not exist, as even the proprietor readily agreed, but you can do delightful tricks with the things he has to sell, once you know how. He has powders which, if you put a pinch on your palm, give off clouds of green or purple vapours, enough to alarm and impress the ignorant and unwary. He has cloaks which, in the dark of the night, give off a glow as though lit by fire. He has ointments which make you feel just like you’re flying through the air if you smear them inside yourself, you-know-where. Oh, my dear, he has so much more that I’m just dying to show you!
Of course, knowing me as you do, you won’t be at all surprised that I at once bought as much of his stock as I could afford – after haggling like a demon, so much so that even he commended my ability at the art. I could never pass up the chance to make mischief. And among the things I bought was this little round box, whose carvings you’ll appreciate. I’m sure you and your lover...what was his name again, Bhishon Boka?...would like to try out these positions, if you haven’t already. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the perfect gift for you.
You’ll see that the carvings are half on the lid and half on the body of the box, and if you turn the lid round and round...I can already see you putting this letter down to do that...the figures of the men and women do very interesting things with each other. Now, I was playing around with this, when suddenly the bottom of the box fell out. I was at first most vexed, thinking it was broken – but then I realised that the box had a secret compartment in the bottom, one which opens when the men and women of the carvings all simultaneously reach the consummation of their lovemaking with each other. I don’t think even the proprietor of the shop was aware of this, or he would have certainly mentioned it in an attempt to drive up the price. And when I looked inside the little secret compartment, I found a closely written mass of parchment packed tightly inside. When you open the compartment, you’ll find it there.
I never was one for much reading, as you know, so I only flipped through a few pages, but recognised it as some kind of adventure tale, of the sort which would be of great interest to you. It’s obviously very old, and apparently consists of the writings of someone called Chheechkaduni. The name seems vaguely familiar to me, but I can’t for the moment imagine why. Let me know what you think of it.
So tell me, my dear, when you’re planning to come to Pyãchano Protisruti. Make it soon, for I’m desperate to take you around and show you everything. You’ll never want to go home again, I promise you.
Your dear old friend,
************************************ ******************************************** **************************************
Two days after we’d so precipitately fled the town of Golmal Galagali, we finally took the time to rest. While Opodartho and I put together a rough camp, my Lord climbed atop a high earthen mound, one of many which dotted the plain, and looked back over the way we’d come. After a long time he came down again.
“I can’t see anyone,” he reported. “If they’re pursuing us, they’re still a long way behind...or they’re taking care to conceal themselves. I would.”
“Maybe they’ve given up the chase,” I suggested hopefully.
“Don’t you believe it,” Opodartho replied grimly. “They won’t forget what happened there, Chheechkaduni – not even a hundred years from now.”
I busied myself in lighting up the fire for our supper, which we would need to cook before the sun went down so that its light didn’t give us away to pursuers. This also saved me from having to respond to Opodartho, who was obviously itching for a fight. After all, it was obvious that she blamed me for everything that had gone wrong in Golmal Galagali, even though, of course, none of it had been my fault.
I must have mumbled some of this aloud, because Opodartho paused in the act of grilling some of the meat we’d snatched up as we fled. “What was that?”
“I said none of what happened back there was my fault,” I said defiantly.
“Oh, then whose fault was it? The Governor’s son’s, for getting in the way of your knife and having his belly slashed open?”
“You know as well as I do that he tried to –”
“And you know as well as I do,” the strumpet interrupted, “that he thought you were inviting him to your bed.”
“Well, how was I to know that letting him see my ankles was supposed to be a sexual invitation in his misbegotten town?” I flared. “Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous?”
“He wouldn’t have seen your ankles,” she replied, “if you hadn’t got drunk and insisted on climbing on top of a table to dance.”
“Shut up, you two,” Onek Mangsho broke in wearily. “At least the little twerp didn’t die, and we managed to get away as well.”
“Not by much,” Opodartho reminded him. “They were breaking down the front door even as we were jumping over the back wall, and we had to leave half our things behind. Fortunately,” she said, drawing aside her cloak to show us the pouch hanging at her belt, “I’d imagined something like this might happen, so I’d kept our jewels and money on me.”
Onek Mangsho drew her to him fervently. “I thought it was all gone,” he said between the kisses he rained on her mouth in a most disgusting display of excess affection. “I should have known you’d have saved it.”
“What made you imagine something like that might happen?” I asked sourly, as the two of them tore off each other’s clothes with all the delicacy of rutting dire hyenas. “Do you normally stash all our valuables on your person in anticipation of a quick getaway?”
“No,” the slut grinned, as she climbed on top of Onek Mangsho and began thrusting clumsily away. “But when it comes to an unknown town, and you begin getting tipsy, it’s always good policy to be ready to run at a moment’s notice.”
Unable to take this torture any longer, I wandered away from the campsite, nibbling at a piece of broiled meat to assuage my hunger. Knowing that they might go at it for an hour or more, I climbed on to one of the mounds and began to look around. Behind us, towards Golmal Galagali, the plain stretched dusty and dotted with scrub all the way to the hills on the southern horizon. The view to north and east was little different. But to the west, where the glare of the setting sun made it difficult to see clearly, my eyes seemed to detect some kind of movement in the distance. I squinted, but it was very far away, and as the sun sank from view it became more and more difficult to see, until I could make out nothing more.
I’d finished my piece of meat, and the night chill was beginning to eat into my bones, so I returned to the camp. Onek Mangsho and Opodartho were sitting by the embers of the fire and greeted me with some signs of relief.
“Where were you?” the former asked. “We were beginning to get worried.”
“Just taking a walk, Lord,” I replied, unwilling to give Opodartho the satisfaction of knowing that her lovemaking had disturbed me so much. “I wanted some fresh air.”
Opodartho cocked an eyebrow at that, but said nothing, so I continued. “I climbed one of these mounds for a look around – just in case any danger was approaching.”
“And?” Opoartho asked.
“Well, from Golmal Galagali I couldn’t see anything, but from the west...” I hesitated, trying to think of what exactly I had seen. “It seemed like movement,” I said eventually, “as though a band of people were walking through the desert, but more than that, I can’t say. I watched it as long as the light lasted, but I could make out nothing more.”
“A caravan, perhaps,” Opodartho suggested.
“It isn’t likely to be a caravan,” Onek Mangsho said, “I have never heard of a caravan route out there in the desert in that direction. Perhaps it was just the sun heating the air and making it dance. Come and lie down between us now. It’s cold and you must be as desperate for rest as we are.”
He was quite right about that, but the touch of his body as he wrapped his limbs around mine aroused certain instincts in me that kindled a fire between my legs. But before I could do anything about it, a soft snore above my head told me that I would be wasting my time. Opodartho, meanwhile, had already fallen asleep, snuggled against my back. Disgruntled, I lay awake for a long time, the desire in my belly unwilling to fade away. Finally, halfway through the night, I fell asleep.
I was woken by a hand clamped over my mouth. It was a familiar hand, the skin rough and calloused, so unlike my own delicate appendages. I tried to pull my head away, to ask Opodartho what she wanted, but she clamped down all the harder.
“Don’t make a noise,” she murmured in my ear. “Lie very still.”
I blinked my eyes open, but could see nothing. The fire had long since gone out, and the night was very dark.
“What –” I tried to say, though all that came out past Opodartho’s hand was a murmur.
“Shh!” It was Onek Mangsho. “Keep quiet, can’t you.”
At that moment I heard, very close, the unmistakable noise of footsteps – the scrape of leather on rock, and then the clink of metal on stone. Someone cursed softly.
“Faster,” a voice urged. “Don’t dawdle so much.”
“Easy for you to say, Marattok Markhabey,” someone else grumbled. “You aren’t the one feeling your way among these rocks and about to break your neck.”
They were so close now that I could smell them – the stink of dried sweat and something else, a tangy odour familiar to me but which I couldn’t for the moment name.
A shadow, the outline of a head and shoulders, briefly occluded a few dim stars on the horizon. “I’ll break your neck myself if you don’t get a move on,” the first voice said. “They’re getting further away from us at every moment while you stumble around like a cave mole in the sun.”
“I’m doing my best, Marattok Markhabey,” the second voice said, still whining. The footsteps scarped on the rock, and paused momentarily. “Wait.”
“What’s wrong?” Marattok Markhabey asked impatiently. “You’re getting on my nerves, Obikol Olombush.”
“I thought I saw something,” Obikol Olombush replied. His scent filled my nose, the dried sweat and the other, tangy odour. I now remembered where I’d come across it before – it was one of those that lay heavy in the air of the spice markets of Golmal Galagali. “Something moved.”
“Only in your head,” Marattok Markhabey snapped. “You’re looking for excuses to slack off, as usual.”
“What’s the delay?” someone else asked, from a little further away. “Get a move on, can’t you?”
“It’s nothing, Uronto Uipoka,” Marattok Markhabey replied hurriedly. I had to suppress a start at the name; it was, of course, the Governor of Golmal Galagali’s right hand man, who had impressed me so disagreeably when we were in the town. “One of our men fancied he saw something, that’s all.”
“Stop wasting time on shadows,” Uronto Uipoka called. “If we don’t catch these vermin the Governor will flay the skin from our backs.”
“And if he catches us,” Onek Mangsho said, when the men had finally passed us by and disappeared into the night, “it’s going to be our skin he flays, depend on it.”
I let out the breath that I’d long since forgotten that I’d been holding. “We should leave now,” I said, as Opodartho drew her rough peasant hand off my mouth, “and make what distance we can before daylight, Lord.”
Not even Opodartho could argue with that. “We can’t go to the north, though,” she pointed out. “Uronto Uipoka and his men have gone that way. And to the south there lies Golmal Galagali. And if we go to the east, the rising sun might betray us to them. So it’s only the west that’s left to us.”
It was the darkest hour of the night when we left the shelter of the rocks. We tried to move as silently as possible, with my Lord at first holding up his spears so that the shafts might not strike a rock and perhaps give us away. From time to time we’d stop and listen for any noise of pursuit, but except for the sound of our own footsteps, there was nothing.
“I wonder how many different sets of people are hunting us now,” Opodartho observed after a while. “There’s the lot from our old village, of course, who’ll never forgive us for escaping. I’m certain the Babbling Balladeer of Bãkano Bodhojom will also be seeking high and low for us after Chheechkaduni ruined his best musical instrument trying to play it. And then the cohorts of the Cavilling Cavalier of Chebano Choshma, where, you’ll remember Chheechkaduni got drunk and challenged the Cavalier’s lady to single combat, will still be scouring the land for us. And rest assured that the Dribbling Devil of Drishtihin Dhikkar will still be hungering for revenge after Chheechkaduni knocked over and broke his priceless crystal...”
“All right, I get the idea,” I snapped. “Chheechkaduni is responsible for everything. She’s guilty of all the things that have gone wrong with us, ever. There’s no need to go on and on to make your point.”
“Shut up, both of you,” Onek Mangsho said. “Save your breath for walking, not pointless squabbling.”
It was hardly “pointless squabbling” to defend myself against the shameless hussy’s canards, but we did need our breath because the going was getting harder, the ground stony and broken. Suddenly my Lord, who was in the lead, stopped, raising a hand.
“Can you see something there?” he asked, pointing. “Or is it merely my imagination that I can see flames in the distance?”
At first I did not know what he was referring to, and then I saw a dim flicker in the distance, as of a fire which had momentarily flared up. “I see it,” I said, pointing. “There, over to the right.”
“Yes,” Opodartho agreed. “It seems to be the kind of fire a small camp might light, my Lord. Remember what Chheechkaduni said, that she’d seen movement over here before sunset?”
“It might be a group of travellers, then,” Onek Mangsho said. “They’d have halted for the night. We’d better hurry and see if we can get passage with them. The faster we’re away from these parts the better.”
“They’ll probably be leaving at dawn,” Opodartho said. “We’ll need to hurry as fast as we can.”
In all our time of travelling, I can recall little that was quite as exhausting as that scramble across the desert that followed. Much of the way was across exposed, fissured rock and tumbled boulders, among which were cracks that could snap an ankle like a twig if one were unlucky. And between them were depressions which had filled with windblown sand so soft that our feet sank up to our ankles, and our leg muscles screamed with protest as we waded across them, wishing we could stop to rest and grimly aware that we could not.
“It’s getting lighter,” I said once, glancing over my shoulder. “How far is the fire?”
“I can’t see it any longer,” my Lord replied. “It might be simply that there are rocks between us and it, or...”
He never finished. Dark shapes seemed to flow out of the shadows all around us. Something slammed me in the chest, and the next instant I found myself sitting down, pressed back against a rock by a knee in my chest, and with a blade at my throat.
“Don’t move,” someone said in the trade dialect of the caravans, and pressed hard enough for me to feel the edge of the metal. “Don’t even breathe hard, or I’ll cut your head off.”
There was, of course, nothing I could do. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Opodartho and Onek Mangsho, pinned to boulders just as I was. I felt a hand on my body, searching, and in a moment my beloved long knife was eased out of its place.
“Do you have any other weapons?” the person pressing me back asked. “If you do, tell me now, because if I find one on you later, I won’t kill you. What I’ll do to you will be much worse than that.”
“No,” I whispered. The knee digging between my breasts made it hard for me to breathe, let alone talk. “I have no other weapons.”
“For your sake you had better be telling the truth.” The pressure of the blade at my throat eased slightly. “I’ll let you get up now, but don’t try to run. You won’t get far.”
Gasping for air, I got to my feet. At once my wrists were seized and pulled behind me, to be tied tight by what felt like leather thongs. I briefly saw my Lord and Opodartho, having the same thing done to them. Our captors thrust us together.
“Follow me.” From the voice, it was the one who’d been kneeling on me. “Don’t try to talk to each other and don’t try to escape. We’re all around you.”
It was still far too dark to make out anything clearly, and all I could see was that our captors seemed to be covered in dark cloaks that hid their forms so completely that they all looked alike. I couldn’t even tell how many of them there were – seven or eight, perhaps.
I felt a shove in the small of my back, hard enough to send me stumbling a few paces. “Move. What are you waiting for?”
Onek Mangsho and Opodartho had already begun walking, without waiting to be pushed, and I followed them. It wasn’t the first time I’d walked with my hands tied – I only have to mention the horrible episode of the Cantankerous Curmudgeon of Komboler Karkhana, who had held us prisoner under such onerous circumstances – but I’d never had to stumble through rocky desert in the dark with them secured. Within moments I’d already lost balance and fallen once, and would have a second time if Opodartho hadn’t been in the way.
“This one is awfully clumsy, Ukuner Upodrob,” the one who had shoved me called. “She’ll slow us down. Maybe we should just cut her throat and leave her here.”
Before I could even voice my outrage at this calumny – how dare anyone call me clumsy, and not that coarse peasant Opodartho, who had all the grace of a pregnant pangolin from Poishar Prosthan? – the one who had been kneeling on me turned. “Not yet. There won’t be any killing until we’ve got a chance to talk properly to them.”
“And then we can eat them?” the one who had called me clumsy asked hopefully. “At least let’s eat this one. She’s meaty enough to last for a meal or three.”
Ukuner Upodrob didn’t reply, just motioned us onward. We were still going west, and now came out of the rocks and again into the open. The plain was rocky and fissured, and not much easier going than it had been before, but it was light enough now that I could see a little better and didn’t stumble quite so much anymore.
Only now could I find some time to think, and wonder who these people were. Obviously they weren’t Uronto Uipoka’s people, for they would have taken us back south, towards Golmal Galagali, not west. Besides, from what they’d said so far, I’d got the idea that they weren’t certain who we were and where we’d come from. But they didn’t seem any less dangerous than the Governor’s men, and –
“We’ll stop here for the day,” Ukuner Upodrob announced, pointing. I realised that what I’d taken for a dark smudge of lingering darkness was a hollow in the ground, as though the Cannibal Spirit had pressed one of His thumbs into the desert. “Nobody will be able to see us once we’re inside.”
I’d have liked to have had a look around before we went down into that hole, since one thing our travels had taught me was that one had to always know which way to run if one could escape from a bad situation; but all that this earned me was a blow across the shoulders with the butt of Onek Mangsho’s light spear, which the one who’d wanted to eat me was carrying. “Get in!”
Though the sky above was lightening by the moment, at the bottom of the hole it was still quite dark, and everyone, including our captors, had to pick their way. Then we reached a flattish place in the middle, which seemed to satisfy Ukuner Upodrob.
“All right,” she said, turning to us. “Now who sent you to follow us?”
She? But then I realised that I’d known it from the start, from her voice and the way she moved. In fact, I suddenly knew that they were all women. And then she confirmed it by removing the cloth over her face, revealing herself to be not just female but rather striking. In fact, I’ll even admit that she was almost as beautiful as I am. Not quite, of course, but almost.
“Well?” she demanded. “I’m waiting for an answer.”
Onek Mangsho and Opodartho seemed to have deduced it for themselves, for neither of them showed any surprise. “Nobody sent us,” my Lord said.
“We weren’t following you,” Opodartho added.
“You’re both lying.” She turned from one of us to another, looking us over from head to foot. Whatever she saw didn’t seem to make her happy. “You’re obviously warriors, you were armed to the teeth, and we’ve been watching you since yesterday afternoon. You thought you could sneak up on us in the dark, didn’t you?” She turned to me. “You. You tell me. Who’s paying you?”
“Nobody’s paying...” I got no further before a blow to the back drove me to my knees.
“When Ukuner Upodrob asks you a question,” the one who’d wanted to eat me said, “she expects a proper answer.”
“That’ll do, Mochkano Merudondo.” Ukuner Upodrob held up a hand. She stood with her hands on her hips looking down at me. “Now, whatever your name is...”
“Irshar Itihash,” I said. It was, of course, not the name by which I’d been known on Golmal Galagali. “And these are...”
“I will ask them myself who they are, when I wish to know.” Ukuner Upodrob kicked at a pebble, sending it rolling past my knee. “No, you tell me, who is it who employed you? And you were planning to kill us, weren’t you?”
“We didn’t even know you were there,” I protested.
“A likely story,” Mochkano Merudondo jeered. “Ukuner Upodrob, we’re thirsty and hungry, so let’s kill this one and drink her blood, and then we can eat her. What do you say?”
I am, of course, the calmest and most restrained of women, but at that moment I developed an acute and sudden dislike for Mochkano Merudondo, even though I’d yet to see her face. “I’d poison you if you try,” I said.
Ukuner Upodrob snorted. “Don’t make threats you can’t keep.” She turned to Onek Mangsho. “And what have you got to say for yourself?”
“Exactly what Irshar Itihash told you,” my Lord replied. “We didn’t even know you were there. We are simply travellers, passing through the desert.”
“Travellers, indeed.” Ukuner Upodrob laughed. “Travellers move through the desert in the dead of night, following the tracks of people like us, do they? Do they go about in small, heavily armed bands of obviously experienced warriors?”
“Even travellers need to look to their own security,” Opodartho said. “You should know that.”
Ukuner Upodrob tapped her lips with her forefinger. “All right,” she said. “So you were travellers in the desert. Where were you travelling to?”
My mind went blank for a moment, but fortunately she wasn’t looking at me. Equally fortunately, Opodartho’s slow brain came by one of its momentary sparks of inspiration. “We’re on our way to Ghrinar Ghurnijhor,” she said.
“Ghrinar Ghurnijhor.” Ukuner Upodrob and Mochkano Merudondo glanced at each other. “Never have we heard of this place.”
This was, naturally, not surprising, but Onek Mangsho picked up the story. “It’s a fortress across the desert to the west,” he said. “It was abandoned for a long time, but the High Monk of the Cannibal Spirit has decreed that it be revived.”
“Is that so? And...” Ukuner Upodrob turned suddenly to me. “What were you going to do there?”
My mouth began talking before my mind had consciously decided on an answer. “We were going there to hire ourselves out as mercenaries. A place like that has need of protection from...”
“...from desert bandits like ourselves,” Ukuner Upodrob finished. “I knew you were warriors.” For some reason, she relaxed slightly. “If you’d said you were merchants or something I’d have known you were lying. And are you expected there?”
“Yes, we are,” Opodartho said quickly. “The governor, Shompurno Shajano, had specifically sent a message asking for us to join him.”
“Hmmm...” Ukuner Upodrob thought over what we’d told her. “This certainly is interesting information.”
Opodartho and I shared a quick glance. We’d hoped that they’d have let us go at the mention of the governor, for the wrath of such a personage was not something to be lightly risked, as we ourselves had discovered. But Ukuner Upodrob was showing no signs of doing any such thing. What were they planning for us?
“So what do we do with them, Ukuner Upodrob?” Mochkano Merudondo asked, on cue. “Should we just slaughter them and move on?”
Ukuner Upodrob looked us over and shook her head. “Wait. What are you two called?”
“I am Bedonajonok Bhimrul,” Onek Mangsho informed her. “This lady here is Kothor Konkal. Irshar Itihash you already know.”
“All right,” Ukuner Upodrob said, having apparently come to a decision. “We have a clear choice. One, we cut your throats right away, and use you for food...” She paused to let Mochkano Merudondo stop cheering. “Or, you offer us something to make it worth our keeping you alive.”
There was a brief silence. It was Opodartho who broke it. “You’re fugitives yourselves,” she said. “It’s more than obvious that you’re filled with fear of enemies, and that you know that sooner or later they’ll track you down.”
Mochkano Merudondo hissed in anger, but Ukuner Upodrob raised a hand. “Let her talk.”
“What we can offer you is something more than you could ever hope to obtain otherwise,” Opodartho went on. “It’s certainly more than the few miserable meals you might get out of our bodies. We can offer you nothing less than the fortress of Ghrinar Ghurnijhor itself.”
Ukuner Upodrob stared. “Tell me. How are you going to give me the fortress?”
“The governor is expecting us, as we said. What would be more natural that we arrive at the head of a band of other, equally capable, mercenaries? And once we’re inside the place...”
“Yes, I see.” Ukuner Upodrob nodded. “A fortress is certainly something we would certainly love to take over. All right...you can live, at least for now.” She signalled, and I was pulled to my feet. Someone fumbled behind my back, and the ropes finally fell away. I tried to massage my hands, but my fingers were numb. “Don’t make the mistake of imagining that we trust you, though.”
“I’ve got my eye on you, especially,” Mochkano Merudondo informed me. She took off her face-cloth, revealing a visage even uglier, if that was possible, than Opodartho’s. No wonder, I thought with a twinge of sympathy, that she was so vile-tempered, with looks like that. “Sooner or later, you’ll put a toe-tip wrong, and that’s all I’ll need.”
“You’d better be fast then,” I told her. “You’ll need to be, or I’ll rip off your face and feed it to you.” It was probably immature, but I felt better for saying it.
Mochkano Merudondo glared at me and was about to say something when Ukuner Upodrob called her. The two of them moved off to the other end of the hollow, talking, the ugly woman gesturing furiously. Onek Mangsho and Opodartho came over to me.
“Well, Irshar Itihasah,” my Lord said heartily. “It looks like we’ve got a good opportunity to make a new start with these friends of ours.”
“Yes, Lord...” I tried to remember what name he’d given himself. For some reason, it refused to come to me. “Lord...”
“Bedonajonok Bhimrul,” Opodartho put in quickly. “My husband’s name is Bedonajonok Bhimrul, Lady Irshar Itihash. I forgot that I’d not introduced you properly when I’d recruited you to our band.”
The hussy was brazenly making an attempt to claim Onek Mangsho for herself! I wished I could throw myself on her to avenge this insult, but I could not even protest verbally, what with the bandits around. I merely contented myself with glaring at her, which, of course, she ignored.
“Kothor Konkal,” Onek Mangsho said, “let’s rest while we can. There’s a long walk to Ghrinar Ghurnijhor.”
We sat down with our backs against a largish boulder. A couple of bandits sat down opposite us. One took out a short curved knife and began sharpening it on a stone, staring at us menacingly, but this was the kind of thing we’d long since grown accustomed to in the course of our adventures. The previous night’s lack of sleep began to catch up with me, pulling at my eyelids. Yawning, I turned to Onek Mangsho, only to find he was already fast asleep, with Opodartho’s own slumbering head on his shoulder and her arm twined around his. The shaft of jealousy this sent through me served to wake me up for a while, and I tried to think of a way to put Opodartho in her place. But I still hadn’t come up with a plan by the time I fell asleep.
It was almost dark when I woke. The bandits were sitting together with Opodartho and Onek Mangsho, eating. When my Lord saw that I was awake, he called me over.
“Feed Irshar Itihash too, Ukuner Upodrob,” he said.
Ukuner Upodrob nodded to Mochkano Merudondo, who brought out some rough dry bread and a couple of strips of meat from a bag. “She should be in our bellies,” she grumbled. “Instead, our food is going into hers.”
“Hush,” Ukuner Upodrob said, and resumed what was apparently an interrupted conversation with my Lord and Opodartho. “You say you know the way to Ghrinar Ghurnijhor?”
“We have detailed instructions,” Onek Mangsho said evasively. “It will take several days to get there, even travelling without a break.
“Not to mention which,” Opodartho added, “we will have to cross the Chasm of Chondaler Chokkhusthir, which is – as you must have heard – deep and dangerous. It will not be an easy journey.”
“In that case,” Mochkano Merudondo said, “we should first replenish our stocks. They’re almost exhausted.”
“But where?” one of the other bandits asked. It was the one who had been ostentatiously sharpening her knife when we were trying to sleep. “We’re hunted almost everywhere around here. They’ll be on guard, and there aren’t many of us left.”
“There must be settlements to the west, on the way to the fortress, Tibrogoti Kochchop,” Ukuner Upodrob told her. “I’d myself been thinking of raiding in that direction. We’ll attack any we come across.”
“And what if we don’t find any?” Tibrogoti Kochchop asked.
“Then,” Mochkano Merudondo put in, “I know where I’ll find food for us all.” And, to nobody’s surprise, she stared right at me.
“I must say I hadn’t expected this,” Onek Mansho muttered as we moved off into the freshening evening darkness. The bandits had spread out on either side, and for a brief moment the three of us were alone. “If they’d tried to attack one of the nearby towns we might have been able to get away in the fighting, but I’m afraid we’re in for the long haul now.”
“Do you think that if there was such a fortress and we helped them take it over, they’d let us live?” I asked curiously.
Opodartho snorted with laughter. “Your friend Mochkano Merudondo would celebrate the victory with a meal of your heart, Chheechkaduni.”
“Here she comes now,” Onek Mangsho said warningly. The dark shape of the bandit loomed up near us. “So, tell us about your previous fighting experience, Irshar Itihash,” he said loudly. “I heard you were at the Battle of Jholshano Judhdho. It must have been a terrific conflict.”
“Yes, my lord Bedonajonok Bhimrul.” I am, of course, a skilled raconteur, unlike a slab-brained peasant woman I could mention, and this was precisely the kind of story I can tell well, where my fertile imagination and keen tongue have free rein. “I was serving in the troop of the mercenary leader General Polatok Palowan. As you know, he had been hired by the monks of the Monastery of Mulyohin Mithye to defend their territory against the depredations of the Despot of Doshbar Digbaji. We’d just got to the monastery when we got news that the Despot’s army was on the march, so – stopping only long enough for a swig of wine and a hunk of meat apiece – we set out again to block their advance. It was the middle of the night, and even darker than this, so...”
I kept talking as we walked on through the night, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Mochkano Merudondo, keeping well within earshot.
It was strange, but despite all my imaginative and skilful storytelling, I had the distinct impression that she was the only one who was actually listening to me.
It was sometime late the next night, our second spent walking into the desert, that the scout Ununer Upodrob had sent out ahead came hurrying back. The bandits quickly gathered together to listen.
“There’s a village up ahead,” the scout said. “I saw the buildings, but didn’t get close enough to make out anything more.”
The scout hesitated. “There’s something strange about the place,” she said. “Something about it set off my sixth sense. I wanted to run away from it, not go in.”
I’d expected these hardened desert bandits to laugh at the idea of a “sixth sense”, but apparently they took these things seriously. Nobody even sniggered.
“Perhaps we should bypass it and move on,” Tibrogoti Kochchop suggested. “If it’s an evil place...” Opodartho jabbed me in the side as I involuntarily sniggered at the word ‘evil’ dropping from the lips of such as these. “If it’s an evil place,” Tibrogoti Kochchop continued, “we would be well advised to leave it alone.”
“Can’t be done,” Mochkano Merudondo said. “We have only a couple of days’ food and water left. If we don’t stock up now, we might as well abandon the whole idea of going to Ghrinar Ghurnijhor. We’d starve in the desert.”
“Why don’t you simply buy food and water from them?” I suggested. “That way you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Mochkano Merudondo stared at me, her eyes white in the night. “Do you even have any idea of the cost of food and water here in the desert? We don’t have enough money to pay for the amount we’d need. How were you all going to get through the trip, anyway? We didn’t find any money on you.”
“They were planning to cut the throats of anyone they met, I’m sure,” Tibrogoti Kochchop said. “They just call themselves mercenaries and us bandits, but they’re the same under the surface.”
“That’s all very well,” the scout put in, “but what are we going to do?”
Everyone looked at Ukuner Upodrob, who so far had not said a word. She tapped her teeth with a fingernail, and seemed to be in deep thought. Finally she nodded.
“We can’t continue further without food and water, that’s true enough,” she said. “Nor can we just walk into danger by attacking that village without knowing what it is that scared Jongoler Jolohosti. So there’s only one choice left – we’re going to have to send a couple of spies to go in and find out what’s wrong.”
“I’m not going,” the scout, Jongoler Jolohosti, said instantly. “I’m willing to do anything else, but I’m not going in there for anything.”
“I’m not asking you to,” Ukuner Upodrob said. “I wouldn’t risk the lives of anyone in the troop unnecessarily. Luckily, though, we have options now.”
Opodartho, Onek Mangsho, and I exchanged glances. Even though we could barely see each other in the darkness, we all knew what options she was talking about.
“There it is,” Jongoler Jolohosti said, pointing. She’d come with us this far with great reluctance, and only because she was the only one who knew where the village was. “You two go on from here; I’m not moving another step.”
Opodartho and I looked at the village. In the first light there didn’t seem to be anything special about it – surrounded by a low wall of earthen bricks, it looked like any of a hundred others in this country. Even Golmal Galagali had looked much the same.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “It looks like any other desert village to me.”
“Can’t you feel it?” the scout replied. “No, of course you can’t. If you did, you’d never go in there.”
“Feel what?” I asked. “Can you explain what you’re talking about? Is there something specific?”
“No,” Jongoler Jolohosti said. “It’s nothing one can name, but I long ago learnt to trust my instincts. If not, I’d have been dead many times over. There is something very wrong with that place.” She hesitated. “If you want to run away, you can. I won’t say a word.”
“We won’t leave Bedonajonok Bhimrul at your group’s mercy,” Opodartho told her. “Did you forget that Ukuner Upodrob is holding him hostage?”
“Do you really think that she’s going to let you go free, whatever you do?” Jongoler Jolohosti asked. “Surely you aren’t as naive as that.”
I realised that the bandit was actually trying to be good to us. “We won’t run away,” I said. “Maybe afterwards we can find a way out. But we won’t leave Bedonajonok Bhimrul in the lurch. He does mean a lot to us.”
“Suit yourselves,” Jongoler Jolohosti said grumpily. “I’ll wait here for the rest of the troop to catch up. Don’t forget, if you aren’t back by nightfall, we’ll assume you’ve been killed or run away, and the result will be the same for the man.”
“We’ll be back,” I said, abruptly losing all sympathy for her. “Don’t worry about us.”
Opodartho had already started walking towards the village, and I hurried to catch up. “Don’t forget, we’re merchants, separated from our caravan,” she said. “We just want to rest and recuperate a little before we move on and find our fellow travellers.” It was a cover we’d used many times before, usually successfully.
“I hope they don’t hurt our Lord while we’re away,” I said. There was something nagging me, something someone had said, which I had wanted to ask Opodartho about, but I’d forgotten. “He’s alone and there are six of them.”
“Hurt him?” Opodartho laughed shortly. “Did you see the way Ukuner Upodrob was looking at him? Hurting him was the last thing on her mind. Why do you think she kept him as a hostage, instead of you or me?”
“Can you see a gate?” I asked, to take my mind off the mental image this roused, of what was probably going on behind us. No wonder the main group of bandits was taking its time. I wanted to ask what we’d do if Onek Mangsho decided that Ukuner Upodrob and her women were preferable to the two of us, but if I did, Opodartho would likely accuse me of disloyalty. “Where’s the gate?”
“There,” Opodartho said, pointing. It was a small affair, just a door set in the wall. “There’s no guard.”
“That’s good for us, isn’t it?” A thought struck me. “Perhaps they have nothing to steal.”
“They’d still want to protect themselves against dire lions and hungry bandits,” Opodartho said. “I wish we could have persuaded Ukuner Upodrob to return some of our weapons.”
“If you’re right about Onek Mangsho and Ukuner Upodrob,” I said, “maybe she won’t mind if something happens to us because we don’t have any weapons.”
We came to the gate. It was even smaller than it had looked like from a distance, and wasn’t even locked or barred. Opodartho and I peered inside cautiously at first, expecting we didn’t know what – perhaps corpses lying in the streets, bloated with plague, or an army waiting for us with levelled spears. But it was just like any other street in any other village, still empty at this hour of the morning. The only strange thing was the open gate and the absence of guards.
We walked into the village. From somewhere close by, a door creaked open, and someone said something. As though it was a signal, other doors and windows started being thrown open, and people began coming out of their houses, some still yawning and rubbing their eyes. A couple of them glanced at us curiously, but nobody made any move to approach us.
“It looks like any other village to me,” I said. “Let’s walk through the streets a couple of times, and if there’s nothing out of the ordinary, we can go back.”
“There’s one thing strange about it,” Opodartho replied. We had just reached the central square of the village, which was, like many others of its kind, fitted out as a market. At this hour, of course, it was still deserted. “How many villages and towns have we seen in our travels – hundreds, right? Do you remember even a single one which did not have any guards at the gate or patrolling the streets, even if they were not in the middle of a desert crawling with bandits?”
I thought about it and shook my head. “When you put it that way...”
“Ladies,” a voice behind us said. “If you would be so kind as to spare a moment, I’d like to talk to you.”
We turned. The man standing behind us had come up so silently even my sharp ears hadn’t picked up a sound. I wondered how long he’d been behind us and how much, if anything, he’d overheard. “Yes?” Opodartho asked.
“I’m called Digbidig Gyanshunyo. I am the assistant to the chief of this village.” He was dressed in a yellow and pink robe, and had a deeply lined face, thin white hair and deep-sunken eyes. He must have been all of forty years old, perhaps more. “I apologise for not meeting you earlier, but we seldom have visitors so early in the morning.” He made a small bow, little more than an inclination of his head. “Or such pretty ones, to tell the truth.”
“Thank you,” Opodartho said. She introduced ourselves, using the same names as we’d given the bandits. “We were separated from our caravan, and found your village while trying to rejoin it.”
“Ah. Not many caravans pass this way, so you were fortunate.” Digbidig Gyanshunyo gestured with one robed arm. “Please come along. The hospitality of Astaboler Artonad is yours, for as long as you want it.”
“Is that the name of this village?” I asked casually.
“Yes, indeed, Lady Irshar Itihash. It’s not a large village, but it’s a good, prosperous one.” Digbidig Gyanshunyo led us into one of the houses. “I am sure you would like to freshen yourselves up, and perhaps rest a while. You will be exhausted after wandering in the desert.”
“Thank you.” Oppodartho smiled at him. “You said you were the assistant to the chief. Where is he?”
“He is indisposed at the moment.” Digbidig Gyanshunyo gestured to us to enter one of the rooms. It was dark and shadowed, with a low bed in the middle and thick hangings on the walls. “He will meet you later, if he is better. In the meantime, I’ll have food brought to you.”
As soon as he’d left, Opodartho casually went to one wall, running her fingers along the drapes. “It’s lovely fabric,” she said. “It seems a nice, clean village, Irshar Itihash. We’re lucky we found it while wandering the desert.”
I thought the trollop had finally gone insane. Never before had I known her to take any great interest in such things as ornamental wall hangings. But then she never was particularly stable. I watched as she made a complete circuit of the room, and was just about to say something when Digbidig Gyanshunyo returned, along with a young woman bearing a tray.
“Here’s food and drink for you,” he said, smiling. “This young lady here, Mostishkoheen Murgi, will get you anything you might need.”
“Thank you very much,” I said, watching the girl set the tray down on a small table next to the bed. It contained a stone jar of water, vessels for drinking, and a couple of plates heaped with strips of meat and dried fruit. “We will be on our way when we’ve rested and refreshed ourselves.”
“The chief will want to meet you before you go,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo said. “I told him about your coming. He at once said that the very thought of meeting someone from outside filled him with happiness, and he couldn’t possibly deprive himself of the pleasure of your acquaintance.”
“That’s nice of him.” I sipped some of the water, aware that the girl, Mostishkoheen Murgi, was watching intently. It was surprisingly cool, as though it had been brought up from deep wells like those we had seen in the Grotto of Gobhir Gohobbor, where I had for the first, and hopefully last, time in my life fallen into the liquid over my head. Sometimes I still dream of that terrible sensation – and the agony that ended it, as Opodartho reached in and dragged me out by my hair. “You don’t get a lot of visitors, I assume?”
“No, I’m afraid you’re the first in a long time,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo replied. “Except, of course, for the occasional traders, but they’re hardly visitors, if you know what I mean.”
I chewed at one of the fruit. It was leathery and faintly sweet. I’d never had anything like this before. “You aren’t eating, Digbidig Gyanshunyo?” I asked, to be polite.
“I’m not hungry, lady,” he said, taking a fruit and putting it back again. “How about you?” he asked Opodartho. “You aren’t eating either.”
“Is this your house?” Opodartho asked right back, with a bright smile. “It’s very nice.”
“Well, no, it’s not mine. We keep it for visitors.” Digbidig Gyanshunyo indicated the girl. “Mostishkoheen Murgi takes care of guests, when we have any.”
“She can’t have much to do, since you said you don’t have many visitors,” Opodartho said. “When did you last have visitors here?”
“Two moons...three,” Mostishkoheen Murgi muttered. She had a voice that was low and thick, as though she had something stuck in her throat. “It was a man, but he didn’t stay long.”
“Did the chief meet him, as well?” Opodartho asked for some reason. It was a strange question to ask, it seemed to me. As guests, even under false pretences, what did it matter to us whom the chief may or may not have met? But then tact and courtesy were unknown things where Opodartho was concerned.
“The chief loves meeting visitors,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo responded to the question, ill-mannered though it might have been. “He never lets one depart unmet, and each time he seems rejuvenated and filled with happiness and energy after the meeting. Meeting you, I am sure, will give him immense joy and happiness.”
“He’s quite old, then?”
“Yes, quite old,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo said. “Aren’t you hungry, Lady Kothor Konkal?”
“I’m too tired to feel like eating,” Opodartho said. “Just leave the food here, and I’ll eat as soon as I’m rested a while.”
I gnawed at another fruit. I’d have loved to eat more, but I didn’t want to look like a starving gourmand in front of Opodartho. Besides, I was beginning to feel drowsy, which was no surprise after the night’s march and the exertion of the last few days. Opodartho, too, yawned, though loudly and ostentatiously like the peasant she was, not discreetly like a woman of refinement such as me.
“I’ll leave you to rest,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo said. “If you need anything, just let Mostishkoheen Murgi know. She’s there to serve you in any way you want.”
I glanced at Mostishkoheen Murgi. She did not look too eager to serve us in any way whatsoever. “Just call if you need something,” she muttered. “I’ll come, if I’m not doing something else.”
“That’s no way to talk to guests,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo snapped. “I’ve told you before to behave yourself around them. Otherwise we may have to do something about you.”
Mostishkoheen Murgi directed a savage glare at his turned back. I was struck again by what a coarse, ill mannered young woman she was. Digbidig Gyanshunyo would have been better off with someone better-natured. But I was feeling far too tired to have much energy left for sympathy.
As soon as he’d gone, the girl following behind, I lay down on the bed. “I’ll try and sleep a while,” I said. “I haven’t had a bed to lie on since we left...” Some random impulse kept me from saying Golmal Galagali. “Since we left that town where we met,” I compromised.
“Neither have I,” Opodartho said. She looked at me strangely. “Are you feeling all right, Irshar Itihash?”
“Yes, why do you ask?” I yawned again. “I’m just a little sleepy that’s all.”
“All right, you sleep it off.” I thought I heard her mutter something about it being lucky I’d only had a couple of pieces of fruit, but I was too sleepy to care. The last I saw of her, she was sitting on the bed, looking at the drapery on the wall. I dreamt of Onek Mangsho and Ukuner Upodrob, twined around each other, and of Mochkano Merudondo, pointing at me and laughing. When I went to punish them as they deserved, I discovered that my arms and legs were tied with pink and yellow ropes, the exact colour of Digbodig Gyanshunyo’s clothes.
When I woke, Opodartho seemed to be sitting exactly as I’d last seen her. She glanced at me. “I was beginning to think you’d never wake up. But you were snoring loud enough for me to know you were all right.”
“All right?” I repeated. “Did something happen to make you think I wouldn’t be?”
She shook her head impatiently. “It’s not the time for something to happen yet, obviously, or it would have already.” I didn’t understand what she meant by that, but she didn’t give me the chance to ask. “It’s almost evening,” she said.
“We’d better get going, then,” I replied. “We’ve got to find our, er, travelling companions. They’ll be worried about us.”
“Get going?” Opodartho repeated. “Yes, we’d better get going – if we can. Our hosts don’t seem to be eager to let us go.”
“Huh?” I blinked and rubbed my eyes. “What do you mean?”
Opodartho nodded at the entrance. “Try the door and see.”
I tried the door. It didn’t open. I tried it again.
“Should I call for Mostoshkoheen Murgi?” I asked, looking back over my shoulder at Opodartho.
“There’s no need for that.” The door had opened silently while I was still looking at her, and Digbidig Gyanshunyo stood at my elbow. “Our chief would like to meet you now.”
“That’s fine,” Opodartho said, rising from the bed. “We were just about to leave.”
“Well, you can do that, just as soon as you’ve met him.” Digbidig Gyanshunyo smiled engagingly. He looked over my shoulder at Opodartho and down at the table. “He will be glad to see you decided to partake of his hospitality.”
“What?” I asked, and followed the line of his sight, only to find the plate of food almost empty. Opodartho, the glutton, must have been stuffing herself while I was asleep. It was just like her.
“Yes,” she replied, sweetly and shamelessly. “It was very good.”
For some reason Digbidig Gyanshunyo seemed a little nonplussed. “The chief is waiting for you now,” he said. “He’s eager to meet you, and no wonder. After all, this is his only pleasure.”
“All right, then,” Opodartho said. “Let’s go meet him, then.”
“I’m afraid he’s only got a limited amount of energy, enough to see one of you ladies at a time,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo told her. “He informed me that he wants to meet Lady Irshar Itihash first.”
My mind was still hung over with sleep, but not so much that I neglected to direct a triumphant glance at Opodartho. The chief, going just by the description of my charms alone, had chosen me over her. Obviously, this was a victory for me.
Opodartho didn’t seem to be put out, though. “Mind you don’t take too long,” she said. “We’d like to get as far as we can through the desert tonight, while it’s still cool. We’re supposed to meet our travelling companions tomorrow.”
“Where are you planning on meeting your companions?” Digbidig Gyanshunyo asked me, as we came down to the street. The sun was still up but it was quite cool, and there were many people outside. Most of them stared at me, which is, of course, natural, seeing how beautiful I am, but I was still feeling far too tired to fully savour their admiration. It was really very strange, how tired I felt, despite my day’s sleep. It was all I could do, to put one leg in front of another. “It’s a wide desert and there are few landmarks.”
This was, of course, not a welcome question, seeing that the assistant chief probably knew the desert around quite well and I knew it not at all. Pretending I hadn’t heard his question, I took a moment to adjust my travelling robe. “What’s the chief’s name?” I asked. “How long has he been chief?”
“He is called Oshomapto Ondhobishshash. He’s been chief for a very long time, and is likely to remain so for many years to come.” Digbidig Gyanshunyo stopped momentarily to speak to someone who was passing. While they talked, I looked around, remembering why Opodartho and I had come here in the first place. It still seemed a totally ordinary town, remarkable only because of the total absence of any signs of the inhabitants being able to defend themselves.
“Sorry about that,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo said, returning to my side. “An assistant chief, as you can well imagine, has many calls on his time.”
“Certainly,” I said. “Out here in the desert, don’t you have problems with dire lions or other dangerous beasts?”
“No – they don’t come into the town and we don’t have any reason to go out into the desert, especially at night, when they hunt.” He didn’t seem to feel it necessary to warn me about the dangers of wandering the desert at night. “We have never found any need for guards,” he added, anticipating my next question.
“Still,” I said, “you would likely attract robbers? This seems to be a fairly prosperous village.” Ukuner Upodrob would be happy with my report. Equally obviously, the scout was just full of ridiculous fancies. I found myself quite enjoying the prospect of telling them the village was ripe for the taking. “Surely you ,ust have been attacked by now?”
“We have been fortunate, by the grace of the Cannibal Spirit. However, we don’t need guards, never have, and I have excellent reasons to believe that we never will.” He saw somebody else he wanted to talk to, and waved. “Excuse me.”
While he was busy with his discussion, I glanced back once over my shoulder at the building where we’d spent the day, to make certain that I might be able to find it again. It was already quite far off, and the shadows were lengthening, but I thought I saw someone standing, arms crossed across her chest, outside the door of the room. It looked like Mostishkoheen Murgi, and it looked like she was staring after us.
I was certain it was only a trick of the light which made it appear as though she looked as though she wanted to warn me about something.
“This,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo said, “is the chief’s house.”
It was almost full dark already, mostly because this absurd exhaustion I felt made it impossible for me to walk with anything like my usual speed. Digbidig Gyanshunyo, however, didn’t seem to be particularly put out at my sluggishness. It was almost as though he was even mildly pleased at it, though why that should be I couldn’t begin to imagine. Once when I’d stumbled he’d even helped me up and held my elbow until I could find my footing securely again, though it delayed us not a little.
“It’s not what I expected,” I said. The house was right at the back of the village, so far back that behind it I could see the dim shape of the wall around the town. It was also a lot larger than the others – low and broad, with pillars supporting a domed roof. It was as though someone had visited the fabled great cities of the south, which Onek Mangsho had told us about, seen one of those ancient buildings there, and decided to copy it here in Astaboler Artonad. It looked so out of place that I almost expected soldiers in heavy armour and carrying hooked swords to stand guard outside, as in those fabled cities of the south.
There were, of course, no such guards. Digbidig Gyanshunyo casually pushed open a heavy door – it was studded with thick nails, the first sign of security I’d yet noticed – and ushered me inside. Perhaps it was only courtesy that made him draw the door shut again, and pull home a bolt.
“Wait here,” he said. “Oshomapto Ondhobishshash will be with you in a moment.”
We were in a square courtyard surrounded by pillared corridors. High above, supported by buttresses, was the hollow bulge of the dome, the interior thick with shadow. It would have been completely dark but for the torches set in holders all around the square.
“Where is he?” I asked, walking across the courtyard to a curious hump of stone which stood near one corner. It looked like a carved, truncated cone, as though someone had taken one of the intricately decorated pillars of the southern palaces this building resembled, cut off most of it, and brought what was left over here. I bent for a closer look at the carvings and reached out to touch them.
They were not carvings, and it was not stone.
The thing unfolded section by section. First, a long arm, stretching out and out, long, claw-tipped fingers reaching out from a withered grey hand. Then, the head, a skull covered by skin dry as the desert, atop a neck like a column of bone and sinew. I watched in fascination, unable even to step back, as it came upright on legs like stalks. Its head tilted on one side as it studied me, the torchlight flickering faintly on something glittering deep inside the twin caves of its sockets. It made a sound like the desert wind would, if the desert wind were capable of laughing.
“This is the chief, Oshomapto Ondhobishshash,” Digbidig Gyanshunyo said from where he was standing, near the door. “Won’t you greet him as a guest should, Lady Irshar Itihash?”
There was something in his voice I’d never heard before, something that was filled with exultation and ancient cruelty. Involuntarily, I turned to look at him. He was lounging against one of the pillars, and grinning.
“Now you know why we need no guards in this village, bitch,” he said. “And, also, why the chief becomes filled with energy again each time we have a visitor.”
At that moment the thing’s hands came down on my shoulders and began pulling me towards it. The strength in it was incredible, and utterly beyond my capability – in my exhausted state – to resist.
There was one thing I could still do, though, one thing I’d learnt long ago was vital to learn to do properly.
I could fall.
Even as the thing’s fingers ripped through my travelling robe, I’d already gone totally limp, and had let myself drop, rolling as I fell so that my arms could take the impact. I rolled, as quickly as I could, the ripped cloth of my robe tangling with my arms and flapping in my face. As though from very far away, I could still hear the thing wheezing, and, behind it, the exultant voice of Digbidig Gyanshunyo.
“Every drop of your agony,” he was shrieking, “will go to feed the chief, and to make our village safe and secure. Every single drop! Roll and dodge all you want, you won’t...”
And then he stopped, his words ending in a gasp.
Throwing a piece of torn robe out of my eyes, I looked up. Digbidig Gyanshunyo was still standing by the pillar, but swaying gently, clawing at his throat. Red blood pulsed all over his pink and yellow robe, over his hands, and down on the floor. He gasped again, and then fell, crashing down on to the ground. The haft of a knife protruded from his throat.
I was still staring at him, half-mesmerised, when the flickering torchlight was blocked out as a shadow fell over me...
I rolled over and looked up. The thing’s claws were reaching for my throat. Its mouth was a fang-studded pit. The glittering things in its sockets rolled, dimly gleaming. It hissed, and I could feel its enjoyment.
And then something struck it from behind, so hard that it went staggering over my head and fell in a welter of stick-thin limbs and leathery skin. It thrashed on the stone, unable for the moment to right itself, hissing. One of its flailing hands struck Digbidig Gyanshunyo, almost tearing his head off his shoulders. He stopped gasping.
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho yelled in my ear, as she yanked me to my feet. “Get going. We have no time to lose!”
Staggering, holding on to her for support, I ran.
I have no clear idea how we made it out of Astaboler Artonad. I seem to recall us hurrying through the streets, Opodartho supporting me all the while with an arm around mine. At times I thought someone else was also alongside us, holding on to my other arm, and some of the time this person was ahead of us, telling us which way to go.
At last my head cleared, and I found we were out in the desert, the walls of the town behind us. Opodartho let go of my arm, and I sank exhausted on to the ground.
She turned to our guide and companion, whom I now perceived was real, not a figment of my imagination. “Thank you, Mostishkoheen Murgi.”
The thick-bodied young woman shrugged. “Perhaps I should thank you. You cut him up good, as you promised?”
“Yes. Digbidig Gyanshunyo won’t be insulting you any longer. Won’t you get into trouble, though? People might get suspicious of you.”
“Nobody will suspect me.” The girl grinned suddenly, and revealed herself to be rather prettier than I’d imagined. “I’m only one step above a slave. Nobody thinks I’ve any brains or ability to think, let alone do anything involving planning. Don’t worry about me. Just go away and, for your own sakes, don’t come back.”
“We’ll do our best.” Opodartho hesitated a moment. “How long has this been going on? You know, your, uh, chief – that thing in there?”
“A very long time,” Mostishkoheen Murgi said. “It’s been a very, very long time, since before my mother was born, and maybe before her mother was, too. That’s why we hardly get any visitors anymore – the word’s gone out that anybody who enters this town never leaves again.”
“What happens if no visitors come for a while?” Opodartho asked.
Mostishkoheen Murgi had already turned to go back to the town, but paused a moment to answer over her shoulder. “What do you think? It...he...lives on agony, the pain he can draw out of his victims. The longer they last in their dying, the better for him. Why do you suppose nobody tried to warn you away? Everyone’s happy when there’s a visitor. It means they’ve been spared.”
“But you,” I said. “You helped us.”
Mostishkoheen Murgi glanced at me contemptuously. “Yes, because Digbidig Gyanshunyo pushed me too far this time. Not that you made it any easier for me.” Without a further word, she stalked off across the desert.
“What on earth did she mean by that?” I asked Opodartho, as we began walking away from the town. The cool night air was finally reviving me. My legs no longer felt like leaden weights, and my mind, too, began clearing.
“You don’t know?” Opodartho snorted. “That food they gave us was loaded with drugs to make us lethargic and docile. I’d have thought you had better sense than to eat it, but I couldn’t say anything in front of the two of them. Luckily you only had a couple of fruit. Didn’t you wonder why Digbidig Gyanshunyo was so insistent on us eating?”
“But you ate it too,” I protested. “I saw the plate was almost empty.”
“Ate it? Hardly. If Mostishkoheen Murgi does her job and cleans the room properly, she’ll find it all stashed under the bed. I had to put them off their guard.”
I didn’t say anything for a little while. “So how did you get her help anyway?” I asked eventually.
“I didn’t, not at first. I knew, of course, that something was wrong from the start. Why else do you think I felt the hangings in the room as soon as we first entered? I was looking for a hidden niche or doorway. But there wasn’t any, which meant that any danger would have to come through the door. So I sat up watching the door, while you slept. But nothing happened. And then I realised that whatever the danger was, it had to do with this mysterious chief who seemed so eager to meet us.” We climbed up a low ridge of rock. “When Digbidig Gyanshunyo said the chief wanted to meet us one by one, of course, I knew that you were in terrible danger. As soon as you left, I called Mostishkoheen Murgi and demanded her aid to rescue you. I’d been willing to bribe her, or to fight her if necessary, but it turned out that she was so filled with resentment that she was more than willing to help, as soon as she understood that my purpose was to kill Digbidig Gyanshunyo, not just to run away. Not only did she guide me, she even gave me the knife I used. And, even more luckily, she knew of the back way into the chief’s house. Apparently the front door was only for Digbidig Gyanshunyo and any victims he might bring along.”
I shivered. The night must have suddenly turned very cold. “Where are Ukuner Upodrob and her gang?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we have come across them by now? We must have passed the place where Jongoler Jolohosti said she’d wait.”
“Right here,” someone said at my very elbow. “Ukuner Upodrob and her gang are right here. But you won’t be for much longer.”
Even Opodartho, who hadn’t been drugged as I’d been, could not react fast enough. For the second time we found ourselves at the points of Ukuner Upodrob’s bandits.
“Playing us for fools, were you?” Mochkano Merudondo said elatedly. The point of the knife she held traced its way down between my breasts, just hard enough for me to feel it. “We’ve been waiting all day, while all you’d need is an hour or two for a look. And we’d just about decided you’d been killed, when you come wandering out, good as new.”
“Good as new?” I pointed at my torn travelling robe. “What about this?”
Mochkano Merudondo gurgled thick laughter. “You think we’d be taken in by such an obvious trick? You really should have cut yourself up a bit as well, dearie. Of course, even then we wouldn’t have believed a word.”
“Stop that,” Ukuner Upodrob, whom we’d not seen so far, suddenly loomed up through the darkness. “It’s pointless talking to them. We’ll just kill them and move on.”
“I’ve been waiting to hear those words,” Mochkano Merudondo said, raising the knife. There seemed to be something familiar about it, but I couldn’t see it well. “From the first moment I saw these two I’ve been waiting.”
“No, not you.” Ukuner Upodrob snapped. “Our new recruit, Bedonajonok Bhimrul, will prove his loyalty by finishing them off.”
“With pleasure.” I had no idea where Onek Mangsho had been all this while, but he appeared out of the shadows. “I told you how tiresome I found these two, Ukuner Upodrob.”
“Traitor!” Opodartho spat furiously. “You’ll pay for this.”
“I hardly think so,” Onek Mangsho said, taking a spear from Tibrogoti Kochchop’s hand. “Not unless there’s an afterlife, and the Cannibal Spirit sees fit to throw us all together.”
My mind was whirling. All through our long wandering, I’d been aware that someday Opodartho might prevail on Onek Mangsho to betray me, but it had never struck me that he could betray us both – and for someone as trivial as a bandit as that. “You...” I tried to say something expressing the pure outrage I felt, but words failed me. All I could do was repeat, “You...”
“Get on with it,” Ukuner Upodrob said. “Kill her.”
“As you command,” Onek Mangsho said. His arm rose and fell almost casually, and Tibrogoti Kochchop fell, writhing, the spear in her chest up to the haft. “Oh, I’m sorry. You should have mentioned which her.”
For a moment everything was still, and then Opodartho and I sprang forward simultaneously. Mochkano Merudondo was still looking open-mouthed at Tibrogoti Kochchop’s body, and at Onek Mangsho pulling the spear out of it, when my elbow took her under the chin. As she fell, I grabbed hold of her wrist and twisted. The knife dropped from her fingers, and I scooped it up almost before it had hit the ground.
And, yes, it was familiar. It was my own beloved long knife, and I knew exactly what to do with it. Oh, how well I knew. The familiar red haze of combat settled over my eyes as I got to work.
By the time the haze faded, I was being hurried across the desert by Opodartho and Onek Mangsho, each of whom held me by an arm. “Shut up, Chheechkaduni,” Onek Mangsho was saying. “Stop shouting.”
“Eh?” I hadn’t realised I was shouting, but my throat was raw and sore. “What was I saying?”
Opodartho snorted with derision. “You were yelling that Mochkano Merudondo would never get to eat you, but she was welcome to eat your knife. And then you literally drove it right through her mouth and out of the back of her head, but you kept shouting it anyway. You really don’t remember any of this?”
I didn’t. “Did we kill them all?”
“Would we be running across the desert if we had?” Onek Mangsho replied. “Apart from Mochkano Merudondo and Tibrogoti Kochchop, we killed a couple of others and probably wounded one or two more. But Ukuner Upodrob, Jongoler Jolohosti and the rest are still alive, and, wounded or not, as soon as they’ve sorted themselves out they’ll be after us.”
“They’re already after us,” Opodartho said. “Can’t you hear them?”
For a moment I couldn’t understand what she meant, and then I heard it too, the scuffling of feet and panting of pursuit. “We can’t outrun them all night,” I said. “They can come at us from both sides, and this time they won’t be taken by surprise. What should we do?”
For a while nobody answered. “Let’s try and make that pile of rock up ahead,” Onek Mangsho said eventually. “We can hold them off once we’re there.”
We scrambled for the rocks. Now it was a race for time, for our enemies surely knew as well as we did that they had to stop us before we reached the shelter of the pile of stone. A spear, thrown by one of them, came down on the sand near us. Onek Mangsho invested a precious moment in snatching it up.
“My light spear,” he said with satisfaction. “At least we’ve got most of our weapons back again.”
“They won’t get to us in time,” I panted, struggling through sand up to my ankles. “We’ll get there ahead of them.” And, indeed, a little later we were climbing up into the pile of boulders. “Let them come at us now. We’ll slaughter them.”
“And what do we do if they decide to starve us out?” Opodartho asked. “They do have food, you know; we just gave them enough to last a day or two.”
I knew what she meant, but it wasn’t the time to think about that, and I was about to snap at her when something moved in the darkness ahead of us...
“What on earth is going on here?” Uronto Uipoka asked.
I think my breath froze in my lungs. For a moment I literally could not feel the rock under my feet; I felt as though I was standing on air, waiting only to fall. Beside me, Onek Mangsho and Opodartho were frozen too, in mid-climb, staring up the rock at our hunters from Golmal Galagali. Then there was a sudden shout, and we went rushing up the slope, charging them before they knew properly how to react. It was only a moment that we were among them – I swung my knife in an arc, slashing at Marattok Markhabey, drawing a scream from him – and then we were past them and rushing down the far slope of the rock as fast as we could go.
And then it was that Ukuner Upodrob made her great mistake. She must have thought, from the sounds of struggle, that we were perhaps fighting among ourselves, or maybe that we’d got into difficulties in the darkness. So she gave the order to charge the rock pile – just as Uronto Uipoka and his band had collected themselves together sufficiently to defend it.
We didn’t wait to see who would win, or whether they’d all kill each other. Stumbling, falling, the air like fire in our chests, we raced across the desert as fast as we could go, and we kept going until the dawn was in the sky. Then we found a fold in the desert floor deep enough to conceal us, lay down together in it, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
For once, the Cannibal Spirit favoured us. Maybe He decided we’d earned our rest.
“They’ll probably still be following us,” I said. “Either the bandits or the Golmal Galagali group, whoever won the fight.”
We were trudging through the desert, northwards. It was night again, and we’d been looking out for pursuit, but seen none. Opodartho and I had told Onek Mangsho what had happened in the town.
“Perhaps the people from Astaboler Artonad will also be chasing us,” Opodartho said drily. “I doubt they’ll be too happy that we killed Digbidig Gyanshunyo. The chief, after all, will still want energy from his victims – and there won’t be an assistant chief to entice guests, anymore.”
“May all the three lots of them kill each other,” Onek Mangsho said. “If all our enemies were to get together, I do wonder if there would be space in the world to hold them all.”
A couple of things had been nagging in the background of my mind, and I suddenly realised what I’d been meaning to ask for a long time. “Opodartho,” I said, “you told me that you’d been ready to bribe Mostishkoheen Murgi if you had to. What were you going to bribe her with?”
“With one of our jewels, of course.” Opodartho looked at me as though I were stupid. “Have you forgotten them?”
“But...” I tried to find words. “The bandits searched us when they caught us. How come they didn’t find the jewels?”
Opodartho and Onek Mangsho grinned so broadly their teeth glinted in the dim starlight. “When we were escaping the Golmal Galagali group that first night,” the trollop said, “I realised I might need a better hiding place than my belt. So I hid it in a place nobody would find, even if they stripped me naked. Do you understand now?”
I understood. For a moment a retort trembled on my lips about sluts and the canyons they had between their thighs, but I let it pass. After all, the jewels were safe, and she had saved me from the agony of Astaboler Artonad. And I’d probably find an opportunity to use that insult again someday.
“Where do we go next?” I asked instead.
“I have a place in mind,” Onek Mangsho said. “But it’s a long way away. A long, long way.”
“Everything is a long way away,” Opodartho said, and for once I agreed with her.
The desert sand whispered under our shoes and blew into our faces, as we walked on.
*************************** *************************** ******************************
Lojjaheen Lukochuri, my dear old friend,
Thank you so very much for your gift. I loved it immensely. Bhishon Boka is unfortunately away on one of his boring old business trips, so I have not had the opportunity to try out those suggestions on the box with him, though my body is on fire to do so. You know me so well to send me a gift like that!
I rather enjoyed the tale on the parchment. Not that it is of any importance, of course, but it was quite entertaining. If you do come across anything more by this Chheechkaduni, I would like to have a look at it. You know how I am – if something’s even a little worth reading, I can’t let go of it, even when it’s really a load of rubbish, like these parchments. In any case, if you find or hear of anything by Chheechkaduni, let me know.
I’d love to come and visit you in Pyãchano Protisruti, and in fact I’m getting ready to make the trip within a short time. I’d love to go around with you to all the old shops and hunt around for things to buy. No telling what I might find among them!
Your old friend,
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016