Darling of my heart, Jorey Jorjorito,
I know you asked me not to write you any letters, in case your horrible wife came across them, but this is important, as you’ll soon understand. It may be the answer to all our problems!
You may remember that I mentioned to you a childhood friend of mine, Roktakto Rakkhoshi. One day a little while ago, while shopping in the markets of Pyãchano Protisruti, I came across a box with erotic carvings, which I thought would make a good gift for her. While playing around with the box, I discovered inside some old parchments written by somebody called Chheechkaduni, which I did not then imagine were of any interest or importance, so I sent them off to her along with the box.
To my great surprise, I received a reply from Roktakto Rakkhoshi which – with extremely elaborate casualness, enough to rouse anyone’s suspicions – went on and on about the parchments, and how they were trash and of no value, but how she’d still like to read any more that I could provide. She even said she’d love to come to Pyãchano Protisruti to root around in the shops to see what she might find.
Since, as you know, I am a far from stupid girl, I instantly realised that this Chheechkaduni’s writings had to be of some value. The name was very vaguely familiar to me, in connection with some half-forgotten legends, but I asked a few questions around the markets and the temple halls, and soon discovered some rather interesting facts.
It seems that not only did this Chheechkaduni actually once exist, she was part of a trio of adventurers – the others were her husband and co-wife – who had acquired a vast treasure. Where this treasure is hidden nobody knows, but her writings may afford a clue. And it seems that Roktakto Rakkhoshi believes the same, and is seeking the treasure too.
As soon as I realised that, I decided to launch my own search for the woman’s writings, starting at the shop where I had bought the box. After sifting through a lot of worthless dross with no success whatsoever, I was about to give up. But then, as a last resort, I thought to ask the owner where he’d acquired the box, and if he had any more items from the same source. He had only one – a wooden staff, painted with a few erotic scenes, but of no worth at all compared to the box – which I purchased to keep him happy. As soon as I was out of sight of the shop, I thought to rid myself of the thing by throwing it away. But as soon as I did so, one end of it popped off from the impact and inside I saw...a roll of parchment, just like the wadded mass of them that had been inside the box!
Of course I made haste to pick up the staff and carry it home, thinking to read it at leisure. But when I got there, it struck me that my reading skills, never very great, have largely atrophied from disuse, while your own is honed by your daily perusal of accounts and statements. This is one of three reasons why I am sending it to you along with this letter.
What’s the second reason? Well, I can’t take the risk that Roktakto Rakkhoshi mightn’t choose to arrive without prior notice any day now. Unless her nature is much changed, she’s certain to discover the parchment if it’s in my house, for she was always one to pry and sneak around. It’s obvious that there can’t have been any clue to the treasure in what I’d sent her, or she wouldn’t be asking for more.
And the third reason is the simplest of all: this staff, and the box before it, came to the old shop from your town of Jotokkhani Jogakhichuri. Somewhere around you there might be more of the writings to be found.
Just imagine, my love, what we could do if we found the treasure. I know well how much you despise that wife of yours, but without means of your own you can’t leave her. Nor do I have enough to provide for both of us; but once we have the treasure, the world – as well as your wife and Roktakto Rakkhoshi – can choke in our dust!
Let me know what you think, my darling. My heart is beating faster just thinking of you.
************************************ ************************************ ************************************
A whole cycle of the moon had passed since we’d taken service as guards in the town of Durgondhey Disheyhara, and it was becoming clear to me that it was more than time to move on.
I said as much to Opodartho, as we made another circuit of the walls of the town, our only illumination the waning moonlight.
“We’re running a risk staying here. Sooner or later someone’s bound to come by who knows us, and there will be hell to pay.”
Like me, Opodartho was muffled up to the eyebrows against the freezing cold, so I couldn’t see her expression, but her voice was neutral. “We haven’t got what we came for yet.”
“What are you talking about?” I gestured angrily at the desert that stretched as far as our eyes could see. “We’ve been holed up here a month, and if the Legions of the Libidinous Lecher of Lomosh Lobongo were still looking for us, we’d have seen some trace of them by now.”
“Did you think that’s the only reason Onek Mangsho brought us here, Chheechkaduni?” I couldn’t see the slattern’s face, but I knew that tone of hers well, and could almost see the condescending grin. It was all I could do not to take my beloved long knife to her. “Don’t you think we could’ve evaded the Libidinous Lecher’s less than competent legions without having to take refuge in a place like this, where our only wages are enough slavemeat and wine to fill our stomachs, and straw mattresses on which to sleep?”
“So you still believe in that fable of some kind of treasure somewhere near here?” I challenged. “Look at this place, Opodartho. It’s the back of beyond. If there was some treasure, why haven’t they dug it up for themselves? And have either you or Onek Mangsho heard a whisper about this place where it’s supposed to be, Shorsheteley Shabar? Because I haven’t heard anyone talk about it, even in passing.”
“I don’t know about Onek Mangsho,” she admitted. “He hasn’t told me if he has. I haven’t either, but then I....” She stopped abruptly. “What’s going on there?”
We’d just come in sight of the town’s main gate, which should have been deserted at this hour, but there were a couple of people outside, heads close together, talking. The smaller of them was pointing out into the desert, his other hand clutching the sleeve of the taller man.
“Who goes there?” Opodartho shouted.
They both turned towards us for an instant, and then the bigger man, whose head and shoulders were heavily wrapped up in cloth, hurried back into the town. We caught just a glimpse of him, but we both knew who it was. With that gait and breadth of shoulder, it could only have been Onek Mangsho.
“I said, “ Opodartho yelled again, “who are you? What are you doing there?”
The remaining figure, the one who’d been pointing at the desert, turned. He was a small man with a beard that crawled up his cheeks as though it was trying to cover up his eyes, and he looked familiar. A moment’s thought and I knew where I’d seen him before; he was one of those who had stalls in the market that sprawled around the Temple of the Cannibal Spirit in the centre of the town.
“My name is Shorbonasha Shonkot,” he said. “I’m a resident of the city.”
“I’m sure you are. What are you doing here at this hour?”
“I mean no harm,” he said quickly, raising both hands to show us they were empty. “I was just taking in the desert in the moonlight.”
“And showing someone else what it looks like? Who was he?”
“A friend,” Shorbonasha Shonkot said evasively. “He wanted to see it too. It is beautiful, is it not?”
There was nothing the least bit beautiful in an expanse of sand and rock where dire lions and windwolves prowled, and I was about to tell him so, but Opodartho spoke before I could open my mouth.
“Indeed it is,” she said, putting her hand on my forearm. “Do you come out every night to look at it?”
“Sometimes,” he said evasively. “It’s especially beautiful when the moon is full.”
The moon was far from full now, and I was about to point this out, but again the blundering idiot Opodartho forestalled me. “That’s nice,” she said, her hand squeezing my forearm so hard it was all I could do not to wince. Opodartho’s coarse peasant fingers are far stronger than my delicate and creative digits, as I have often said. “Would you like to spend more time looking at it, or would you rather go home?”
“I think I’ll turn in,” he muttered, and disappeared back through the gate quick as a desert skink vanishing into its hole, leaving us both staring after him.
“Well!” Opodartho said eventually. “I wonder what that was all about.”
“Why didn’t you let me ask him some questions?” I rubbed at my forearm sullenly. “It was obvious he was lying.”
“Of course he was lying,” Opodartho agreed. “And the last thing to do when someone is lying like that is to bully him about it.”
“Onek Mangsho was talking to him,” I said. “We must ask him what he was doing out here, when he was supposed to be sleeping.” We’d arranged our rotation so that two of us guarded the walls each night in turn, while the third one rested as best he or she could. “And, of course, what that man was saying to him.”
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said, in the tone of someone talking to a little baby, “if Onek Mangsho wanted us to know what it was all about, he would have told us. Instead, you saw as well as I did how he vanished as soon as we’d appeared.”
“It’s not right that he should keep secrets from us,” I said, though, of course, that was only half correct. It was perfectly all right for my Lord to keep secrets from Opodartho, because her coarse peasant mouth was always eager to babble; but as for me, I know when to keep my counsel. “Do you think they’ll be back here tonight?”
“After we’ve seen them once already?” Opodartho laughed shortly, the noise like a vampire hog’s dying gurgle. “Don’t be silly, Chheechkaduni. If they’re up to something, it’s the last thing they’ll do.” She started off on another circuit of the walls, and looked over her shoulder at me. “Are you coming?”
“All right,” I muttered, and set off after her, though making up my mind to ask Onek Mangsho in private about it the first chance I would get. I was sure he’d tell me. After all, as clever as I am, and as adept in providing advice, why wouldn’t he?
For the rest of the night, though, we had to do our rounds. Unlike most desert towns, Durgondhey Disheyhara was not built on a caravan route, and as a result was very far from rich, not nearly enough to attract the attention of desert bandits. However, even a small town like this might have secrets – and, after all these years, probably did.
It’s just that those secrets hadn’t found their way to my ears yet.
When dawn broke, we finally stopped our rounds, and returned, stiff with cold, to the hut we’d been given as accommodation. It was, actually, little more than a barn for storing millet seed, and far too cold even to undress, let alone make love, which was why I hated it more than ever. It was hard to be in the presence of Onek Mangsho and feel the fire between my legs, and not be able to do anything about it.
This morning, though, there was no such temptation. This was because my Lord was not there.
“Where is he?” I asked, astonished. Onek Mangsho’s straw mattress hadn’t even been used; I’d fluffed it up the previous evening and it was still in exactly the same condition. “Do you think something’s happened to him?”
“If it has,” Opodartho said, stretching and yawning shamelessly, “we’ll find out about it in good time, I daresay. Meanwhile, I’m exhausted, and I want to sleep, even if you don’t.”
After all our wanderings, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the hussy’s selfishness, but she still sometimes managed to amaze me. “I’ll go out to look for him,” I snapped. “You do as you want.”
I didn’t get any answer but a snore. Either Opodartho had fallen asleep within moments, or she was pretending, just to spite me.
If Onek Mangsho had been there to see, I’d have given him an earful about the behaviour of his so-called wife. But if Onek Mangsho had been there, we wouldn’t have had this problem anyway.
The streets of Durgondhey Disheyhara were just beginning to fill with people as I stalked out of the barn and into the town. A lot of people looked at me as at a stranger, and that wasn’t surprising, because I rarely went into town, and then not often with my face uncovered, for fear of running into someone we’d offended in one of our previous adventures. But today I was too impatient, and too angry.
Durgondhey Disheyhara wasn’t a large place, but even within the narrow confines of its walls there were mazes of lanes between tall narrow buildings, and if I hadn’t been so angry I would have realised that I couldn’t possibly search them all. By the time I’d admitted to myself that I wasn’t actually getting anywhere, it was late morning and hunger and exhaustion had combined to force me to turn homeward.
On the way back, I had to pass the Temple of the Cannibal Spirit, and the sight of the little market reminded me of the bearded man from the night, Shorbonasha Shonkot. I soon found him, at a stall beside one selling grilled slavemeat.
He was talking to a customer as I came up. I took the chance to look around. I didn’t know if I’d expected Onek Mangsho to be crouching behind the counter, but there was no sign of him. Nor was he hiding anywhere among the other stalls, which were almost all untenanted. The market did not seem to be doing much in the way of business.
That was not surprising, because even by the standards of the other desert towns we’d seen on our travels, Durgondhey Disheyhara was a hole in the ground. The only thing that seemed remotely prosperous was the Temple of the Cannibal Spirit, but then the Temple always got the major share of what resources there were to be had.
The odour of the meat from next door made my stomach rumble. To take my mind off it, I picked up one of the objects the stall was selling. It was a square of bone, carved with the High Symbol of the Cannibal Spirit. Everything else was also of bone; flutes carved out of long bones, tiny trinkets fashioned out of vertebrae, and the like. Most of the bone was human, probably from the slavemeat stall next door, but some of it was much larger, from what animal I couldn’t guess. The carving was quite good, and there was one in particular, an exquisite little statue of a dire lion the size of my palm, which I’d, under other circumstances, have dearly wanted to possess.
Shorbonasha Shonkot finished with his customer and turned to me. “Yes?”
“I was just looking.” I picked up the dire lion and stroked it with my hand, loath to put it down again. He’d obviously not recognised me, but then Opodartho hadn’t even let me open my mouth last night and I’d been all muffled up anyway. “Do you make these yourself?”
He ignored the question. “Do you want to buy that or not? It’s the best thing I’ve got. It’ll cost you –”
“Uh, no.” I forced my hand to put the lion back. “I’m looking for larger carvings than this, more elaborate ones. Sorry to have wasted your time.” He was still looking at me as I walked away.
Opodartho greeted me as though I’d just popped out for a breath of fresh air. “There you are, Chheechkaduni. Did you have a nice walk?”
I bit back the retort that sprang to my lips. For the time being, at least, I needed the tart’s help. “We have to look for him, Opodartho. Something must have happened.”
“Whatever it is, you need to eat and rest. You aren’t exactly looking chipper, and we’ll need all our energies tonight.”
“Tonight? Isn’t it supposed to be your night to rest?”
Opodartho handed me a strip of dried meat to chew while she filled an earthen goblet with bitter wine. “Didn’t you just say something must have happened? Did you ever know anything to happen during the day in a place like this?”
I gnawed at the meat. It was tough as leather, typical of the food our employers saw fit to give us. Opodartho was right, of course, and I had to admit it.
“You’re going to stand guard with me again tonight?” I asked, round a mouthful of the vile stuff. “Does that mean you don’t expect Onek Mangsho to be back before that?”
“If he wanted to come back,” Opodartho said, “he’d have come back by now. And as for standing guard...” She took a sip of wine and frowned meditatively. “We’re going to do a great deal more than standing guard tonight, I think. And if I were you, I’d try and sleep while I can.”
“I’m too worried about our Lord to sleep...” I began, indignantly.
The next thing I remember is Opodartho’s hand shaking me awake, late in the afternoon.
“Get freshened up, and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do tonight,” she said.
“I’m going to make the rounds alone,” Opdartho informed me, putting her hand on my forearm. “You stay here and watch the gate – and, whatever you do, stay hidden. Don’t move.”
“Why do rounds?” I asked. I admit that this was a silly question. “We can both watch the gate.”
“Chheechkaduni. They’ll get suspicious if nobody’s making the circuits.”
I snorted. “And how do you suppose they’ll take it when they see only one guard walking around?”
Her teeth flashed white in the moonlight before she pulled her scarf over her face. “They’ll assume you’re lolling in bed, of course.”
I was still trying to think of an adequate reply to this insult when she left, leaving me to watch the gate.
The gate was a small affair compared to that of other towns, but then, as I said, Durgondhey Disheyhara wasn’t much of a town and had nothing in the way of riches to tempt bandits. Like every night since we’d arrived, it was open, and through it the open desert lay white and grey in the light of the moon. The shadows inside were thick and heavy, full of concealment, and I decided to stand with my back to the wall to one side of the gate. This way, I couldn’t see the desert without looking over my left shoulder and craning my neck, but anyone from inside the town who came towards the gate would be clearly visible to me.
And suppose someone came from outside? Well, Opodartho was roaming around there, and let her handle that however she wanted.
Time passed. At first I was tensed up, seeing movement in every shadow and a threat round every corner, but nothing happened. Once in a while Opodartho walked past the open gate on the outside, and I caught a glimpse of her, but she didn’t look inside and I didn’t have anything to say to her either. As the moon rose to the zenith, and the last dim oil lamps in the town were extinguished, the cold increased steadily. I hadn’t realised just how much colder it got when you couldn’t walk around and warm yourself up. Opodartho had just gone by again, and wouldn’t be back around for some time. Though she had ordered me to stay in one place and not move, if I didn’t do something soon the blood in my veins would probably start to freeze.
I was just about to slap my arms across my chest, while lifting one of my feet to stamp it, when I stopped abruptly. Balanced on one foot, with my arms wide open, I would have looked ridiculous had anyone been able to see me. But if anyone had seen me at that moment, I’d probably have ended up dead.
The darkness to my right – on my side of the gate – split. A chunk of shadow broke away from the wall, moved cautiously towards me, and stopped almost within arm’s length. A round mass atop it moved right to left. It took me absurdly long to realise that a man was standing next to me, and the round thing was his head.
He wasn’t alone. A moment later, another shadow had joined him from between two houses. How long had they been there? They must have arrived after I had, or they’d have known I was there; but I hadn’t seen or heard them.
The two of them came so close to each other that they merged into a single shadow, and I heard a soft murmur of voices. Though they were so close to me, and though my hearing is, of course, exquisite, as are all my other faculties, I had to strain to hear them. Perhaps it was because the sound of my heart beating had suddenly grown so loud for some unaccountable reason that it drowned out everything else.
“It’s all right, Biroktito Smriti,” the first one said. “The she-hyena won’t be around again for a while.”
“Where’s the other one, Kutkute Kombol?” The second one had a higher, lighter voice, and I realised it was probably a woman. “There should be two of them.”
“Snoring, of course. They take it in turns.”
Biroktito Smriti looked around right in my direction, and it was only the intense darkness where I’d hidden that saved me from discovery. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Kutkute Kombol said. “Ajgubi Awaj said he...”
Ajgubi Awaj? I frowned. The name sounded vaguely familiar. I was sure I’d heard it, but couldn’t imagine where. As I tried vainly to remember, the two of them lowered their voices still further, so I couldn’t make out anything more.
Finishing their murmured conversation, the two walked out into the open, near the gate, and one of them – with a quick look over his shoulder – waved at someone inside the city. A brief pause, and three people appeared and joined him. They were all heavily muffled, and all but one of them carried bundles in their arms and over their backs. The one exception was the easily recognisable figure of my Lord. I’d have known him at once, even without his breadth of shoulder and height, because he was carrying his light and heavy spears.
The spears, I remembered, had been in the barn this afternoon, so he must have returned at some point to retrieve them. I bitterly regretted not staying back in the barn, for then I could have stopped him. But then I remembered that it had been Opodartho’s turn to rest tonight, and if she’d been there she’d have found some way of making a mess of it. In fact, I could have had little doubt that she’d have joined in whatever it was that Onek Mangsho was planning, and left me hanging. I only had to think of the Episode of the Engaging Exsanguinator of Ekeboley Elomelo, where she had, as I am still convinced, left me to die at the bloodsucker’s teeth. That she had returned with weapons and killed the creature just in time, I still put down to her misjudging the time it would take to kill me, and arriving too soon.
These thoughts had taken up so much of my attention that it was with surprise that I noticed that the small group of people had passed me and were on the way out of the gate. Onek Mangsho passed by me quite close, and I would have reached out to clutch at his sleeve, but right beside him was a small man whose pinched face and pointed beard showed momentarily under the hood of his cloak. It was Shorbonasha Shonkot.
My first move once they’d gone was to lower my raised foot back to the ground and put my hands down. Then I peered cautiously round the edge of the gate. The line had already gone some distance, and would soon vanish among the shadows of the desert.
Only for an instant did I hesitate before making up my mind what to do. Opodartho had disappeared somewhere round the wall, and if I were to go looking for her I would waste time during which Onek Mangsho and the others would likely have gone too far for us to pick up their track again. Besides, the trollop was so clumsy that she would likely give us away if we tried to follow them together. And for a third thing, for far too many times it had been Opodartho who had, usually by pure coincidence, saved us when we’d been in danger, and I was determined that this time, whatever the danger was, it would be I who rescued Onek Mangsho, if he required rescue. Let Opodartho keep walking round the wall for the rest of the night if she wanted.
“Don’t move,” she’d told me. Well, who was she to order me about? I was prettier, smarter and braver than she was. I didn’t have to listen to her.
The desert in the vicinity of Durgondhey Disheyhara was stony, with only a light scattering of dry soil and sand over the rock, so the line of people before me was making good time. In fact, I soon realised that if I wanted to keep them in sight, I’d have to hurry as quickly as I could, without taking any precautions to conceal myself. Fortunately, they seemed to be in too much of a hurry to ever look back.
Not far from Durgondhey Disheyhara was a line of eroded cliffs, and at first I’d thought that they were going there, for they were making directly for them. But, as soon as they’d reached the concealment of the deep shadows at the foot of the cliffs, they turned to one side and continued on their way. I was suddenly conscious that I was exposed in the moonlight. This, as I had learnt to my cost many times during our travels, could be lethally dangerous. Throwing myself down, I began crawling on my belly towards the shadow at the foot of the cliff, pressing myself as flat to the ground as I could, my cheek scraping on the sand.
Crawling is painful and slow. By the time I’d reached the cliffs, of course they’d all disappeared. I’d no idea where they’d vanished.
For a long moment I was wracked with frustration. The cliffs were ragged, with clefts and fissures wide and deep enough to hide an army, and they could be in any one of them. Then common sense reasserted itself; the clefts and crevices were so dark they would never enter them without torches, and if they had torches I’d have seen the light by now.
That still didn’t tell me which way they’d gone, and I might have stood there dithering indefinitely if I hadn’t heard a faint noise off to my left. It was quite far off, and faint, but for all that, unmistakable; the chink of metal on stone. A few moments later, it came again, but even fainter. Turning, I followed.
Little by little the sand disappeared from around my feet, and I found I was walking on rock. The desert fell away to the side, and I realised that I was walking up a rock shelf along the side of the cliff. It wasn’t steep at first, but it rose steadily, and the muscles of my legs began to protest at the strain.
“Too much time sitting doing nothing except taking turns walking around Durgondhey Disheyhara,” I thought to myself. “We’re all going soft.” And it was all Onek Mangsho’s fault for taking us there, and Opodartho’s for not insisting we leave again. This realisation gave me a glow of righteous anger which gave me a burst of energy. I wouldn’t give up yet!
That walk through the darkness along the side of the cliff will always remain fresh in my memory. To my right the wall of rock vanished upwards till it met the night sky. To my left, falling steadily lower, was the desert, shining white in the moonlight, all the way to the receding walls of Durgondhey Disheyhara. And before and around me was such intense darkness that I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet; darkness so intense that I grew afraid of breaking my ankle in a crevice, or falling off the cliff through some unseen break in the rock shelf.
There were fissures in the rock, side paths meandering away into the recesses of the cliff, and the only guide I had that I was still going in the right direction was the occasional clink of metal on stone ahead. Sometimes nearer, but mostly further away, it was only this faint noise that assured me I was going in the right direction. So faint was it all my attention was fixed on trying to keep track of it – and, soon enough, I began to hear things. Several times, I thought I heard footsteps behind me, though, obviously, there couldn’t possibly be anyone there. So strong did these imaginary noises grow that I finally stopped and whirled round, my long knife held out ready to slash, but all I could see was the darkness, and, beyond that, the empty desert.
The very first light of dawn was touching the sky when I heard voices. The cliff line bulged out into the desert here, like a wall, and the voices were coming from just beyond the curve of it. They must have stopped for a while, because they were much closer than I’d imagined from the last time I’d heard the metal on the stone. A little later, and I’d have rounded the bulge of the rock and walked right into them.
I recognised the light tones of Biroktito Smriti. “I’m tired,” she said, her voice querulous. “How much longer are we going to go on like this?”
Someone responded, the words too muffled for me to make out anything. My back to the wall of rock, I edged closer, trying to hear whatever I could. The stone was clammy under my fingers, slick and smooth. It was lucky that the sky was still very dark; I wouldn’t have liked to see the desert spread out far below and imagine what might happen if I fell. A creative and artistic imagination like mine, while a thing to treasure, does sometimes have drawbacks.
“I don’t care,” Biroktito Smriti was saying indignantly. “You said it wasn’t far, that we’d be back by daybreak. It’s nearly daybreak already and we aren’t even there.”
“Daybreak tomorrow, I meant.” This was Kutkute Kombol speaking, without a doubt. “Even you can’t have imagined we could get to Shorsheteley Shabar in one night and back again.”
Shorsheteley Shabar? But that was the name of the place where the mythical treasure was supposed to be hidden, the one Onek Mangsho had brought us to Durgondhey Dishehara to find. Neither Opodartho nor I had ever heard a word about it in the last month, and I had long since concluded that it didn’t exist. If it was real, wouldn’t we’ve at least heard someone whisper its name?
Biroktito Smriti seemed to have the same thought. “How do you know this place even exists?” she snapped. “We don’t have a map, we don’t know the slightest thing about it, and all we’re going by is what Shorbonasha Shonkot imagines he saw while hunting for old bones to carve trinkets with.”
“I didn’t imagine what I saw,” Shorbonasha Shonkot replied. Their voices were carrying to me so clearly that they must have been only just past the curve of the rock. “I’m telling you again that the thing there...”
“Yes, I know what you said,” Biroktito Smriti responded. “I’m just not sure it’s what you think it is. I don’t know what it might be, but I’ll bet you didn’t actually see anything you recognised. Or heard anything either.”
“Shouldn’t you have thought of that before you joined us?” Kutkute Kombol interrupted. “Why bring it up now that we’re halfway there?”
“Maybe I should go back, then,” Biroktito Smriti replied, and for a heart-stopping moment I thought she’d come round the rock and walk right into me. “I’ll just go back and let you all do whatever you want.”
“Not a chance.” Shorbonasha Shonkot’s voice was filled with contempt. “None of us is going to escort you back, and you’ll never find the courage to go back by yourself.”
“At least I’ll be home and safe when you’re getting yourselves...”
“If we’re going to spend time here arguing,” a new female voice cut in, one that I hadn’t heard before. It must have belonged to the fifth person in the group. She sounded cool and somewhat amused. “It’ll be noon before we get there. And don’t forget we’ll have to be out before dark if we know what’s good for us.”
There was some muttering, among which I made out Kutkute Kombol. “All right, Noroker Nordoma. Whatever you say.”
I waited where I was a little while, as much to let my heart settle into its regular rhythm as not to be seen by them if I rounded the corner too soon. The sky had grown light enough that I wasn’t going to blunder off the edge of the rock shelf by mistake, so I could afford to let them get a little distance away. Besides, I was getting hungry and thirsty, as well as tired – and I’d evidently have to last out at least the rest of the day without food and water, if I was going to keep on following them. This wasn’t going to be easy; I am, after all, a refined woman, and do not have the constitution of a demonoid desert lizard, like Opodartho, for example.
The thought of Opodartho was like a cold wind in my face; it killed all temptation I had to give up. I couldn’t go back to her jeers, let alone leaving Onek Mangsho to face whatever danger they were walking into on his own. Very cautiously, I poked my head around the curve of the rock, ready to draw it back in an instant if they were still close enough to notice me if they looked back.
The rock ledge stretched before me, empty. Not one of the five of them was anywhere to be seen.
I must have stood gaping there for a ridiculously long time, wondering where they’d gone. They couldn’t possibly have moved so far that I couldn’t see them. Nor could they have fallen off the path, not without my having heard at least a noise of some kind.
Could they have entered some kind of cave or tunnel in the side of the cliff? Cautiously, leaning out as far as I could, I ran my eyes along the rock. All I saw were fissures and crevices, not one of which was large enough to admit a human being.
For a moment I was gripped by memories of the Terrible Termites of Tokey Thokabo, which came swarming out of their great earthen mounds to strip the flesh from the bones of unwary travellers who passed by too close. But the lands of the Termites was a long way from here, they couldn’t possibly chew their way through rock, and not even a full swarm could eat a single human so quickly, let alone five. Where could they possibly have gone?
I don’t know how much longer I’d have stood there without noticing the staircase if it hadn’t been for the pebble which came clattering and bouncing down from above. It wasn’t much of a staircase, just a series of small flat ridges hacked in the stone, with more little ledges cut out on the sides for handholds. It was so steep that I didn’t dare tilt my head back to look up in case I fell over backwards.
Long ago, before I’d ever met and married Onek Mangsho and made the acquaintance of Opodartho, I’d liked to go climbing hills for fun. It was hard to believe now, but I think I’d enjoyed it. If I could have met my younger self at that moment, I’d have smacked her across the face so hard she’d have fallen right off the side of the cliff.
It was full daylight and the muscles in my legs were screaming with pain when the second pebble fell. It bounced past my head, almost hitting my shoulder, and went clattering into the abyss below. It was followed by a small avalanche of them, which did fall on me. Fortunately, they were all tiny, but I had to stop where I was until they’d passed.
Once more, it was fortunate that I did so. Not far above me I heard the cool, amused tones of Noroker Nordoma. “Is this what you brought us to see, Shorbonasha Shonkot?”
“No, it’s further.” The small man sounded irritated. “You were all going on about the bones I came to gather. You can’t see any around here, can you?”
“How much further is what I want to know.” It was the nasal whine of Biroktito Smriti. “And it could get dangerous here. I heard dire lions sometimes come up to the plateau here, not to speak of...”
“That’s why we brought him along,” Kutkute Kombol snarled. “He knows how to fight.”
“I know how to fight,” Onek Mangsho’s deep rumble confirmed. “However, if we do need to fight, I’d rather we did it somewhere we didn’t have a cliff edge to our back. It makes it hard to retreat if necessary, you understand.”
“Let’s at least eat,” Biroktito Smriti whined. “I’m starving.”
My stomach clenched with mingled hunger at the thought of eating, and horror at the thought that I’d have to hang on to the staircase until they’d done stuffing themselves. It was with immense relief that I heard Onek Mangsho again.
“This isn’t a good place to stop to eat,” he said. “The smell of food might carry. Dire lions, you know.”
There was a brief pause. “Let’s go then,” Biroktito Smriti said. “The faster we get away from here the better.”
I believe that if I’d had to hang on to the staircase a moment longer, my freezing fingers trying to hold on to the slick stone, I’d have ended up losing my grip and falling. Somehow, exerting every bit of willpower, I heaved myself to the top of the cliff and rolled over on my back, gasping for breath, and waiting for the rising sun to warm me. I did not have the slightest energy even to try to see which way Onek Mangsho and the others had gone.
Fortunately, this turned out not to be difficult to discover. When I felt able to sit up again, I saw a column of wood smoke rising from behind rocks not far away, and the morning breeze brought me the smell of roasting meat. Apparently Biroktito Smriti had got her breakfast after all.
They’d already left their campfire when I reached it, creeping up the rocks while trying to keep the rumbling of hunger in my belly quiet enough not to sound all around the world. The ashes were still smouldering, and I stirred them about with a stick in the hope I might find a fragment or two of gristle I could chew on.
I found more than that. Buried in the cinders, roasted to perfection by the heat, was a juicy hunk of meat.
I was glad Opodartho wasn’t around to watch me wolf it down. I am, of course, normally the daintiest of women, but my hunger was so strong that I didn’t even pause to chew before I swallowed. With the warmth of the food filling me inside, I felt energy return to my limbs and my exhaustion fall away.
Picking up their trail again wasn’t hard. The plateau on the top of the cliffs was undulating, but apart from some heaps and spires of rock, didn’t offer much concealment. In the light of the rising sun, I could see them, five tiny dots in the distance. It would have been easy to follow them if only I hadn’t had to use every dip and fold of ground, every boulder for cover, to make sure I wasn’t seen.
Then I came out from behind a boulder and they were gone.
It was like one of those illusions the Mocking Magician of Mostoboro Mithye had pulled on us when he’d imprisoned us in his citadel, before Opodartho had put an end to them...and to him...with her spear. But then we’d known that they were mere tricks. Right now, I had no idea what had happened. One moment, the five of them had been there, right before me. I’d ducked behind a rock a moment, and when I’d stuck my head out again, they’d disappeared.
There was no staircase here, no cliff to climb up, not even a fold in the ground that might be covering them. I stood gaping at the spot I’d last seen them, totally unable to make my mind work, until I heard a grunting sound. It was far behind me, but getting closer. And I didn’t need to look back to know what that sound was.
Somewhere, not far off, a dire lioness was hunting.
A dire lion, as I have mentioned before in these chronicles of our adventures, is a creature I respect but have learnt not to fear. The female of the species, though, is another matter entirely. Smaller and faster than the big male, she is probably the most lethal creature on four legs, with claws like knives and teeth like metal spikes set in spring-loaded jaws that can slice a man in two with one bite. And, unlike the dire lion, who often acts out of little more than idle curiosity and can let a quarry escape when that curiosity is satisfied, a dire lioness only seems to know two emotions – an insatiable hunger, and an equally insatiable desire to destroy anything that might even remotely be a danger to her cubs.
In other words, if the lioness caught sight of me, I was dead. Even a full-term pregnant lioness could run much faster than I could, and though my beloved long knife had shed its share of blood, it wouldn’t even turn aside the creature’s charge.
I still had a chance. The grunting seemed to be coming from where the campfire was – the lioness was probably rooting around in the ashes, having been attracted by the smell of the cooked meat. If I could hide somewhere – if there only was somewhere to hide on this plateau where the lioness couldn’t see me, even if she climbed on top of a boulder for a wider view...
I was still looking around for a place to hide when the grunting stopped and I heard a coughing roar. The lioness had smelt me, and was on my trail. All I could do now was run for my life.
I might have screamed. I’m not sure. I was barely conscious of my legs pumping frantically as they carried me across the plateau. Behind me, I could imagine the lioness charging – the tawny skin stretching over the pumping muscles, black lips drawn back from blood-flecked white fangs, the amber eyes slits in the fearsome mask of the face. Any moment now I’d feel the hot breath of the beast on the back of my neck as she gathered herself to spring. And then –
And then the ground beneath my feet opened up, and I fell.
I fell on something hard and jagged, which broke under my weight with a splintering crash, pieces digging into my skin through my clothes. I felt myself roll down a slope, hard pieces scraping at my face and hands, shifting under me as I tried to stop my fall. Things bounced and clattered all around, and then something hit me hard on the head and I blacked out.
I couldn’t have been unconscious for long. When I came to my senses I was buried under a pile of the hard, jagged things I’d fallen on. As I pushed them away from my face, clearing a space for me to breathe, I realised what it was that I’d fallen into.
It was a pile of bones. Bones so old that they’d become brittle with age, or I’d have been impaled on them.
When I finally managed to dig myself out of the bones, I looked around. I was standing in some kind of rock chamber, whether natural or man-made I couldn’t tell. Far above, in the ceiling, was a hole, through which I could see the sky. Below it was the hill of bones, heaped up so they reached halfway to the ceiling.
It wasn’t hard to understand how they’d got here. Over the aeons, animals must have fallen through the hole, and injured themselves so badly in their fall that they’d died in the chamber, and more animals followed them. Little by little their bones had formed the heap which had broken my own fall and spared me from sharing their fate.
So this was where Shorbonasha Shonkot had found his bones. And that meant that this must have been the way he and the others had gone, too. Only, they must have climbed down through the hole, not fallen in like I had.
There was a snuffling sound, and something blocked out the light coming through the hole. I looked up to see the dire lioness’ gigantic head almost filling the opening. Growling, she tilted it from side to side, as though to get a better view of me. One huge paw, lined with claws like sickles, poked experimentally at the edge of the hole, as she considered whether she could risk jumping in after me. I could almost taste her frustration at having her prey just out of her reach.
I couldn’t stay here any longer. Opposite me was an opening, a rough arch in the stone, a little above head height. Picking my way over the tumbled bones, I entered.
Inside was a tunnel, carved out of the rock. It should have been dark, but wasn’t; to the left, a series of shafts let in air and a little light. Peering through one, I saw, far away, a ragged patch of blue sky. The shafts must have extended all the way to the cliff’s edge.
There was no question that this was the way that Onek Mangsho and the others had gone. There had been no other exit from the bone pit, and, furthermore, I found a scrap of cloth caught in a crack in the stone wall. It was dull orange striped with black, the colour of one of my Lord’s best travelling robes.
The passage had begun to curve, the light dimming as the shafts lengthened and the edge of the cliff got further away. I began to hurry, not wanting to get too far behind in case I lost the trail. I knew from long experience how easy it was to lose one’s way in a maze of corridors and passages, and this place, especially, filled me with a sense of unease that grew at every step. I even began to regret not having brought Opodartho along; the mindless slattern, at least, would have been company of a sort.
Scarcely had I managed to shake off this silly moment of weakness that I heard voices up ahead, raised in argument.
“This is where I saw it,” Shorbonasha Shonkot said. “It was right here.”
“And then it vanished, you said?” I could almost feel the contempt in Biroktito Smriti’s voice. “Are you sure you hadn’t just been drowning your thirst in too much blood wine?”
“I hadn’t been drinking, and, let me remind you, nobody asked you to come along. If you think...”
“That’s all right,” Kutkute Kombol interrupted. “Now, the problem is that this passage seems to be a dead end, so, Shorbonasha Shonkot, there must be some way through that we haven’t found.”
“Just tell me again what you saw,” Noroker Nordoma put in. Her voice was still perfectly calm and under control, and I understood what I should have deduced earlier: it was she who was the leader of this group. “I know you’ve described it before, but go over it again while we’re here, right at the spot.”
There was a brief pause, during which I crept as close as I dared. I still couldn’t see them, but they weren’t far away. Every word came to my ears as clearly as though they were close enough to touch.
“It was just as I told you,” Shorbonasha Shonkot said sullenly. “I was on the plateau, looking for things I could use, when I found the hole. I saw the bones and decided they’d be much better for carving than the usual ones I can get down in the town, so I let myself down into the pit. I selected some good ones, and then, before I started the long walk back, I decided to do a little exploring.”
“To see if you could find some other things you could use, no doubt,” Kutkute Kombol said.
I could imagine the dirty look Shorbonasha Shonkot must have thrown at him. “I’d come to that last curve there, just behind us...” I drew back hastily. “And then I heard the noise.”
“What noise?” someone repeated.
“A high pitched humming,” Shorbonasha Shonkot said. “At first I thought it was just the wind through these ventilation shafts, but I couldn’t feel any wind. And then I came round the curve and I saw it.
“Right here, where I’m pointing, the wall was open. It was a doorway, high enough for a tall man to pass through without bending his head, as though something had just passed through and had forgotten to close it behind him...or her.”
“Something,” someone repeated again. “What do you mean by that?”
“How should I know? It was only a feeling I had. Then the humming stopped and the rock shut, as though there never had been any doorway at all.”
“Did it see you and go away?” Kutkute Kombol inquired.
“I can’t tell. I couldn’t see enough to be able to tell if it was facing me in the first place.”
“What did you do then?” Noroker Nordoma asked.
“What could I do? I looked all over for the doorway.”
“Well, then...where is it? It looks just like a blank wall.”
“I don’t know,” Shorbonasha Shonkot muttered. “It was right here.”
“And then you went back?” Noroker Nordoma seemed to be thinking. “It all does tie in with the old legends we heard of Shorsheteley Shabar, doesn’t it? Caverns in the rock, filled with treasure, where you can hear the earth hum.”
“There was something else to the story, wasn’t there?” Biroktito Smriti said. “Some tale about some shambling danger, as I heard it.”
“What danger?” Shorbonasha Shonkot scoffed. “I was down here on my own, and saw the door open, and no danger attacked me.”
“That’s just what you say,” Biroktito Smriti protested. “We haven’t found any trace of this door, and...”
There was a slight grinding noise. “And I’ve got your door open,” Onek Mangsho said.
The cavern was so huge that, when I first saw it, I thought for a moment that I’d come out into the open air, and it was night.
Far above me, the roof stretched out in a sheet of rock, marked with dots of light like stars. Incredulously, I realised that they were holes, with the sunlight shining through them.
I’d been following Onek Mangsho and the others for so long that I’d lost count of time. As soon as I’d realised that they’d entered the door my Lord had opened – however he’d managed it – I’d rushed forward, terrified lest it have closed again. But it was not just open, but wedged wide with a slab of stone. Inside, a winding stone stairway had disappeared downwards. I’d gone down it cautiously, as afraid of missing a step and falling as of coming upon them unexpectedly. But an occasional shaft still gave light and air, enough to show me where to put my feet.
From time to time I heard them, the noise they made as they descended the stairs, and sometimes their voices filtering up from below, echoing and blurred so that I couldn’t make out a word – but at least they told me I was going the right way.
Then, just as my energy had begun to flag again, the staircase ended in a low doorway, just high enough to clear my head. On the other side was the cavern.
And in the middle of the cavern, rising so high that its spires seemed about to kiss the rock ceiling, was a city.
It wasn’t a city, actually, as I realised when the first flush of astonishment had abated. Rising in spires and turrets, studded with windows and a huge ornate doorway, it was all one gigantic building, which grew out of the cavern floor as though carved out of the living rock. All around it, covering the ground, were masses of bones, so many that the tiny distant forms of Onek Mangsho and his four companions were walking on them as though over a carpet of white.
I watched them walk over the bones to the doorway. I watched the tall form of my Lord follow the others in, and my heart leapt for a moment when he seemed to glance over his shoulder. But he couldn’t have seen me, because he turned and disappeared inside.
And only then did I follow them over the bones and into the halls of Shorsheteley Shabar.
“Not here,” Noroker Nordoma said sharply. “Not in this room. There’s nothing here but old furniture.”
I pressed myself as far back into the corner as I could, pulling some of the stinking pile of old rags over myself. A little light filtered through a tiny window set high up near the ceiling, enough for me to see Noroker Nordoma clearly for the first time as she stood at the door. She was a tall woman, and so beautiful that I felt a thrill of alarm run through me. Onek Mangsho had always been susceptible to looks – and it was possible that this woman surpassed even mine.
Noroker Nordoma wasn’t thinking of sex, though. Her face was flushed with annoyance as she looked back over her shoulder. “This place is huge,” she snapped, “and we’re going to have to get through it all before dark. Get to the end of the passage and check the rooms there.”
Whoever she’d been talking to moved away. With a further quick glance over her shoulder, she entered the room and moved towards the mouldering old chest directly opposite me. If she only turned her head she couldn’t have helped seeing me, even under the rags; but her attention was fixed on the chest. Wedging the tip of a heavy knife she carried under the lid, she levered it up, only to hiss angrily and lower it again. She began to turn, her eyes roving over the rest of the furniture in the room, the old boxes and a small cupboard which hung open.
I gripped my long knife, trying not to breathe, watching her move slowly towards me as she poked and prodded around the boxes. In another moment she would be standing right beside the rags, and then she’d flip them back with her knife, and...
“What are you doing?” Kutkute Kombol asked from the doorway.
Noroker Nordoma turned away quickly. “I thought I saw someone come in here,” she said.
“Is that so?” Suspicion hung in every word. “You told us to stick together, and yet here you are, poking around by yourself. If you found anything worth the taking, we wouldn’t see it, would we?”
“There’s nothing here – you can check for yourself if you want.” Noroker Nordoma pushed past Kutkute Kombol and vanished. Scarcely able to believe my own luck, I crawled out from under the rags and followed them.
Inside, Shorsheteley Shabar was like a series of nested boxes, with rows of rooms and halls on both sides. I’d already followed them through two sections, hiding in small niches and behind corners as they moved from room to room, searching. So far they’d found nothing.
This had started preying on Biroktito Smriti’s nerves. “There’s no treasure here,” I heard her grumble. “It’s all a waste of time.”
“You said there wasn’t any doorway either,” Shorbonasha Shonkot reminded her. “You said there was no Shorsheteley Shabar. But here we are.”
“It’s getting late,” Kutkute Kombol spoke up. “At this rate we’ll never finish searching.”
I’d stuck my head round the corner of a wall to hear them better, and jerked it back quickly as I saw Onek Mangsho turn. “If this treasure exists at all,” he said, “it’s not likely to be just scattered in one of the rooms, is it? It’s much more likely to be in the heart of the building. That’s where we ought to go.”
There was a brief pause. “He’s right,” I heard Noroker Nordoma admit. “It should be this way.”
“And we’re all going to stick together,” Kutkute Kombol said. I couldn’t see him, but I was sure he was looking at Noroker Nordoma. “None of us goes off wandering away on his...or her...own.”
They were such a team. I could almost imagine the kind of sarcastic comment Opodartho might have whispered in my ear if she were with me, and fought down a giggle. Once again, I almost regretted not having brought her along. At this moment the stupid slut was probably back in Durgondhey Disheyhara, scratching her mess of straggly hair and wondering where Onek Mangsho and I had got to.
The further into Sorsheteley Shabar we ventured, the thicker the gloom became. It wasn’t totally dark, because apertures in the roof high above let in some of the light that filtered in through the holes in the cavern ceiling, but the shadows pressed in so heavily I felt it hard to breathe. Even Biroktito Smriti seemed to have felt the effects of the atmosphere so much that she’d stopped her constant complaining, and the silence was so total I fancied I could hear the sound of their feet on the stone floor. Dust eddied up at each step, and I wrapped my scarf over my nose and mouth so as not to give myself away with a cough or a sneeze.
Suddenly I noticed they’d stopped. Before them was the dim expanse of what looked like a blank wall, but Kutkute Kombol was leaning forward, scrutinising it closely.
“There’s a slab here,” I heard him say. “It’s sealed in, though. We’re going to have to break it open, I think.”
“I...” Noroker Nordoma began, and broke off with a gasp. I, too, had to bite my lip so as not to cry out.
With the slightest of noises, like a curtain being pulled aside, the stone slab had slid open.
“It looks like Shorsheteley Shabar wants us to take its treasure,” Shorbonasha Shonkot said. He peered into the opening. “Well, are we going in?”
It was Kutkute Kombol who replied. “Why have we come all this way otherwise?” he asked. “All of us go in, though. You know why.”
Slipping through the thick shadows, I crept towards the doorway, intent on following them in. It was a low opening, and I had to bend to enter. Instantly, the darkness thickened further, and the air became colder.
It was an enormous room. All around, there were stacks of boxes and bundles, enormous chests and cupboards, and cylindrical containers taller than a man. A torched flared behind one of the stacks, as one of Onek Mangsho’s group struck a light. It did little to dispel the darkness.
“Look at this!” I heard Biroktito Smriti murmur. For the first time the petulant whine was gone from her voice, to be replaced by naked greed. “Just look at this!”
“There’s enough here to make me rich for life.” Shorbonasha Shonkot’s shadow wavered on the wall opposite. “Just this box has enough to...”
“What do you mean, you?” Kutkute Kombol, a thick, heavy shouldered shadow, moved threateningly towards the slighter form of the bone carver. “We’re all in this together.”
“You’d never have found it unless I’d told you,” Shorbonasha Shonkot said angrily.
“Calm down,” Noroker Nordoma said. “This isn’t any time to start fighting. There’s enough here to make us all rich for life. We’d better gather whatever we want to take with us while there’s still time.”
“She’s right,” Biroktito Smriti agreed. “We should spread out and get whatever we can carry back with us.”
Another torch flared, and then another. I slipped behind a pillar opposite an enormous cupboard, pressing myself into the space behind it.
Holding a torch before his face, Kutkute Kombol walked past, pausing before the cupboard. Dragging the door open, he bent to look inside.
And then he slumped to the floor as a knife seemed to appear in his back by magic.
A smile on her beautiful face, Noroker Nordoma came into the circle of light thrown by the torch. She stood looking down on the body for a moment, removed the knife and picked up the torch. For an instant, I glimpsed her eyes. I knew that look; I’d seen it many times before. It was the kind of look a windwolf has in its eyes when it’s on the hunt.
She would kill them all, here in this room. She’d kill them while they were busy choosing what to take, and then the treasure here would be all hers. She couldn’t carry it all back with her, of course, but she could come back whenever she wanted to get more.
I’d have to find and warn Onek Mangsho. As soon as Noroker Nordoma had passed, I darted out from behind the pillar.
And then my foot caught in some crevice on the floor, and I pitched forward, throwing my hands out to break my fall just in time. I began to push myself to my feet, and paused abruptly.
There were marks on the dust of the floor.
If they’d been the footmarks of the five people I’d been following, I wouldn’t have, of course, taken any notice. But human beings didn’t have feet like this. It looked as though something had been walking on splayed stars. Splayed stars, with claws at the end of each of the rays.
And each of the claws was the length of my hand again.
It was at that moment that I heard the humming. At first it was so soft that I thought it was my imagination. It seemed to come from everywhere, from the boxes around me, dropping from the ceiling high above, even vibrating up from the floor under my feet. And it grew louder, echoing back and forth, until I felt as if the inside of my head was echoing in sympathy with it.
Stumbling as the noise grew from a hum to a wail, I ran through the spaces between the stacks of chests and boxes and cupboards, looking desperately for Onek Mangsho.
Someone blundered into me from round a corner, clutched at me desperately, and slipped to the ground as I pushed him away. It was Shorbonasha Shonkot, and his beard and chest were matted with the blood that was pulsing from his ripped out throat.
Noroker Nordoma hadn’t wasted time eliminating him, I thought, as I jumped over him and rushed round the corner, fumbling for my long knife in my sash as I ran. I had to find Onek Mangsho before...
But it wasn’t Noroker Nordoma.
The Thing squatted on the floor in the centre of a square of boxes. In one hand it held a torch, the immensely long fingers wrapped round the wood like the legs of a great insect. With the other, it was scooping out the still-twitching corpse of Biroktito Smriti.
I don’t know if I screamed. If I did, it was lost in the shriek of that nightmare wail.
The Thing looked up from its feeding. Lidless eyes glittered orange in the reflection of the torchlight as its needle-toothed jaws ripped and shredded at Biroktito Smriti’s viscera. The hum that came from the two slits on either side of its throat rose from a wail to a nightmare howl. Throwing down the woman’s body, it began climbing to its feet.
Now I was screaming. I was screaming as I’d seldom screamed before, screaming with primal terror as though my throat would burst, as I sprinted through the spaces between the chests and boxes. And it was screaming too, screaming behind me as it came, the light of the torch it carried bobbing and bouncing, the noise filling the world. One claw came down on my shoulder, snagging at the cloth, ripping out as I ducked under it. Next time it wouldn’t miss.
And then the torchlight glimmered faintly on something sharp and metallic that split the air next to my ear and smashed into the Thing.
The wailing stopped abruptly, and the torch fell and went rolling across the floor.
“Run, Chheechkaduni,” a familiar voice shouted in my ear. I felt Onek Mangsho’s hand clutch my wrist. “Run, before it gets up and comes after us again.”
We ran. We sprinted for the distant patch of light that was the doorway which had opened of its own accord, and past the nested boxes of the inner corridors of the great building. We ran until we came to the ornate doorway, and out into the bone-strewn cavern.
“My Lord,” I began, in between great gulps of air. “I...”
“No time for explanations,” he said. “Save them for later. My light spear couldn’t have done it much damage, and it’ll be after us.” Even as he spoke, I heard the hum again, though it was still in the distance.
“What is it?” I couldn’t help asking, as we scrambled across that bone-covered waste.
“How can I say? Whatever it is, it lives down here, and eats the animals that fall through those holes up there.” Onek Mangsho pushed me into the doorway to the stairs. “Start climbing. I’ll hold it off.”
“Lord,” I protested. “I’ll be at your side...”
“Start climbing, I said,” he repeated. “There isn’t enough space for the two of us here. We’d just get in each other’s way. Besides, I still have my heavy spear. Here it comes. Go!”
The humming rose as I stumbled up the stairs, feeling my way blindly. Far below me, through the wailing cadence of the humming, I could hear Onek Mangsho shouting.
I don’t know when I collapsed. I have no memory of it. The next thing I remember is lying at the angle of a stair, the cold rough stone under my cheek, and Onek Mangsho shaking my shoulder anxiously. “Chheechkaduni? Are you all right?”
“Lord?” I held on to his shoulder to pull myself to my feet. The wailing had stopped. “Where is it...the thing?”
“It couldn’t compete with my heavy spear.” He grinned, hefting the immense weapon. “The last I saw, it was headed back into Shorsheteley Shabar, and not looking as though it wanted to come out again.” His eyes suddenly widened, as he looked past me up the stairs. “What are you doing?”
“What...” I began, and gasped as my breath was cut off.
An arm as strong as a band of iron clamped itself around my neck, pulling me back. I felt a hard body behind me, and the caress of a knife blade along the line of my jaw.
“So what do we have here?” Noroker Nordoma said.
“Let her go.” Onek Mangsho’s voice was tight with self-control. “I won’t tell you again.”
“Let her go?” Noroker Nordoma repeated. “Of course I will...just as soon as you’ve done what I want you to do.”
“What are you asking?”
“What do you think?” Noroker Nordoma dragged me around so that my body was between her and Onek Mangsho’s heavy spear. “I want you to go back down there and kill that monster, of course. I want that treasure.”
“And if I don’t?” I heard Onek Mangsho say above the wheezing noise of my own agonised attempts to draw breath. “What will you do if I refuse?”
“What do you think?” Noroker Nordoma asked. “Let’s not play games. I’ve been watching you with this little puffball, coming out of Shorsheteley Shabar and helping each other over the bones. I even listened to your tender little scene at the bottom of the stairs when she wanted to die by your side. Obviously, she means something to you.” The knife blade ran down the skin at the angle of my jaw, and I felt the warm trickle of blood. “I trust I make myself clear.”
“You think I can kill the monster?”
“Of course you can. I hadn’t realised just how effective a warrior you were till I saw you fighting it just now.” Noroker Nordoma’s knife traced its way up the other side of my jaw. “If there’s anyone who can kill it, you can.”
“And in return?” Onek Mangsho asked. “What do you offer us?”
I wanted to tell him to refuse, but I couldn’t even breathe, let alone speak. I tried to signal with my eyes, but his gaze was fixed over my shoulder. He would accept, I thought; he’d accept, go down and kill that monster, perhaps, but he’d probably get himself killed as well. And, either way, Noroker Nordoma would kill me. I had no illusions about that. I struggled desperately to free myself.
“Offer you?” Noroker Nordoma repeated, her arm tightening further round my neck so that I my vision began to go grey. I stopped struggling. “Isn’t the life of this whore enough? All right then, I’ll let you carry off a bauble or two for yourselves. Isn’t that generous of me?”
“Very,” Onek Mangsho said drily. He was still looking over my shoulder. I wondered if he couldn’t bear to glance at me. “However, there’s one thing we both value a lot more than what you refer to as a bauble or two.” He paused briefly. “We value our lives.”
Noroker Nordoma’s laugh was like splintering slate in my ear. “Your lives,” she repeated. “Your lives are worth nothing to me.”
“Kill her,” Onek Mangsho said abruptly.
What? My mouth opened, but I couldn’t make a sound.
“If that’s what you want,” Noroker Nordoma said. She laughed again. A ray of light glinted off her knife as it rose.
“Kill her,” Onek Mangsho repeated.
I tried to close my eyes but couldn’t. I couldn’t take my eyes off that knife, the last thing I would ever see, as it stood poised to come down on me. I saw it as though it was frozen, and beyond that, Onek Mangsho, as frozen, his face oddly calm. Perhaps, I had a thought, this is death. You die and you’re frozen in the last moment you experience, forever. Then hot blood spouted over me, over my face and in my eyes. My blood, I thought, and in a moment I will fall, lifeless, as it runs out of me.
It was Noroker Nordoma who fell.
She fell quite slowly. First the knife dropped out of her hand, turning over and over as it dropped through the air. Then, her arm, which had been locked round my throat, loosened and dropped away. She swayed, rocking slowly on her feet, clawing at me with her fingers as she tumbled down the stairs, her body striking me behind the knees and nearly bringing me down as well.
“Careful, Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said, clutching my shoulder to steady me. “We don’t need you breaking a bone now, you know.”
“You led me a merry chase,” Opodartho said.
We were still on the stairs. I sat, rubbing my neck, feeling the blood rush back into my head, while Onek Mangsho rubbed my shoulders. Opodartho stood above us, looking down sardonically.
“What do you mean, a merry chase?” I asked. “Where did you come from, anyway? You’re supposed to be back in Durgondhey Disheyhara.”
“Oh please.” Opodartho’s lips curled into a sneer. “I followed you, of course. Last night, I’d just passed the corner of the town wall when I thought I heard voices, so I backtracked quickly and came back to the gate. I didn’t see anyone except you, running off across the desert. It was obvious that you were either following somebody...or running away. And I know you well enough to know you weren’t running away.”
I didn’t say anything.
“So it was obvious that you were following somebody, and I settled down to follow you.” I remembered the footsteps I’d imagined I’d heard behind me in the night. “It wasn’t difficult,” she continued. “You’re very noisy.”
“Is that so?”
“Absolutely.” She snorted. “I couldn’t understand why whoever it was you were following didn’t notice you.”
Onek Mangsho cleared his throat. “Well, actually, I did. In fact I was depending on it.”
“Huh?” I asked, twisting around to look at him. “What did you say?”
“Later.” He glanced up. “Go on, Opodartho.”
“Yes, Lord. I was following Chheechkaduni, but staying out of sight in case she gave herself away with her clumsiness. When you went down the hole on the cliff top, I thought I’d join up with her, but just then a dire lioness showed up, and I was forced to hide.” She shrugged. “The beast was up there for hours. I had to wait until she finally got bored and wandered off, and only then did I manage to make my way down here. Just in the nick of time, as it appears.”
The self-satisfaction in the slattern’s voice was insufferable. “And what were you saying, Lord?” I asked Onek Mangsho.
“We’d better get out of here first,” he replied, helping me to my feet. “Or our friend down there might forget that spears hurt.”
“Wait.” I bent over Noroker Nordoma’s body, rummaging in her clothes. Even in death, even with her throat cut open by Opodartho’s knife, she was disgustingly pretty. “Unless I am much mistaken...yes.” I fished out the little pouch I’d found dangling between her breasts. “I did think she wouldn’t run without snatching up something for herself first.”
Onek Mangsho took the pouch from me and poured the contents on his palm. The gold coins were round and heavy, the markings on them etched in shadow.
“This will do very well to be getting on with,” he said.
“Shorbonasha Shonkot approached me several days ago,” Onek Mangsho said.
The plateau stretched around us in the evening sun, trying to get as far as we could before dark. Far behind us, close to the horizon, Durgondhey Disheyhara was a smudge in the desert. We’d no reason to go back there now.
“It was a straightforward offer,” Onek Mangsho continued. “He was putting together an expedition to Shorsheteley Shabar. They needed a bodyguard, someone experienced in fighting. My compensation would be a share in the treasure.” He laughed. “I didn’t need to ask why he didn’t include you in the deal. The fewer involved, the larger the shares. And, of course, it would be easier to finish me off later, when they didn’t need me anymore.
“Right from the start, he demanded total secrecy. I couldn’t even talk to you two, in case I gave something away. That’s why I disappeared.”
“You didn’t disappear very well, though,” I snapped. “We saw you at the town gate. You saw us, too, and ran off.”
“Yes, you did.” Onek Mangsho sounded in high good humour. “Of course I did. And do you know why?”
There was only one answer. “To attract our attention?”
“Very good. I asked Shorbonasha Shonkot to take me out and show me the desert so I could get a good look at the terrain. So I could plan security for the route, I said.” He laughed. “I kept him talking long enough so you two came back on your rounds and had a look at me. I needed you suspicious.”
“And you knew I was following.” Thoughts whirled around in my mind. “No wonder you somehow never noticed me, even when you looked around. Those metallic sounds on the rock, just when I was about to lose your trail...”
“It was my light spear blade, banging on the stone.” Onek Mangsho shrugged apologetically. “It didn’t do the spear much good, but then I didn’t exactly have a choice. I couldn’t risk you losing the way. In any case, it’s down there in Shorsheteley Shabar now, and we have more than enough money to buy another.” He looked down at his robe, of which one orange and black sleeve hung ragged. “I can get another of these as well.”
“I saw the piece of cloth.” I swallowed painfully. “And the meat?”
“I knew you’d be famished after all the climbing around.” Onek Mangsho shrugged. “It wasn’t hard to hide it under the ashes, but I imagined I’d left enough for both of you.”
Opodartho laughed, and I felt my cheeks reddening. A sudden thought struck me. “Wait, Lord.”
“There’s something I don’t understand. I heard Biroktito Smriti and Shorbonasha Shonkot talking. They said some Ajgubi Awaj had gone to check up on Opodartho and me, and he’d told them that one of us was asleep in the barn. But how could that be? We were both away, I at the gate and Opodartho walking round the walls.”
There was a brief silence. Onek Mangsho and Opodartho exchanged odd glances.
It was the latter who finally spoke. “Are you feeling all right, Chheechkaduni? No dizziness or anything?”
“No.” I frowned. “Why are you two looking at me like that? What’s wrong?”
“I’m Ajgubi Awaj,” Onek Mangsho sighed heavily. “Ajgubi Awaj was the name I gave when we took up service in the town, or don’t you remember?”
“I remember, Lord.” I kicked viciously at a pebble. It bounced away and disappeared down one of the holes perforating the ground. “I remember perfectly well.”
Opodartho snorted expressively, and we trudged on.
************************************ ************************************ ************************************
Lojjaheen Lukochuri, darling of my heart, fire of my loins,
The parchment you sent me is fascinating. Strange, but I never heard of this Chheechkaduni before, even though you tell me her writings came to you by way of Jotokkhani Jogakhichuri. I will certainly have to begin a search at once, though I have no idea where to begin.
I thought, my love, it would be easier for us to look for this place, Shorsheteley Shabar, for there seems to have been enough treasure there for a thousand Chheechkadunis. But then, even if we could possibly find it, you know I am no warrior. I couldn’t begin to face down a dire lion, let alone the humming monster of the depths.
Perhaps we could do it if we hired a bodyguard or two to protect us? We could assure them of a share in the treasure, and cut their throats when it’s all done. That’s a great idea, isn’t it?
Waiting with bated breath for your reply,
Love and many kisses,
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016