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