Note to Reader: In 2010 and 2011, I’d written a series of six tales as a parody of the Conan the Barbarian style fantasy genre, known as The Chronicles of Chheechkaduni. I am now in the process of reviving the series. Therefore, I am posting the first six parts here in the order in which they were written.
Caution: These stories have strong violence, cannibalism and sexuality. There is also some humour.
A note on the names: All the names, of both places and people, without exception, are puns on words in my language. There are far too many of them to translate them all here, but the three main characters are:
Onek Mangsho = Much Meat
Opodartho = Incompetent
Chheechkaduni = Whiner or sneak.
I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.
THE SLOBBERING RED TERROR
In the hundred and tenth year of the Third Era of the Great Famine, the honour of being converted into food for the community fell to a certain Onek Mangsho.
This was the ultimate honour, as everyone was well aware. This was because the only way of providing any more food for the people than one was already doing, where every action was directly or indirectly concerned with the search for edible material, was to offer oneself as the main course. And of course such self-sacrifice was a tremendous honour indeed, so that those who were chosen had their names commemorated and written in stone on the Sublime Pillar of the People.
Onek Mangsho had, of course, already done his bit for the community. Of the eighteen children his loins had partaken in producing, fifteen had naturally been given over to the kitchens for lesser feasts and to stave off the pangs of the common hunger. One, who was sickly and bony, had been judged not worth the eating, and had been used up as bait to trap a dire lioness who had been preying on the community, unsuccessfully as it turned out; the big cat had dragged off the bait and come back to finish off half the hunting party as well. It wasn’t a total loss, though, since the survivors had managed to salvage almost two of the hunters’ corpses, so the people didn’t starve.
Yes, Onek Mangsho had done his bit to provide meat for the people; but that had been only his duty. Everyone had to breed meat then, as now; you, gentle reader, must have bred children for food if you qualified for training to read and write. But Onek Mangsho’s people were far less soft than ours are, in these degenerate times. That was the age of people who knew what to do to survive, and they had no problems doing what they had to do to keep the flame of life going. We should learn from them.
However, Onek Mangsho was one of those regrettable people who do not wish to sacrifice their lives for the common good; and, when he heard of the honour he was offered, instead of going forth boldly to offer up his bared breast for the sacrificial knife, he decided to run away.
Difficult as it is for us, in this lax and permissive age, to believe such an evil deed, it was even more of a deadly and unforgivable sin in that era, when men were men and bravery and self-sacrifice was the code everyone lived by. It is, in fact, a reflection of how utterly contemptible Onek Mangsho was that – instead of offering himself, unasked, for the honour – he waited for it to be bestowed upon him, postponing the moment by every means possible; and when he could postpone it no longer, when the Grand Assembly had decreed that it be his name that should be engraved on the Sublime Column, he decided to run away.
Now this Onek Mangsho was – physically speaking – not a bad specimen, overall; he was not as scrawny as the average man of the time, which means he was – by our standards – almost obscenely obese. Have we not, all of us, seen the art and sculpture of those eras, and salivated at the prospect of sinking our teeth into those succulent muscles, of cracking those robust bones for the marrow? And yet – and yet we are assured that there was once a time when even the men of that era might have been considered emaciated almost to the point of death. It is difficult for us today even to begin to imagine such a plenitude of food, and doubtless there is some truth to the idea that it was a cruel jest passed on down the ages. But, jest or not, the truth is that we are getting thinner and thinner, weaker and weaker; and yet our moral fibre degenerates, and perhaps tomorrow we shall even refuse to eat our children.
To get back to our account: this Onek Mangsho, coward, hypocrite, self-centred scoundrel and moral degenerate, had – when the time finally came, and the Grand Assembly had decreed the honour to be conferred on him – decided to run away. To this end he had, obviously, schemed and prepared for some time, for when the bonfires had been lit and the spices, herbs and oil gathered for the cooking, when the knives and cleavers had been sharpened in preparation; at the end of the three-hour period that the honoured person used to be given to fully savour the honour bestowed on him, when they went to fetch him, they found him not.
Oh, they found how he had got away: the base villain had dug a tunnel from under the floor of his hut to outside the community fence, and there, in the hollow of a rock, he had secreted dried childflesh and water; he had taken along with him the youngest and comeliest two of his five wives, the older three being very properly busily engaged in preparing to slaughter and convert into steaks and sausages their erstwhile lord and master.
I should mention one effect that this villain’s act had on the whole community: from then on, the honoured person was allowed not three hours but three minutes to accept and relish the honour bestowed on him, lest he should prove to be as base a traitor as Onek Mangsho; and during those three minutes he was never let alone, but was caught and held fast by four strong men, with the knife of another at his belly. But that is neither here nor there; our story is concerned with the villain himself, and not to those he callously abandoned to their fate.
Onek Mangsho, despite all his sins, had one virtue. He had once been a great warrior, and at the time of his escape still had the skill and the weapons with which he had devastated the hunting parties set out by other communities, and had many times dragged back the corpses of enemy warriors for the victory feast. At such times, he, as the killer, had of course been given the hearts and testicles of the fallen enemies, and had consumed them with relish; yet they seem not to have filled his own heart and testicles with the courage of those he had dispatched. It may seem blasphemous, but this miserable chronicler dares wonder if there is nothing to the belief that such consumption bestows the consumee’s prowess on the consumer.
What we know of Onek Mangsho’s doings after leaving the community comes to us from the account of his youngest, prettiest, and least illiterate wife, Chheechkaduni, who left an account of their wanderings in a hole in a wall of the ancient and abandoned city which we now call Tomar Matha, though we have no knowledge of its original name. The account, written in human blood on stretched human skin, was found many, many years after it must have been left there, so long indeed that it had almost crumbled to dust, and there are several passages missing. But what is left is enough to serve as a warning to those among us who harbour traitorous thoughts in their hearts. Beware.
Here follows the account of Chheechkaduni, youngest wife of Onek Mangsho. It has been adapted for ease of reading by modernising the archaic, nearly extinct language of the time; and certain passages have been removed by order of the High Monk of the Grand Assembly himself. Annotations, where appended, are by your humble chronicler, and have been in every case approved and blessed by the Literary Council members.
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I must introduce myself to the reader of these chronicles, before I begin describing the wondrous adventures that have come our way.
I am Chheechkaduni, youngest wife and Principal Lover of the Great and Honoured Onek Mangsho, Warrior of Warriors, Light of the Universe, who...(blasphemous passage deleted here, the aim of which was to prove that this Onek Mangsho was right in evading the honour bestowed on him by the Assembly). Perhaps this account of mine will one day reach a more enlightened humanity; if not, no matter. It is enough that I have written it and left it to be found. I can do no more.
We journeyed over the desert hills almost without pause for seven days, knowing that we had to travel as fast as we could to evade the pursuit that must surely follow. We paused only to eat and sleep, and then one of us always kept awake and on guard. While such guard duties were to be shared by the three of us equally, in truth, I must say that in reality only I and my Lord kept watch, for nobody could ever stop the sly and lazy Opodartho from sleeping when she was to keep watch, or eat five mouthfuls of childmeat when she was entitled, like me, to only two. I must say that I had to stay up and watch her during her time on watch, to make sure she did not fall asleep or eat all our remaining food and run away. I wondered every day why my Lord ever decided to bring along Opodartho. She was infinitely more trouble than she was worth. But my Lord does nothing without a reason.
One night, seven days after leaving that village of (derogatory word deleted), we were travelling along the crest of a rocky ridge, when my Lord raised a hand and pointed down to a deep valley on our right. In the depth of that valley, in the indifferent flicker of starlight, my Lord’s amazingly keen eyes had detected the presence of thickets of bushes. And where there is vegetation, there must be water, and perhaps an animal or two to be hunted down and eaten. Our reserves of childmeat and water were indeed low, despite my vigil over Opodartho; and we followed my Lord down into the valley.
I have often imagined those far off days when, we are assured, this world had flowing and stagnant bodies of water, in which creatures lived that we hardly know of, things called “fishes” and others of even stranger nomenclature. Perhaps, in distant parts of the world, far beyond these crags and valleys, such are still to be found. But here in the valley we found about as much as we expected: patches of semi-liquid mud, through which, here and there, water had seeped and gathered in little pools and puddles. Small hopping things fled from our approach and jumped for safety into these pools, but I managed to grab hold of one. It was slippery and shone faintly green in the starlight. It emitted a savage croaking noise and kicked out with long hind legs at my arms, and it was all I could do to hold on to it.
“It may be edible,” Opodartho said, proving once again her utter stupidity and unfitness to accompany us on this journey. “Those legs should contain muscle enough to provide a good meal.”
“No,” said my Lord sharply, putting the snivelling schemer in her place. “I declare it to be inedible, and possibly poisonous. Let it go, Chheechkaduni.”
All the next morning we walked up that valley. Water we got from the reeking puddles. Once, indeed, I spotted a trickle of what appeared to be pure water emerging from a crack in the rock; and the base wench, Opodartho, instantly declared it ready for drinking. But my Lord, with his greater knowledge, forbade us to touch that liquid, for it came from out of the bowels of the earth, where monsters from the depths of hell dwelt, and we passed it by.
On the second day, I found red berries growing on a bush. These, the strumpet Opodartho declared instantly, might be poisonous and should be avoided. No doubt this was merely an attempt on her part to discredit me, but fortunately my Lord saw through her little device and said that they were edible; not just edible, but delicious. In truth, they had a bitter flavour and left a numbing taste on the tongue, but since my Lord...
(A passage is missing.)
...recovered from the stomach cramps we all suffered after eating those berries. I was convinced now that this Opodartho was a witch and had somehow cast a poison-spell over those berries to make them unsuitable for us, because my Lord approved of them. Something had to be done, whenever possible, about her.
In the meantime, as I said, we were in the broken tower we discovered at the head of the valley. The childmeat was finished except for a small bag my Lord held back as an emergency supply, and made sure to keep on his person at all times. This was as well, for I am convinced that otherwise the foul witch Opodartho would have found a means to consume it all. In the meantime we caught some of the lean brown lizards which scurried over the tower and ate them, bones and all. They tasted like baby haunch, but less tender.
On the second evening in the tower, as I have related, I saw, while on watch, a movement far down the valley. I now saw it again, much closer, but still too far away to tell what it was. I woke my Lord and he stood by me and watched for a long time, but the movement, whatever it was, was not repeated. My Lord was, I’m afraid, somewhat vexed with me for disturbing him for nothing. But I am sure there was something. I decided that henceforth I must keep better watch.
The next morning we were, as was our wont sometimes, talking, and somehow the talk turned to speculation about the long-gone time when, the old tales say, water flowed across the land and gathered in huge masses which took many days to cross. Some of these tales, we all agreed, were exaggerated beyond imagining – how could one even think of crossing a great body of water, assuming such a thing existed? – no, we knew, such things as those “rivers” and “seas” must be figments of someone’s imagination.
“But yet,” this Opodartho argued, “it must have been a world of plenty, of richness beyond imagining, if a tenth of the things we hear about it are true. Why, the peoples of the time could afford to rear animals for meat and more – for mere companionship!”
“Nonsense,” I said forthrightly. “Why would they do that? Breeding children for food is much easier and cheaper than rearing animals. Can you imagine having to provide different foodstuffs, housing and so on for animals? Nonsense.”
“You say that,” Opodartho said angrily, “only because of your ignorance. Who said they ate children? Can’t you understand that they may not have eaten children at all?” What further stupidities the vile creature was about to utter were cut off when my Lord raised a hand. “Silence,” he thundered. “How can you imagine a human society that did not eat children? It’s inconceivable. How could they ever feed and clothe all the children they bred if they didn’t eat them?”
I giggled at Opodartho’s discomfiture. “Maybe,” I suggested sweetly, “she thinks that they didn’t breed children at all. Or maybe she thinks they only had three or four each...or even one or two. Can you imagine that?”
Opodartho glared at me spitefully, but my Lord was amused at my comment, and that was all that counted.
Later in the afternoon, for the first time since we left that (derogatory word deleted) village, my Lord made love to us both. Because of Opodartho’s unfortunate seniority, he took her first, and I was left giggling at her clumsy moaning and thrusting, for all the world as though she was a young girl at her first time. And when I twined myself around my Lord and made love to him with all the skills I had at my command, the skills I knew would reduce him to helpless pleasure, the ridiculous wanton looked at me as if she would have loved to squeeze my throat between her thick, graceless hands. The sight stimulated me to redouble my efforts, and I began using all the sexual skills I had learned at...
(A fairly long passage has been deleted here as being both utterly obscene and without the slightest significance to the narrative.)
That night, when I was still awake and lying sore from the vigour of the lovemaking, my Lord came to me and shook me. “Come quickly,” he whispered. “Something is coming.”
I stood beside him on the tower’s parapet and watched. Not far away from us, the bushes were moving and rustling, as though a big and clumsy body were dragging itself through them, and coming closer.
“I owe you an apology,” my Lord murmured, proving what a tremendous man he was. Can anyone imagine any other man apologising to a mere woman? “I should have believed you the other night.”
“What is it?” I whispered back. “A dire lion?”
“No, it’s too big and slow for one of those creatures. I thought at first it might be a pursuit party from the village, but of course it’s too big for them either, and they would rush us instead of coming like that.”
“Do you think we should go down and get close to it and see what it is?”
“No,” my Lord said. “We shall go down from this tower, but we shall proceed in the opposite direction, and put as much distance between this thing, whatever it be, and ourselves before the sun comes up and sinks down once more.” And, after we roused Opodartho (with some difficulty), that is what we did.
Three days later...
(A passage is missing here.)
...then, after we had searched the deserted village but found nothing except more devastation, we moved on beyond, into the scrubby wasteland I have already described. Opodartho was in the lead, when suddenly she stopped and pointed. I saw it at exactly the same moment, a pair of dark eyes glittering at us from beneath a stunted bush. Without breaking stride, my Lord hurled his javelin at the bush, and when we ran to it, sure enough, we found a girl, pinned to the ground with the spear through her shoulder.
“Who did all this?” my Lord demanded, pointing back at the village. “Who destroyed your hamlet?”
Obviously the girl was either stupid or did not understand him, because it was only after he wiggled the spear back and forth in her wound and repeated the question a few times that she answered, gabbling in a language none of us could comprehend. The only bit I could follow was the word “red.”
“Red?” I asked, kicking the girl in the breasts. These primitives need to be handled roughly if one is to get any results. “Red what?”
“Red,” she moaned, her eyes rolling back in her head. “Red...” and she said one more word, which I thought meant “fear.” Then she fell forward to the ground, and when she had done thrashing about we found that she was dead.
After we had eaten as much as we could hold of her and field-packed the rest for later drying, I turned to my Lord. “Red fear? What do you think she meant by that?”
“Probably nothing,” he said. He was obviously irritated and frustrated by his inability to get any information from the girl. “She was half-witted anyway. Besides, you may only have thought she said ‘red fear.’ In her language it might have meant something different.”
“Still,” Opodartho said, “something destroyed the village.” We turned again and saw the shattered huts and the tumbled stockade fence. “And there are no signs of fire, as we saw, or other indication of a raiding party.”
“Plenty of blood trails,” I offered.
“Yes, and what does that prove, if anything?” Opodartho turned to my Lord, as though she were my equal in his eyes and as though her intellect was equivalent to my own. “Lord, we should get as far away from here as possible.”
“No,” I countered. “We need to stay here and see what happens. Maybe whatever did this will come back.”
“And if it comes back...then what? What do you intend to do, huh?”
I ignored the strumpet. “Lord,” I said, “imagine the honour that might come to you if you face and destroy whatever the evil force was that was here. Animal or human, nothing can, of course stand up to your prowess, O Mighty Warrior. Lord, I urge you, fail not this opportunity to make your name famous among the heroes of all ages.” I continued in this vein for some time, maliciously noting that the ugly-faced Opodartho was getting restive and angry.
“I will stay,” said my Lord finally, lifting high his great stabbing spear and his shield. “I will stay and eradicate whatever it might be, man or beast, that has wrought this destruction.” Pointing to a low hill, the top of which was flattened as though cut away by a gigantic knife, he added, “We shall prepare a position...there.”
With the snivelling Opodartho trailing along behind, we climbed the hill and set about preparing a hilltop fortress at the instance of my Lord. First we...
(For reasons of community security, a passage, which may serve to disseminate forbidden military knowledge among those not authorised to receive it, has been omitted.)
When night fell, we had only just finished the preparations, and were tired and eager for food, drink and rest. But our repast was to be sorely interrupted, ere we had taken a mere few bites of the girl’s liver. From near the village, we heard a strange sound, as of a great weight dragging itself slowly over pebbles, and my Lord jumped to his feet with an oath.
“By the teeth of the Cannibal Spirit,” he shouted, “what is that?”
Looking down where he pointed, I saw something as difficult to describe as it was to make out with any clarity – a long, dark shadow, which seemed to be sliding slowly in our direction. It was squat and bulky and moved in a most curious fashion, as if it had no legs or any other appendages, but simply flowed over the rocks. As we watched, it stopped right where we had butchered the girl’s carcass, and seemed to be moving one end to and fro.
“It’s smelling the blood,” Opodartho said quietly.
Slowly, as if drawn by an invisible rope, the front end of the thing turned away from the spot and towards us. Moving away from the remaining fragments of the girl, it came right up the slope of our hill, and, even though it was no easier to see clearly, we could no longer deny its gargantuan size.
“I knew we should have moved on,” the cowardly Opodartho said, backing away from the parapet of our little fortress. “It was a blunder to tarry here.”
“Hah,” I cried. “It’s so slow that whatever it is, we can defeat it without trouble. It’s never going to make it over the parapet.”
“It’s speeding up,” Opodartho said, and I could not deny it. The thing, whatever it was, had suddenly begun to pick up speed. It came bouncing up the hill, throwing aside rocks and uprooting bushes as it came, and as it got closer I could hear a demented hissing.
“In the name of the Cannibal Spirit,” my Lord shouted, and hurled his light javelin. The spear flew through the air, its arc sure and true, and as it plunged downwards the starlight glinted on its blade and showed, just for an instant, a glimpse of dull red hide. Then the spear slid home into its target, and for a moment the night was still.
I said a moment; but a moment only. An instant later the creature reared up with a shrill scream and came up the hill at such a rate that the earth almost seemed to explode. As it came, I saw dim eyes, which swivelled evilly, and Opodartho later claimed to have been able to see gnashing teeth, but of course one could never trust anything she said. Be that as it may, all of us now could see the dull red colour of the creature, and smell its foetid breath. It came on unstoppably, simply flowing over the sharpened stakes my Lord had planted so carefully in the afternoon, splintering them under its weight.
“Run,” screamed the base Opodartho.
“No, stay and destroy it!” I shouted, but I was too late. My Lord had heard the vile woman first and his mind had made its decision in that moment.
“Run,” he shouted, and he and Opodartho turned and sprinted down the hill, not even pausing to pick up the bags of girlmeat. Left alone, obviously I could not wait, helpless, for the red thing now hurtling towards me, so I too, turned and left, though not before grabbing the remainder of the liver. I tore at it with my teeth as I ran, and behind me I heard a crashing and commotion. The creature had broken into our hilltop fortress and was smashing everything to bits – and in all probability feasting on what was left of the girl.
It was dawn when I came up to the others. My Lord was leaning on his stabbing spear, his pose determined and manly. At his feet, the vile Opodartho was curled up on a slab of rock, and for one moment I thought she was sleeping. Then I discovered she was shivering with terror.
“It’s still behind us,” I reported, fighting down the urge to kick the cowardly Opodartho in the spine. Besides, my feet were sore and bleeding, and her hard peasant back might break my toes. “I could hear it coming all the way.”
We all paused a moment and in the distance we could hear the slow dragging.
“It can’t move fast for a long time, it seems,” my Lord said. “But when it moves fast, it moves very fast.”
“What is it?” I asked. “Do you have any idea?”
Just for once I saw my Lord appear baffled. “No,” he admitted, “but it is a creature of Hell, sure enough.”
“We must run!” shouted Opodartho. “Now!”
“No.” My Lord listened to the dragging sounds, which were coming steadily closer. “We can’t keep running,” he said. “It will catch us up in the end. We have to make a stand somewhere.”
“Where?” I looked around us. In the early light of dawn I saw we were standing on the edge of a desolate plain. Not far was an ancient edifice of brick and stone. Once it might have been a great building, but the roof had fallen in and the crumbled walls were only a fraction as high they once were. “There’s nowhere to make a stand,” I said, “except there, in that thing.”
“Then,” intoned my Lord gravely, “that’s where we must make it.”
It took us till well past sunrise to reach the edifice. The distance was rather greater than we had thought. Once in it, we looked around, a cold fear settling into our hearts. This was no stronghold; the red thing could hunt us through the maze of rooms and corridors and destroy us one by one.
“On the walls,” Opodartho suddenly said. “That’s the only place we might just be safe...on top of the walls.”
Now, of course, this was a ridiculous suggestion, but my Lord for some reason accepted it. “Help me,” he grunted, and after I had given him a leg-up he pulled first Opodartho and me on top of the walls. These walls were thick and substantial, so that we were in no immediate danger of falling off, but of course our position was ridiculous. Any suggestion of Opodartho’s could not but put us in a situation which was ridiculous.
“Here it comes,” said my Lord, pointing.
In the early daylight, we finally saw the red creature clearly. It was crawling across the plain towards us, its long, cylindrical body heaving, its heavy head with the dim cruel eyes rising and falling, and the short trunk in the front of its head swelling as it hissed rhythmically. It was almost as broad as it was long, and as it came it crushed down the earth and left the flattened track I had remarked as we had approached the destroyed village.
“There,” my Lord said, “you can see my javelin in it.” The light spear was like a tiny bristle in the immense thing’s back.
“It scarcely seems to notice it,” Opodartho observed.
“It means it can be hurt,” I snapped. “It means spears can enter its body.” Even as I spoke the thing seemed to see us. It raised its head, hissed so loudly that it sounded almost like a scream, and began to rush headlong across the desert.
“Get ready,” my Lord said, his heavy stabbing spear poised. All Opodartho and I had were our knives; long and sharp, but pitifully inadequate for the task at hand.
I have only a confused impression of what happened in the next few moments. The red horror smashed into the walls below us, splintering the ancient doorway and pushing into the narrow passages and rooms. As it went, the walls heaved and swayed as in an earthquake, but they held. Round and round the red thing went below us, raising its head and hissing, its evil little eyes fixed on us, but it could not reach us, no matter how hard it tried.
“But we can’t do a thing to it, either,” I shouted to the doltish Opodartho, who had put us in this situation, before she could say a word. “We’re trapped here on top of the walls.”
“Jump down on its back,” she called to my Lord, for all the world as if I didn’t exist. “Jump on its back and stab it behind the head!”
And – do you know – this is just what he did! Before I could reach him and hold him back, he leaped lightly down and the next I saw of him he was standing on the immense red back, stabbing down into its neck over and over again.
“Lord!” I screamed. “Beware!” But he would not even look up at me. I ran quickly down towards the head end of the creature, and could see it beginning to heave and thresh in its death throes. I knew how lethally dangerous those throes could be, but before I could scream another warning I felt someone next to me. It was Opodartho of course.
“Stab it again,” she shouted. “Just behind the head, in line with the midpoint, and lean into the thrust this time! Drive it in to the hilt!”
Obviously, the vile woman had only one desire – that my Lord be destroyed in the final thrashing of the dying creature. I would do anything – anything – to prevent that, and if I had to make a sacrifice to achieve it I would. Opodartho stood just next to me, leaning forward in her excitement. With a slight thrust of my hand I sent her toppling forward onto the creature. A moment later, I had hoped, she would be dead.
Unfortunately, that did not happen. What actually occurred was that she fell right on the creature’s head, and the knife in her hand slipped, with all her weight behind it, into the gelid mass at the base of its trunk and between the cruel little eyes, slicing through its leathery skull and into its savage brain. The immense carcass seemed to jump, and then fell back to the ground. A final tremble and it was over.
I climbed down to the ground, eager to congratulate my Lord on his victory and claim my reward, but what was my anger and astonishment when I found him clasping the vile Opodartho in his arms and pressing his mouth to hers! And right in front of me they stripped till they were quite naked, and...
(Obscene passage deleted.)
But I was determined to have my revenge on the strumpet. Some weeks later we...
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And here the account of the woman Chheechkaduni ends. It is certain that there was much more of it, and perhaps someday the remainder shall be found, although it is scarcely to be said to be worth the search. The woman’s blasphemous and shameless writings are useful in only one particular: in warning us of the terrible dangers we risk if we betray and venture out of our communities.
About the “red fear” she mentions, it is scarcely necessary to emphasise that such a creature has never existed and cannot exist. The High Monk himself has so declared, and therefore we need have no doubts on the matter whatsoever. Obviously, that portion of the woman’s account is utterly fictional and unreliable, and created only for self-aggrandizement and to confuse and delude anyone unfortunate enough to read it uncritically. But, indeed, there are dangers in the desert, dangers beyond estimation.
For instance, reports have recently come in of entire communities devastated by a shambling hairy black form which comes in the night, destroys everything, and vanishes into the darkness.
They are calling it the Howling Harbinger of Horror.
Oh Cannibal Spirit, protect us. Blessed be thy Name.
THE TERROR OF THE TOWN
O Lords and Ladies, Exalted Ones, I beg that you accept my salutations. Before I begin my account, I beg to assure you that I am a loyal, humble, and innocent man. My name is Nishkormar Dhari, and I work as a messenger for the Monastic Order of the Cannibal Spirit. These facts are yours for the checking.
On a certain day not long ago, I was – for reasons which have nothing to do with the matter in hand – spending a day alone in the forsaken stone city of Tomar Matha. While turning over some loose stones in a crumbling ancient wall, I came across a tiny box of wood, weathered and worm-eaten with age. As you all are aware, such finds should be handed over to the High Monk of the Grand Assembly himself; and I assure you that this is what I was about to do. But the wretched object was so fragile that when I put it down on a flat rock, the slight pressure of my fingers was enough to cause it to fall to pieces. Inside, I discovered a tight roll of manuscript, written in blood on parchment made of human skin. It was evidently part of a much larger document, but I, being a conscientious and diligent man, decided that I ought to read what I had and discover if it was worthy of the waste of time of the High Monk himself. I assure you that I had no thought of personal gain at all when I read this.
Soon enough, I discovered that it was the work of the woman Chheechkaduni, consort of the ancient traitor Onek Mangsho, of whom the Grand Assembly has declared that he was one of the vilest men ever to have lived. This Chheechkaduni’s writing had earlier been discovered in partial form, and formally declared to be worthless by the High Monk himself and ceremoniously burned in the Sacrificial Fire of the Cannibal Temple. However, the doings of such traitors remain a source of warning to us all, of the ease with which it is possible to go astray; and it was only with the object of improving myself with a view to being a better servant of the Cannibal Spirit that I read the contents of those pages. It is not true that I was hoping to find clues to the treasures Onek Mangsho is rumoured to have buried. Such claims are lies, the work of envious and malicious tongues.
In order to prove myself innocent of the slanderous charges these hatemongers have been attempting to bring against me, I shall now make a full disclosure of the contents of the parchments I discovered.
Listen to what the woman Chheechkaduni wrote, O Exalted Ones, and decide for yourselves if I have been wronged.
Two days after we had, as I have described, finally defeated the Gibbering Ghouls of Ghoom, my Lord Onek Mangsho decided that we should travel to the town of Chyachamechi, of which we had heard from sundry travellers. This town was several days’ journey across the great plain of Paleesh, where not a drop of water and not a morsel of food are to be found, so that we had to deplete our own stocks until there was almost none left. The woman Opodartho, whom my Lord still, for some unfathomable reason, maintained as the senior of his two remaining wives, complained bitterly at the folly of wasting all we had without knowing what we would find at the end of it all, and when I, with a superior smile, informed her that the Lord Onek Mangsho knew best, she snorted at me most rudely. I resolved to make her pay for this at the earliest available opportunity.
On the fifth day of our journey across the plain, we came by a small group of travellers. We approached them with the caution natural to all such encounters, but they were glad to see us and made us welcome and plied us with food and wine, whereupon my Lord bestowed on me the honour of being the taster. When no evil befell me we all fell to with gusto, and ate and drank our fill. After this, as we sat round the burning fire of dried twigs and desiccated dung, our temporary hosts began asking us questions of who we were and where we were headed. My Lord parried these questions with ease, but in turn asked about the conditions in the environs of Chyachamechi. Our companions fell momentarily silent; and then, after looking at each other, they informed us that they had not visited Chyachamechi but had heard that there was a fortune to be made there.
“Then why,” inquired the Lord Onek Mangsho, reasonably enough, “do you not go there yourselves, and earn this fortune?”
“It is not so simple to earn,” said the leader of the group, and after that he would say no more.
That night, naturally enough, we took it in turns to stand watch so that our temporary companions would not kill us in our sleep; and they, just as naturally, took turns at watch to make sure of not being killed by us; and when dawn peeped over the horizon our two groups went their separate ways.
“Do not try to earn this fortune,” the leader of the other group shouted while still in earshot. “Not if you value your lives!”
Late the next morning, while the sun was almost directly overhead, we finally arrived at Chyachamechi.
Chyachamechi – I am embarrassed to say – was the first large town I had ever seen, or at least the first inhabited town I had ever seen. As we passed through the huge gates set in the high sandstone walls, I am afraid my mouth literally fell open as I gazed at the flood of humanity. There must have been quite a thousand people within the confines of the first set of walls, buying and selling their various wares, many of which I could never identify, their shouts and din seeming to make the skies ring with noise; and beyond the outer walls were the inner walls, which surrounded the city proper, a megalopolis of mind-numbing proportions. Indeed, without engaging in hyperbole, an act heartily detested by my Lord Onek Mangsho, I may fairly say that the city might have held forty thousand souls.
My Lord took us first to the meat market. This was always the first port of call in a strange city, because one had to provide for oneself, as the inns did not provide food any longer with the intensification of the Famine. Besides, as my Lord explained to us, the meat market was always the best fount of information and gossip, the part of any city where the rich and poor mingled and swapped stories, and could be overheard.
The meat market of Chyachamechi lay on the western side of the city, between the outer and inner walls, and was guarded by a stockade made of stout sharpened stakes. The ground underfoot was muddy, and I was surprised at this until I happened to pick up some of the mud on my toes and found that the earth was wetted by blood, not water.
Bidding us wait, my Lord wandered off into the crowd. Before losing sight of him, I noticed that he paused, as though accidentally, within earshot of many of the groups of men and women who stood here and there, talking loudly and gesticulating.
The meat market comprised two parallel rows of stalls, each hung with sides of meat, some of them still warm and quivering. A small group of slaves waited gloomily, guarded by men with pikes. Every once in a while one would be led by a rope round his neck behind a screen to be slaughtered. Once or twice some great house’s major domo came and purchased an entire slave, pointing out the one he wanted. It was as amusing to see the rest of the slaves shrink from his pointing finger as it was to see them shiver with fear to hear the screams of the one led behind the screen, and I was openly amused.
“This is degrading,” the vile woman Opodartho said to me. “We should not be taking pleasure in their terror and pain.”
“Why not?” I asked, surprised at the new-found depths of the woman’s stupidity. “They’re going to die anyway, aren’t they, whether we laugh at them or not? Or are you still...” I broke off then, because the Lord Onek Mangsho returned from a stall carrying a bloody haunch of meat in his hands. “Let’s go,” he said.
“What have you found out, Lord?” asked Opodartho, crass as always. I smirked as my Lord frowned at her over his shoulder and walked on without answering. After all, if and when he was ready to tell us, he would; and then he would tell me, of course, as I was infinitely more intelligent, as well as being prettier and more desirable.
My Lord led us between the walls to a spot where, not far from the midden heap under a watchtower, there was a fire burning, consuming a huge pile of rubbish. Carving the meat into pieces with his knife, he roasted them, turning the pieces over and over in the fire till they browned. The smell of the meat was as good as its appearance, but Opodartho still looked unhappy.
“What’s the problem, glum-face?” I asked. “Do you still think we shouldn’t be eating this?”
“What’s that?” my Lord asked, prodding a piece of roast meat to see if it was done.
“She thinks it’s cruel to eat the slaves,” I laughed. “Maybe she thinks we should eat those furry black animals with long tails that run around in the corners of the granaries...or even roots and things. Is that right, Opodartho? Do you think we should eat roots and leaves?”
I would have loved to have thrown the strumpet into a state of total and stammering confusion, but unfortunately just then there was an interruption. From the direction of the main gate of the city, someone who was evidently an important Personage walked past, followed by a virtual army of attendants. There must have been quite twenty of them.
“Look at that man,” my Lord said, pointing to the Personage, who didn’t so much walk as waddled; he was so obese that he actually seemed to have the beginnings of a second chin, as we hear in the accounts of ancient times when food was allegedly more plentiful. “Look at that man – we have to wangle an interview with him, before nightfall.”
“Why?” Both Opodartho and I looked at the Personage with more interest than hitherto. Apparently there was more to him than all the jiggling fat. He was, we saw, dressed in a robe of fine white shimmering cloth, and bore a golden plate on a chain round his neck. His boots were of some soft grey material, and he had a small red cap stuck far back on his head. He looked ridiculous.
“He’s the prime advisor of the king of Chyachamechi,” my Lord said. “Nobody, at least nobody among the common people, sees the king himself, and I heard one or two in the market who doubted his very existence. But everyone knows this fellow, and I have to talk to him.”
“Why?” I asked again. Sometimes my Lord could be very annoying.
“Eat,” my Lord said, and handed two large pieces of meat to Opodartho and me. I couldn’t help noticing that despite her avowed reluctance, the vile woman scoffed down the meat with all evidence of relish.
“Remember,” my Lord said, when we had all eaten, “that those travellers we had fallen in with had mentioned a fortune to be made here.” He wiped his fingers on his robe, a fastidious habit he had picked up from somewhere, instead of just licking them like everyone else. “Well, if we are to attempt to secure that fortune for ourselves, we must have the sanction of the rulers of Chyachamechi, and the only ruler who really matters is that man.” We could still see him in the far distance, jiggling his way towards one of the gates set in the inner walls.
“What must we do to secure that fortune?” I asked.
“I have an idea,” my Lord said, “but we should find out from him ourselves. Let’s go.”
As we trudged towards the fat man and his group of acolytes, my Lord began hunting around in his bag and finally brought out an object which I recognised as the ruby we had taken, as I have already described, from the Pirates of Jaladashyu. The stone glowed in his hand like a rich drop of blood and I saw Opodartho eyeing it greedily. She hadn’t, of course, a hope of ever laying her claws on it – my Lord had so obviously been keeping it for me that I hadn’t even needed to ask. All the same, the sight of her salivating over the stone was so disagreeable to me that I moved up beside my Lord and was just about to ask him to give it to me then and there, when he spoke:
“I wonder if this will be enough of a gift to satisfy him.”
I was thunderstruck. “Gift?”
“Well, of course. Why on earth do you think I’ve been carrying this along so long instead of selling it for food or clothes or weapons? You know how badly we need all three. I knew the time would come when we’d have use of it for a gift, or a bribe. I just hope he isn’t so greedy that he wants more.”
He fell silent then, because walking as slowly as we were, we had still almost come within earshot of the group we were following. A pair of armed sentries was stationed at the inner gate, but they stood aside for the fat man and made only a perfunctory attempt to challenge us. Indeed, they looked so tired and famished that even Opodartho might have defeated one of them in hand-to-hand combat. I mentioned this to my Lord in a whisper.
“They aren’t long for this world anyway,” he said enigmatically.
We caught up to the fat man near a large building of honey-coloured stone. The statues of grinning angular demons stood at the corners of this edifice, and there were pans of clotting blood set in front of them. Apparently it was some form of temple to the Chyachamechi version of the Cannibal Spirit.
“Lord High Advisor Mathamota,” my Lord called. “May we have the pleasure of talking with you for a moment?” He was speaking in the trade language, of which we all, even Opodartho, had a fair command by this time.
“Uhf?” The fat man was even more repulsively fat close up. Not only did he actually have the beginnings of a double chin, his robe bulged slightly over his waist belt as if he had that mythical object, a paunch. “What do you want?”
“We would like to present this to you as a token of our goodwill, sir.” And my Lord, bowing slightly, placed my ruby in that pudgy hand. How I seethed!
“Who are you?” Mathamota slipped the ruby so quickly into a pouch under his robes that it disappeared in a flash. Ah, how I still mourn my ruby! How I had dreamed of the day I would feel it dangling between my breasts, all the better to score off Opodartho with! How I had longed to trail it across my Lord’s chest as I made love to him, sending him into transports of ecstasy with my skills, ecstasy he could never have felt with Opodartho’s clumsy thrusting! There are a hundred other treasures I have had over the years, but all would I have gladly exchanged for that ruby. I shall never forget it.
But to get back to my story. “I am...” my Lord hesitated so slightly that only I, who knew him so well, noticed the hesitation. “I am called Mithyakotha,” he said. “You may have heard of me? Mithykotha, the Monster Killer?”
“Yes, of course, of course,” said the fat man. “To be sure we have heard of you, and speculated on your coming. In fact I recognised you instantly, didn’t I?” His flunkies all nodded dutifully. “And who are these?”
“Them?” My Lord waved casually. “These are just...women. Unimportant. Now, my Lord High Advisor, I would like a few moments with you alone, if I may?”
“You can, of course,” said Mathamota. “Come.” He led the way up the stairs of the temple place. With a hand gesture to us to wait, my Lord followed him up and through the heavy iron-studded door at the top.
Left to ourselves, Opodartho and I stood together, enduring the lascivious stares of the score of hangers-on who had been following Mathamota. Some of them passed obvious remarks at us, but in their language, which my Lord could follow but neither I, nor, of course, the idiot woman Opodartho, could understand. Most of them seemed to be staring at Opodartho, even though I was obviously far prettier; but that only proved that they recognised the woman’s essentially sluttish nature.
While waiting, I took the opportunity to look around. The streets of the inner city of Chyachamechi were narrow and paved with irregularly shaped stones, and lined by tall houses, none of which had windows on the ground floor, although from the first floor upwards there were many. Also, while the walls at street level were all made of stone, higher up they were of brick, much of it crumbling and in relatively poor repair. I remarked on this fact to Opodartho, who shrugged and said only “Doubtless there is some reason for it.”
Many people were passing by on all sides, so many that I had never seen such a throng before, people of all social classes, many of them pulling carts loaded down with merchandise. Now not far from the spot at which we were standing was a small square where several streets crossed, and in the centre of that square was what I took to be a well with a low wall around it, such as we had in the accursed village of – well, the place from which we started our adventures. I noticed a strange thing – that the crowd of people seemed to hurry by that well and avert their eyes from it. It was a singular thing that in all the time we waited there, I did not see a single person, man or woman, but turned his or her face away and almost trot past the structure.
I was filled with curiosity about it, and thought to walk over and have a look. But my Lord had asked us to wait, and would be vexed if he emerged while I was gone and not find me there waiting; my Lord was sometimes short of temper, as we had found to our detriment during the affair of the Sacrificer of Shoshan I talked about earlier in this account of our travels. Besides, the stupid Opodartho could hardly be left like that alone in the middle of the street; not that I cared what happened to her, but my Lord had asked me to wait with her and so I must.
By this time the shadows of evening had begun to steal upon us, as the sun had sunk below the line of the city walls, and another strange thing happened. The people who had been going back and forth on their various errands, buying and selling things in small stalls on the roadsides, all suddenly began to hurry home. The stall owners also rapidly packed up their goods and disappeared. Soon, the street was almost empty, except for distant hastening figures, and except for Mathamota’s escort, who had begun to look extremely uncomfortable themselves as the time passed with no appearance of their lord and master.
“What’s going on with them?” Opodartho asked me, as if noticing things for the first time. I had often remarked how unobservant, as well as how stupid, she was. I shrugged, but decided that I might as well find out, so walked over towards the escort and called, in the trade language, “Friends, can you tell me what is wrong? Why is everyone hurrying homewards?”
They were muttering among themselves in their own incomprehensible tongue and scarcely looked at me. I was just about to ask again, in somewhat more direct terms, when the heavy door at the top of the stairs creaked open and my Lord emerged, Mathamota just behind him. The fat man stood, legs apart, on the top stair and beckoned to his acolytes, who rushed up the steps to him. Mathamota conferred briefly with them, and one, scarcely more than a boy, came reluctantly down the stairs with my Lord, while the others entered the temple with Mathamota without a backward glance. The metal-studded door slammed shut.
“Come,” said my Lord, walking off with scarcely a look at us.
“Where?” He was walking so fast that both Opodartho and I had to trot to keep up. “Where, Lord?”
Instead of answering us directly, my Lord turned to the boy who was walking along with us with every indication of deep uneasiness. “Which way, boy? What is your name again?”
“Ichoreypaka,” the boy said, reluctantly. “Not far from here, my Lord Mithyakotha.” I blinked at the name before remembering that this was how my Lord had introduced himself to Mathamota. We were in the square, and the boy was walking as far away from the well as possible, and looking at the wall to his left. I thought to have a quick peek into the structure, but my Lord called me back.
“Don’t stray,” he snapped, in our language. “This place is dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Opodartho and I looked at each other. The city was overcrowded and overnoisy, to be sure, but had struck neither of us as dangerous. “What do you mean, Lord?”
“Later. Is this the place, boy?”
“Yes,” the boy who had introduced himself as Ichoreypaka said, leading us to the platform on which stood what I recognised to be a low watchtower set in the inner wall, looking out over the city. “The door can be locked from inside, Lord. Do you wish me to wait with you?”
“No,” said my Lord thoughtfully, looking at the yellow cast of terror on the youth’s features. “You can go.”
Looking as though he had just won a reprieve from execution, the boy turned and literally ran down the nearest street, sprinting for all he was worth.
“There is a monster,” my Lord Onek Mangsho said.
We were sitting in the room at the top of the tower, the large windows opposite us looking down on the streets, the well we had passed just visible in the distance. We were only a little above the level of the roofs of the buildings, and as yet there was just enough light for me to confirm my impressions that the upper floors were constructed much less solidly than the lower, and kept in much worse repair. Even though the brickwork round the windows of the tower was crumbling, the wall at the bottom was of stone blocks as thick as the spread of my arms, and the door was of some heavy dark wood, undoubtedly of immense age, reinforced by iron bands and set with iron spikes long enough to impale anyone who attempted to force it.
“A monster?” The last of the sun had just vanished, and darkness was stealing over the city, but no lamps had yet been lit. In this hour the city looked abandoned, silent and deserted. “What monster?”
“It lives in the caverns below the city, and at night it emerges from apertures such as the one there, the well in the square. There are many of them, all over the city. It stalks the streets all night, I’m told, and returns to its lair shortly before dawn. Anyone whom it finds on the street, it promptly devours.”
“It does? Why don’t they simply seal up the wells then?”
“I asked that,” my Lord said, nodding at me approvingly. “Apparently the wells double up as water wells, and slaves go down in the morning, when the monster is supposed to be back in its lair, to fetch water for the city. Sometimes they don’t come back.”
“Is the city built on a pool of water then?” Opodartho asked, demonstrating her stupidity. “A giant underground pool of water?”
I could not help it – I bust out into a peal of laughter. “A pool of water that big?” I asked, between fits of the giggles. “Next she’ll say that there are rivers and lakes under the ground. And before you know it, she’ll say that those rivers and lakes have those scaly creatures we hear of in mythology, what d’you call them, fish; and then she’ll say those fish are blind, because they spend their lives in the dark. Opodartho, you’ll kill me with laughing one day!”
“Shush,” my Lord said, but he was smiling too. Opodartho blushed in shame and confusion, as I was glad to see. Far away, something flashed in a window, and then in another, as lamps were lit. The darkness settled down on the streets, thick and impenetrable.
“Why do they all rush indoors at dusk,” Opodartho asked suddenly, “if the monster comes out at night?”
“Maybe it comes out at different times each evening,” my Lord replied shrugging. “Maybe it comes out at different parts of the city each evening. I don’t see that it matters.”
“So, in order to earn this fortune, we are to kill the monster?” I rummaged in my bag and found a few crusts of the hard bread which people of these parts bake from old hay and the sweepings of granaries. We had eaten nothing all day except the haunch of slave meat at noon, so I handed a crust to my Lord and one – reluctantly, the stupid creature had neglected to save any of her own, and by rights should have been allowed to starve – to Opodartho, between biting into one myself. “How do we do that?”
“Nobody can say. If they could, they would have done it for themselves, or maybe not.” My Lord spat a tiny pebble out of his crust. “They’re pretty poor specimens, as you may have gathered.”
“What kind of monster is it? Did he say? And how long has it been troubling them?”
“It’s been around as long as they can remember – that’s why they lavish all their building skills to turn their lower floors into fortresses. But as to what kind of monster it is...well. All they do, apparently, is lie down behind locked doors and listen to its roaring as it goes back and forth. None of them even looks out of the window – they daren’t, the fat man said.” Now my Lord looked as well as sounded disgusted. “I wouldn’t have bothered – let them keep their monster. But I want that fortune.”
“What fortune is it?” I asked curiously, my thoughts drifting back to my ruby.
“Apparently they have a treasury, and the hero who rids them of the monster can have his pick of it, as much as he can carry.”
“And nobody has come forward to claim this treasure?” I asked sceptically. “My Lord, I am afraid I find that very difficult to believe.”
“He said that over the years half a hundred or more heroes have tried,” my Lord answered, “but the monster had slain them all. I think, though, as I told him, that this monster has not encountered the like of Mithyakotha the Monster Killer and his two lovely companions.”
“And what are we doing here on this tower?”
“Waiting for it to show. This tower was constructed specifically to house heroes waiting to kill this monster, it appears.”
“And the monster killed them all,” I pointed out.
“Such a monster should not be an insurmountable adversary for people who have exterminated the likes of the Shrieking Savage of Shomoy Shesh, do you?”
“Sounds interesting,” I said, thinking that I ought to get my Lord to allow me to help select the jewels to take away after we had destroyed the monster. “My Lord –“
“Roaring?” Opodartho interrupted abstractly, her brain, as usual, running far behind the conversation. “It sounds as though that was a roar I just heard.”
We all fell silent, and after a while in the distance I thought I heard something. I must, however reluctantly, admit that Opodartho’s hearing was better than mine; not too unusually, of course, since she was a peasant and used since childhood to no sound except that of wind and water, while my more refined ears were attuned to music and not so fit for hearing the sounds of the outdoors. After a while I thought it came again.
“Look,” Opodartho said. “Everyone’s shut off their lamps.” Indeed, darkness had fallen all over the city we could see from our windows. All there was now was the light from the stars.
“It might be a dire lion, from beyond the city walls.”
Even as I said this, there was a loud sound from only a street or two away. It was not a roar so much as a grinding, scraping noise, such as one made by someone sawing wood with a blunt saw, only so loud that I felt the vibration in my back teeth.
“That’s no dire lion,” Opodartho said, stating the blindingly obvious as usual.
“What do we do now, Lord?” I asked.
“We wait and watch,” he said.
Time passed. We sat in darkness, our weapons to hand, watching. Several times more we heard the roar, but always from other parts of the city. From time to time I would relieve my Lord at the window and take over the watch. Of course I did not allow Opodartho to take her turn at the vigil, because of her extreme laziness as well as her stupidity. In this way, much of the night passed.
It must have been beyond midnight, and I had just moved away from the window so my Lord, refreshed by a period of sleep, could take over, when he hissed at me. “Look down,” he whispered furiously. “How could you have missed it?”
“What?” I went back beside my Lord, who was pointing down at the inky darkness of the street below us. “I don’t see anything,” I complained.
My Lord had just opened his mouth to reply when such a roar came from below us that I almost jumped out of my clothes. At the same moment I saw a movement right at the foot of the tower, near the platform, something vast and indefinite and greyish. It moved along the street, almost till it would be out of the shadow of the inner city wall and in the starlight. And then, just before we could have seen it more clearly, it turned and came back again.
“It knows we’re up here,” Opodartho breathed in my ear. I’d thought the woman was sleeping, but I suppose even she could not have slept through that roar.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped. “How could it know we’re up here?”
But it seemed that (by pure accident, of course) the slut was right on this occasion. The greyish shadow stopped just below us, and roared again. A moment later we all felt an impact as of something slamming against the foot of the tower, an impact that made the entire structure tremble ever so slightly.
“It knows,” Opodartho repeated, in case we hadn’t got the point.
“It won’t find it so easy to break in,” my Lord observed, “not with the stone walls and that door.” The impact came again, even harder than the first time. “Let’s see what it’s like, anyhow.”
There was a shower of sparks and a yellow flame as he set fire to one of the torches we all carried in our bags. The resin-soaked rags round the end of the shaft flared up, burning brightly, and he tossed the torch out of the window. We all leaned over just in time to see something huge and glistening white disappear into the foot of the tower.
“It’s inside!” Opodartho gasped.
“But...how...” I was certain that it could not have broken that door down, still less those walls. “How...”
“The how of it can wait,” my Lord snapped, most unjustly I felt, since he had tolerated Opodartho’s inanities without a protest. “We have more important matters at hand.”
Snatching up his great stabbing spear, the one that was so heavy that he could not thrust it one-handed, he rushed down the stairs. We each gathered up his other spears, I taking the lighter stabbing spear and Opodartho the javelin, and followed him. Opodartho, I noticed, paused long enough to snatch up a torch and a flint to light it; thinking this not too bad an idea, I also did the same.
I think I have not described the internal arrangement of this tower; it comprised a broad spiral staircase that connected the room at the top to the door at the bottom. This staircase was wrapped round a thick central column of stone, and the inner city side was pierced at numerous points between first floor and the room at the top by narrow windows little more than slits. In the evening, these slits had admitted some light, but even then the stairs had been very dark and we had been glad that the steps were so broad and shallow. Now, at night, they were plunged into blackness so profound that – even on the side with windows – we could see nothing at all.
“Lord,” I called. “Please be careful. Wait till we fire a torch for us to see by.”
“Shh. Can you not hear it?”
“Hear what?” But even as I said the words I could hear something, like the dragging of a slow heavy body up stone stairs. “I hear something, but...”
Before I could say another word I felt a hand clamped over my mouth, cutting off further sound. It was Opodartho. Shaking with anger at her temerity, I had to submit to her grip for the moment. Now we could all hear it, the dragging noise accompanied by heavy breathing. I sensed rather than saw my Lord raise his great stabbing spear with both hands.
The next moment I felt myself pushed aside. Opodartho leaped past me, hurling herself at the form of my Lord, and they both fell heavily against the inner wall, just below one of the narrow slit windows. I was about to throw myself on the villainous woman, to rid the world of her once and for all, when I suddenly became aware that between the others and me was a shadow.
It was low, about as high as my waist, and broad as the stairs, and so long that I could not discern the end of it; it seemed to me that the end merged into the central column of stone. It moved back and forth, so quickly that I believe that had it not been so constricted by the walls of the tower, it would have caught me at once even as I precipitously retreated up the stairs. “Lord...”
“Chheechkaduni!” I heard Onek Mangsho shout. “Get back up to the top!”
“I’m trying,” I called. But even as I tried to scramble up, the huge shadow was following me, still moving faster than I was. So fast was it, indeed, that I turned, at bay, and stabbed at it with my spear.
This was a mistake.
With a force impossible for me to withstand, the shadow slammed into my legs, knocking me down and sending me sliding across the stairs to collide heavily with the wall. I lay half stunned, the spear fallen from my hand, gasping for breath and unable to move, and waited to be eaten, or whatever it was that this creature wanted to do to me.
An instant later yellow light blazed in the tower as Opodartho set fire to a torch, and hurled it up towards me. (I have tried to decide since just why she did it – probably in an attempt to burn me alive, I think, but her attempt to murder me had the opposite effect.) The torch arced through the air and landed, showering sparks, next to my hand. Instinctively, I snatched it up and thrust it at the shadow, which paused and shrank away.
In the flaring light, I had a glimpse of a head, so large that it filled up the breadth of the stair, of glistening white, blunt and eyeless. Just behind the head were what appeared to be waving branches covered with blood-red leaves. It was huge – so big that I couldn’t see the end of the glistening white form. I pushed myself erect and took a step down towards the creature, holding my torch out towards it. The thing swung away from the torch and began to retreat down the stairs, and as it went I noticed that it seemed to go on its belly though it had a pair of legs just behind the waving red branches.
Then there was another light blazing further down the tower as Opodartho ignited a second torch, and she and my Lord came rushing up the stairs, my Lord stabbing at the white flank of the creature with his spear. It hissed loudly, but continued to retreat, and as I came down the stairs after it I could confirm my earlier impression that it had no eyes. A moment later, quick as a bursting bubble, it was gone.
Its disappearance was so sudden that I found myself standing, torch in hand, staring foolishly at my Lord and Opodartho, who stood looking back at me, spear and torch in their hands poised. It was, I am ashamed to say, the strumpet who recovered first, and who pointed to an aperture near my feet in the central shaft of the spiral staircase. “It went down there.”
The aperture was already closing, even as I watched, evidently by means of a block of stone swinging shut on a pivot. With considerable courage and sense of duty, though I do say so myself, I thrust my torch and head through the gap long enough to be able to take a quick glimpse before the stone swung so far shut as to force me to withdraw. I saw a sloping spiral ramp heading downwards, and, already almost too far away to see, the creature itself, wriggling downwards at an amazing rate. If not for its red branches and short legs, it would have looked like a gigantic white worm.
“It’s going down, fast,” I reported. My Lord had already turned and started down the stairs. “It must have some way of coming out of the shaft,” he said. “If we can get down fast enough, we can catch it as it comes out.”
We ran down the stairs, as quickly as we could, the flickering light of the torches throwing weird shadows on the wall, shadows which seemed to reach at us with talons to rip us apart, so that we constantly flinched and looked over our shoulders. Somehow, we all arrived at the heavy metal door at the bottom, breathless, but none the worse for our precipitous descent. I don’t know what we had expected to find, perhaps the door lying smashed and swinging from its hinges or a huge hole in the stone wall; but the door was in place, just as we had locked it, and the wall quite intact.
“It must still be hereabouts,” my Lord cried, fumbling with the lock and flinging open the door. We ran out onto the low platform on which the tower was situated, and even as we began down the steps, I looked down and saw something which I shall never forget.
There was a great oblong opening in the side of the platform, next to the steps leading to the street. From it issued an apparently unending column of white flesh, which wriggled rapidly away from the torchlight, looking exactly like a gigantic white worm. I could just see the small legs at the back end of the creature, as puny as the legs at the front, apparently used for no other purpose except steering. The end of it was a flattened tail, which flapped side to side, struck at my master’s legs as he ran down, and all but knocked him head over heels.
“What is it?” I stopped and tried to help my Lord up, as a proper wife should, but he had already scrambled erect. I could only hope that he had noticed that it was I, and not the slut Opodartho, who had come to his aid. “What is that thing?”
“It doesn’t...matter what it is,” my Lord grunted, lunging with his heavy spear. “It’s getting away towards the well. We’ve got to stop it!”
That, though, was easier said than done. The wormlike creature could wriggle as fast as, or faster than, we could run. I thought about flinging my torch towards its head but thought that if I missed we would be down to just one torch, and that in the fickle hands of Opodartho, and so thinking, desisted. Then, abruptly, the creature emitted another of its grinding roars and hesitated, confused. Then I saw another torch at its head end. In the light of it I saw a woman with the torch in one hand and a javelin in the other; it was Opodartho. Somehow, the evil strumpet – no doubt by applying her magical powers – had reached the well ahead of us.
The momentary hesitation was all that my Lord needed. With a shout, he raised the spear in both hands and stabbed it into the thing’s flank just behind the near-side hind leg. It lashed at him, roaring, with its tail, and he was flung down, but dragged himself up again by his hold on the spear. Unfortunately, the weapon pulled loose in a spurt of blood. Opodartho jumped and danced before its blind face, showing a turn of speed I’d never have thought her capable of, a speed undoubtedly gained from her witching. She jumped and twisted and leaped, thrusting the torch at the beast’s features whenever it turned towards her. My Lord, staggering slightly, stumbled past the white body until he came to the front legs, and stabbed the spear into it again.
The next moments passed in a kind of frenzied, deadly dance. The wormlike white body lashed side to side, getting slowly but steadily nearer the well, while my Lord’s spear thrusts broke through its skin and blood flowed from a dozen wounds. Opodartho, jumping and dancing as if possessed, tried to head it away from the well by waving the torch in its blind face, while I – I did the most dangerous job of all. Yes, by waving my torch around its wildly lashing tail end, I kept it from turning round and making its way back into the city, for once it escaped into the warren of narrow streets, all our efforts would be in vain, and the monster could easily find its way to one of the other wells. You can see how important, and thankless, my task was, a task I performed, too, with much greater dignity than the antics of that woman Opodartho.
And at last there came the moment when my Lord had managed to jump on the beast’s shoulders and had raised his spear high, ready to bring it down at the point between the red branches where the neck would meet the head in any being less wormlike. Just as he stood poised came a shout, a loud shout, which carried right through the noise of battle. “Wait!”
We all turned, even the single minded Opodartho, who still held her torch near the beast’s face. A small group was coming down the nearest street. In the lead, clad in a black gown with golden trim, was the Lord High Advisor Mathamota. In his hand was a golden staff with a small brazier at one end, from which smoke was pouring.
“Lord Mithyakotha,” Mathamota called, “Don’t kill it for the moment. We must ritually destroy it so as to prevent it ever returning again!”
“What?” My Lord gaped at the demand, and at that moment the monster made its move, rolling to its side with a sudden wrench. My Lord fell awkwardly, but to his great good fortune kept a grip on his spear as he fell. The monster turned its great head towards him as he struggled to his knees, and he stabbed it in the snout.
“Wait,” screamed Mathamota, jiggling towards us. “Don’t kill it just yet!”
“I’m trying to keep it from killing me,” grunted my Lord, using the spear to try and lever the beast’s head away from him. Opodartho ran towards them and thrust her torch right into the creature’s face, the flames actually touching the skin, and with a bellow of pain the beast turned away towards the well, the spear still stuck in its snout, until my Lord leaned back on the shaft and ripped it out. Scrambling up, he jumped again on its shoulders.
“Don’t kill it,” Mathamota was still shouting, and, waving his staff, had come up almost to the monster in his excitement. “Let me perform the rituals first!”
And then Opodartho did something so strange that we all thought she had gone suddenly insane. She drew her arm back and flung the javelin in her hand – flung it, with all her force and with deadly aim, right at Mathamota. It struck the fat man in the shoulder and knocked him backwards, the staff dropping from his hand and rolling away, thick noxious smoke still pouring from it.
And the next instant, maddened I thought by pain, the great white monster was on him. It opened an immense tooth-studded gape, snapped him – still shrieking with agony – between its jaws, and with a final mighty heave splashed into the well. My Lord got in a few ineffectual stabs at the tail end, but that was all.
There was a long moment of silence.
The silence was broken by Opodartho.
“It was his creature,” she said. “It was his to command, all along.”
I could see my Lord’s mouth working, his horror and fury at the vile woman’s deed to great for him to find the words, when suddenly the boy Ichoreypaka, who was among the party that had come with Mathamota, spoke. “She’s quite right,” he said gravely. “He was its master, all along. He controlled it,” he added, pointing at the staff which lay a short distance away, still smoking, “with that.”
Lamps were being lit in the windows of houses up and down the street.
“He usually put one person at random from the city up there every night for the thing to eat,” Ichoreypaka said.
“I think we’ve done enough for one night,” my Lord told us, wiping the sweat from his noble brow.
“How did you know?” my Lord asked.
We were walking through the early morning cool, the red flush of dawn painting the walls of Chyachamechi, already far behind us. “How did you know that?”
“Well,” Opodartho said, “I first suspected that the monster wasn’t acting alone when they gave us the tower for the night, since Mathamota had told you that the earlier monster-hunters had used the same tower. It seemed to me that if they had genuinely wanted to get rid of the monster, they would have been better advised to give us some other position. That feeling grew to a near certainty when I saw how the monster clearly knew that we were up in the tower, and was confirmed when it obviously had a way in, a way that opened only with an impact of sufficient force, a way that therefore could not be discovered by mere accident.
“No,” she went on, with none of the modesty becoming a woman, “the monster was clearly not meant to be killed by us. Rather, we were meant as prey for it. Now, I’d watched how fearful the townspeople were of the coming darkness, and I couldn’t believe that they had anything but mortal terror for the creature. Therefore, it must be some particular individual or group who controlled it, not the citizens as a whole. And when I thought of who it might be, the answer was simplicity itself. After all, who is, for some mysterious reason, the one real power in the town? Whose word is the final one in Chyachamechi? Could it be that this person rules the city by the application of random terror?
“So, Lord, it wasn’t the least little surprise to me that Mathamota came running to stop us from killing the thing. It would have astonished me if he hadn’t. I had wanted to expose him after you killed the beast, but had to take precipitate action, for which I beg pardon.” The woman even hung her head in a transparently false imitation of sincerity.
“No,” my Lord said, “you are forgiven. He had his just rewards. You are more than forgiven.” He caught her by the hand and pulled her into the shelter of a huge rock and...but I do not wish to give myself unnecessary pain by recounting what they did. When they had finished and put on their clothes again, I asked him, “What now, Lord? Why are we already leaving Chyachamechi? After all, the beast is not killed.”
“Beasts,” My Lord answered absently. “The thing was some kind of creature like those ‘salamanders’ we come across in ancient texts – you saw how it had gone blind living in the darkness, and how it could not stand the touch of the light. There can’t be just one. They’re probably swarming all over the caverns under the city. What good will killing one do? Besides, without Mathamota’s incense to drive them crazy, they’ll stay in the water where they belong, most likely.”
“Water?” I thought of what Opodartho had said about the city floating on a pool of water. Somehow the stupid strumpet had again been proved right, by the merest accident. “What about the treasure?” I demanded. “We’ve rid them of their beast even if we didn’t kill it. What about the treasure they’re supposed to give us?”
My Lord sighed heavily. “There is no treasure,” he said.
********************* ************************** ****************************
And, Exalted Ones, that is the full and complete account of the writings I, Nishkormar Dhari, found in that wooden box. Of course I, as you would if you were in my place, tried to find out – from idle curiosity, no more, Exalted Ones – where this city of Chyachamechi might be, but I did not succeed. After all, the names of places have been changed so many times over the centuries, and so many towns have fallen to ruin, that it might be anywhere. And of course it might well be the product of the imagination of the woman Chheechkaduni, as the High Monk has assured us. And of course more of the writings of the woman might be discovered, and provide more clues as to city and treasure, if either exists or existed.
But of one thing I assure you, and that is my innocence of all accusations of having kept the treasures of Onek Mangsho for myself, and I submit the document itself as proof in my defence.
Let the words of the ancient harlot herself protect me from the envy of my enemies.
UNDER THE LOST CITY
To the High Monk of the Grand Assembly, humble salutations.
My Lord, this is in response to your directives in the matter of the messenger Nishkormar Dhari, whom, as your Lordship is aware, we found in possession of certain writings of the woman Chheechkaduni, consort to the ancient and reviled traitor Onek Mangsho. Your Lordship had suspected that the man Nishkormar Dhari was prevaricating when he reported that he had shown us all he possessed of the writings of Chheechkaduni and had decided that he quite likely had been hiding other writings that might give a clue to the fabled treasures of the infamous traitor.
In accordance with your instructions, then, we took Nishkormar Dhari into custody. After a few hours of sustained rigorous interrogation, involving the detachment of certain inessential body parts, and being threatened with immediate downgrading to Food Category, the man finally broke down and confessed to the possession of further material. He was taken by litter – being temporarily incapable of locomotion as a result of his interrogation – to the spot where he had hidden this material. We recovered it without difficulty, and although it is somewhat damaged by the effects of weathering, all of it is clearly legible, except for one portion which I have indicated. I am herewith forwarding it to you in its entirety, and await your further orders both in the matter of the enclosed account of the woman Chheechkaduni, and of what I should do with the man Nishkormar Dhari, who is recovering from his interrogation in our custody.
I remain, my Lord, your most devoted and humble servant,
Pagoler Prolaap, Commander of Security of the Monastic Order of the Cannibal Spirit.
**************************** *********************************** ******************************
...after that he glared at both of us. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he thundered, pointing at the sprawling corpse of the Thieving Traveller. “Never trust a man like that again!” Plunging his hand into his bag, he drew out the handful of misshapen coins for the sake of which we had almost had to pay with our lives. “Never mention these, even only among ourselves, again. Do you understand, both of you?”
“Where should we go now, Lord?” I asked.
“Where else but onwards?” my Lord snapped, still angry. “Or do you think we should stay here?” He pointed again at the Thieving Traveller’s remains. “Cut what we can carry and pack it up quickly,” he said. “I want to get out of here before the smell of this thing’s blood attracts a dire lion.”
Opodartho and I scrambled to obey him, for we knew these moods of his. Even though I insist that it was not my fault at all that the Thieving Traveller – but why should I repeat what I have just said about that episode? In less time than it takes to finish telling of it, we had cut steaks and slices of liver enough from the dead criminal to last us for the next few days, if we preserved them and rationed our food. But my Lord was still not satisfied with our speed. Shaking his head and muttering, he took up his shield and weapons and strode off through the desert, leaving us to stumble along in his wake.
“By tonight,” my Lord said, “at all costs, we must reach the Wells of Waakthoo. I have no desire to spend the night amid these dunes.”
It did not seem, however, that his plans could be fulfilled. As we went on, the wind began picking up, and the horizon blurred and became indistinct. The sky took on a strange purple hue, almost like that of evening, even though it was nigh onto noon.
“A storm is coming, Lord,” Opodartho muttered, as usual pointing out what everyone already knew. As though in response to her words, the wind suddenly picked up force, whirling up sand and whipping it against our bodies, so that we had to lean forwards and cover our faces with our cloaks. The wind grew ever stronger, and the sand stung us even through the thick cloth.
“We must seek a refuge,” my Lord admitted at last, shouting, but we could hardly hear him above the howling of the wind. He held up his great shield, and the three of us tried to huddle behind its paltry shelter. Such close proximity to Opodartho was, of course, highly unpleasant to someone of my delicate sensibilities, but there was no alternative. The shield was, in any case, highly inadequate against a storm like this, and the sand scraped our legs raw.
“My Lord,” I heard Opodartho shout. “We must get to leeward of that dune.” The dune she mentioned was a great hill of sand halfway to the horizon on our left. To my astonishment, my Lord nodded and turned off the old desert road and towards the dune. I was about to remonstrate, pointing out that it was dangerous to leave the road, but there was no alternative but to follow, the wind to our backs threatening to blow us down on our faces. I cursed Opodartho in my mind, over and over, and promised adequate vengeance once the opportunity arose.
Somehow we climbed over that dune, our feet slipping and sliding in the sand, the wind smashing at our backs. Once over the crest, the wind dropped instantly, and we could slide down to the bottom in relative safety. There we crouched, as the storm blew sand across the sky and turned day into night.
“I told you that we would find shelter here,” Opodartho crowed, and I felt – for the thousandth time – like strangling her. Well, I thought, I’d have my revenge when the storm was over and we’d have to find the road again under all the blown sand. We’d see who would do the crowing then.
“You were so right,” said my Lord, kissing her. I turned my eyes away from the disgusting sight.
In the end we had to remain there the entire night and through the next day and night as well. Fortunately, the Thieving Traveller had contributed, by his inadvertent generosity, enough to our stock of food that we did not have to touch what we had been carrying with us earlier. But it was still a most uncomfortable time, with gritty sand in every fold of our clothes, and in our noses and eyes and mouths. In the end I rolled myself in a ball with my head between my knees and my cloak pulled over my body, and somehow, like that, I slept, woke, and slept again, while the storm howled over our heads.
On the third morning the storm finally blew itself out. When I threw off my cloak and cautiously stretched my cramped limbs, the sky was back to its normal whitish-blue and the air still and calm. Opodartho and my Lord were both still sleeping, wrapped in their cloaks as I was, and I took the time available to me to groom my hair with my bone comb and to rub my teeth clean with a paste made of saliva and a little sand. Let nobody say I am not fastidious, unlike...oh, Opodartho, for example.
After I was done, I gently shook my Lord awake, and kissed him tenderly. It did not go as I had hoped. “What on earth have you been doing, eating sand?” he said, running his index finger around his mouth. Angrily, I turned away to kick Opodartho awake, but she was already sitting up and looking around, rubbing the gunk from her eyes.
After breakfast, which was provided by the still generous Thieving Traveller, we walked back up to the top of the dune, in order – if we could – to find our way back to the desert road. The landscape had changed almost entirely, hills and vales of sand having changed around and swapped places, and but for the sun we could not even have known in which direction to go.
“It will be difficult to find the path again,” my Lord said, scratching his head and peering around. Then, suddenly, he raised a trembling finger. “Look – right there where I’m pointing. Look!”
Obedient as ever, we looked, and stood still for amazement. There, open before our eyes, lay a great hollow in the desert, in which strange and twisted shapes lay glittering and shining in the sun.
“It’s like,” Opodartho said, “like a town.” For once I could not contradict her. The glittering things were laid out in patterns that looked like city streets and walls, and here and there great masses lay as though buildings had been tumbled by the fist of a giant.
“How could we have missed it before?” I asked wonderingly. “Surely such a large place must have been visible even in the storm.”
“I think,” my Lord said, “that it must have been completely buried by the sand, and the storm uncovered it.”
“But then,” Opodartho put in, the stupidity imprinted on her features, “a fresh storm might cover it back up again. Perhaps it keeps getting covered and uncovered with every big storm.”
I laughed. “And in between the storms it’s regularly overlooked by every traveller that passes, is that what you’re saying?”
“There aren’t that many people who come this way,” Opodartho said, glaring at me with obvious hatred. “And besides...”
“Yes?” I challenged her. “Besides, what?”
“Never mind,” my Lord said, probably trying to spare Opodartho the humiliation of being unable to answer me. “Let us go down and examine this object.”
It soon became obvious that the structure, or whatever it was, was further away than we had thought at first from the wind-flattened crest of the huge dune. We had been walking for over an hour, but had not reached it yet, though it was appreciably closer. And as we came nearer, the nearer part of it towered over us, hulking and enormous. The sun’s rays glittered and gleamed from it, and somehow passed through it as well, so that we could see a distorted view of the desert beyond. It was unsettling.
“What is it, that it glitters so?” I asked, when we finally got to the hollow.
“There are mentions, in history, of a substance called glass.” Lord Onek Mangsho stood at the base of the nearest part of the object, looking up at it. “It is said to have let light through, like some minerals or precious stones. Perhaps this material is glass, or something similar.”
“Was it precious?” I asked.
“Glass? I don’t know. As far as I know none of it is preserved today, which might mean it was not worth the preserving.” My Lord tapped the nearest part of the wall with his great spear. It gave a sound as of metal on quartz. “Let us see what it is like inside.”
We quite easily entered the structure, since the wall was broken and tumbled in many places, and found ourselves on a broad straight path that looked like a road made for giants. In the distance, a great structure like a tower had collapsed and lay across the road, its many shattered surfaces reflecting the sun and sky and desert, over and over again.
“I don’t like this place,” Opodartho said in a small voice, but neither I nor my Lord answered her. Slowly and reluctantly, she followed us towards that broken and tumbled creation.
As we got closer, the ground beneath our feet became littered with things; shards of the glittering material, and also pieces of some light, hard metal. Some of these pieces were quite long and had sharp jagged ends, and Opodartho picked up one and carried it in her hand.
“What’s that for, Opodartho?” I asked. “Do you fancy yourself a warrior now? Perhaps we could find a shield for you, like the one Lord Onek Mangsho carries?”
But even my jeers, it seemed, had no power to penetrate the rustic thickness of the woman’s hide, and she only shrugged. “It might come in handy,” she said.
“You’d better find one too, Chheechkaduni,” my Lord said, looking around. And, seething as I was with fury, I had no alternative but to pick up another fairly long shaft, though I chose one which was as light as possible and jagged only at one end. Lord Onek Mangsho might order me to carry one of these useless things, but still, there was no reason why I should be as stupid as Opodartho and risk a nasty cut, or worse.
“Who made this place, Lord?” I asked as we walked. “Were they people, or is this the work of some demented god?”
“Gods don’t make cities,” Opodartho said, with a nasty smirk, but I ignored her. “My Lord?” I repeated.
“What?” Lord Onek Mangsho glanced at me quickly. “People, probably,” he said. “It’s very old, obviously, and the peoples of those days had strange abilities.”
Soon afterwards we reached the great mass of the tumbled structure, which we decided had probably once been some kind of building of a gigantic height. The transparent glittering stuff, which my Lord had said might be the mythical “glass”, lay in huge flat planes and sheets, and between them was more of the metal. We had considerable difficulty finding our way past the wreck without cutting our feet, but somehow we managed it.
On the other side was simply more of the same. In each direction we looked we saw twisted and broken shapes, none of which had retained any of the beauty we had seen from the dune.
“Let’s go,” Opodartho said. “We’ve seen enough, and we must make the Wells today, my Lord.”
“Yes, I...” My Lord was obviously about to agree when I saw something that I made haste to point out to him. “Look, Lord,” I said, pointing. “A tunnel.”
It began as a broad aperture surmounted by an arch, and sloped downwards into darkness. To tell the truth it looked profoundly uninviting to me, but obviously I could not have my Lord imagining that Opodartho’s thoughts were worthy of his attention. Let the witch once get an advisor’s status in his estimation, and she would inevitably cause the destruction of us all. “My Lord,” I said, therefore, “we must explore this tunnel.”
“Why?” My Lord looked somewhat surprised, and Opodartho, to my gratification, distinctly annoyed. “Why should we go down into that hole in the ground, Chheechkaduni?”
“The makers of this place, my Lord,” I made haste to extemporise, “must have had rare and powerful secrets, don’t you agree? Those secrets must be of inestimable value to their possessors, if only they could find them. Perhaps those secrets were hidden in these tunnels, or perhaps the treasures of the makers of this place lie down there. Certainly they will have been better preserved than in those broken buildings. At least, my Lord, it is worth a search.”
My Lord nodded, in obvious approval of my clear thinking and intelligence. “Very well, then,” he said. “We will need light down there. Light the torches.” Fortunately, we still had in our bags a few of the torches we had made during the Affair of the Aggressive Ascetic of Amashoy, and soon, with the help of our flints, we had three of them burning.
As we entered the tunnel, we found it was surprisingly free of the sand which had clogged the broad pathways of the shattered town outside. The little sand that was there seemed to have been pushed towards the sides of the passage, as if someone with a very large broom had come along cleaning. Predictably, this worried the brainless Opodartho. “I really don’t think we should be going down there,” she said, hanging back.
“Are we supposed to run away because of the way the wind blew the sand down here?” I sneered. “Opodartho, you grow more insufferable by the day!”
“Come along, Opodartho,” my Lord grunted irritably. Reluctantly, the stupid slut followed us down the tunnel, walking in my footsteps. So close did she stick behind me that I grew worried that she would stab me in the back accidentally with her makeshift spear.
“I’m not a devil, Opodartho, even if you think I am,” I informed her over my shoulder. “So you needn’t point that stick at me.” Then my attention was drawn to something else.
All this time the tunnel had been descending steadily, and further into complete darkness. Now, far above our heads, there appeared a twin row of square bluish lights. I wondered aloud where the lights came from.
“Don’t be silly,” my Lord snapped. “They’re windows, up in the ceiling, and that’s the sky.” To my chagrin I heard Opodartho giggle.
Shortly afterwards the tunnel joined another at right angles. This new tunnel was much lower, only a little taller than us, and there were no windows. It slanted down towards the right, and after only the slightest of hesitation, my Lord turned towards this way.
Abruptly, the deep gloom of the first tunnel gave way to complete and utter darkness, darkness so profound that our torches only threw small yellow globes of light which illuminated little more than the floor at our feet and the walls beside us. This tunnel was also steeper, and then suddenly it gave way to steps leading downwards, divided in two by a low wall down the centre.
“We’ll go down as far as the bottom,” my Lord said, “and then we shall see what we shall see.” I could hear doubt in his voice. “I cannot say I like these tunnels.”
The stairs felt somewhat strange through the soles of my shoes, as though they were made of something slightly pliable, but I had no time to stop and examine them. We kept going down the stairs until I began to think that they would never end, but suddenly my Lord stumbled slightly and almost fell before he recovered his balance with the aid of the haft of his spear.
“Well, Chheechkaduni,” said my Lord Onek Mangsho, “what should we do now?”
We were standing on a level floor that stretched in both directions as far as the dim light of the torches penetrated. Thick pillars stood here and there, rising up towards an unseen ceiling. I walked a few paces to one side and saw that between me and the wall of the tunnel there was what seemed to be a moderately deep ditch floored with thick strips of dull metal. The entire place seemed dead; even the air smelt dry and dead – and yet there was a sense of hidden menace that made me obscurely wish that I had not come down here. And yet, I could not let the strumpet Opodartho claim the victory.
“Undoubtedly, their treasures shall be hidden down in these depths, Lord,” I said. “We may be only a short walk from enough jewels to last us for a lifetime.”
“Very well, then, we shall proceed a little further. I say to you, though, that I am not prepared to spend much more time traipsing these tenebrous tunnels like a trapped troglodyte.”
With a shake of his torch that sent tiny red sparks flying through the air, my Lord strode off along the flat tunnel floor. He did not stride very far before coming up against a wall with strange symbols on it. He stood examining the swirls of colour and unreadable lettering. “Perhaps these were clues to their treasure,” he said, “but since we cannot read them, and since the way is closed, perhaps we should retrace our steps.”
“The ditch, Lord,” I pointed out. “The ditch with the metal in it – it goes further. We should follow the ditch.”
“There’s one this side too,” Opodartho said. “Which do you think we should follow? Which leads to this treasure of yours?”
I ignored her and climbed carefully down into the ditch. The bottom, if one stood away from the metal, was almost flat too, and it was not difficult to walk. With a light thud, my Lord jumped down behind me. I raised my torch and examined our surroundings. The walls, of some grey stone, were roughly finished, and the light of the torch just showed me a roof that was also covered with metal pipes and lines. It was a claustrophobic place, and again I wished that I had not come down here. When I looked back, I saw Opodartho clambering slowly and awkwardly down into the ditch, and my Lord holding her arm to steady her. And when I saw that, a sudden idea came to my head.
“My Lord,” I said, “let’s go on down this tunnel. I thought I saw something, a gleam at the end of the reach of my torch.” And, without waiting for an answer, I began walking down the ditch, the bag on my back brushing against the wall, and my toes in perpetual danger of stubbing on blocks that were set in the floor under the metal lines.
“I wonder what this place was meant for,” Opodartho remarked. “Do you think this was perhaps an underground roadway of some kind?”
Both I and my Lord burst out laughing. “Dear Opodartho,” Lord Onek Mangsho finally spluttered, “whatever will you think of next? A roadway under the earth, indeed. Where to, pray?”
“I suppose Opodartho knows because it was she who built it in a previous existence,” I put in, and was about to begin laughing again at my own wit when I paused. It seemed to me that I had heard a sound, almost like an echo of my laugh, from down the tunnel – almost, but not quite. I turned quickly, extending my torch, but there was nothing to be seen.
“Did you hear something?” I asked uncertainly. But neither my Lord nor Opodartho had heard anything, and I decided I had been imagining it. Even so, I suddenly could not find it in myself to laugh any longer. When my Lord asked me to move aside so that he could take the lead, I obeyed without demur.
“What’s that smell?” Opodartho asked. I sniffed. There was a strange smell, indeed, albeit faint.
“It smells something like...burning hair,” Opodartho added. Possibly she was right. I could not smell it clearly enough to say.
We walked down the tunnel, the sound of our footsteps punctuated by the occasional clang of our metal poles or the Lord Onek Mangsho’s spear on metal. After walking a short distance, a second tunnel joined ours at an angle, the two merging, so that the light of our torches illuminated even less than before, and now all we could see was the wall at our side.
“”What are you doing?” I asked Opodartho, angrily. At what seemed to be every step, she was scraping her makeshift spear into the rocklike wall, making a nerve-racking sound.
“Nothing,” she muttered, but continued making the sound. I was just about to threaten to take her pole from her when my Lord stopped and held up a hand. “I just saw something!” he said.
“What, my Lord?” I peered past his shoulder but saw nothing more than the same light from our burning torches shining on the same dull metal.
“I don’t know...something that rushed off into the distance. I don’t know.” My Lord slung his shield over his shoulder, and with his heavy stabbing spear held under his armpit, he began advancing. I use the word advisedly, for he was no longer merely walking – this was an advance as of a warrior into battle.
“My Lord,” I began, but he shushed me angrily. Then, abruptly, he stopped, and raised his torch high.
“What is that?” he asked.
None of us had ever seen a thing like the object that stood before us. It looked like a conjoined series of huge boxes, sitting athwart the metal line, and almost completely blocking half the tunnel. One end, which was towards us, had two big windows on its upper half, fitted with the same transparent material my Lord had speculated to be glass. More windows ran down both sides of the thing. I absolutely could not understand what it was supposed to be, and said so.
“It’s on wheels,” Opodartho said, bending low and holding her torch near the ground.”It might be – oh!”
“Something just ran past me,” she said. I saw it, a pair of gleaming black eyes and a twitching nose. The animal was small and furry, and when I stepped closer it scurried off into the darkness.
“It’s harmless, Opodartho,” I said, grinning, “What was it you were going to say?”
“I think it’s a vehicle,” Opodartho said.
“A vehicle?” I decided that the slut had finally decided to take leave of her reason. “What kind of vehicle,” I asked as reasonably as I could manage, “can be as big as this? What sort of draught animal pulled it along? Or do you think it,” and I giggled at the thought, “ran by itself?”
“Vehicle or not,” my Lord said, “it has doors, and I can see one or two open. We will check out what it contains on our way back.”
“Yes, Lord,” I hastened to agree. “I...
(A portion is missing here, possibly damaged by weathering. It does not have the appearance of having been cut or torn away deliberately. Pagoler Prolaap, Commander of Security.)
...once again I saw the darkness twitching and turning just down the tunnel. More than ever now I thought what I was seeing was the movement of gigantic leathery wings, if such a thing were possible, but I could not believe that creatures under the earth could possess such things. And yet, I could feel the musty breeze in my face, as of the air blown by flapping wings, and I could smell, once more, that strange odour, which Opodartho had likened to burning hair.
At that moment I regretted more than ever before having tried to lure Opodartho down the branch tunnel to try and make her lose her way so that I could return alone to my Lord and persuade him to leave with me before our situation grew even more precarious. Instead of losing her, it was I who was lost, and for all I knew Opodartho was at that moment trying to persuade my Lord to leave me here and get out while the going was good.
Now, very close at hand, I could hear the sound that had been growing slowly more distinct the further I had come down this tunnel. It was, as I have said, a rustling noise, almost like a high-pitched squeaking, but with a quality to it that sent uneasy shivers down my spine. It felt almost as though the sound was feeling my skin.
My torch, as I have already said, had been burning lower and now was little more than a stub. I could feel the heat of it on my hand. I was also acutely aware that all the other torches were with Opodartho, since it was I who had put them in her bag to lighten my own load. The strumpet was a peasant and deserved to carry loads like a peasant, but I wished then that I had kept at least one more for myself.
All of a sudden the feeling grew that there was something right in front of me, so close that I could have seen it if only I had a better torch. I thrust the burning stub at the darkness and swept it from side to side, and in the momentary glow of it I saw something, like a great black fruit hanging from the pipes overhead. So large was it that it seemed to fill the tunnel, and yet, it was something separate from the construction of this place, something twitching and pulsing, obscenely alive.
There is a point where fear grows to the point where the natural responses to the emotion break down, and one responds either in wild panic or in a way that might be mistaken for bravery. I must confess, in this account meant only for my own eyes or for others in a future far distant, that it was that kind of fear and not bravery that caused me to advance towards this dangling thing, the torch held out before me. The flickering little flame lit up great folded leathery wings, and a body covered in pinkish skin sparsely covered by greyish-brown hair. Rarely have I seen such a repulsive sight.
Suddenly, at that moment, the false courage lent me by fear evaporated completely. I was abruptly struggling not to give in to a blind panic flight through the echoing tunnels, with...that...at my back. And it was at that very moment that the thing turned round, and exposed a face to me...a face that to this day sometimes comes to me in my nightmares. It seemed all composed of only two things, immense ribbed ears and a mouthful of gigantic teeth. It squeaked, a sound that seemed all the more grotesque for coming from a creature like that, and opened its immense wings. One of the wings swung towards me, and I glimpsed hooked claws that latched on to a projection in the wall, followed quickly by the other wing. Still upside down, teeth gleaming, the creature scuttled along the tunnel towards me.
If I had been only a little more careful, I must surely have been caught. As it came at me too fast for me to run, I instinctively backed away and, stumbling over something on the ground, I fell over on my back, just as the creature swooped over me. I rolled over and grabbed at my spear, which I had dropped. The thing had already stopped and was turning itself round in the narrow space, a procedure which took just enough time for me to recover my torch and spear. It scuttled at me again, but I met it with my metal pole, pushing it back. Unfortunately, my pole had only the one sharp end, and in the darkness I found I had grasped it with the blunt end foremost, so I did not do it any particular damage. Nor did I have the time or opportunity to reverse my grasp, because it kept on pressing me closely.
However, the moment of blind panic had passed, and, more slowly now, I backed away, jabbing at it as it came towards me, but aware that with every step I was being driven further into the unknown.
And then, just like that, my torch gave a final despairing flicker and burned out.
Can you imagine my emotions at the moment? Alone in these unknown tunnels, in pitch darkness, I was trying to fight off a creature whose appearance was as revolting as its method of locomotion, a creature against whom my total defences consisted of a metal stick with a blunt end, and a creature, moreover, that seemed capable of seeing, somehow, in the dark. As I backed away fearfully, thrusting desperately at the darkness, the smell of the thing all around me, I finally decided, beyond doubt, that I was about to be eaten.
And it was, thus, backing away, that I suddenly felt myself seized from the rear as well...
Even as I felt the leathery wings close around me, I kicked out with all my strength. Momentarily, this served to loosen the hold of the beast, and I fell once again to the bottom of the tunnel, banging my shoulder painfully on the metal line. My spear clanged on the line, with a loud ringing tone that echoed and clamoured along the tunnel. Amazingly, this seemed to discompose my two antagonists, for I heard the leathery rustle of their wings move away from me. Again and again, I clanged on the line with my spear to frighten them off, and crawled desperately on hands and knees to try and find some kind of shelter.
It was too good to last, of course. The first loud noise had probably startled the things, but soon they were used to it, and now – now they were after me, and after me with a vengeance. I felt claws rip at my cloak and the bag at my back, and flattened myself on the floor of the tunnel, whimpering with fear.
And then suddenly there was a burst of light and Opodartho shouting, and the gleam of fire on my Lord’s great stabbing spear as he slashed ineffectually at the creatures. They retreated from the spear and the torches, squeaking in their high maddening voices, and I felt Opodartho’s hand on my arm, pulling me roughly to my feet.
“Run!” she shouted.
It was a crazy scramble back along the tunnel, the wavering fire from the torches obscuring as much as it showed, and the creatures scuttled after us, beating at us with their wings. My Lord’s great stabbing spear, we found, was of almost no use in these confined spaces, and I had dropped my metal stick. Only Opodartho’s double-edged metal pole slashed and cut at the leathery wings, at the ribbed swivelling ears and gigantic teeth, and kept the enemy at bay. Even so, we should certainly have been lost right then, but for the fact that – stumbling back in our rout – we found again the object that Opodartho had called a vehicle. At the near end, one door stood conveniently half-open. I stretched to peer inside. I caught a glimpse of long seats and slim metal pillars stretching from floor to ceiling.
“Get inside,” Opodartho shouted, pushing me most uncouthly in the small of the back, and so hard that I tumbled in. Opodartho jumped in after me, treading on me in her haste, and my Lord followed an instant later. And a moment after that, one of the creatures dropped down from the ceiling of the tunnel to land on the floor of the tunnel with a thud, and thrust its face into the doorway. And if it had looked fearsome before, it was doubly so now, with its evil, twisted face, its twitching ears, and its titanic teeth. It was, fortunately, too large to squeeze in through the door, however hard it tried. And as it battered with its wings at the walls and flung itself desperately at the door, Opodartho sent it reeling back, shrieking, with a spear thrust to its face.
“We are safe,” she said, “for now.”
“We are still trapped,” I pointed out. “We can’t exit this box on wheels without being eaten.”
“They can’t be here forever,” my Lord said. “They, too, must rest sometime.”
“I thought there might be something like this,” bragged Opodartho shamelessly. “When I saw that it might be that the city is covered and uncovered by repeated sandstorms, I thought there might be something underneath that attacks treasure hunters, if any comes down here. And I was right.”
“Right or not, what shall we do now?” I looked out through the windows and caught a glimpse of one of the creatures walking past on its wings. It was even larger than I had thought it, and obviously its wings could no longer bear it aloft if they ever could have.
“We shall wait,” Opodartho said, “for a chance to get away. It was lucky this vehicle was here.”
“Vehicle?” I scoffed. “What kind of vehicle has seats and windows and doors? It is some kind of home, built here beneath the tunnels for the people who built them.”
Opodartho seemed about to argue, but my Lord intervened. “It was lucky, Chheechkaduni,” he said, “that we heard you banging with your spear to attract our attention. That was clever of you, for we had feared that you were lost.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I thought it might be a good idea if I could attract your attention, but it was because I thought you might fall victim, all unwary, to these foul creatures and not because of any danger to myself.”
Opodartho snorted loudly at this, for some reason I was unable to understand. When I looked at her, I found her snuffing out her torch.
“It might be wise,” she said to my Lord, “if we try and save our torches. We might be here for a long time.”
“All right,” my Lord said, practically, “but first, we shall eat. And then we shall...” He grinned. “All that running about has given me a different kind of appetite.”
And so it was that my Lord took us both, there on the floor of that metal box, while the creatures squeaked and flapped outside and peered in through the windows. It was frenzied lovemaking, and for once I am ashamed to say that I forgot myself and thrust and moaned as passionately as the unpractised and ungraceful Opodartho. But such danger has a way of doing that to you.
We stayed inside that metal box for so long that time lost meaning.
Little by little our stocks of food dwindled, until there was almost none left, and although we used our torches sparingly, the time came when but one remained. And still we could see the winged creatures walk back and forth. Sometimes I saw only one, sometimes as many as six, but most commonly there were three or four. They would patrol the length of the metal boxes, sometimes thrusting their faces at the windows, but after the first time, when Opodartho had speared one in the face, none of them tried seriously to enter. Occasionally, one would go off rushing at something unseen in the darkness. Once I saw one, close to the window, snap up and swallow one of the furry long-tailed little beasts that scurried and squeaked in the tunnels.
We spent the time sitting wearily, not talking. At first we made love repeatedly and energetically, but soon that grew to be too much of a drain on our energies. Then we talked, but Opodartho’s inanities soon grew too wearisome to me and I removed myself to another section of the metal box, there to sit and contemplate the darkness. In time, even Opodartho stopped talking, and we sat in silence and waited.
“We shall have to fight our way out,” Opodartho said, when we finally decided our food stocks would not last beyond one more meal. “We can wait no longer.”
“How,” I asked her, “do we fight our way out, seeing that we could so far only retreat to this house under the ground?”
“What alternative suggestion do you have, Chheechkaduni? Do you want us to sit here till we starve to death?”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “we could kill and consume one of those beasts.”
“Cheechkaduni,” Opodartho said, in a tone of insufferable patience, “even if we were able to kill one of those creatures, just how do you suggest we should retrieve its carcass and bring it in here? And if we did manage to kill, capture and butcher one, how do you know that it is edible at all? It may well be poisonous, mightn’t it?”
I confess I had no ready answer, but pure chance came to my aid.
“Listen to that!” my Lord said. “Can you hear anything?”
We strained our ears, and it seemed to me that I could hear a faint whistling noise which grew slowly louder.
“Look!” Opodartho said. “The creatures are looking disturbed and anxious.”
Indeed, in the light of our one remaining torch, we saw the foul beasts acting very agitated. They rushed back and forth in short bursts, flapping their wings, and one or two collided violently with one another. Then, as if arriving at an unspoken agreement, they leaped up and, hooking themselves upside-down to the maze of pipes and lines on the tunnel ceiling, scuttled rapidly out of sight.
“Quick,” the Lord Onek Mangsho gasped. “This is our chance!”
We did not need to be told again. We hardly had anything to carry but our weapons and the meagre personal possessions in our bags. Quickly, and for the first time in longer than we cared to think of, we slipped out of the metal house and ran down the tunnel to the swaying and flickering light of our one torch. And as we ran, the whistling sound grew louder and more distinct, until it was no longer a whistle but a distant, eerie howl.
We had only been running for a little while when the tunnel joined another, and the two separated again, the floor a maze of twisting metal lines among which we stepped with some difficulty.
“How do we find our way back to the staircase?” I asked, reasonably enough. “It seems to me that we may easily lose our way.”
“Wait.” Opodartho stepped, with her ungainly and clumsy gait, over the metal lines to the wall of the nearest branch of the tunnel. In her hand she carried our one remaining torch, which for some reason my Lord had seen fit to entrust to her. Bending like the peasant she was, she seemed to be examining the base of the wall, moving the torch back and forth.
“Opodartho,” I called. “What are you...”
“Here.” Straightening abruptly, the ugly wench beckoned. “This is the way we came.”
“How do you know?” My Lord asked the question before I could.
“There,” Opodartho said, pointing to a series of white scratches on the grey surface, “are the marks I made with my spear, on the way down. I kept marking the wall, in case it might not be easy to find our way back up again.”
“You are clever indeed, Opodartho.” My Lord seemed about to enfold the strumpet in his embrace and cover her lips with kisses, so I interrupted.
“That’s all very well,” I said. “But we still have to get away before the beasts are back.”
With an unreadable glance at me, Opodartho turned away and began walking up the tunnel, holding her torch low to illuminate the scratches. And the howling sound slowly grew until it was no longer a howl, but a tortured wail.
“What is the noise?” I asked finally. We had just reached the place where we had descended from the flat floor of the tunnel with pillars into the metal-lined ditch. With some difficulty, we hoisted ourselves back up again. “It has been getting louder and louder.”
“I have an idea,” my Lord said, “that it is...”
“Look out!” Opodartho screamed, wildly swinging her torch.
If I do say so myself, my reflexes are admirably quick. Hardly had the words left the woman’s mouth that I threw myself forward, and only just in time. The beast that had been hiding somewhere in the darkness had been in mid-leap when Opodartho had screamed, and missing me completely, collided heavily with one of the great pillars and slid heavily to the floor. Struggling for purchase on the smooth surface, it tried to rise.
“Quick,” Opodartho shouted. “The stairs!”
We ran frantically up the stairs, almost feeling our way because the one torch illuminated virtually nothing. And as we ran, behind us we heard a sibilant squeaking, while before us, growing steadily louder, was the other noise, which was growing rapidly to a roar.
“Here it comes,” my Lord said, turning on the stairs and brandishing his great stabbing spear. “Hurry!” As I ran past him, he thrust the big bladed weapon over my shoulder, and ran up again, easily keeping pace with me. Opodartho, of course, was running much faster, as always eager to save her own skin.
“It’s gaining on us,” my Lord shouted. Twisting as he thrust again, he lost his footing and fell against me, and we would have tumbled back down the stairs but for a lucky grab I made at the low dividing wall. As we stood, my Lord clinging on desperately to me and I to the wall, the creature was on us in a rustle of leathery wings and huge teeth. I felt its claws hook into my shoulders through my bag and cloak, and smelt its rank odour. Helplessly, my bladder gave way.
And then there was a flash of metal and Opodartho stood on the step just above me, stabbing over my head with her jagged makeshift spear. So wild were her thrusts that I expected at any moment to be skewered by one, and perhaps that is what she intended, but in the event what happened was that the creature fell off my back, screaming and thrashing. My Lord, having finally recovered his balance, let go of me, and, turning, raised his great spear and brought it down in a vicious arc. The creature stopped screaming and thrashing.
“It’s only a little one, a youngster,” my Lord said, raising the spear, at the end of which the foul beast hung, impaled through the belly. “It must have lost its way and that’s why it was there on the floor of pillars, and not with its fellows down the tunnels.” He shook the spear, but the corpse was too well transfixed to be easily dislodged.
“No time for that, Lord,” Opodartho screamed. “There is no time to lose!”
“No time to lose? What are you talking about?” I asked, but both Opodartho and my Lord had already resumed running up the steps, so, my question unanswered, I had perforce to follow.
We emerged at the top of the stairs into a blast of wind. Now there was no doubt as to what the howling sound was. The wind slashed and battered at us with a million billion grains of sand, like tiny knives that wanted to flay us alive. If only we could, we would have retired into the blessed sanctuary of the stairs, but we had to struggle into the teeth of that storm, up the upper tunnel, and finally out of the arched entrance into the tumbled, broken city.
The wind here was a demon, far stronger than any we had ever encountered, and I felt that it would at any moment snatch us up and throw us away like the dolls children are given to play with to keep them calm while awaiting slaughter. The air was virtually opaque with blowing sand, and we could not see our way.
“Grab hold of my hand, Opodartho,” my Lord shouted, “and, you, Chheechkaduni, hold on to Opodartho.” Naturally, I had little desire to be in physical contact with the repulsive slut, but there was nothing for it. Clutching on to each other, we blundered on through the storm.
I still cannot say how we managed to find our way out of the broken city. Perhaps it was by sheer good fortune, or perhaps, since I had covered my face and eyes with my cloak to protect them from the sand, I missed some significant part of the proceedings. But in the end we struggled to a place which was protected from the intensity of the wind. When I unwound my cloak from around my head, I found Opodartho and my Lord holding large fragments of the transparent “glass” material in front of their faces. It seemed that they had used these fragments to protect their eyes so that they could see.
“It was Opodartho’s idea,” my Lord explained, and the brazen hussy preened shamelessly.
It was two more days before this storm blew itself out. Several times during these two days we had to move as the wind shifted and changed direction. Once or twice it seemed as though the wind was coming at us from all directions at once, and we crouched in a circle, our backs presented to the blowing sand, until the crisis passed. For two days we slept not at all, and rested almost never.
But in the end the storm passed.
I still remember when we stood, side by side, and looked out over the desert. All around us stretched a sea of sand dunes, featureless in their irregularity. Of the broken city and its glittering buildings there was no sign.
“I told you the sandstorms would cover it back up again,” Opodartho said.
I realise, of course, that this episode of our adventures was not one of my unalloyed and shining successes. I am even willing to admit that – entirely inadvertently, of course – the doltish Opodartho guessed right on a few occasions. I am even prepared to go so far as to say that I was perhaps wrong in suggesting that we enter the tunnels in the first place.
But about one thing I was not wrong, and I can prove it.
That beast stuck on Lord Onek Mangsho’s spear proved eminently edible, after all.
************************* ********************************** **************************************
To my most loyal servant Pagoler Prolaap, greetings.
I have read the recovered manuscript you have dispatched, and commend your efficiency in the matter. Here are my orders to you:
You will, without delay, constitute a task force to locate these Wells of Waakthoo, wherever they may be and whatever they may be called in the present day. Having located them, you will then search the desert within a day’s journey of the Wells for the remnants of this city. However long this task takes, and however much effort it constitutes, you will not falter, and you will not fail.
Have no fear of these winged monsters. They are obviously fictional and created simply in order to deter seekers of the treasures of the builders of the lost city. This is the considered opinion of the Grand Assembly and you are obliged to believe as well as obey it.
You will also send another task force to the forsaken town of Tomar Matha, there to hunt in every crevice and under every rock for more material authored by the ancient harridan Chheechkaduni. All such material recovered will be sent to me immediately and secretly.
As for the man Nishkormar Dhari, I leave it to your discretion what you wish to make of him. I would suggest a spicy stew with a side dish of fried liver, but suit your own palate.
Petuker Shiromoni, High Monk of the Grand Assembly.
THE PERIL OF PATAALER PET
I hope this letter finds you in good health and the best of spirits. Is the business prospering? It is hard for all of us, yet if the Spirit is kind, we may have a stroke of good fortune once in a while.
Speaking of good fortune, Mother, I am sending this letter to you along with the miserable slave Golakata Dam, who is fortunately utterly illiterate and therefore cannot read the contents. Let me explain.
Mother, you know, as we all do, the legend of the traitor Onek Mangsho, and of his two wives, harridans who rebelled against the ancient laws of our people, and raised their hand against the Cannibal Spirit. You also know that a few fragmentary writings of one of these two wives were found and ceremoniously destroyed by the order of the Grand Assembly.
What you do assuredly not know, Mother, because it is a closely guarded secret, is that more of the writings of the woman Chheechkaduni, younger of the two wives, were discovered, and that they apparently give clues that may disclose the location of the fabulous and perhaps not entirely fictional treasures of the traitor and his women. I do not know what those writings contained, because they are now the property of the High Monk of the Grand Assembly himself. But I was one of the men ordered to search the destroyed city of Tomar Matha for more of the writings of the woman.
The old city is a terrible and desolate ruin, Mother, and it would take an army several years to search it through properly. As it is, we few men, sworn to secrecy, pry between crumbling bricks and under the flat rocks with our stone tools, in teams of two so that we can watch over each other and see that none of us makes away with any discoveries.
Our quarters are the most primitive, consisting of little more than cloth stretched over poles to protect us from the sun and the wind, and as for food and water, it has all to be sent us by the Grand Assembly, for the terrain around Tomar Matha is as desolate and barren as the Plain of Tepantor. Because the food has to be brought over such long distances, it is easier to send us live food slaves, and this is what the Grand Assembly has chosen to do. We slaughter several of them every morning; one slave for every twenty men. It is scarcely enough.
But to return to what I wanted to tell you. Yesterday, while the other searcher in my team was away voiding his bowels – for the water, brought over these distances in leather bags, is not of the freshest, and we all suffer – I prised open a space between two bricks, and there found a pipe made of bone. Inside were several sheets of parchment, tightly-rolled and tied with sinew. I could only read a little of it before, hearing of the returning footsteps of my fellow searcher, I hurriedly hid the parchment, bone and all, under my robe. It is this parchment I am sending to you, along with this letter.
I trust that you understand why I am doing this. I have only read the parchment enough to confirm that it is, indeed, more of the writings of the woman Chheechkaduni, of whom we know only what legend tells us. But if she does give us clues, as the Grand Assembly evidently believes, of the treasure her husband is supposed to have hidden, it is to our profit, Mother, yours and mine, to keep that knowledge to ourselves, and make what use of it we can at a future date. Please read it through and keep it secret thereafter.
With formal gratitude for not having given me in sacrifice in childhood, I am,
Your loving son,
*************************** ************************* *************************
We were still within earshot of the Grotto of the Growling Glutton, and able to hear the famished howls of the Glutton echoing in the distance, when my Lord, who, as I have already said, was walking some way ahead, held up his spear and signalled us to stop. Bending once to look at something in the sand, he turned and walked quickly back to us.
“We’ll have to go back the other way,” he said, a slight frown on his handsome face.
“Dire lion,” he said, pointing. “I found droppings, and fresh, too. They were still steaming.”
I shuddered. I have always had a horror of these foul beasts, with their huge teeth and gigantic forequarters, so large that their heads, though immense, looked small. I remember watching one once decimate an entire force of hunters and lope away, uninjured, after the slaughter was over. Not even my Lord could be blamed for choosing not to confront one of them.
“We will go round the other side of the Grotto,” my Lord Onek Mangsho said. “Let us hope the animal has not scented us. We shall have to move quickly.”
So we turned back towards the Grotto we had so lately fled with our lives. The Glutton’s howls rent the air, and I could imagine it, crouching in its cavern, its slender clawed hands fumbling for its prey. I remembered how its maw had opened, a slit of darkness lined with thousands of needle teeth, and for a moment thought it better to brave the dire lion than to even be in the vicinity of such a monster. But we – skirting the lip of the Grotto – entered the open desert again, and the Glutton’s cries faded in the distance.
For the first time since we had first escaped the Glutton’s clutches, Opodartho spoke. “My Lord,” she began, “just where is it that we are going?”
I too had wanted to know this, for our earlier destination lay on the route we had quit when my Lord had found the dire lion’s scat, but had not thought it for me to ask. Therefore, it was still less in Opodartho’s place, and I was just about to tell her in no uncertain terms that my Lord would inform us of his plans in his own good time, when he himself spoke.
“The first thing for us, Opodartho, is to seek safety from this dire lion. After that, I shall decide where we are to go next. Perhaps we will resume our interrupted journey to the town of Bhangachora, but it depends first and foremost on shaking off the lion.”
It was only a short time later that Opodartho suddenly held up a hand, pointing. “My Lord,” she said, “look over there, to the right. There’s something moving.”
There, forming the horizon, was a long, low crest of sand and rock, rising off the desert floor and dotted with patches of scrub. At first I could see nothing unusual about the part of the ridge at which Opodartho was pointing, and my Lord, too, was peering and shaking his head.
“No, Opodartho,” he said, “I don’t see anything.”
“She’s just trying to...” I began, but never finished.
With a suddenness that made me gasp with shock, the dire lion sprang to the crest of the ridge, flung its head back, and roared. The sound seemed to bounce off the sky and come echoing back at us from above, and it felt almost like a blow. I have heard dire lions roar many times, before and since, but never have I heard a roar so full of menace.
“It’s a male,” my Lord said, gripping his spear so tightly that the bones showed white through the skin of his knuckles. I, too, could see the small mane, little more than a tuft of fur standing up from the beast’s neck and head. “That’s one good thing, at least.”
“Why, Lord?” A dire lion was a dire lion as far as I was concerned.
“He won’t attack us just yet – he’ll track us all day and close in after dark. If it were a lioness with cubs, now, she’d have been on us already.”
Now our flight across the desert had taken on an added urgency, with it being imperative for us to find shelter before nightfall. It was already almost noon, and the sun beat down on us with an intensity that made the desert shift and shimmer with haze. And the dire lion, silent now, followed in the distance, head low and paws padding.
“I can fight him if I have to,” my Lord explained, “but I’m worried about the two of you. Even though I can kill him, I’m worried that one of you might get hurt, or worse.”
“My life is yours to dispose of as you see fit, Lord,” I said humbly, and reached out to touch his bronzed, heavily muscled arm. Opodartho snorted for some reason, and I turned to glare at her, but she wasn’t looking at me.
All day, the three of us trotted through the desert heat, not pausing even to eat or drink. The sweat had long since dried on my body, and I felt the stiffness of my garments, caked with dust and dried perspiration. I resolved to change them and clean myself as soon as time and opportunity might allow, for I had no desire to resemble the slatternly Opodartho in appearance or deportment.
Sometimes the lion would vanish in the haze, and we would all tensely peer into the distance, hoping that he had gone, fearing that he had changed position and was preparing to rush us from another direction. But, each time, the haze cleared sufficiently for us to see the great beast, trailing after us as before.
“They are stupid animals,” I said, “or else he could have taken the chance of attacking us by now.”
“Don’t you believe it,” my Lord replied. “He’s trying to tire us out, and he’ll make his move after dark, when he can see better than we can. Nothing stupid about his strategy.” And as though in agreement, the dire lion held his head low to the ground and grunted, a rasping noise that skipped at us across the desert floor.
“If he’s trying to tire us out,” Opodartho said, “he’s succeeding. I, for one, am finding it hard going.”
I, too, had been feeling the strain in the muscles of my legs for some time, and my back was consumed by a dull ache, but of course I wouldn’t inconvenience my Lord by expressing it.
“And it’s coming on for evening,” Opodartho added, looking up at the sky to make her point.
“True,” my Lord admitted. He looked over his shoulder at the dire lion, easily visible now that the haze had begun to clear with the sun’s descent. The beast was quite undoubtedly closer, and I caught a glimpse of the puffs of sand that were displaced each time he put down his paws. “It seems we will have to fight after all,” my Lord said reluctantly.
“Maybe not.” For some time I had noticed a strange protuberance on the horizon, which at first I had taken for a rock pile of some sort. Now, however, I realised that it was an enormous stone building, undoubtedly of immense age, and so beaten about by sun and sand that it bore scarce resemblance to what it must have been intended to be. “Lord,” I said, making so bold to touch him on the shoulder, “that is a fort.”
“Yes,” my Lord said, after studying it for some time. “So it is. You’re right as usual, Chheechkaduni,” he added. I flashed a triumphant glance at Opodartho, but she had deliberately kept her gaze fixed on the old edifice, so that my effort was wasted.
“But,” my Lord added, “do you think we will be any safer within as we are out here?”
“Forts, Lord,” I reminded him, “have narrow doorways and staircases, which can be adequately defended against a mere wild beast by a single man with a spear...or even by a woman.”
“You’re right again,” he admitted. “But, still, there is something about it that makes me doubt whether entering it would be such a good idea.”
We were now very close to the structure. It was, as I had surmised, clearly a fort, and so ancient that its outlines were crumbled and smoothed away. No wonder I had, from a distance, thought it to be a pile of angular rocks. In the dimming light of the evening it was dark reddish in colour, fading to orange in its upper reaches.
“There’s a door,” I said, pointing to a narrow rectangle of darkness.
“Let us pass it by, Lord,” Opodartho said suddenly. “There is, as you said, something about it that shouts a warning to the discerning mind. We would be better off facing the dire lion in the open desert.”
Rage at the harridan burned through me. Evidently, she was so consumed by jealousy that she would rather put us at risk from the dire lion than seek safety in the fort that I had noticed. I opened my mouth to protest, but my Lord was already speaking.
“Yes, I too feel the repulsion you talk of, Opodartho, and I think...”
And then the dire lion roared.
He came hurtling over the desert at us, his legs flexing and stretching, covering the distance between us so quickly that we hardly had time to react. His wrinkled, foam-flexed muzzle stretched to reveal gigantic teeth, and his roar rumbled in his chest, as if he was thunder racing across the sky.
“Quick!” my Lord snapped. “Into the fort!”
We ran towards the narrow oblong of the doorway, hearing the harsh breathing of the dire lion, hearing his paws slapping the sand. We dived in, Opodartho making it in even before I did, while my Lord, holding out his spear, backed in last of all. An instant after we all were inside the doorway, the dire lion skidded to a halt outside, sand from his paws showering across the threshold of the door. He roared in fury, so loudly that the wall I was touching with my hand felt the vibrations of it.
“He’s probably too big to enter,” I said hopefully. But an instant later a gigantic paw, tipped with lethal-looking claws, was thrust inside and began to hunt around. My Lord leaned forward and jabbed the paw with his spear. If it was his intention to discourage the beast, it failed completely. The paw was withdrawn, yes, leaving a few drops of blood on the floor. But an instant later the dire lion roared again, even more loudly than before, and thrust his entire head and forequarters inside. I could feel the heat of his body, and smell him, a rank wild smell.
“Up the stairs, quickly!” my Lord ordered. I had not noticed that there was a staircase behind us, very narrow and steep and leading up through an arch in the wall. Almost stumbling in my eagerness, my nostrils full of the reek of the gigantic beast, I followed the others up the stairs.
It was not completely dark in the staircase. Some light entered through the door at the bottom, and a little more filtered in through the tall thin slits that either were meant as windows in some bygone time or simply represented places where stones had fallen out of the ancient edifice. We could see the dire lion at the foot of the stairs, moving back and forth, but he could not turn sufficiently in the narrow space to climb up towards us.
At least that was what it looked like to me, but Opodartho, of course, had her own idea.
“He’s afraid to climb the stairs,” she pronounced. “Just look at how he’s sniffing at the stone.”
I would have laughed, except that my mouth was too dry with fear of the huge animal to be able to. The dire lion grunted, the noise rasping and extremely intimidating, and I backed away from him, further up the stairs.
“No telling how long the animal’s going to wait there for us,” my Lord said. “Come, let us see if we can find another way out.”
As we walked up the stairs, we passed one of the narrow chinks in the wall I mentioned. Outside, it was still not completely dark.
“You had told us, Lord,” I ventured, “that the dire lion would not attack before darkness had fallen. But I see it isn’t completely dark yet.”
“He was afraid that we would escape him into this place,” said my Lord shortly. “Although I don’t know if it’s all that much of an escape, myself.”
“Just what I was saying,” Opodartho put in spitefully. “Can’t you feel the atmosphere of this – this ruin? Can’t you feel the strangeness?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “And I didn’t see you hesitate to jump in when the lion charged us, Opodartho. You even beat me to it!”
“Silence,” my Lord ordered. By this time we had climbed high enough that the rasping of the dire lion had receded into the distance, and now the stairs gave way to a long corridor. The walls were hung with heavy drapes, which gave out a dry, musty smell. When I touched one, part of it crumbled away, almost to dust.
“I wonder how old this place is,” I murmured, softly enough that my Lord did not feel the need to reprimand me. “Certainly, it’s curious that these hangings have not rotted away completely in these hundreds of years.”
“It’s probably the dry air,” my Lord said. “It protects against decay to some extent.”
“Have you noticed something?” Opodartho interrupted. “It’s dark outside, and yet – we can still see.”
A glance out of the nearest chink confirmed the trollop’s words. Outside lay pure blackness – I could just make out a flickering star – but a soft greyish-blue light, just strong enough for us to see by, illuminated the corridor. So gradually had it appeared that until this moment I had not noticed it.
“It’s coming from the hangings,” my Lord diagnosed after a moment’s thought. He touched one of the sheets of cloth, and when he withdrew his fingers, they were glowing faintly. With a curse, he wiped them on the floor.
“What sorcery is this?” I wondered aloud.
“Sorcery? Doubtless it is but a product of decay working on the cloth,” Opodartho said. As usual, her air of knowing everything irritated me, and I was about to reply when my Lord suddenly stopped.
“Look at this,” he said.
At first I thought the shapeless object he was prodding with his spear was a bundle of sticks and cloth, but when I peered closer at it I could see leathery lips drawn back from broken teeth, and empty eye sockets. A claw-like hand seemed to gesture threateningly.
“How long has it been dead, do you think?” my Lord murmured, pushing it closer to the tapestry with his spear, so that the bluish glow fell more brightly on it. It was so shrivelled and doubled up that it seemed to be only the size of a child, and although it was naked, there was no way of telling its sex.
“Who cares,” I heard Opodartho mutter. “My Lord,” she said aloud, “it seems to me even more urgent that we quit this place at once, and the earlier the better.”
“You forgot about the dire lion, waiting back down there?” I asked, injecting as much sarcasm into my voice as I could. The woman sometimes drove me to distraction with her stupidity.
“Maybe he’s gone,” Opodartho said, without much conviction, and I barely stifled a laugh. My Lord, meanwhile, had been studying the corpse we had found.
“I wonder,” he said now, “if this is the old fortress of Pataaler Pet, of which I’ve heard many times over the years. It would explain...”
“What, Lord?” I asked.
“I heard that the garrison of Pataaler Pet had perished, aeons ago, from a mysterious ailment that had sucked the breath from their lungs and dried them to no more than twigs and leather. That’s a pretty fair description of this thing here, wouldn’t you say?” He looked up from the corpse. “But that’s not all they said.”
“What else did they say?” Opodartho was listening to him as intently as I was.
“They did say, too,” my Lord told us, “that the dead still walk the halls of the old fort.” He laughed shortly. “Of course, they also said that nobody who entered ever emerged again, so how would they know whether the dead walk?”
“Can it be,” Opodartho asked, “that the dead walk? I have never heard of such a thing.”
“Think, Opodartho,” I snapped, annoyed. “Just use your head for a change. How many have we killed and eaten in our lives? Hundreds, certainly, and perhaps thousands, between us. If the dead could walk, how is it that they have not haunted us?”
“We’d better be getting on,” my Lord said. “Ghosts or not, I’d like to find our way out of here.”
We went along that long corridor until we reached another which crossed it at a right angle. This was rather darker, with fewer glowing hangings, though piles of faintly luminous material on the floor testified to the fact that its walls, too, had once been covered with the cloth.
“Which way do we go?” I asked. To right and left, the corridor trailed away into darkness.
“That way,” said my Lord, pointing to the left. Far in the distance, there seemed to be a pale glimmer of light, barely seen.
“We really need a torch,” Opodartho observed, as we walked down that dark corridor, nameless things crunching under the thin soles of our shoes. “Unfortunately, we only have one left.”
Neither my Lord nor I said anything to that.
Partway down the long corridor there was another chink in the wall to our left, through which a fresh breeze was blowing, and somewhat dissipating the musty odour of the corridor. My Lord leaned as far forwards as he could and tried to see out, so that he might have some idea of where we were and how we might get out. At length, he withdrew, shaking his head.
“There’s nothing to be seen,” he said. “All I could make out was the desert floor some distance away. We’ll just have to keep going the way we are and hope we emerge somewhere, that’s all.”
“Could you see the dire lion?” I asked.
“No. He may still be down there.” All of us glanced involuntarily back the way we had come, and it seemed to me that I heard the echo of a distant roar.
Well before we reached the end of the corridor, I had realised that the glimmer we had seen came from much further away, and that we had only seen its faint reflection on the walls and ceiling. Apart from this reflected light, the new corridor we found ourselves in, which headed off to our right, was entirely dark; not a single scrap of cloth hung on the walls, which were innocent of any chink or window.
“We must be moving deeper into the fort,” my Lord said.
“Did you see that?” Opodartho exclaimed suddenly. “Something...ran across the corridor.”
“Where?” Both my Lord and I peered down the length of the passage, but there was nothing to be seen.
“She’s imagining things,” I said.
“I am not! It was about the size of a, a child, I think, and it was running on all fours. You didn’t see it?”
My Lord looked at me, and even in the dim reflected glow of light I could see the doubt in his eyes. “Did you notice anything at all, Chheechkaduni?”
“No, I didn’t.” Even as the words left my mouth I seemed to see a twitch of movement from the corner of my eye, and turned my head sharply; but there were only the heavy concealing shadows. Silently, I cursed the stupid slattern for making me imagine things.
“We’d better go on,” my Lord said. “Really, it’s all we can do.” The blade of his great spear knocked on the stone wall as he turned, with a clang that echoed down the corridor. All three of us winced at the noise.
For the rest of the walk down that corridor, and the next, I was constantly on edge, looking over my shoulder for things crawling along behind us or about to jump on us from the ceiling. It reminded me unpleasantly of the devil-spiders that had infested the Monastery of Makorshar Jaal, which had so nearly proved our undoing. Once again and even more bitterly I cursed Opodartho, and wondered for perhaps the millionth time why my Lord bothered with her at all.
Meanwhile, the reflected glow grew slowly greater, until it was almost half as bright as it had been in the first corridor. It had a greenish tinge to it now, and the musty smell lay heavy in the air. The next turning, I realised, should bring us to the source of the light, and suddenly I decided it that I did not want to see what lay there, at all.
“Lord,” I said, “perhaps it would be better if we turned back and...”
I never got to complete what I was about to say. From all around us, the shadows erupted. I had a confused impression of being grasped by a hundred clawed hands and being thrown to the floor. Something struck me heavily on the head, and I knew nothing more.
Pain woke me, a throbbing sensation inside the depths of my head. The green light seeped through my eyelashes, so intense that I screwed my eyes shut as tightly as I could. There seemed to be heavy weights on my wrists and ankles, and I twisted, trying to shift to a more comfortable position. This only served to bring fresh pain lancing through me, and I opened my eyes with an involuntary gasp.
At first I couldn’t see anything due to the intensity of the green glare, which seemed as bright as the noonday sun. Only as I blinked away the tears that rushed to my eyes did I realise that the glow was far less intense than I first had thought. In reality, it was scarcely brighter than the glimmer that we had been walking through in the corridors.
I was lying on my back on an inclined surface. When I turned my head, I realised that what I had thought to be heavy weights on my wrists were rough-looking ropes which tied my hands down. I could not raise my head to see as far down as my feet, but they were probably secured in the same fashion. I did notice that most of my clothes seemed to have been ripped away. Tattered shreds and strips of material were all that remained. The skin of my breasts and arms was covered with small cuts and bruises.
“Is anyone there?” I tried to say, but all that emerged from my lips was a slight whisper. My mouth was so dry that my tongue stuck to my palate.
“Chheechkaduni?” The voice was so changed that for a moment I could not identify it as my Lord’s. With difficulty I raised my head far enough to see him. He was to my left, tied as I was to what looked like an ancient article of furniture. Like me, he was almost entirely naked. Dried blood was crusted on his face and chest.
“Where are we?” I managed, my voice a croak.
My Lord shrugged as much as he could with his arms tied down. “Somewhere inside the fort, obviously,” he said. “They know better than I do.”
My Lord made a slight inclination of his chin, and for the first time I had regained consciousness, I looked out at what lay around us.
We were in a large chamber, the furthest parts of which were lost in shadow, so that it was difficult to estimate its size. The floor, walls and even the ceiling were piled and hung with mouldering cloth, what had once been curtains, cushions and carpets. The glow came from them, all around, dim but enveloping.
And all about the chamber they stood. At first sight I took them to be children, for they were about the size of youngsters about six or seven summers. But even a casual second glance wiped away that illusion. Children they might once have been, I could just imagine, but they were not children now.
The closest of them stood near enough to me so that I could see it clearly. Entirely naked, it stood on slightly bowed legs, its barrel-shaped torso sprouting long, skinny arms ending in hands with absurdly long fingers ending in hooked claws. The head, balanced on a stalk-like neck, was round and withered-looking, with prognathous jaws and a sunken nose, and was surmounted by a mane of whitish hair. Its eyes were large and gleamed greenish like the light from the rotting mounds of cloth.
The creature had been doing something with a piece of wood, but, seeming to feel my gaze, it turned towards me and mumbled something. Its mouth was like a slit that extended halfway round its head, and as it made its slurred noises its entire lower face seemed to open and close.
“What are they?” I asked, remembering what my Lord had said about the fort of Pataaler Pet. “Ghosts?”
“Do ghosts knock their victims unconscious and tie them down?” my Lord asked rhetorically. “Do ghosts bite, for that matter? For I have a bite mark on my arm, and the blood still oozes from it.”
The creature nearest to me walked up with the thing it had been carrying. Close to, its skin was wrinkled and almost transparent-looking, so that I felt as though it would be entirely colourless in the light of day. I could see the greenish lines of blood vessels pulsing in its torso, and the sparse silvery hairs on its skin rose and fell with every move it made.
Grasping my hair, it pulled my head back, and for an instant I was certain that it was about to rip out my throat, and that I was about to die here, spread-eagled half naked and without even being granted a chance to prepare myself to meet the Cannibal Spirit face to face, as we all must someday. My mouth fell open as I tried to scream, but instead of tearing my skin open, the creature simply raised the wooden object and I felt water being poured into my mouth. The water was dank and tasted of something metallic, but it felt as good as fresh blood from the slaughterhouse, and I drank it down greedily.
“Where are our things?” I asked, when the thing had walked away. Speech came slightly more easily now that my throat was moistened. “Where is Opodartho?”
“I don’t know,” said my Lord. “I don’t know where she is. Do you think these foul beasts have killed and eaten her?”
“It’s far more likely that she abandoned us and ran away,” I said. “In that case, I devoutly beseech the Cannibal Spirit to ensure that the dire lion makes a meal of her. My Lord, I...”
“Hush, Chheechkaduni. You shouldn’t say things like that.” It was typical of my Lord, that he still felt loyalty to the vile strumpet even though she, as far as either of us knew, was at this very moment fleeing across the desert, leaving us to whatever fate these creatures had planned for us.
“What do you think they will do to us, Lord?” I asked.
“How can I tell? Despite the water they gave me and now you, I doubt they are anything like friendly. Hospitable people do not tie down their guests after assaulting them and tearing off their clothes. Do they?”
All this while, the other creatures had been watching us, occasionally making noises to each other. Now, some of them scrambled away from the centre of the chamber. A section of the cloth was pulled aside, and more of the creatures entered through a doorway opposite us.
One of them stood out instantly because of its size, which was so much greater that it was easily twice as tall and half again as broad as the largest of the others. It – she – had drooping, pendulous breasts, and her face was adorned with blackish markings all across the forehead and cheeks. When she saw us, she emitted a shrill ululating noise that hurt my ears.
“Who is that?” I gasped. “Their queen?”
“Perhaps. It strikes me,” my Lord said, “that we have been placed here to await her arrival.”
He was apparently right. The big creature came up to us, waddling more than walking, her immense hanging dugs slapping against her torso with every step. Each of her hands was on the shoulder of one of her smaller escorts, as though she wouldn’t have been able to walk upright without their support. She stood before us, her huge bulbous head turning slowly from my Lord to me and back again, making noises. Some of the creatures which had been with us in the chamber made noises back.
At length the big female moved forward again, until she was standing right before me. From so close, I could see that the markings on her face were clearly artificial, hooks and swirls that had somehow been etched into her features, like the tattoos that the wild men of Bonmanush adorn themselves with. She had a smell, too, a sour odour that stood out even over the must and decay that filled the air with their redolence.
Slowly, grunting with the effort, she raised one of her hands off her escort and prodded me with her finger. The claw at the end slashed the skin of my bare breast, ripping it like a knife, and I gasped with the pain as I felt the blood trickle down my side. Almost delicately, the creature dabbed the tip of her finger in my blood and licked it off with a long bluish tongue. Once again, she ululated, and turned away, her hand on the shoulder of her small escort, and they helped her away from the chamber. The cloth fell across the doorway.
“Chheechkaduni,” my Lord asked, “are you all right?”
“It hurts,” I whimpered. The pain burned through my breast, and the blood, though slowing, still flowed. Several of the small creatures darted up, scuttling on all fours, and licked the blood off their fingers after trailing them across my chest, as their queen had done. They were restless now, darting back and forth, squeaking and mumbling.
“I have a bad feeling about this.” I swallowed audibly. “My Lord, do you think –“
“No,” I said. “It’s nothing.” How could I explain to my Lord the creeping terror of death that was stealing over me now? How, when he was so stoical, could I give in to the urge to blubber like a yearling being dragged to the slaughter?
“I just wish I could have made love to you one more time, Lord,” I temporised.
My Lord laughed shortly. “It would take some change in our circumstances for me to be capable of the act,” he said. “But, if we ever get out of here. I promise you that at the first available opportunity, your body shall be joined with mine.”
The pain in my breast was beginning to subside, but that was cold comfort, for one of the creatures entered at that moment, bearing a sharpened stake of wood. One of the others tested the tip of the stake with its finger, and mumbled in a tone that sounded approving. Taking the stake from the other, it started towards me, raising it high as it came.
Helplessly, I fouled myself, feeling my wastes trickle down my leg as my eyes followed the tip of the stake. The creature had raised it over its shoulder, so that it could bring it down on me in one smooth motion, and as I waited to die I hoped with all my might that at that moment Opodartho’s corpse was being ripped apart by the dire lion. At the last instant before the blow fell, I closed my eyes.
The creature squealed in mortal agony.
I opened my eyes as I felt it fall across my legs, the stake clattering to the floor. The thing was lying across me, thrashing, my Lord’s light spear transfixing it through the chest. Opodartho stood in the centre of the chamber, my Lord’s heavy spear in her hands, slashing about her with the blade. The creatures were scuttling around in frantic terror, as with the spear she inflicted terrible wounds among them. I watched her decapitate one cleanly, its head rolling across the floor towards me, its mouth still working, dark blood spraying.
“Opodartho,” my Lord shouted. “Look out! Behind you!”
Without wasting time in trying to look, the woman ducked, turning as she did, and the stake one of the creatures had picked up and hurled at her sailed harmlessly above her head. She brought up the spear, thrusting hard enough to smash the blade of it all the way through the torso of the thing, and suddenly the chamber was empty of the foul beings. Most of them had fled. Only the dead remained, some still trembling in their death throes.
“Hold still,” Opodartho said, taking her long knife from her robes. Unlike us, she still had her clothing, intact. Hurrying over, she knelt at my feet and I felt her sawing away at the ropes binding my ankles. The heavy weights fell away from my feet and then my hands, and I slid down the inclined surface and collapsed on the floor.
“Rub your hands and feet,” Opodartho called, going over to my Lord. “The circulation will return.” As though I needed to be told that!
By the time I was able to rise unsteadily to my feet, Opodartho had released my Lord and was peering around the chamber, the heavy spear still in hand. I noted with some satisfaction that she made no move to massage my Lord’s wrists and ankles, as I would have done. Whatever motives had driven her to come back and rescue us, she remained true to her self-seeking nature.
“We have to get out of here,” Opodartho said, as soon as the two of us were able to move around. “They will be back, without a doubt.”
“But,” I protested, “what about clothes?” The last shreds of my clothing had fallen away, and apart from one shoe I was entirely naked. My Lord was not much better off. “We can’t manage without clothes.”
“I salvaged our bags,” Opodartho snapped. “When, or rather if, we get to where I left them, you can get dressed. For now, let’s move.” Giving the heavy spear back to my Lord, she wrenched the light spear from the carcass of the being which had been about to stake me. The creature looked tiny and shrunken now, and I could almost imagine it to be a child. “Come on.”
We exited through a door I had not noticed before, situated behind the inclined planes on which my Lord and I had been tied. Opodartho moved quickly and confidently through what seemed to me to be a baffling maze of corridors, the light spear thrust out in her hand. I was right behind her, stumbling slightly as I stubbed my toes on protuberances, the floor here being roughly hewn and uneven. It seemed to me that we were going down a long, long way, and the glow around us grew ever dimmer and more fitful.
Finally, with the light so faded and dim that it was almost impossible to see, Opodartho called a halt. “I left the bags somewhere around here,” she said. “Ah, here they are.”
Fumbling in the nearest bag, I found a gown by touch and pulled it on (it turned out to be Opodartho’s, something which I didn’t discover until much later, and to which I still attribute the disease I contracted when – but why anticipate matters? I will speak of that at the appropriate time). I found a pair of shoes, too, which gave much relief to the bruised soles of my feet – I had been forced to kick off the remaining shoe on the way because of the hobbling gait it had imposed on me.
While we dressed, my Lord asked Opodartho of how she had managed to rescue us.
“I’ll tell you in detail some other time,” she said. “But when the initial attack came, I had been slightly behind the two of you, and it may have been that these animals, whatever they are, had not seen me. I saw them wrestle you to the floor and drag you away, and there were far too many of them for me to fight, utterly unprepared for their assault as I was.
“After they had gone, I tried to follow you, but I was hampered by the bags and weapons which you had dropped and which these beasts had not bothered to pick up. Soon, I had fallen so far behind that I decided I should hide the things and then come looking for you. As I was thinking this, some of the creatures came round a corner and began walking in my direction, and I was forced to conceal myself in a niche until they had passed by.
“The upper corridors of the fort, I found, are full of these shrivelled little demons. They must have been deliberately avoiding us earlier while setting up their ambush, for otherwise we should surely have encountered them far earlier than we did. At any rate, I had merely to evade one of the bands of these creatures to encounter another. It was sheer good fortune that kept me safe from being detected by them. I must tell you that several times I had my hand on my knife, ready to fight to the death, but on each occasion the danger passed me by.
“At length I found a corridor headed downwards, which was darker than the others and which turned out to be relatively free of these disgusting little travesties of humanity. This corridor brought me, through many turns and down many flights of stairs, to a series of great dark chambers, full of dust, which may have been the dungeons of the old edifice. After wandering at length through them, I found another set of corridors leading upwards in a different direction, and after exploring them for a time I discovered fresh air coming from somewhere ahead of me. And so it was that I found a doorway to the outside, narrow and partially blocked with rubble. But through it blew a cold breeze, and I could see the night sky, and the stars.
“Step by step, then, I retraced my way, back through the dungeons and up the old corridors, until I decided that I could leave the bags here in relative safety, where they hopefully could not be found by them. I took the spears and returned to the upper reaches of the fort, where I hoped to pick up your trail again.
“The difference this time,” she continued, as we walked down the corridor, the bags over our backs, and my beloved long knife back in its place at my waist, “was that I was armed and ready for combat, and that I was no longer encumbered by the bags. And so I was prepared to slay the devil-things as I found them, to strike them down from the shadows, but they all seemed to have disappeared. At length I heard a commotion coming from a particular set of corridors, and following it to its source, I entered through a door just in time to see Chheechkaduni about to be impaled by one of them. The rest of the story you know.”
“Yes,” my Lord said. “Believe me, we are very grateful to you.” I glanced at Opodartho, but in the darkness it was impossible to tell her reaction at the praise. For my part, I was sure that it was only her fear of life alone among the dangers outside that had driven her back to seek us; but then, as I have said so often, I knew the strumpet better than my Lord ever did.
“We should be careful here,” Opodartho said a little later. “This stretch of the corridor is plentifully behung with rotting cloth, and so relatively well-lighted.”
We emerged into a broad passage which had several others opening onto it, and, as Opodartho had said, the walls glowed the sickly greyish-green of the chamber in which I had so nearly met my death. I was about to ask Opodartho how she knew which was the right one for us to enter, when I noticed her looking at a mark on the floor, as might be made by the edge of the blade of a spear. Fortunately I had seen the mark in time, or else she would have thought herself superior to me simply because I had asked.
We left the broad corridor for a much narrower one, which was so low that my Lord’s head almost brushed the top of it. It, too, had piles of rotting objects stacked along the walls, all emitting the same greyish-green putrid radiance. Opodartho, who was in the lead, stood abruptly still.
“Oh no,” she murmured, “not now.”
“What’s wrong?” Even as I spoke, I was thrust roughly aside by my Lord, who leaped past me to stand beside Opodartho, the heavy spear poised to strike.
The corridor ahead of us was full of them!
At the head, breasts dangling, tattooed face working, was the old matriarch who had cut me with her talon, her hands still supported by her tiny acolytes. Behind her, many more swarmed, gibbering and squeaking, unable to get to us due to the great bulk of their queen.
“What now?” I called. “Should we go back?”
“There’s no way but onwards,” Opodartho yelled back, the light spear speeding from her hand to smack into the exact centre of the matriarch’s chest. “Charge!”
It was a melee I find difficult to remember and impossible to describe, except for a few random impressions: my Lord hacking away with his great spear, shouting, the spindly withered vermin falling away from his blade; my feet trampling on the heaving body of the matriarch as I tried to wrench the light spear from her chest, finally freeing it in a great gout of blood; Opodartho’s knife transfixing one of her escorts right through its sunken nose; and then we were through, and the corridor ahead of us was free; but behind us, a frenzied mob of them was in full pursuit.
“They’ll catch us up,” I gasped, running. “What should we do? Turn and fight?”
“You’re right,” my Lord said, glancing over his shoulder. “They’re faster than we are. No, if we make a stand, there are too many of them. They’d overwhelm us in no time.”
“I have an idea,” Opodartho shouted, pulling off her bag as she ran. I saw her fumbling inside it, and then she pulled free our one remaining torch, along with one of the fire-sticks we had acquired from the merchants we had saved from the Pirates of Jaladashyu. Quickly firing the torch, she began running it along the piled mounds of material along the sides of the corridor. Flames licked at the material, and dense clouds of smoke filled the corridor behind us.
“To the left,” Opodartho yelled. I saw the turning she meant just in time to duck into it. It was so narrow and low that we all had to bend almost double, but it was dark and the creatures did not pursue us into it. In all probability, they had lost track of us in the fire and smoke.
“This will lead us all the way down into the dungeons,” Opodartho said, snuffing out the torch.
After all that had happened to us, the last stretch of our journey through that accursed fort passed off relatively easily. We walked through the dungeon, encountering only several more ancient corpses like the one we had found in the upper fort, when we had first entered. And it seemed only a little while after that when we stood before the doorway Opodartho had told us about, and my Lord used the haft of his heavy spear to clear away enough of the rubble so we could exit.
Amazingly, it was not quite dawn yet. All that had happened to us had passed in the span of less than a single night.
“Chheechkaduni,” my Lord said, “look.”
Exhausted and reeking of smoke and stale sweat, we were trudging away from the fort, and in the very first light of dawn it was not easy to tell how far we had come. When I turned to see what he was talking about, it seemed that the fort was a long way off already, and at first I couldn’t see anything unusual about it.
“Look there, towards the right,” my Lord said, pointing. “Can you see it now?”
Peering, I saw suddenly that the dark bulk of the fort seemed suffused by a reddish glow. At first I imagined it was the reflected light of the rising sun, but the sun had not yet peeped over the horizon. Then I saw how the glow flickered and pulsed, and at last I realised that the fort was on fire.
“That should keep them occupied,” my Lord said with satisfaction.
“With any luck it might burn them to ashes and have done with it once and for all,” Opodartho added.
A sudden snuffling noise made me start. Before I could even turn my head, a great cold nose was pressed lightly against my hand.
“Lord...” My voice died in my throat.
“What?” Before my Lord could react, the dire lion had left me and strolled over to him. He sniffed my Lord over, and then Opodartho, whose forearm he licked quickly and gently. Then, turning round, he sauntered away into the desert.
Open-mouthed, the three of us watched him go.
Of all the things that befell us in this adventure, the most inexplicable would seem to be the behaviour of the dire lion, who had had us at his mercy but chosen not only not to attack, but almost to greet us as friends. I have never heard of such a thing from a dire lion, before or since.
Talking it over, we decided that the lion must have known, in some manner of his kind, the horrors that lay in wait inside the fort; horrors compared to which even such as we were as kin to the dire lion, and his reaction was one of simple congratulations at having come through alive. It makes sense, perhaps – to a dire lion. In any case, I have never since been able to fear or hate one of these great beasts as I had been wont to, though I cannot forgive him for having bestowed the accolade of a lick on Opodartho and not me.
And that reminds me. When we had been tied down in the chamber in the fort of Pataaler Pet, and I had told my Lord that I wished I could make love to him just once more, he had promised me that if we got out alive he would take me at the first available opportunity.
Well, you know what? When the opportunity finally came, he did not make love to me.
He made love to Opodartho instead.
*********************** *********************** *****************
I write this addendum about the slave Golakata Dam, with whom I am sending this parchment and my letter. He is, of course, a food slave, and keenly interested in evading the fate of all his kind. Accordingly, I promised him his life if he should deliver these safely to you. So, keep him in some menial capacity in the household if you will, or send him on his way to wherever he should wish to go; but please do not eat him, and do not let my sister Lokloke Jeebh, whose mouth always waters at the thought of food, eat him either.
With love from your son
THE DEVILS OF DHONGSHOBOSHESH
My dear brother Asto Ahmok,
Forgive me for not writing to you earlier. The work I must, as a lonely and unlettered widow, handle alone keeps me far too busy for such pursuits. And, as you well know, the uncertainties of the current situation mean that it is quite impossible to depend on letters reaching their destination.
Even so, I am sending to you this missive for a purpose, and entrusting it to the slave Golakata Dam. For reasons I shall explain some other time, I desire that you take him into your employment, and see that he is treated as well as any other slave of your household. I have reason to believe him reliable and honest.
Let me, then, come to the purpose of this letter.
You are well enough aware that since our family business does not bring in enough income to support us all, my son, Hotobhaga Gordhob, chose to seek employment with the Grand Assembly. A few days ago he sent me a message stating that he had discovered a portion of the writings of the woman Chheechkaduni, consort of the legendary traitor Onek Mangsho. You know that this Onek Mangsho is supposed to have been the owner of vast treasures, which may yet lie concealed somewhere to this day.
My son also sent me the parchments he had discovered. On reading them I found no clue to any treasure, but it reminded me that when our father died, he had left several boxes of documents that he had accumulated over the years, some of which are still in my possession, while the rest passed into yours. On searching through those that I own, I discovered that one of the boxes contained parchments purporting to be written by this same Chheechkaduni. While I have no proof, of course, that the ancient and reviled harlot did indeed pen those accounts, they do agree in style with the material my son discovered under a rock.
I have reason to suspect that the High Monk of the Grand Assembly is convinced that these treasures actually exist, and that he is plotting to discover them through the writings of Chheechkaduni. I need scarcely point out to you how we could benefit if we managed to find the treasure instead.
I am enclosing, along with this letter, a verbatim copy of what Father’s box contained. I request you to check through your own boxes to find if any of them hold more writings of this woman. And I need not warn you to maintain the strictest secrecy about all of this.
I am, as ever,
Your loving sister,
************************************** ********************************** *************************************
On the third day of our enforced confinement in the pit into which we had been thrown after our capture, we heard a considerable commotion in the village.
As I have already said, this pit was so deep that there was no way for us to see anything of the outside but a circle of sky. From time to time one of the villagers would peer down at us from above, and twice a day they would throw down some food. Water we got from the moisture seeping through the wall and collecting in the little basin Opodartho had discovered.
We had, of course, no idea of why we had been put down here, nor of how long we would have to remain. The villagers refused to acknowledge, let alone answer, the questions we shouted up to them. We couldn’t even say for sure if they understood what we said, because we had as yet heard too little of their language to discover if it was near enough to those we spoke for mutual comprehension.
Each night the smoke from the village fires, lit from under by the glow of the flames that gave them birth, floated across the opening of the bit, and ashes and sometimes still glowing cinders rained down on us. One of these alighted on the second evening on my arm and caused a painful burn. My Lord would have been concerned, had he not been lost in a reverie; but Opodartho only laughed.
“It’s hardly a singe,” she said. “It hasn’t even raised a blister.”
“To some,” I retorted, “it might be nothing; but a high-born lady like me has more delicate skin than a peasant’s thick hide.”
The slattern seemed about to say something in response, but my Lord stirred himself from deep thought. “Stop fighting,” he said. “Save your energies; we’ll need them.”
Opodartho and I glared silently at each other. My Lord scooped some of the water up in his hand and sipped at it. “At any rate,” he said, “it’s certain that they won’t leave us to die down here.”
“How do you say that, Lord?” Opodartho asked.
“See for yourselves.” My Lord gestured around us with his hand. “No bones; and if they’re using this pit as a fattening pen, they certainly have a strange way of doing so, for the food they provide is scarcely enough to keep the three of us alive. No, they are just storing us here until they make up their minds about us.”
“And you think they’ll let us out soon?”
“Why not?” My Lord had asked. “It’s not as though we’re doing them any harm.”
“From the way they surrounded us,” Opodartho observed, “they seem to have their own ideas on that point.” My Lord made no reply to that, although I had expected that he would have set the stupid woman right.
“I’m sure they’ll let us out today,” I’d said.
But that second night had passed into day, and apart from the usual bundle of food being tossed down to us, it seemed the village had all but forgotten our existence. But suddenly there had been the commotion, and a babble of excited voices. We could hear someone shouting something not far away, and little by little the hubbub reduced, only to flare up again.
“Something’s going on,” Opodartho said superfluously.
“Do you think they’re discussing us, Lord?” I asked.
“I think not,” my Lord answered, pulling at the curl of hair that hung loose past his ear. “Because, you see, if they’re discussing us, why only now? They could have done that all these last days. And our capture can hardly be a secret, but you can hear them shouting in excitement.”
The shouting went on for a long time. After an interval we could hear a cacophony of clangs and bangs that grew slowly louder and more rhythmical.
“I do believe that that terrible noise is what passes for music among these people,” I said.
“You’re right,” Opodartho admitted, as many voices began chanting together. “It sounds like some kind of religious ceremony.”
The chanting went on all through the day, and into the night. Nobody came to peer down at us, and we didn’t even receive our evening bundle of food. Fortunately our enforced inactivity had dulled our appetites, and our hunger, though intense, was not so severe as to make us as weak and dizzy as we had been in the stone caverns of the Crab-men of Kakhra, when we had come close to dying of starvation. But the racket from the so-called music and the chanting went on almost the entire night, so we could not even get a moment’s sleep. Finally, and simply in order to pass the time, my Lord tried to take us, one by one, but in the narrow confines of the pit it was difficult and caused my leg muscles to cramp. Besides, in our hunger, we simply lacked the energy, and it was all we could do to drag our clothing on again afterwards.
Finally, as dawn touched the sky above the pit, the music and chanting died away. Instead, such a wailing and lamentation began as we had never heard before, not even when a tribal chief or a Monk of the Grand Assembly goes to join the Cannibal Spirit on his Bloody Isle. The lamentation grew slowly closer, as though a crowd was approaching the pit, and began to pass us by.
And then, just as we thought we would be left alone to wonder what was happening and perhaps to starve, a head appeared at the edge of the pit, and then another. Soon, five or six of the village people were looking down at us and jabbering among themselves. One of them carried a bundle, one end of which he proceeded to roll down the wall of the pit. It was a net of coarse thick rope, with large spaces for our hands and feet. Leaning over, the man beckoned to us to ascend.
“I hope they aren’t planning to hit us over the head as we reach the top,” I said.
“Why should they?” Opodartho countered. “All they had to do was leave us down here, or to throw stones at us. Where could we hide in this pit?”
My Lord had already begun the ascent, and he glared at us over his shoulder. “Are you two coming, or aren’t you? They mightn’t leave this net down forever, you know.”
So, despite my misgivings, I had to follow Opodartho up the swaying rope net, flakes of dirt from her shoes sprinkling down on my hair and face. When I reached the top, hands reached down and pulled me up, setting me on my feet, but still holding on to my arms. My Lord and Opodartho stood beside me, similarly secured, their faces, like mine, turned towards a roughly-finished mud wall. Behind us, we could hear many people moving about, the murmur of voices, and someone crying piteously.
“I told you they were going to do us harm,” I shouted at Opodartho, anticipating at any moment a blow to the back of my skull. “But you...”
“They haven’t actually done anything to us yet,” the stupid slattern replied. “And being up here is better than being trapped down in that pit. But maybe you have other ideas on that.”
“Quiet,” my Lord yelled. “Both of you.”
The men holding us had been looking back and forth at the shouting as though they had never heard anything so fascinating in their lives, but now they stiffened and tugged at our arms, turning us partially around. A small group of the villagers was approaching, and from among them one thrust himself forwards towards us.
Like all the others, he was short, the top of his head barely reaching my chin, and even less for Opodartho and my Lord. His face was brightly painted, in patterns of yellow and white, and his hair stuck with some reddish resin into short spikes into which yellowish beads had been worked. After a second look, I realised that the beads were human teeth. His clothing consisted of a broad strip of cloth wrapped round his torso and falling below his knees, on which strange symbols were painted in blue and green.
This colourful person danced up to us, an earthen vessel in his hand rattling loudly, and stared each of us up and down in turn. We must have been an unprepossessing sight, after the days down in the pit without opportunity for personal hygiene, of course; even I, who am naturally far more fastidious than Opodartho, was aware of the dirt sticking to my skin and the grime in my clothing.
While the painted man looked us over, I took the opportunity to have a quick glance around, since when we were being brought to the pit, I, as I have already said, had a hood of some kind pulled over my head and had seen nothing at all.
We were standing at the edge of a rough square, surrounded by drab brown buildings with coarse brown earthen walls. On the far side was one larger and even uglier than the others, and a steady stream of the villagers was still emerging from it, from which I deduced that it was the equivalent of a village temple or assembly hall. Smoke drifted in the air from the remnants of a large bonfire in the centre of the square.
The painted man spoke suddenly, rattling his earthen vessel. His voice was harsh as if the desert winds had dried him out from the inside, but there was something familiar about the words. I could almost fancy I understood something of what he was saying.
Apparently my Lord could understand more than I did, for when the painted man stopped speaking, he answered in what seemed to my ears to be the same language, the gist of which I could almost, but not quite, follow. Looking across at Opodartho, I saw her lips moving as she repeated to herself what they were saying. I had seen her do this before, when we had, in the course of our wanderings, met new peoples and had to learn something of their languages. I must admit that it was a talent she had in more abundance than I did.
Abruptly, with a final vehement shake of his earthen vessel, the painted man turned round and stamped away to where his coterie waited. They gathered together, muttering among themselves and looking over their shoulders at us at frequent intervals. All the other villagers seemed to be waiting, also, for something.
“That man,” my Lord said, turning urgently towards us as far as the men securing him allowed, “is the priest, medicine man, and king of the village, all in one. He’s offering us a way out of here.”
“How could you understand him, Lord?” I asked.
My Lord made a gesture with his hand. “He can speak a version of the common trade tongue, which they use in the barbarous northern lands. Once, when I was young and hadn’t met either of you yet, I had learned it from a Northerner slave. It is a bit rusty with lack of use, I admit, but good enough for discourse with him, since he can speak it no better than I can.”
“I did think many of the words seemed somehow familiar,” I allowed. “It’s mostly the pronunciation that varies, isn’t it, with different inflection? And of course the verb declination is different, and...”
“Chheechkaduni!” Opodartho interrupted me, most rudely. “Will you please keep your mind on the important thing? Lord, what way out of here is the man offering us?”
“I did not understand quite everything he said,” my Lord replied. “But it seems that this festival that they have is an annual event, and culminates in sending a young and nubile woman of the tribe as a tribute or sacrifice to a valley not far away. I did not get that bit very clearly, but apparently the young women concerned, though being accorded a high honour, have a distressing propensity to run away. So they are accompanied by an armed escort of guards, who deliver them to the place of tribute.
“Now, this priest-king of theirs is offering us to be the escort of the young woman who is this year’s tribute. If we agree, and do the job demanded of us, we can go on our way. Otherwise, we go back to the pit until they decide to make an end of us.”
“Lord,” I asked, “does it not seem suspicious that they would want us to be the escort of whichever woman they’re sending? Why would they want to do such a thing?”
“I asked that,” my Lord said, “of course. Apparently, the escort invariably fails to return from that valley. Nobody knows what happens to them, or to the tribute, either. For that reason, nobody wishes to be part of the escort, and they would be more than happy if we took on the role.”
“Why do they send the tribute?” Opodartho inquired. “To whom do they send her?”
“I don’t know,” my Lord replied. “I didn’t understand what he told me about them. But it seems to me that we, who have defeated such foes as the Dreadful Fire-Demons of Domkol, should be equal to the challenge. In any case, I don’t see we have an alternative, not unless we wish to go back into the pit.”
“I don’t want to go back into the pit,” Opodartho said. “Chheechkaduni?”
I had grave doubts about the wisdom of the course we were about to embark on, but clearly my Lord and Opodartho had made up their minds, and I had no wish to be left alone in this terrible place. So, reluctantly, I nodded.
“I’ll go along with you,” I said.
We set out before the sun had reached much higher in the sky, after being given a hurried meal of dried meat and some sweetish fruit, with a couple of swallows of ash-tinged water to follow.
The procession followed us out of the village, though the lamentation had almost completely stopped. I gathered that it had been for the guards who would have accompanied the tribute on the way to her fate, but for us. The guards still came along, a half-dozen short wiry men in leather with pieces of metal armour tied round their bodies with thongs, armed with curved swords. Apart from heavy packs on their backs, they carried our bags, too, which we had not seen since our capture, and our weapons; two of them bore my Lord’s heavy and light spears slung over their shoulders.
“They will accompany us as far as the entrance to the valley, to ensure that we don’t run away before that,” my Lord explained. “Once there, they will return our things, not before.” I glanced a moment at the guards, who regarded us with what looked to me like a mixture of suspicion and pity, but my attention, like that of Opodartho, was fixed on the tribute, who walked resolutely in the middle of our little group, as though she scarcely felt the lengths of light soft rope binding her wrists to her ankles.
She was tall for one of the village people, almost as tall as I, and young. Also, in her dark and rustic way she was perhaps, to some tastes, almost beautiful, with her small elegant head and her high pert breasts. She was quite naked, but, like the brazen hussy she almost certainly was, seemed to feel no shame or discomfort. Indeed, she moved so suggestively that at every step her torso swayed enticingly on her lithe limbs, and the sun caught the hollows at the small of her back, and threw her small buttocks into relief.
“This creature is dangerous,” Opodartho murmured, very softly, to me. “We would do well to protect our Lord from her wiles.”
I nodded, edging closer to her. For the first time, I felt that Opodartho and I were truly united against a common enemy. My Lord strode along ahead of us, his eyes fixed on the eroded hills towards which we were walking, but when a creature like this tribute chose to ensnare a man, it would take more self-control than Onek Mangsho possessed to extricate himself from her charms.
For some time the ground on both sides had been rising, and now we were walking along a broad shallow depression in the ground, littered with thousands of rounded rocks. Most were quite small, the size of a man’s head or thereabouts, but some were the size of large houses. The three of us had some difficulty maintaining our footing on this surface, but the villagers, guards as well as tribute, seemed to have no problems at all.
“I think,” Opodartho said suddenly, “that this must have been the bed of one of those ancient flowing bodies of water, called rivers. There must have been a river here once.”
“Oh come now, Opodartho,” I replied. “There never were any such things.”
“Just look.” Opodartho waved a grimy hand – the villagers having given us no opportunity to clean ourselves up – at the rounded stones all around. “These stones must have been carried down here from somewhere else, by the flowing water, and left here when it dried. There’s no other reason they should all be lying here like this, and nowhere else.”
“I can think of some,” I replied, but Opodartho was still speaking.
“Look how they’re all rounded and smoothened,” she said, picking one of the smaller stones up. It lay in her palm, looking for all the world like the egg of one of the birds the Monkhood keep for their own consumption, whose meat is a rare and highly prized smuggled delicacy for the ordinary folk. “You know how stones dug out of the soil are never so round and smooth.”
“And what does that prove?” I asked sceptically. “It’s a stone, is all.”
“It must have been knocked and rubbed by flowing water against other stones,” Opodartho said. “That’s how it got so smooth. That’s how they all got so smooth. Flowing water. Rivers.”
I snorted, but said nothing more, remembering that she and I must stick together now against the tribute, who was at that moment saying something to the guards in a soft, sing-song tone of voice. The guards spoke amongst themselves, and one of them trotted past us to grasp my Lord by the arm and inform him that we were calling a halt.
We rested in the shadow of one of the biggest of the rocks, a monster so huge that I was tempted to tease Opodartho about the prodigious power of the flood of water it would need to roll something this large down from the hills. Surely the whole world could not contain so much water. But I noticed her looking worriedly at my Lord, who sat opposite the tribute, in a position where he could not but help notice her amply displayed charms, and I decided that Opodartho should be left to wallow in her own stupidity without my pointing it out.
It was evening when we reached a point where the stony waste we had been following ended at a wall of rounded bumps of rock, patterned and crusted with growths of moss. This moss proved to be so dry that I could not squeeze a single drop of moisture from a handful I scraped up as we clambered up this strange rock wall. Once again, I resisted the temptation to ask Opodartho if the river she was talking about had fallen and tumbled down these rocks in a fall of water, and choked back my laughter at the thought.
My laughter dried up as completely as the moss when we reached the top of the rock wall, for on both sides the land rose so sharply that it enclosed us almost as in a tunnel. I had visions of enemies waiting atop for us to pass so they could drop heavy boulders on our heads, and I saw Opodartho and my Lord glance up too, the same thought evidently in their minds. But neither the tribute nor the guards seemed worried.
We had proceeded only a short distance between the cliffs before we crossed a curiously-shaped white pillar, the top of which was broken, as though it had been hacked off at some point in the past. The guards and the tribute, after a brief palaver, called a halt. It was already quite dark, and the guards took out kindling from their packs and built a small fire. We huddled round the flames as the temperature dropped, gnawing at the strips of dried meat and chewing the desiccated, juiceless fruit.
“Just beyond here,” my Lord said, after talking to the guards, “begins the valley of Dhongshoboshesh, to which we are bound. That white pillar was the marker. Apparently, once, in the age of Devils, it had formed part of a barrier, until foolish men cut it down.”
“Devils?” I asked.
“That’s what they said,” my Lord shrugged. “I really don’t understand them at all well, except a few words here and there. In any case, this is as far as they go. Tomorrow, they’ll escort us to the mouth of the valley, give us our weapons, and that’s it as far as they’re concerned.”
“Lord,” I suggested, “might we take a chance and slip away tonight, if the opportunity presents itself?”
“Chheechkaduni,” my Lord said reprovingly, “we’ve been together a long time, haven’t we, the three of us? We’ve been through a lot of adventures, haven’t we? So just how long do you think we could last out in these unknown hills, without food or weapons? Don’t be silly!”
“She’s just tired,” Opodartho said. “We’re all exhausted, Lord, and not thinking straight.”
Opodartho and I lay down together, on one side of the little fire, my Lord across from us. The tribute was hidden by the flames, but we could hear her talking to the guards, who sat around us in the shadows. They, it seemed, were taking no chances on us making a break, and perversely it seemed to me that it proved my point that an escape might have been feasible, if we had only tried.
I was not allowed to think on this for long. “I’ll stay awake and keep an eye on the hussy,” Opodartho hissed in my ear. “When I can stay awake no longer, I shall wake you. We’ll take turns to watch her the entire night.”
“You think she’ll make a move on my Lord tonight?” I asked sleepily. “With the guards around?”
“You’ve seen her,” Opodartho said in my ear. “Would you trust her for a moment around a man – any man? Besides,” she added, “I would not trust our escort, not as far as I could throw them.”
Still trying to think of a suitable reply, I fell asleep.
I woke to the murmur of voices. Opodartho’s body lay warm by my side, her legs and feet twined around mine, her hair in my face. The stupid woman had fallen asleep after telling me that we would keep watch! Scrambling to rise, I saw my Lord still sleeping across the fire, which had burned down to embers. The sky was just lightening towards dawn, and it was bitterly cold.
Two or three of our escort were talking to the tribute, and holding out what looked to be small pots to her. As I sat up, the hussy, who was still naked despite the chill, stuck her fingers in the pots and began rubbing her body with white and yellow pigments, like the painted priest in the village. The guards helped rub the pigments on her back. Soon, apart from her face, hands and feet, she was entirely covered in white and yellow paint.
My Lord was beginning to stir, so I prodded the slumbering Opodartho with the toe of my shoe. “Wake up,” I hissed. “Is this what you mean by keeping guard?”
“I was tired,” muttered the slattern, rubbing her eyes.
A couple of the guards finally noticed that we were awake, and, coming over, motioned for us to rise. My Lord and they exchanged a few words, after which the others came to us and gave back our bags and weapons. I felt overjoyed to be reunited with my long knife after so many days.
The tribute, her body brilliant in the dawn with her white and yellow paint, came over to us. I noticed that the guards had removed the lengths of soft rope that had bound her wrists and ankles loosely together, but had knotted a length of the same rope round her waist. One of them handed the free end of the rope to my Lord, indicating, with a grunt, that we were to be on our way.
The entrance to the valley of Dhongshoboshesh was marked by more shattered pillars like the one we had already passed. Some were largely intact, while others were broken and toppled in the scrubby dry bushes that grew here and there. They were all of a white stone that caught the rays of the rising sun and flushed a delicate pink, though the shadows around us were still intensely cold.
We descended down a rocky path that cleaved a wall of rock in two, and as we went, the air grew thick and wet with moisture as rises when water is boiled. I had never seen the like of this grey, opaque vapour which clung to my skin, clothes and even eyelashes. It was so thick that I could soon scarcely see further than the figure of my Lord, ahead, the tribute following him.
“My Lord,” I called, in the common trade tongue, which we mostly used amongst ourselves nowadays instead of the language we had used back in our old village. “Now that we have our weapons, don’t you think we should try and make our way back up the slope and out of this strange and accursed valley? We could soon make our way back to more hospitable climes.”
“It’s no use,” the tribute answered, clearly, in the same language. “Don’t you think they’ve anticipated that? They’ll be standing guard up there at the entrance, for at least several days.”
We all stared at her, amazed. “You speak the trade language?” Opodartho asked.
“Of course.” The tribute shrugged her pretty shoulders. “But what use would it have been, to reveal that beforehand? At the least it would have meant the guards silencing me, for fear I would reveal too much.”
We gathered round the naked strumpet. “Where did you learn the language?” I asked.
“I wasn’t born of these people,” she replied. “You saw for yourselves how much taller I am than they. My parents were captives taken in a raid when I was a baby, and they taught me the language while raising me.”
“What happened to them?” I asked, fascinated. “Did they die?”
“Of course not,” she said scornfully. “They were let go, and left me as a payment for their liberty.”
“What’s your name?” Opodartho asked.
“Golaydori,” the tribute said. “I already know your names. No need to tell me.”
“Very interesting, Golaydori,” my Lord said. “I am sure you have many salutary things to tell us. But, now, please inform us of what dangers lie ahead in this valley – what you know of them.”
“I don’t know that much about them. The villagers don’t know much either, except for a mix of legend and myth, since nobody who has entered this valley ever returns to tell the tale.”
“Well, in that case,” my Lord said, “tell us what myths and legends they have about the valley. To whom are you being sent?” With trepidation, I saw his eyes roving over the hussy’s painted nudity, and nudged Opodartho.
“My Lord,” Opodartho suggested, “would it not be more convenient for us to talk as we walk down further? If there is an enemy, it will have more time to prepare itself if we stand up here waiting.”
“You have a point,” my Lord said reluctantly, his eyes still on the girl’s bare bosom. “Golaydori, let me untie you, and...”
“No!” the girl exclaimed, raising her hands. “You must not untie me until I give the word. The paint and the rope mark me as tribute, and give us a kind of safe passage to the bottom of the valley. Without them, we are enemies, and the denizens of the valley will attack us at once.”
“Or so your myths tell you,” I suggested drily.
“Let us proceed, then.” My Lord took up the rope with my greater gentleness than formerly, it seemed to me, and began picking his way further into that thick grey wall of moisture.
“What is this thing?” I asked, wiping my face with my hand, which came away wet. “How can water be in the air?”
“This valley’s always full of it,” the woman Golaydori replied. “Sometimes, the villagers say, it turns to real drops of water and falls from the sky.”
“Another myth,” I said. “How can water fall from the sky? You’ll say next that...”
“Golaydori,” my Lord interrupted. “Tell us what you know of the legends the villagers tell about this valley.”
“Long ago, they say,” Golaydori began, “this valley belonged to the tribes who inhabited these parts. Nobody knows how long ago, because those tribes have disappeared for longer than these pillars are old. In those days they lived hereabouts, and even down in the valley. The entire area was covered with villages.
“And then, one day, the god of the people grew angry with them, because they had not made him adequate sacrifice. He must have been a powerful god indeed, because he changed them from what they were, and set them to fighting, and...”
“Changed them, you say,” Opodartho interjected. “Changed them to what?”
“To devils.” Golaydori paused, long enough for that word to hang in the air. “The god turned them to devils,” she resumed, “and set them to fighting each other, until only the strongest and meanest were left, down in the villages in the valley.
“And then these devils had no one to prey on and kill, and they burst out of the valley to attack the villages up on the plateau, and slaughtered the people and destroyed them utterly, until there were none left. And then they were about to turn their attention to the villages of the plain.”
“What’s that there?” I exclaimed.
“Where?” Everyone turned to glance at me and then in the direction my finger was pointing. But there was nothing now to be seen in the shifting greyness.
“What did you see, Chheechkaduni?” my Lord asked.
“I don’t know.” I tried to recall the glimpse I’d had of the shadow. “Something tall, taller than a man, on thin legs. It looked...I don’t know, tattered and flapping, somehow.”
Without quite meaning to, we had gathered together, and to me the grey moisture in the air seemed to thicken and take on the appearance of grimacing faces. A stone rolling away from someone’s shoe rattled down the path and almost made me jump.
“All right,” my Lord said at last. “Let’s keep going, but keep a sharp lookout, everyone, as much as you can in all this grey. Go on, Golaydori.”
“They were about to attack the villages of the plain when the people finally got together, and with the aid of powerful magic...” the woman shrugged. “Well, I’m only repeating what they said. With the aid of this powerful magic, they made a barrier of white stone, so the devils could not come out of their valley. And this barrier lasted for many thousands of years, until the people got careless and few, and let it crumble away.”
“You said the devils had attacked the villages of the plateau,” I pointed out. “So how could the barrier have kept them inside the valley?”
“I don’t know – but apparently the devils need to live in the gray watery air. They can only stay out of it for so long. At least that’s what the villagers say. Of course, they also say that the time will come when the devils will learn how to live out in the open air, and then they will take over the earth. But until then, they send tributes...like me...every year, to keep the devils happy. As long as they keep sending the tributes, the devils will not leave the valley. That’s what they say.”
“How do you feel about being a tribute?” Opodartho asked.
“How should I feel? There in the village I knew what I could expect – the life of a breeding slave, to be converted into food when I could no longer produce children. As a tribute, I don’t know what lies in wait for me, but it can’t possibly be worse than that. Can it? And to be a tribute is an honour.”
We had descended far down the rocky path, and the air was clammier and colder than ever, though high above our heads the vapour was touched with gold. Even my feet felt cold and wet, so much so that it became uncomfortable to walk. When I looked down, I was surprised to find that the spaces between the rocks were filled with water.
“Oh, Cannibal Spirit!” Opodartho gasped.
Looking up, I stopped short, almost gasping, too, with the shock.
The grey drifting curtain of vapour had parted suddenly, ripped apart by a current of air. It still hung thick in the distance, but close to us, on both sides, we saw rocks, jagged and dark, that towered over us. And, set tall among the rocks, were poles – poles on which hung human skeletons, the remnants of their limbs lashed back with ropes, their skulls staring up at the grey sky, jaws open in silent screams.
There were so many of them that they seemed to go on as far as we could see, and I must confess that it was only with the utmost effort that I prevented my bowels from loosening. Then the grey curtains, mercifully, closed over us, and hid the poles from view.
“Those were the members of previous escorts,” Golaydori said, without any inflection in her voice. “Some of the skeletons were still wearing the amulets the village people wear.”
We stood together, for a long time, and listened to the silence.
“My Lord,” I ventured at last. “It would seem more sensible to make our way back up this path, and do battle with the little men waiting at the entrance, than to proceed further into this ghastly place where the skeletons of men are hung on sticks till they fall away in decay.”
Even Opodartho, it appeared, had nothing to say to that.
My Lord looked around at us, the silhouette of his head turning in the gloom. I could almost feel his reluctance to turn his back on whatever challenge awaited us in the valley. It was not his style to turn away from danger. But all three of us could understand that it would be stupid indeed to venture further into a situation where lethal danger most certainly awaited – and where we could not even see as far as my Lord could throw his spear.
“Let’s go back then,” my Lord said, sighing.
I was about to turn back, relieved, when the woman Golaydori shouted, a strange warbling cry that sounded like the calling of one of the wild creatures that inhabit the wastes of the Plain of Paleesh. Even as we all turned towards her, she repeated the cry, and began scrambling down the track, towards the corpses hung on poles.
“What is she...” my Lord began, tugging at the rope securing her, but he was too late. With a series of wild whoops, dark misshapen shadows rushed at us through the grey, leaping over the rocks. I caught a glimpse of glaring eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth, and, as I flinched instinctively, my wet shoes slipped on the rocks, and I fell.
That fall may have saved my life. Even as my head came to rest between two boulders, a huge hand holding a stone came smashing down at my face, slamming instead into the rocks. Before the beast, whatever it was, could try again, I had drawn my faithful knife from my belt and run it through the arm.
The creature reared away, shrieking, blood spattering on the rocks, and I wrenched my knife free and crawled away as quickly as I could, conscious of forms racing through the grey shadows on either side. I crawled without knowing where I was going, swinging my knife at anything that came within range, and I think I may have hamstrung one or two of our attackers. At any rate, after a while I found myself alone.
I was lying at the foot of a kind of chimney of rock. High above, there was a patch of brightness, large and pale enough to outline the stone walls of the chimney. With surprise, I realised that it was the sun.
Carefully, I stood up, and checked myself over. My clothes had been ripped and torn in my crawl over the stones, my skin nicked and cut in a hundred places, but I had not suffered any major wounds.
And now that I had leisure to think a moment, I tried to recall what I had seen of our attackers, to see if I could make a mental image of them. All I had glimpsed were fragments: eyes and teeth, hairy arms and legs, hooked fingers with claws. I could not even be sure if the things that had assaulted us were human or something else.
I wondered, too, what had become of the others. Now it was clear that the woman Golaydori was, in some way, undoubtedly on the side of the things she had called devils. She had called them on to us, at the moment when it seemed that we could still perhaps fight our way through the escort and escape the valley. She it was, then, who was ultimately to blame for all that had happened.
I felt no sorrow for Opodartho. Though she and I had been on the same side for the moment, the stupid slattern had always been a scheming competitor for my Lord’s affections, always trying to worm her way into his favour. Whatever fate had befallen her, she had undoubtedly deserved it, a million times over.
It was only my Lord that I missed. Not only had he been a good master (but for his unfortunate tendency to dote on the doltish Opodartho) and a good lover (but for his likewise unfortunate tendency to prefer the slut’s embraces to mine), but he had the weapons, and the skill to use them, necessary for survival in the harsh world. If I were indeed fated to be without him, I would have to find someone to take me in, before the sands of the desert joined forces with the dire lions and windwolves to strip the life from my bones.
But before I could even think of the hazards of the desert, I would have to find my way out of this terrible valley. A look showed clearly enough that the rock wall of the chimney was too slick to climb, and the only way out was the way I had come, through a narrow cleft in the rock. Moving painfully from all the cuts and bruises on my body, I hobbled down the path, the knife ready in my hand.
As I went, I saw flecks of red on the rock, and with some surprise realised that they were dried drops of my own blood. The blood trail would, I thought, at least show me the way I’d come. That way I might find my way back to where we’d been when we’d been attacked, and then perhaps I could find my way out of the valley.
I walked down the path with increasing caution, each shadow seen out of the corner of my eye a crouching, monstrous threat, each pebble disturbed by my passage sending a shiver of fear up my spine. The thick grey blanket of vapour pressed all around me, and I tried to tell myself that even as it hid potential dangers from my eyes, it hid me from them. But, as the path twisted and turned and I tried to follow the increasingly sparse blood trail, that thought brought me no comfort at all.
All of a sudden the narrow path opened out into a jumble of rock, and blood was everywhere, splashed around in great abundance. I saw a piece of broken wood, which looked like part of the shaft of my Lord’s light spear, and a length of soft white rope. I had found my way back to the place of the attack.
The grey wall of vapour had thickened so much that I could not see far enough to be able to tell which way led out of the valley, and which would take me further down, into the valley and its ornaments of dead bodies strung up on sticks. For a long moment, I stood hesitating, until I began to imagine that shadows were creeping towards me through the murk, and finally I turned to my right at random, and struck down the path.
I had only walked a short distance before the grey murk closed around me so thickly that I could no longer see where I was going, and a moment later I blundered into something that collapsed on me in a mass of wood, bone and rags. Inadvertently, I cried out, falling backwards under the thing, and hit the ground with a skull grinning into my face from kissing distance.
For the first time, I admit I panicked. My nerves are, of course, strong as the strongest metal, but even the strongest nerves have a breaking point, and being face-to-face with that death’s head in that dread valley was just a little too much for me to handle.
Struggling upright, kicking away poles, bones and fragments of putrid flesh, I ran through the greyness, hardly knowing where I was headed. Three or four times, I tripped and fell, each time running on in whichever direction I happened to be facing when I got to my feet. It was only when I stopped, gasping with exhaustion, that I realised that I was hopelessly lost.
If I had been panicked earlier, I was now close to despairing. Almost I could feel, already, the hands on me, dragging me to be lashed to poles, my limbs twisted behind me until I screamed with agony, screamed up at the strange grey sky until my life left my body. So deep was this despair that for a few moments I looked around me for some of the “devils”, as Golaydori had called them, to give myself up to, to put an end to this. But, collecting myself, I trudged off into the grey, hoping to be able to find my way out of this valley, in some direction or other.
I had not gone a hundred steps when a hand streaked out of the turbid gloom and grabbed me by the arm.
“Don’t make the slightest sound,” Opodartho hissed in my ear.
“I’m glad you got away too,” Opodartho murmured. “I thought they had got you, since I’d seen no trace of you over there.”
“Over where?” I asked.
Opodartho shook her head and touched my lips with a forefinger, which was as always so dirty that I wanted to flinch from its touch. “Listen.”
She and I lay together in a fold of the ground, behind a huge rock, beside my Lord’s bag and spears, which she had gathered from the scene of the fight. From somewhere not very far away we heard noises, like speech in a half-understood language. And then we heard a voice we knew very well indeed.
“It’s my Lord,” I gasped, raising myself. “They’ve got him!”
Opodartho clapped a hand over my mouth and pulled me down again. “Shut up,” she ground out in my ear, “and lie still! We don’t want to attract their attention.”
“But we’ve got to rescue my Lord,” I said when the slattern had released my mouth.
“Of course,” she said, but I could hear the reluctance in her voice, and resolved to report it to my Lord at the earliest opportunity. “We will rescue him. But first we should find out what’s going on here, shouldn’t we?”
The noises we had been listening to had been growing louder and clearer, and evidently nearer, and now they sounded from just the other side of the great rock behind which we were hiding. Opodartho made a slight movement of her head towards me, and together we crawled very carefully up the side of the rock. Opodartho carried my Lord’s heavy spear with her, and his bag, while I took his light spear. Gladly would I have left everything waiting at the foot of the rock, but Opodartho said that we might have reason to descend in a hurry, and I could not find anything to say to that.
The rock we climbed was not too steep, and had crevices aplenty for our hands and feet; also, the noises on the other side helped to conceal any that we made. On our bellies, side by side, we reached the top and looked over.
For a long moment, I held my breath as I tried to take in the scene before us.
The grey vapours had cleared enough to see some distance, far enough to expose the huge blocks of white stone which had been arranged in concentric curves below us, like giants’ teeth. In the centre of those curves, there was a rough dome, also of white stone, with a doorway, facing us. The ground before that doorway had been cleared of stones and boulders, and looked quite smooth and flat.
All over the flat open space, singly and in small groups, stood squat hirsute forms. They were short, pale, almost dwarfish, yet immensely broad and powerful-looking. Their bodies and heads were covered with coarse, matted hair, and yet when I looked at the nearest of them I felt that they were human. Bestially ugly, yes, and malformed, but human. They were clad in rags twisted round their bodies, and carried staves and short stone-tipped spears; as we watched they began, first singly and then in a rough rhythm, to beat the butt ends on the stone, grunting all the while.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced towards Opodartho. “They’re waiting for something,” I murmured.
Not taking her eyes off the scene, she nodded. “It’s beginning. There.”
Inside the dark arch of the doorway cut in the rock, there was movement. First came a brace of the pale dwarfish people. In their hands were ropes, and at the other end of those ropes, stumbling as he was dragged along, was my Lord, Onek Mangsho.
“Lord...” I whispered. Opodartho’s hand came down hard on my forearm, and I fell silent, remembering where we were.
More of the dwarfs followed, prodding my Lord with the tips of their stone spears. They pulled him along until he was almost directly below our vantage point, and turned him so that his back was to us. Two of the dwarfs pulled at the ropes tied to his wrists so that his arms were raised helplessly at his sides, while others took position behind him. The chanting and butt-tapping continued, as though they were waiting for something else.
That something took long enough coming that the perch atop the rock had become extremely uncomfortable to me. Opodartho, who was of primitive peasant stock and lacked, of course, the refinements of my upbringing, had no problem clinging to the stone. But my own muscles had begun screaming at me in agony, and I’d just turned to signal to her my intention of slipping quietly back down when I noticed that she had raised her head intently and was peering into the greyness.
At first it looked as if it were a small hill moving through the gloom, a shape of shadows. It was coming from beyond the white dome towards us, and at the sight of it the misshapen dwarf-men increased their chanting and beating their spears and staves on the stone. Some of them ran towards it, throwing their arms out in excitement.
“This can’t be good,” I murmured in Opodartho’s ear.
“Quiet,” she snapped, quite unnecessarily, since the noise made by the dwarfs was so loud that our low murmurs were quite drowned out. “And don’t fidget, you’ll draw attention.”
It didn’t seem to me that anyone below us would’ve had any attention left to spare for us even if we had danced atop our rock in the nude. Chanting wildly, waving their staves and spears, they had all rushed towards the thing in the murk, which was drawing steadily closer. Only the few guarding my Lord stayed where they were, unmoving.
A moment later, the vapours parted and the thing I had thought to be a hill, moving, finally came into view.
It was a platform, carried on a framework of poles on the shoulders of a large number of the dwarf-men. On the platform was a high dome-shaped structure comprised of cloth and leaves stretched over branches, which had been daubed with red, white, green and yellow. The colours, in this enveloping greyness, seemed startlingly bright.
“There’s someone standing under that thing,” Opodartho muttered, pointing.
I had to squint slightly to make out what she meant. Standing below the dome of painted cloth, almost invisible in shadow, was a figure that seemed at first to be all spikes. Projections grew out of its head and its shoulders, from its arms and legs. So many were sticking out at various places that it was difficult to make out the figure’s actual shape or size. It looked grotesque, a perversion of humanity. Screeching and gibbering, the dwarfs surrounded it, waving their arms and weapons in the air. Slowly, pushing through the throng, the bearers brought the platform closer.
When it was so close to us that we had to lie flat on the rock lest we be seen by that spiky, menacing figure, the dwarfs lowered the platform gently to the ground. Those which held my Lord by his ropes jerked at him roughly, dragging him before the platform, and thrust him to his knees. With a shrill cry, the strange and spiky figure under the dome jumped down from it and stood before him, arms upraised.
It was female. Though it wore a mask and costume so grotesque as to be, even to one of my literary gifts, quite indescribable, with sharp spikes attached all over its body, the bare breasts jutting from apertures in the shimmering cloth showed its sex. With another wild scream, the creature began stamping and cavorting round my Lord, her hands held high, the spikes tied to her fingers slashing and cutting at the air. The dwarfs uttered shrill howls of excitement.
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said suddenly, “follow me.” Before I could ask what she meant, she leaped to her feet. With a wild yell, she leaped off the rock into the dwarfs below. Astonished, I reacted automatically, pushing myself up before I could stop myself. And once I was up, I was clearly visible to any dwarf which cared to look my way, so I had no hope of being undiscovered.
Full of foreboding, I followed the stupid strumpet, took two steps forward, and jumped.
I landed, as it happened, right behind my Lord, gripping the light spear in my hands. As the nearer of the dwarfs holding my Lord’s ropes turned towards me, I impaled him on the spear, moving completely by instinct. Even as he fell, thrashing, I pulled the spear free and used the butt end to smash the other one in the face. Released from their grip, my Lord rose, shouting, grabbed the spear from my hand, and used it to dispatch a few more dwarfs.
“Chheechkaduni!” my Lord yelled. “Stop her!”
Startled, I looked round, to see the female figure in the horrible costume running towards me, her breasts bouncing among the spikes. With only my beloved knife in my hand, I turned towards her, ineffectually raising it. She hesitated for an instant, but kept rushing at me, her hands with their sharp weapons reaching out to destroy.
“Chheechkaduni!” Opodartho shouted. “Duck!” Instinctively, I lowered my head, and only just in time. So close to me that it almost brushed my hair, the heavy spear flew through the air and transfixed the hideous masked abomination through the throat.
Gabbling a wild choking noise, the creature turned slowly round and fell.
The reaction from the dwarfs all around us, who had been rushing upon us, was astonishing. Screaming in dismay and fear, they turned as a dwarf and rushed into the grey. Within moments, we were alone, with only a few dead dwarfs and the spiky female figure, gasping out the last of her life, for company.
“Quick,” I urged. “Let us go, before they come back!”
“Yes, we should go.” My Lord had taken up his bag and both his spears. “But, Chheechkaduni, cut these ropes off my hands.”
As I was performing this office, proud that my Lord had requested it of me, his liberator, and not of the foul Opodartho, the strumpet ran forward to the costumed corpse and ripped off its mask. “Come here a moment,” she called. “Take a look at this!”
Puzzled, we came closer and peered over her shoulder at the bare face of the dead woman.
Amazed, I saw before me the features of the erstwhile tribute, Golaydori!
“So this was why she was so eager to go to the side of the devils,” my Lord said. “She would be a queen amongst them.”
We were sitting on a rock high above the valley, looking out at the dusty, but blessedly clear air of late evening. More by luck than judgement, we had found a narrow trail that had led us up and out without encountering any of our enemies. Now, we rested from our travails. Tomorrow we would try and find our bearings, and resume our interrupted journey.
“Well, it seemed obvious that she wanted to go down to the valley – there was no sign of hesitation or fear about her, even when she was with us. In fact, she went out of her way to make sure we didn’t abandon the mission as long as she could. And once we’d made up our minds to turn back, she called to the dwarfish men of the valley to come to her aid.” Opodartho paused and drew her lungs full of the dry desert air. “My, it feels so nice to breathe real air again.”
We watched the stars slip slowly up the sky from the horizon.
“And when I saw her come out of the platform,” Opodartho added, “I knew we had to kill her, of course.”
“How did you know it was she?” I asked, puzzled.
“Didn’t you see the yellow and white paint all over her breasts?” Opodartho asked. “Who else could it have been, anyway?”
“But I still don’t understand why these valley people would want her to be sent as a tribute, and make her a queen,” I said. “I don’t see why they should do that.”
“Not valley people,” Opodartho said. “Valley men. We didn’t see a single woman amongst them, did we? Apart from this Golaydori, of course?”
Thinking, I had to admit she was right. All the dwarfs we’d seen had been unmistakably male.
“I still don’t understand why they’d want to make her the queen,” I said.
“I do,” my Lord said heavily. “What Opodartho means is that these valley dwarfs have no women of their own. Either none are born, or they are killed off at birth. Instead, each year they compel the village tribe to send them a young breeding age damsel, who is made a queen for a year and then put to breeding for the rest of her life.” He shrugged. “It’s a way of life, I suppose.”
“But, my Lord,” I argued, “why would she want to kill you? For surely she was about to kill you when I...I mean we...saved your life.”
My Lord shook his head. “Chheechkaduni,” he said, “think. How else would she demonstrate her complete and utter loyalty to the valley people, to her new subjects, but by publicly and ritualistically murdering her escort, comprising her fellow villagers? How could she more emphatically prove her own rejection of her past life?”
“But she was not really a villager. She was an outsider, virtually a slave.”
My Lord shrugged. “The dwarfs down there in the valley didn’t know that,” he said.
***************************** ************************************** ***********************************
Petkata Pyãcha, my darling sister.
May the Cannibal Spirit keep you in good health and comfort. I have perused the contents of the manuscript you sent me, and in accordance with your instructions I will soon mount a search of my papers to see if any further writings of this woman are to be found among them. I have shamefully neglected the papers Father left me, I freely admit. If I do, I shall send them to you.
As for the slave Golakata Dam, I shall find him useful employment, never fear. He seems to be as strong as that mythical animal called an “ox”, though twice as stupid. But intelligence is not a valuable commodity in a slave.
Your dear brother,
THE FURY OF FATATOSHOK
My dear sister Petkata Pyãcha
As I promised you in my last letter, I have searched the documents left in my possession by our late father, and among them I have found some pages of writing that seem to be by the same Chheechkaduni as you mention. I am, of course, not familiar enough with the woman’s history (in fact I had never heard her name before your last letter to me) to make any pronouncements of whether it is she indeed who wrote these pages, or whether any of what she describes actually happened.
I am, therefore, sending you this transcript of the material in my possession, and hope you will be able to cast more of a light on them than I can. If, as you say, the High Monk of the Grand Assembly is indeed eager to lay his hands on the ancient witch’s writings, it might be profitable for us to discreetly offer a reward for turning over further discoveries of them to us instead of sending them to him. At the least, even if there is no treasure, we may be able to re-sell them to the Grand Assembly at a profit. I am sending out feelers among my contacts, and hope for at least one or two successes. I am also sending my son, Bhishon Boka, to do a little hunting on his own in the lands beyond the Grand Assembly’s reach, where we have business interests.
The slave Golakata Dam continues to be in my employment. I have set him to arranging my stocks, at which he has shown a certain dull talent. Certainly, he is far better at that job than his predecessor, who now has the charge of cleaning the cesspits. I must mention that in the interests of concealing his identity, I have had him change his name; I have no wish to endure a visit from the minions of the High Priest demanding to know why a runaway slave is in my possession. For despite your coyness about telling me just why you wish to have me employ him, it’s obvious to me that he is a runaway. Accordingly, he is now known by the name by which he has chosen to be called, Hãshite Petfatey.
May the Cannibal Spirit keep you and yours in health and comfort.
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“There’s nothing like a good roast leg of baby.” My Lord Onek Mangsho belched contentedly and sat back, wiping the grease from his lips. “I’ve often thought that if everyone could have as much roast baby as they wanted, there would never have been trouble in the world.”
“You’re right, of course, Lord,” I said, nibbling daintily at my own baby haunch. “It’s such a pity that there isn’t enough baby meat to go around.”
Opodartho, who had long since finished, gulping down her meat like the glutton she was, laughed coarsely. “If there had been enough baby for everyone to eat whenever they wanted it,” she said, “everyone would have to spend all their time breeding. There wouldn’t be any time for anything else!”
I glared at the slattern, about to make an appropriately scathing reply, but my Lord laughed good-humouredly. “As usually, you’re quite right, dear Opodartho,” he said, reaching for the coarse red wine. “But you do agree that baby is the most tender and succulent of meats, do you not?”
I looked around the inn, not deigning to listen to the peasant woman’s witless response. The walls and roof were so old that the smoke had stained them a rich brownish-black, and the floor was covered with a thin layer of well-trodden straw, so that it was all quite pleasing to the eye. At the far end of the room, slaves turned a spit on which another baby turned, turning a rich golden brown. Although I had eaten, my stomach still growled at the smell of the sizzling flesh. It was more food than we had seen in a long time.
“Where to now, Lord?” I asked, to take my mind off the broiling roast across the room. “Are we moving on, or shall we remain in this town for a while?”
“I’ll have a look around, and then decide.” My Lord stretched luxuriantly, yawning. “We have been walking across the desert for many long days, and I’d like to rest a while if we can.”
The bustle of the town outside came faintly to us through the thick walls. It was a substantial place, with high mud-brick walls and many very large buildings, also built out of mud bricks. It was a testament to the immense riches of the townspeople that they could afford to waste water to make bricks. We had seen some of those riches on display, for sale at the local open-air market through which we had passed, things that would have made my mouth water had I not been too dry-mouthed to have any saliva left.
“It is a rich city indeed, my Lord,” I agreed. “What is it called, do you know?”
“I believe the name to be Fatatoshok,” my Lord said. “It is the capital of the province.”
“Their language is certainly strange and barbaric,” I replied, jerking my head at the other diners, a pair of hefty men for whom the roast baby was evidently destined. “Their uncouth tongues can barely even pronounce the trade language.”
“Keep your voice down, Chheechkaduni,” my Lord said. He inclined his head slightly, indicating a man who sat in the corner. Apart from the other pair of diners, and the slaves turning the spit, he was the only person in the room. The table at which he was sitting was bare, but he did not have the air of one awaiting his food. “That man is watching us, and if I am not much mistaken he is trying to overhear what we say.”
“What do you suppose he wants?” I asked. I peered at the man, but his face was in shadow, and I could not tell much about him. “Who is he anyway – the owner?”
“Not the owner,” my Lord responded, rubbing his face in a preoccupied manner. “The owner is in the back room. This is someone else.”
“Is it someone hunting for us?” Opodartho said, with a note of alarm in her voice which greatly pleased me. “We are still hunted outlaws back in our home country, Lord.”
“If you must shout so loudly, Opodartho,” I snapped, “we might as well go back and give ourselves up, to await our slaughter.”
“No,” my Lord said, still rubbing at his jaw, “she’s right – we can’t discount that possibility. After all, we did have a narrow squeak at the Defile of Durgondho when that search party almost caught us, did we not? We must be careful. And, Chheechkaduni, make sure to either face away from him while you speak, or cover your mouth. The way he is leaning towards us, I am sure he can read our lips.”
Opodartho gave a wicked little grin at the rebuke, which infuriated me. Of course, since she was sitting with her back to the man in the corner, she didn’t have to cover her mouth. I vowed once again to settle with the trollop in full when the final reckoning came.
“I think we shouldn’t linger in this city, after all.” My Lord got to his feet. “I will settle with the owner in the back room, and we shall leave right away. By evening we should be on the open plain, and able to make camp.” He sighed. “It’s a pity, for our money is growing short, and I had hoped to be able to replenish our funds with some of the local coinage. But it cannot be helped. Wait here till I get back.”
While he was paying the owner from our dwindling stock of coins, I glanced covertly at the man in the corner, who was still leaning towards us with his elbows on the table. He was clad in a rough brown robe, of the kind I’d already seen on many of the townspeople, and the sleeves had fallen back from his forearms, which looked thick with muscle. I felt a blush mount my cheeks at the thought that he was staring specifically at me, and turned my eyes quickly away at the other diners, who were dismembering their roast baby with grunts and coarse laughter.
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said quietly, “stop looking so nervous.”
“I’m not nervous!” I said indignantly, grabbing for the last tankard of the wine. “Not at all!”
Opodartho shrugged, as though comment was superfluous. She sat back, watching me swallow the wine, which was so rough and strong that it burned my throat and brought tears to my eyes.
“Let’s go,” my Lord Onek Mangsho said, reaching over my shoulder to pick up his spears, which he had leaned against the wall. “Leave the wine, Chheechkaduni. We have no time for that.”
Clumsily, I shouldered my bag. The wine seemed to have gone to my head, making me stumble ever so slightly and hold on to the table for support. Opodartho grabbed hold of my elbow. “Steady,” she muttered. “Don’t pass out from the booze.”
Angrily, I pulled my arm away from her grasp, but, aware that everyone in the room – even the slaves at the fire – was looking at us, I forbore to comment. We emerged into the street, among the bustling crowds, the sunshine intensely hot and blindingly bright after the cool and darkness of the inn. My delicate skin was immediately covered with beads of sweat, and I raised an arm to wipe my face.
“If I might have a word with you,” someone said.
I knew it was the man in the corner even before I’d turned my head to look. He stood there behind us, smiling casually. He was tall – even taller than my Lord, who is one of the tallest men I have ever seen. For the first time, I saw his face, which was surprisingly lean and delicate-looking for the possessor of such brawny arms. His forehead was high, his nose straight and regular, and the line of his jaw sharp. In other circumstances I might have thought him very good-looking.
“Yes?” my Lord replied. I was close enough to him to feel the tension in his body, close enough to see how the tips of his spears trembled ever so slightly, and knew he was not far from violence. “What do you want with us?”
Possibly the man sensed it too, for he raised his hands, palms turned to us, and smiled more broadly than before. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I mean you no harm.” His command of the trade tongue was perfect, even better, I must confess, than my own. “It is just that I noticed you were strangers to this town, and from your bearing, I gathered that you and your ladies comprise one of the heroic bands which make their way in the world by adventure. Am I right?”
“You make it your business to notice things about strangers, sir?” My Lord’s tension had not as yet decreased, and a little of it communicated itself to me. “What if we are, as you put it, one of the heroic bands?”
For an instant I thought I saw a little flash of emotion in the man’s clear grey eyes, but it had gone before I could pin it down. “We have a tradition in this town, sir,” he responded, with the slightest emphasis on the last word, “of hospitality to heroes. In the past, heroic warriors have intervened many times when the city was faced with disaster, and although we have had peace now for many long years, the tradition demands that we honour all heroes and offer them a tribute.” He paused a moment. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am called Gõwar Gondar, and I am First Assistant to the Governor of Fatatoshok.”
“That’s all very well,” my Lord said. “We’re happy to hear you have such a tradition. However, you are mistaken, my lord Gõwar Gondar. We aren’t any heroic band, just traders working these northern routes for what profit we can get. So, if you’ll excuse us, we will be going.”
I glanced at Opodartho, to see how she was taking this, but she wasn’t even looking at the man. Scatterbrained as always, she was turning her head this way and that, studying the crowd as though she had never seen one before. Dismissing the dolt, I turned back to the conversation.
“I’m sorry,” the man, Gõwar Gondar, was saying, “but you really don’t have to hide your true purpose from me, you know. Besides, we tax foreign traders rather heavily in Fatatoshok, and I am sure you would not wish to turn over a third of your stocks to the treasury – if you have any stocks, that is. I don’t see any.”
“We have left them outside the city...” I began, but my Lord cut me off with a gesture.
“You are correct, sir,” he said. “We are not traders. However, while we like the look and feel of your fair city, we must be moving on, and we don’t have the time to partake of your promised hospitality, much as it breaks our hearts to deny it to ourselves. Therefore, good day to you - we will be taking our leave.”
“I see you don’t understand,” Gõwar Gondar said quietly. “The invitation comes from the Governor of the city and the province, Kankata Khochchor, himself. I’m afraid he is used to having his way, and I wouldn’t advise you to oppose his will.”
“I’m afraid we can’t...” my Lord began, but Opodartho suddenly laid a hand on his arm and turned to the Governor’s assistant, smiling.
“We’d love to accept the invite,” she said.
All the way up the hill in the centre of the city, atop which stood the mud-walled fortress that served as the Governor Kankata Khochchor’s palace, I expected my Lord to explode with wrath at Opodartho. I expected him, at the very least, to smash her to the ground with a blow at this affront to his leadership, or even to speak the words of Unbinding and cast her off. But, instead of either of these happy events, to my amazement all that had happened was that my Lord had stared at her for a moment and then acquiesced. Once again I was forced to wonder what hold the witch had on Onek Mangsho that he let her get away with just about anything.
“I am glad you chose to accept the invite, my lord and ladies,” Gõwar Gondar said, smiling companionably at us, but most of all at Opodartho. “The Governor will be pleased.”
The crowds had fallen away as we climbed the stony path, but there were still many people hurrying to and fro, richly dressed merchants with jewelled headdresses, slaves with bales of material or wooden casks, and other, more ordinary, citizens. The Governor must have a lot of visitors, I thought, and didn’t realise I had uttered this thought out loud until Gõwar Gondar smiled at me.
“He is a great and generous man, the Governor Kankata Khochchor. The people of the city and the province love him.”
We had almost reached the fortress, the mud walls of which were dirty yellow and roughly-finished, and not nearly as high or well-constructed as the stone forts we had seen many times before. However, they would certainly be more than enough to repel any enemies the Governor would have reason to fear, here at the heart of the city. There was a deep and dry moat all the way at the base of the wall, crossed by a narrow wooden bridge, which swayed under our tread. When I looked down I saw that the bottom of the moat was choked with rubble, among which lay the bleached bones of many human skeletons.
“Whose remains are those?” I asked, pointing.
“Just some criminals and malcontents,” Gõwar Gondar replied smoothly. “A person in the Governor’s position has many enemies, of course, and has to defend himself against them.”
“I thought you said he was loved,” I told him, wrinkling my brow in confusion. “Didn’t you just now –“
“Hush,” Opodartho said. “Of course great and well-loved people have enemies. The love of the people begets the hatred and envy of bitter men.”
My Lord chimed in, before I could tell her what I thought of that fatuous response. “She’s perfectly right, you know. The number of bones alone is testament to the regard in which the Governor is held by the people of the city. For only a well-beloved leader can have quite so many envious foes.”
Almost without realising it, we had come to a halt in the middle of the bridge, and were holding up the flow of traffic. “There are rooms set aside for heroes like you,” Gõwar Gondar said, squeezing past the oncoming people, clearing a way for us with his elbows. “You can relax and freshen up before your audience with the Governor.”
“Will we be seeing him personally then?” my Lord asked, holding his spears high so as not to accidentally stab someone. “I mean, in private?”
“Why, of course,” Gõwar Gondar said over his shoulder. “His Highness the Governor enjoys meeting his guests and getting to know of their adventures. I’m sure he will have a lot of questions to ask you.”
We came to the gateway set in the wall at the end of the bridge, and passed under a heavy lintel fixed with a line of weathered skulls. “More of the enemies of the Governor?” I wanted to ask, but my tongue was heavy from the wine; and, besides, I had a feeling that for some reason my Lord might not be happy if I asked such a question, so I held my peace.
We came out into a stone-floored courtyard, on which the sun beat like a smith on an anvil. Despite the incredible heat, the yard was full of people, all of whom seemed to be talking at once. A few glanced our way, but by and large none of them paid us any attention.
“The administrative offices for the city and the province are all here, of course,” Gõwar Gondar, remarked, pointing at a row of doors set in the walls. “Almost all of these people are here on official work of some kind or other.”
He led us through a narrow gateway in the wall on the far side of the yard, and into another yard which was probably smaller but looked more spacious because it was, but for us, deserted. “We are now in the part of the palace which is not open to the public. Come this way, please.”
He led us up a flight of narrow stairs, through an arch and into a roofless corridor with doors set in the walls on both sides. Stopping in front of one of these doors, he fumbled briefly, threw it open, and stepped aside, gesturing.
“Make yourselves at home,” he said.
The room was surprisingly large and airy, with a large window showing an expanse of blue sky. The walls were thick and quite smoothly polished, and the floor covered with the same kind of straw matting as at the inn.
“There’s a room in there,” Gõwar Gondar pointed at a small door in one of the walls, “in which you will find a basin of water for you to clean and refresh yourselves. I will inform His Highness the Governor that you are here, and he will probably ask you to meet him at your earliest convenience. I beg your leave for the meanwhile.” And, bowing deeply, this enigmatic man withdrew from our presence, the door closing behind him.
“Why did we ever come here?” I demanded of my Lord as soon as the door had shut. “We...”
“Don’t say that,” Opodartho said, sitting down on one of the low stools scattered here and there. “It’s not polite or proper to impugn the august hospitality of the Governor Kankata Khochchor.”
As I was gaping at her, never having heard such long words from her coarse peasant lips before, my Lord chimed in. “She’s perfectly right,” he said. “The good Governor has been kind enough to extend his kindness to us, and it would be base ingratitude to be unappreciative of it.”
I shook my head to clear away the remnants of the wine. I knew that my Lord had warned us all many times of the folly of allowing ourselves to be enclosed like this in the heart of a potentially hostile citadel, and yet he and Opodartho seemed to be competing against each other in praising our host. I began to wonder if they had both gone a little insane from the heat.
“I’ll go and freshen up, shall I?” My Lord leaned his spears on the wall and walked off in the direction of the little door Gõwar Gondar had indicated.
I was tempted to seize Opodartho and shake her until she told me what had gone wrong with her and Onek Mangsho, but the trollop, studiously ignoring me, busied herself in drawing off her boots and unpacking her bag. I turned my back on her and walked over to the window. It overlooked a deserted yard, which might or might not have been the second one we had passed through on our way to the room. From this angle, it was difficult to be sure. A breeze entered through the window and stirred the air in the room, making it cool and refreshing after the blazing heat of the sun.
“It’s a nice room they’ve given us,” I acknowledged sourly. I could hear faint splashing noises from the other room, the one which the First Assistant had told us contained the unbelievable luxury of a basin of water. Opodartho, now quite and shamelessly nude, walked past me and into that room, wiggling her squat peasant hips for my benefit as she went.
Unwilling to listen to the sounds coming from the other room, where she disported herself with my Lord, I grimly unpacked a few items of apparel and the like, taking care to transfer my long knife from the sleeve of my travelling jacket to the inner pouch at the belt of my best robe. Whatever the others thought, I was determined not to let my guard down where the Governor and his man were concerned.
Onek Mangsho and Opodartho emerged from the inner room, the latter still rubbing herself with a piece of coarse cloth. They were both disgustingly wet, their feet leaving moist tracks on the floor. “Aren’t you going to wash?” Opodartho said with an offensive grin. “Or are you scared of the water?”
“The Governor will expect us to be clean of the stains and dust of the journey,” my Lord told me quietly. “I think you should go and wash yourself.”
“Oh, let her be, my Lord,” Opodartho said. “She’s far too dainty for dirt to besmirch her delicate skin and elegant hands and feet.”
Now this, of course, was nothing more than the truth, but spoken in such an insinuating way that I had no alternative but to strip off my clothes and head for the chamber. It was particularly galling because I knew perfectly well that my nudity would have no effect on Onek Mangsho, since he had already sated himself with the slut. At least my body was slender and beautiful, and I hoped Opodartho was burning in inner jealousy when she looked on it.
The inner chamber was small, and the floor – of slabs of stone – wet and slippery. There was a basin of stone set against the wall, with a metal scoop on the floor beside. And that basin had so much water inside it that I gasped with astonishment. I had seldom seen such quantities of the liquid before in my life. Why, I believe that if I’d climbed into the basin and crouched down, the water would certainly have reached my shoulders, and perhaps even covered my head.
It was a rich city, this Fatatoshok, I realised – richer than I could have imagined.
As I – shivering with discomfort at the touch of so much water on my skin – poured it over my shoulders and head, gasping at its cold and loathsome touch, I marvelled at the stupidity of the tales I’d heard that in the old days people actually had submerged themselves in water, even propelled themselves in it in some fashion involving movement of their arms and legs. Plainly, this was a nonsensical tale, for human beings were certainly not suited to water any more than a dire hyena was.
The thought of dire hyenas, of their cruel jaws and massive shoulders, made me shiver so much that I realised I was getting cold. Putting down the metal scoop, I looked around for something to dry myself with, but my Lord and Opodartho having taken the cloth with them to the other room, I had to go there to look for it.
To my astonishment and embarrassment I found Gõwar Gondar there. The embarrassment was not for him seeing me nude, for there is nothing to be ashamed of in being without clothes when one is as flawlessly beautiful as I am – but because after a bare glance at me he turned away and resumed the conversation he had been engaged in with my Lord, while at the same time his eyes strayed towards Opodartho, who was dressed in one of her usual tatterdemalion ensembles.
Snatching up the drying cloth, I withdrew quickly to the bathing-room. Though, as a woman of delicate sensibilities, I don’t normally eavesdrop, I was standing just inside the door and could scarcely avoid hearing some of the First Assistant’s words.
“The Governor will refuse nothing to such a charming lady as yourself,” he said, apparently addressing Opodartho. “Your wishes will be his merest command.”
I could not hold back a snort at that, and my opinion of the man fell even lower than it had been. Was he blind as well as a possible enemy?
“Oh, sir, you flatter me.” My stomach turned over at Opodartho’s giggle. “Surely I have nothing a thousand women don’t have better.”
“You are too modest, my lady.” Gõwar Gondar kept speaking, but, unable to take any more of this inanity, I rubbed vigorously at my face and ears. When I took the cloth away, he was talking to Onek Mangsho. “Could you tell me a little of your adventures, my Lord? Your name and something of your exploits, so that I can pass them on to His Highness the Governor?”
“My name is Unmaad Oot,” my Lord said smoothly, as I fought down the panic that had gripped me when I’d imagined that he was about to give our real identities away. “This is the lady Oshobhyo, and my other lady is...” My relief that he had not been taken in so completely by the man as to give him our real names was so great that I quite missed what I was supposed to be called. “We come from the country of Shesher Shoshan. I am sure you have heard of it?”
“Oh yes, the land of Shesher Shoshan,” Gõwar Gondar said vaguely. “To the south and west, is it not?”
“Precisely,” Onek Mangsho told him. “The rest we will tell the Governor. When shall we meet him?”
“I can escort you to his august presence as soon as you are ready.”
“Then kindly leave us for a few breaths of time to allow us to prepare ourselves, and we will go with you.”
“May I introduce you, my Lord and ladies,” Gõwar Gondar said, stepping back and gesturing, “to His Highness the Governor of Fatatoshok, Kankata Khochchor.”
“This is an honour,” my Lord murmured.
It was a large room, the walls hung with richly decorated fabric of a kind I had seen only in the stocks of the richest merchants, material I had heard had come down from an age so distant it no longer had a name. The floor was also covered with a thick material which felt springy under my shoes. It was a room that would have been unseemly in its excess of comfort, but for the huge man who stood looking back at us, thoughtfully rubbing at his jaw.
From the back of the group, I eyed the Governor. He was a giant, fully a head taller than Onek Mangsho, and though his body had begun to sag with age, it still showed the evidence of a once mighty frame. His thick arms were covered with old scars, as was the scalp of his hairless head. From under heavy greying brows, his eyes, black as night, stared us up and down. His entire appearance was so forbidding that even I, who have faced and bettered the Tyrant of Tiktiki, might have been intimidated, but for one thing. The Governor had only one ear.
The sight of the twisted nub of the other was somehow reassuring, as though it proved that even this massive old man was merely mortal. Even so, he was terrifying enough, and when he spoke, his voice rumbled like thunder.
“Welcome to our city,” he said, stepping forward. “My assistant has told me a little about you. I am honoured that you accepted our invitation.”
“It was...uh...somewhat unusual,” my Lord admitted. “In our experience, unless there is an actual danger, people tend to prefer not to be reminded of the existence of heroes.”
The Governor waved a huge hand. “We are not like that here. This city would not have been what it is but for the help of heroes, and we have not forgotten that.” Gõwar Gondar had busied himself, personally, with drawing up stools, and Kankata Khochchor sat down on a particularly ornate one. “Tell me something about your homeland. Shesher Shoshan, is it not? I have little knowledge of it.”
That was hardly surprising, I thought, seeing that the country had no existence outside my Lord’s imagination. I only hoped he would not blunder in his description.
“It is a poor and rocky land,” he began, “far to the south-west, and the living is bad, so that we had to leave it to find our own way in the world...”
As he droned on, I found my attention wandering. Specifically, I found myself looking at the Governor’s clothes, which were plentifully hung with chains and medallions. One of those medallions winked green as he moved, and as he leaned forward I saw that inset in its middle was a large stone. All at once I wanted that stone, wanted it as I have seldom wanted anything before in my life. My entire body seemed drawn to it, and I would have gladly exchanged all the few treasures I had gathered through my wanderings for that stone. My mouth grew dry, my heart pounded in my chest, and the rest of the room seemed to fade to grey as I stared at it. My hand trembled to reach out and tear the chain from his chest, so that I had to clamp down on its wrist with the other hand, and bite my lip until the pain began to clear my head.
“Khyaksheyal?” I heard someone saying. “Khyaksheyal, the Governor is asking you something.”
I shook my head and looked around for this Khyaksheyal, but all I saw was Opodartho staring at me. “Khyaksheyal?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
“Forgive her, Your Highness,” my Lord said. “She has the desert illness and is sometimes confused. The heat, you know.”
“Hmm.” The Governor was looking at me speculatively. “Are you feeling ill, lady?”
I swallowed, nodding, and cursed myself for not having taken the opportunity to ask while I could what my name was supposed to be. “I am a little tired,” I said.
“Ah. You should go back to your room and lie down, then. Gõwar Gondar will conduct you there, while I speak to the lord Unmaad Oot and the other lady...” he suddenly turned to Opodartho. “What was your name again, my dear?”
Opodartho, who had been with my Lord while they had been talking to Gõwar Gondar, did not turn a hair, of course. “Oshobhyo, Your Highness.”
The Governor nodded and turned to me. “Well, then, we will see you later in the evening, my lady. Rest well and recover your strength.”
I had scarcely had an opportunity to sit down when there was a tapping on the door. I thought at first that Gõwar Gondar, who had stuck to me as tightly and silently as a shadow all the way back to the room, had returned to say something. But when I went to open the door, I found a woman waiting.
She was short, rather squat, probably past middle age, and with greasy hair, so long that it almost touched her shoulders. She had just raised her hand to tap again, and lowered it when I opened the door.
“May I come in?” she asked in a deep voice for a woman. Her command of the trade language, like that of the Governor and Gõwar Gondar, was excellent. “My name is Shakchunni, and I’ll be your servant as long as you’re here.”
“Our servant?” I asked, astonished. I had never come across an actual servant before. To be sure, there were slaves, but then this woman would have said she was one. Besides, she showed none of the cringing behaviour that identified a slave. “We don’t need a servant.”
“His Highness the Governor ordered it, lady,” she said, slipping her short and heavy body past me so quickly that she touched neither the door nor me. “I’m afraid we must all follow his orders. I will get down to cleaning this room and unpacking your belongings, shall I?”
“No, no,” I said quickly. “I scarcely think we shall be remaining long enough to make that worth the effort.”
The woman, Shakchunni, shrugged. “That’s what they all say,” she observed. “When they come, they want to get going. But usually they end up staying longer. But, as you wish. Shall I help you change into something more comfortable? And after that, a massage or a foot rub, perhaps?”
As her hands expertly kneaded my shoulders and neck, I glanced at her from the corner of my eye and decided that she looked stupid enough to be probed for a little information. After all, I pride myself on being subtle about these matters, unlike, say, a coarse and direct peasant like Opodartho. “You said they all stay longer. Who are they?”
Shakchunni’s fingers began working on my temples. “Why, the heroes, of course. You know our city loves heroes. Whenever they come, they end up staying longer than they’d planned. The Governor takes such good care of them, you see, that they don’t want to go away, after all.”
“But eventually they do leave?”
Shakchunni moved round, sat on the floor, and took my right foot into her lap. “Oh, yes, of course. In the end they all go away.”
“Were you a servant for the other heroes as well?”
“Yes, I served the last one, and the one before that, when I was young and pretty. He was a lovely man. So handsome and so gentle in...” she caught herself and sighed. “It was such a pity that he had to leave.”
There seemed nothing to say as a response to that, so I tried another line of questioning. “I heard that heroes had been of great help to your city in the past. Can you tell me a little about that?”
“Oh, that was in the Time of Troubles, long ago.” Shakchunni released my right foot and seized my left. “It was a long time ago.”
“What happened then?”
“It was the Time of Trouble,” she repeated, massaging my calf. “There was war and rebellion and famine, and they helped us to survive. It was all very long ago.”
There was clearly no point in asking further questions of this dolt, and I abandoned myself to the massage. Despite her stupidity, she had magic hands, and I felt myself slipping away into a doze.
I had almost fallen asleep when the door opened behind me, and my Lord and Opodartho entered. “We had a good long talk with the Governor,” Onek Mangsho announced. “How are you feeling now, Khyaksheyal?” He paused suddenly. “Who’s this?”
I performed the necessary introduction. Shakchunni busied herself in helping Opodartho change and then set to massaging her. My Lord wandered to the window and stood looking out into the gathering dusk.
“My Lord,” I said, using the language of our old village, the words feeling odd and stiff on my tongue. “When do you think we can leave here?”
“What did you say, Oshobhyo?” he countered, speaking the trade language and looking at me quizzically. “I didn’t understand.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” I said. “Nothing important.” Obviously, for reasons of his own, he had decided to pretend he didn’t speak the old language. I wanted to tell him there was no danger that the stupid woman rubbing away at Opodartho’s thick ankles had the intelligence to understand, but it was pointless. If he had decided not to understand, he would not understand. “When do we go to the Governor again? He said we would meet him this evening.”
“His Highness will send his First Assistant to fetch us,” Onek Mangsho said. “Are you feeling better? He asked specifically about you.”
“Yes,” I said. “Much better, my Lord.” This was true. The desire for the jewel set in the Governor’s medallion was still strong, but no longer like a consuming fever. “He is kind to have asked.”
Onek Mangsho nodded. “This is such a lovely city,” he continued dreamily, looking out into the evening. “Can you smell the aromas of the town on the breeze?”
For the life of me I could detect nothing but the stink of the streets at the foot of the hill, rising on the evening air. “Yes,” I said. “Very nice.”
“Would you like me to massage you, Lord Unmaad Oot?” Shakchunni said, rising from her position at Opodartho’s feet.
“No,” Onek Mangsho said, with only a brief glance at her. “I believe you’d better leave us to begin getting ready for the evening now.”
I don’t remember much about the grand dinner the governor hosted for us that evening. I have vague memories of slaves bearing in dish after dish, heaped high with delicious meats, and long pitchers of wine so fragrant and delicate that they lay on the tongue like a benediction. I can remember Kankata Khochchor sitting on a great carved stool behind a heaped platter, his voice rumbling as he said things I barely listened to. My attention, as before, was hopelessly captured by the winking green jewel on his chest, and I chewed and swallowed mechanically.
“Come, come,” the Governor rumbled at one point, leaning over the table so that the medallion swung almost into my face, and pushing a dish towards me, “you have hardly eaten at all. I trust my cooks’ efforts are to your taste.”
“Yes,” I said, automatically reaching for a piece, but somehow Opodartho reached out at the same moment and knocked my hand away. I turned my head to glare at the clumsy oaf of a peasant woman, but she – without even glancing my way – pushed the dish over towards my Lord, who was sitting on her other side. Unable to see more than the back of her stupid head, I contended myself with a few gulps of that delicate wine.
“My Lady Khyaksheyal,” the governor said a little later, “will you sing a song for us? I can tell just by looking at you that you have a wondrous singing voice.”
Now of course this is true – I have a wonderful voice, which has often been compared to the Silver Bells of Shomoshya – and I know that it is purely out of envy and spite that Opodartho has so often compared my singing to a windwolf’s howl. And gladly would I have taken this opportunity to sing to my utmost ability, if for no other purpose than to score off the strumpet, but my mind was so full of that glittering jewel that I was afraid that if I should open my mouth, I would be able to sing of nothing else.
“Come on,” the governor insisted, “I’d love to hear you sing.”
“She sings like a dire lioness with colic,” Opodartho said, while I was still confecting an excuse. “I request Your Highness to excuse her.”
“Then, my Lady Oshobhyo,” Kankata Khochchor said, “perhaps you would oblige us with a song?”
As I knew well how terribly Opodartho sang, I was looking forward to enjoying the expression on the Governor’s face, but the wine suddenly went to my head.
“No,” I said, rising to my feet. “I will sing, as requested!” And as I threw my head back and drew a deep breath, to strike the first high note, the room spun and darkened, the ceiling disappearing far away.
My last memory of the dinner is falling fainting into a plate of smoked meat.
“She’s just disgustingly drunk,” someone said. “I managed to prevent her from eating any of that stuff.”
The words came from far away, as though I was hearing them from the other side of a tunnel. My head throbbed, and I grew aware that I was lying on my back on a soft surface.
“But do they think we ate it?” someone else was saying, in the same hushed murmur.
“Oh yes,” the first voice replied. “I made sure of it.”
“Better wake her,” the other person said. “We haven’t much time.”
I felt two sharp slaps, one on each cheek, and groaned as I opened my eyes. Opodartho crouched over me, her hand raised to slap me again.
“What on earth are you doing?” I tried to shout, reaching up to grab the woman’s arm, but my voice was a moan. “How dare you hit me?”
“She’s awake,” the evil witch said over her shoulder, lowering her hand with manifest reluctance. “Get up, quick.”
Sitting up, I discovered that we were back in our room, which was lit by a single guttering lamp. My Lord stood near the door, which was ajar, looking out into the corridor through the crack. He carried his spears poised in his hand, and both he and Opodartho were dressed in their regular clothing, not the finery they had donned for the dinner.
“What’s going on?” I asked plaintively, my head throbbing. “What are you doing?”
“No time to explain now,” Opodartho hissed, pulling at my arm. “Get up and get changed, as fast as you can. They’ll be waiting for their poison to take effect – we have only a little while before they come for us.”
“Forget changing,” my Lord snapped. “We have no time for that. I think I can hear them coming now.”
Grunting with impatience, Opodartho fairly hauled me to my feet. “Here’s your bag,” she said, thrusting it into my hand. “Do you think you can carry it?” Without waiting for my response, she stepped to the lamp and blew it out. The room fell instantly to darkness, but for the dim starlight through the window.
“Quickly,” my Lord said, easing open the door. “We’d better leave while the leaving is good.”
I tried to shake off Opodartho’s hand, but she had a firm grip on my wrist and practically dragged me out of the door and down the corridor. I was vaguely aware of her reaching past me to shut the door behind us.
There were footsteps coming down the corridor, and someone was speaking, in a low murmur, the words slurred and indistinct. Something clinked, metal on stone, just round the corner. They were coming from both sides!
“In here,” my Lord hissed. “There’s a door open.”
We just managed to squeeze inside in time. The room was tiny, hardly larger than a storage cabinet, and I was so confined between Opodartho and the wall that I could scarcely breathe. My discomfort was all the greater because the trollop clapped one of her grubby hands over my mouth. “Don’t make a sound,” she whispered in my ear.
“I wasn’t going to...” I tried to protest, but all that emerged was a muffled grumble. Another sin to chalk up to the tart’s account, when the time came for settlement, I vowed. But for the moment I had no choice but to submit, because there were footsteps right outside the door, and voices.
I recognised the first at once. It was the servant woman, Shakchunni, but speaking sharply and with authority.
“...pumping me for information,” she said, in the trade language. “A very stupid woman, but the other two are dangerous. We have to get them while they’re still under the drug.”
Someone else muttered something my ears, sharp as they were, could not catch.
“We have to get them alive,” Shakchunni snapped. “The governor – I will talk about it later. We have to make sure they’re...” The voices faded down the corridor in the direction of our room.
“So I was right,” Onek Mangsho said with a sigh, easing open the door. “The woman was a spy. I thought she looked uncommon sharp.”
“It was obvious,” Opodartho replied. “She would have made the blind and deaf suspicious.”
“How dare she call me a stupid woman!” I began angrily, as soon as my mouth was released, but Opodartho’s hand was back before I got past the first couple of syllables.
“Keep your tongue to yourself, Chheechkaduni,” the hussy said in my ear, pushing me into the corridor behind my Lord. “Just keep your mouth shut and keep moving.”
I was seething with anger, at her and at Shakchunni, but for the moment had no choice but to follow her orders. We hurried as silently as we could along a series of corridors, so dark that we had to guide ourselves with the touch of our fingertips on a wall, the only sound that of our breathing. Soon I had become completely disoriented – it seemed as though we were wandering a maze, and in the dark at that.
The same feeling had apparently affected the others. All at once my Lord stopped, so suddenly that I bumped into him. “This is no good,” he said. “We’re lost.”
“There must be a way out,” I replied. “Perhaps if we tried to retrace our steps...”
“The governor’s people will be all over there now, looking for us,” Opodartho pointed out. “Besides, I don’t have any idea how to find our way back. Do you?”
I was saved from having to answer by the glimmer of a distant light, reflected on a wall, but growing slowly brighter. Someone was coming towards us along the passageway, but still far enough that it gave us a chance to look around.
“Look,” Opodartho said, pointing. “There’s a side corridor.”
It was narrow, and smelt musty, as though the air was dead and thick with dust. However, it was long enough for us to be able to move away far enough to be away from the possibility of discovery, so long as the people carrying the light didn’t actually enter the passage behind us. I was all for withdrawing as far as we could, but Onek Mangsho laid a hand on my arm.
“Stop,” he murmured in my ear. “I’d like to see who’s coming.”
Even though I had to get on the tips of my toes to peer over his shoulder, and the light was dim and flickering, I had no difficulty recognising Gõwar Gondar. He was alone, but carried the source of the light – a torch – in one hand and a long, heavy knife in the other. He glanced at the passage in which we were, and for a moment I thought he was about to enter – and so must have my Lord, for I felt him gather up his heavy spear and hold it ready – but he contented himself with a look inside, and then disappeared.
“Should we follow him?” my Lord asked aloud. “He might lead us to a way out of here.”
“Or merely to more danger,” Opodartho said, before I could agree with my Lord and tell him what a good idea that was. “Besides, Lord, there are stairs at the end of this passage – stairs leading downwards.”
I still remember the walk down that narrow staircase, feeling with my feet all the way so as not to miss a step and pitch and fall, more probably than not breaking my neck and making Opodartho very happy. In fact, I would have welcomed the opportunity to give her a hard shove in the back and ridding us both of her onerous presence, once and for all, but unfortunately the witch had made sure to walk behind me, and I made sure to follow my Lord as closely as possible, so that his body would break my fall if Opodartho had ideas.
The staircase spiralled downwards, for so long that I became convinced that we must have passed the ground floor of the fortress and were now descending into the bowels of the hill. As we went, the air grew steadily mustier and full of the smell of decay, and I was on the verge of suggesting turning back when I realised that I could see again.
A very faint light was shining from below, a dull yellow glow as of a torch just before the flame dies out and leaves only a smouldering red cinder. It grew slowly brighter as we descended, until we could see that we were almost at the bottom of the staircase, and that the light came from just beyond the next bend.
“Wait here,” Onek Mangsho said over his shoulder, “while I have a look.” Quietly, he slipped round the corner and disappeared.
Opodartho and I waited, the silence around us growing steadily more oppressive. I could imagine men overhead, looking everywhere for us and possibly already coming down the stairs, knives like the one Gõwar Gondar had carried in their hands.
“Why is he taking so much time?” I wondered aloud. “How much longer must we wait?”
“I’ll go and see,” Opodartho said suddenly, pushing past me. “You wait here, Chheechkaduni, as a rearguard and lookout. If you hear or see anything, come and let us know.”
Normally, of course, I would not have suffered such ordering-about from the debauched little slattern, but I had not yet fully recovered from the effects of whatever it was I had drunk at the dinner, and after the tension of the descent of that staircase I felt very tired. Leaning back against the wall, I watched the reflection of the torch on the ancient stone, and waited.
Now, without even Opodartho’s breathing to listen to, the silence settled down on me like a shroud. I was listening so intensely for anything – for Opodartho and my Lord’s return, or for noises indicating our pursuers were following us down the stairs – that I began to hear my own heart beating, and the air rushing in and out of my body with every breath I took. The torchlight was very dim now, and the shadows grew thick and gathered around me.
I had grown stiff and cramped standing in one place before a sudden horrible idea occurred to me. Suppose Opodartho had caught up with my Lord, and told him that something had happened to me, and that I was beyond help – and suppose that they had found a way out, and were already far away and going further off with every moment that passed? If I had an evil mind like hers, it would be the precise thing that would have occurred to me to do. Without any further ado, then, I stepped down the last few stairs, turned the corner, and stood looking around.
I was in a corridor that stretched out on both sides until it was swallowed in darkness. Just above my head, what was left of the torch smouldered in a metal holder, and another was off to the left a short distance away. Deciding that Onek Mangsho and the slut must have gone that way, I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and set off, the floor of the passage so gritty and uneven that it hurt the bottoms of my feet right through the soles of my shoes.
I had only gone a short distance before I came to a door. It was immensely heavy, and moved reluctantly to the pressure of my fingers, swinging open eventually to reveal a second, much wider corridor – and this was brilliant with light.
Cautious as a windwolf sticking its head out of its burrow, I stepped into that corridor. The torches set in the walls were fresh and new, and burned so brightly that there was no room for shadow. The air, too, was much fresher, so there must be a way out somewhere. I decided to explore down one side of the passage, and if I did not find either the exit or my Lord, I would come back and try the other way.
I had hardly turned the first corner when a hand came down on my shoulder, and a cheery voice spoke in my ear.
“The Lady Khyaksheyal!” it said. “I was looking all over for you!”
I turned round, dipping my shoulder to free it of the grip. It was Gõwar Gondar, of course. “How nice to find you here,” he said, grinning down at me with all his teeth. “I was worried about you.”
“Well,” I said, “you needn’t worry. I’m fine.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Very good.” I noticed that the knife was gone from his other hand, but was sure he had it somewhere about his person. “How is it that you found your way down here, if I may ask? Were you, perhaps, sleepwalking?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I told him. “I was sleepwalking.”
“Ah. And the Lord Unmaad Oot and the Lady Oshobhyo – are they perhaps sleepwalking too? Somewhere?”
“Why,” I asked, “don’t you know where they are? Aren’t they back in our room?”
Gõwar Gondar shrugged his powerful shoulders. “Unfortunately, no. I hoped, when I cau... I mean, met you, that you would be able to tell me where they were.”
Inspiration struck me. “They’re probably out looking for me. I mean, they get worried about me for some reason, even though I never hurt myself or anyone else when I sleepwalk. They’ll find me eventually, I suppose.” I pride myself on my coolness under pressure. Unlike, say –
“They should not have left the room,” Gõwar Gondar replied. “It is indeed fortunate I found you. It isn’t safe to be wandering around like that.”
“Why ever not?” I asked. “We are guests of the Governor, aren’t we?”
“Yes, but the Governor has enemies, as you know, and they would like nothing better than to disgrace him by harming his guests within his own walls – especially when the guests are heroes like yourselves.” He grasped me again, by the elbow. “I’ll conduct you to a place of safety, and when the Lord and the other lady are found, they’ll be brought there as well.”
“What place of safety?” I asked, as he ushered me up a long, twisting ramp. “Back to our room?”
“No, the Governor wishes me to conduct you to the inner citadel. You’ll be completely safe there. Besides, you’ll be interested in having a look at it.”
“Why, is it something special?”
“Special?” Gõwar Gondar asked, absently tightening his grip on my arm until I shivered in agony. “Yes, very special, I can assure you.”
More dragged along than walking of my own volition, I followed him up the ramp.
“The Lady Khyaksheyal,” the Governor boomed. “How very nice to see you!”
“She was sleepwalking,” Gõwar Gondar explained. “I found her down on the lower levels.”
“Sleepwalking. I see. And the others? No doubt they will be around somewhere? Or did they leave you and run away?”
“Is there something to run away from?” I asked.
Kankata Khochchor grinned, the scars on his face twisting. The room was large and mostly in shadow, lit only by the red flames from the fireplace at one side. It was very hot, but he was covered by a thick black cloak, leaving only his head and arms free. “I don’t know,” he said. “You tell me.”
I said nothing. Inspiration seemed to have run out. Besides, Gõwar Gondar, who still had that iron grip on my arm, began tugging at it again.
“I think she would be interested in the inner citadel,” he said.
“Yes, and the Priestess is eager to make her acquaintance.”
“Priestess?” I asked.
The Governor laughed. “You’ll see.” He fell in on my other side, gripping my other arm. Held like that between the two huge men, I felt utterly helpless, and cursed Opodartho a hundred times for abandoning me. As they pulled me past the fire and through a tall, arched doorway, I had just begun to formulate a hope that she would be afflicted with the Killer Colic of Petekamor and then eaten alive by dire lions, but at the sight of what lay before me, I forgot the rest of it.
The chamber was as small as the other one had been large, but even darker. The only light came from glowing braziers set into the corners, giving out an acrid-smelling smoke. The braziers dimly lit something that sat on a kind of low throne, in the centre of the chamber, and stared at me.
At first I thought it was a squatting woman, with a bowl of food on her lap. Then, looking more closely, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a woman – and that wasn’t a bowl of food.
I stared with fascinated horror at the thing. What I saw in the dim red glow, squatting on the throne, may once have been a woman; but it now was a skeleton, covered with a thin membrane of skin, and the object on its lap was a red and bloody human heart.
“That is the Fury of Fatatoshok,” a voice said behind us. “The Goddess of the city, you might say.”
Despite the fact that the voice had lost all its servility, I knew who it was, well enough. “Shakchunni.”
“That’s one of my names, true.” The hag stepped into my line of vision. “But everyone else hereabouts knows me as the Priestess.”
“Priestess of what – that skeleton?”
“She is the Fury,” Gõwar Gondar said in a voice of mild reproof. “Do not insult her – and us – by calling her a skeleton.”
The woman Shakchunni laughed. It was more a cackle than a laugh. “It hardly matters,” she said. “The Fury will have this woman’s heart either way. Whether she blasphemes or insults her hardly matters.”
“Wait!” I said. “Are you all insane? You’re talking of offering my heart to that – thing?”
“It’s an honour,” the governor said, almost soothingly. “The Fury has gone too long feeding only on the craven hearts of food slaves. She will relish the hearts of heroes, and return the blessing on us a thousandfold. Just as she did when the earlier heroes gave their hearts to her.”
“I did regret having to offer up the heart of the hero who became my lover,” Shakchunni sighed. “Even now I go out sometimes and look up at his skull over the gate, and remember. It’s the most elegant of the lot of them. You can see even now how handsome he was.” She sighed again, and turned to me, shaking her head. “But it was worth it. The Fury was pleased, though my hero screamed and struggled most unheroically while I was hacking him open.”
“We all have to make sacrifices,” Kankata Khochchor said. “The Fury’s happiness is worth any number of slaughtered lovers.”
“I trust you’ll be more dignified in your last moments, Lady Khyaksheyal,” Gõwar Gondar put in. “Heroes should die bravely to be really considered heroes. Shouldn’t they?”
“You’re all mad,” I said. “Offering hearts to a skeleton, and expecting it to reward you!”
“She’ll really enjoy your heart,” Gõwar Gondar told me. “She’s hardly touched the slave heart there, you can see, even though we offered it warm and still beating. She must be hungry.”
“By the time we find your friends and rip their hearts out,” the governor said, “she’ll be ready for more. Oh, she will be pleased, you can count on that.”
“Well, we’re wasting time talking,” Shakchunni muttered. “Let’s split you open and have done with it.” With a quick gesture, she reached up and her hand moved quickly, a blade I had not seen gleaming dully in the brazier’s glow. The straps of my bag parted, and it fell on the floor with a heavy thud. The governor and Gõwar Gondar pulled my arms back hard, and as my chest was thrust forwards, the hag’s hand moved again and my good gown fell away from me, baring my torso to the waist.
“Not bad,” the governor said to Gõwar Gondar over my head. “The other one probably has better breasts though.”
“Yes, the other one is much prettier,” the assistant replied. “I saw them both naked in their room, don’t forget. Not that it matters when they’re carved open, either way.”
I am ashamed to say that I was so frightened at that moment – I, who have faced the Putrid Pest of Potoltola without a qualm – that I neglected even to be angry at their putting Opodartho’s peasant looks over mine. In fact, I was so scared that my bladder relaxed and sent a stream of urine down my legs. The evil hag, Shakchunni, cackled again and brought her knife up. I felt the prick of the blade between my breasts, and reflexively closed my eyes tight.
There was a hiss in the air, and Shakchunni screamed. I snapped open my eyes and saw her backing away, the knife clattering from her hand, a spear through her forearm. Kankata Khochchor and Gõwar Gondar dropped my arms and swung around, knives appearing in their hands as though by magic.
My Lord and Opodartho stood at the door of the chamber, Onek Mangsho wielding his heavy spear, and the strumpet with her long knife. She leaped lightly to one side as Gõwar Gondar lunged at her, easily sidestepping his thrust, and slashed at his arm. He cried out and fell back, blood spurting, and she jumped forward nimbly, her knife coming up from below, and he fell to his knees in a welter of blood and intestines.
“Look out,” my Lord shouted above the First Assistant’s screams. He was parrying and thrusting with his spear at the governor, who was fighting back with his knife, both men moving with amazing speed for their bulk. “Look out, Chheechkaduni! Behind you!”
“What?” I was about to turn when I felt myself grasped from behind, and the touch of a blade under the angle of my jaw.
“Drop your weapons,” the woman Shakchunni said, her voice sounding very loud since Gõwar Gondar had stopped shrieking. “Or I will cut this she-hyena’s throat from ear to ear.” Her words came a moment too late to help the governor, who had hesitated a tiny fraction too long and had received my Lord’s spear through the chest for his trouble. His corpse thudded on the floor, almost as punctuation.
“Drop your weapons!” the hag rasped. “Now!”
My Lord and Opodartho glanced at each other, and slowly bent to put their weapons on the ground. “Now,” Shakchunni said, “back away to the wall.” With a hard push, she shoved me aside and darted out to pick up the knife and spear. As she went, she staggered, lost her footing on the blood-slicked floor, and fell heavily.
“Get her, Chheechkaduni!” Opodartho shouted.
“What with?” I was about to call back, remembering bitterly how my knife would be with my travelling costume, which was in my bag and therefore as far away as the moon as I was concerned. But then I had a sudden flash of memory – putting the knife in my belt pouch before the first meeting with the governor – and sure enough, there it was. Because it was in the hidden inner pouch, my captors had not seen it. And because they thought so little of me, they had not bothered to search.
I have no great desire to describe in detail what happened next. All I will say is that it was not the cleanest kill I have ever made. The hag squirmed and kicked at me, bit me with her teeth, whose edges were worn razor sharp, and clawed at me with her fingernails; and by the time I had straightened up from her still quivering body, it was difficult to say whose blood more liberally smeared my arms and breasts, hers or mine.
“Let’s get out of here,” my Lord said, picking up the knife and spear. “We have to leave this fortress before someone comes.”
“Wait a moment,” I said, bending to the governor’s corpse and flicking the cloak back. Yes, the jewel was there, glimmering in the light, and it was only a moment’s work to separate it from his neck. I grabbed it up and began to rid myself of the torn gown, which was quite ruined. “I need to change.”
“You can change later,” Opodartho snapped. “We have no time.”
“You might want to go traipsing around covered with blood and half-naked,” I said, stripping myself and reaching for my bag, “but I...”
“Chheechkaduni,” my Lord said, very softly. “Look at that.”
Though my eyes had grown accustomed to the dim light from the braziers, it was a moment before I could quite credit what I was seeing. The skeleton that the dead hag Shakchunni had called the Fury of Fatatoshok was beginning to move.
Slowly, a bony arm reached out, and the skeletal hand at the end of it waved at the air. One leg extended, the foot at the end of it finding the floor, the heart spilling off its lap. The mouth opened, hissing, forming words.
Like a nightmare come to life, the Fury of Fatatoshok stood up among the welter of blood and corpses, and reached for me.
The next thing I knew, I was racing along the corridor, clutching my bag and knife, but quite nude except for my shoes. Opodartho and my Lord ran before me, leading me down a series of corridors until, with a sudden rush, we found ourselves in the open air.
Amazingly, it was still a long way from dawn.
There is not very much more left to tell of our adventures in Fatatoshok. We made our way through the doorway with the skulls above, which I now knew were of the heroes who had given their hearts to the thing inside the citadel. Still running, we made our way through the deserted streets, finding a small gate in the walls which was not guarded, and out into the open desert.
Dawn found us far enough away that the walls of the city were only a smear in the distance, and we finally chose to throw ourselves down and rest. As I finally donned my travelling gear, I asked Opodartho, bitterly, why she had abandoned me on the stairs.
“Abandoned you?” the hussy snorted. “I had found our Lord and we were coming back for you when we saw that you were no longer on the stairs. We found your footmarks on the grit on the floor of the passage, though, and knew you’d gone the other way. We had almost caught you up, but Gõwar Gondar got to you first. And then we had to follow your traces until we got to you, just in time.”
“I had found a way out, down there,” my Lord added. “If you’d only waited a little longer, we could have avoided almost getting killed.”
“We’d also have avoided almost getting killed,” I said bitterly, “if you hadn’t accepted Gõwar Gondar’s invite in the first place.”
My Lord smiled slightly and glanced at Opodartho. “How many of the governor’s men were there in the crowd that you saw? Six? Seven?”
The trollop snorted. “Fourteen or fifteen that I could see, and all armed. It pays to be observant sometimes, Chheechkaduni.”
“What was that thing?” I asked, as much to change the subject as anything else. “That skeleton-beast? The woman Shakchunni called it the Fury of Fatatoshok.”
“I don’t know,” Onek Mangsho said. “But, whatever it is, I have no desire to make its acquaintance again.”
And that is a warning I would like to pass on to the reader of my words. We killed the Governor and his First Assistant, and the Priestess Shakchunni as well, but Fatatoshok still exists, enticing all comers with its riches. And, deep inside the fortress, it still exists, with its endless hunger, waiting for visitors to come.
Stay clear of Fatatoshok. That is my warning to you.
There is just one more thing to relate about our experiences in that accursed city. When we had rested, and were about to set out again, I brought out the jewel I had taken from the governor’s corpse, the better to admire it in the light of the morning.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” Onek Mangsho said. “The governor’s medallion?”
“That’s right, Lord.” I showed it to him. “Beautiful, is it not?”
Onek Mangsho peered at it and shrugged. “It’s a pretty bauble,” he said. “What a pity it’s just a fake.”
“Fake?” I said, my mouth going dry.
“Hold it up to the light, and you’ll see for yourself,” he told me. “It’s a well-crafted fake, but it’s still a fake.”
And it was.
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Asto Ahmok, my dear brother,
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the trouble you have taken to find and send me the transcript of the writings of the ancient harlot. Would it perhaps be possible for us to find the site of the city of Fatatoshok, wherever that might be? Some of its riches, of which the witch has written so much, might still be recoverable. Of course, I do not believe that there can possibly be any such creature as the demon she has described – this Fury. But even if it did exist, and continues to exist, the Cannibal Spirit in any case holds power over all.
Please remember me to my nephew Bhishon Boka and remind him of his promise to wed my daughter Lokloke Jeebh. It has been many years since he was betrothed, but he has not made any move to formalise the arrangement, and my daughter is growing no younger or prettier.
With love and respect,
Copyright B Purkayastha 2010-14