[Parts I through VI are here]
My respected father, Asto Ahmok,
Greetings and salutations! I hope that this message manages to find its way back to you, though I send it by the agency of that mindless slave, Hãshite Petfatey. I have grave doubts about his ability to put one foot in front of another without falling over, but if he does reach you, it will have proved that he is less worthless than I took him for.
I will not waste time describing the travails and disappointments that have accompanied my search. At first, of course, I had made for the forsaken city of Tomar Matha, where, as you had informed me, my dear cousin Hotobhaga Gordhob is engaged in searching for more writings of the woman Chheechkaduni. But then I had remembered your words to me, that we should keep the secrets of the ancient harridan for ourselves, should we discover any. And I also remembered that my dear cousin Hotobhaga Gordhob is as trustworthy as a famished dire hyena when it comes to money.
So, leaving Tomar Matha behind, I resolved to search elsewhere. By following many rumours whispered over flagons of fermented blood in inns spread across a hundred towns, and the liberal expenditure of the coins you had supplied me, I finally arrived, late one evening, at a tiny shop in a back alley in the old part of the city of Kono Boiporeyna. The owner of this establishment had many and strange objects for sale, some of which were so ancient that I could not even guess at their use, nor could the aged merchant enlighten me.
At first, of course, he denied being in possession of any part of the manuscript of the woman Chheechkaduni. I had expected nothing else. After much oblique hinting and cajoling, though, he mentioned that he could provide us some parchments from antiquity – he would not say by whom – for a huge sum. The glint of avarice in his eye notwithstanding, by dint of flattery and persuasion I finally managed to get him to agree to reduce his price to a level which I could afford. Perhaps my repeated display of weapons was instrumental in it.
At long last, when the night outside was far advanced, he fetched, from a box in the corner, a small and tattered roll of parchment. He only allowed me a quick look – just enough to read a few lines – before demanding his payment. As soon as I had made over the bag of coins, he had thrust the roll in my hands, shut his shop and hurried away.
I too, of course, did not tarry. I was not willing to trust in his not turning us in to the minions of the Grand Council for a reward, so I left the city that very hour. Despite the dangers of the desert night, it was still preferable to the perils of the city.
Since then, over the course of the next few days’ travels. I read through enough of the manuscript to confirm that it was indeed by the terrible and reviled harlot. I have gathered a few more hints and rumours where more of her writings might be found, and will now move on to seek them.
By the way, please inform my dear aunt Petkata Pyãcha that I would rather be eaten alive by windwolves than marry her charming daughter Lokloke Jeebh. I may be foolish at times, but I am not so stupid as to do that.
Your loving son,
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“My Lord,” I said, angrily walking over to where Onek Mangsho was fitting a new handle to his light spear, “you must really speak to Opodartho.”
“Why?” he asked, looking up at me quizzically. “What’s happened now?”
I told him about the dispute we had just had. “It is not enough, Lord,” I said angrily, “that she should have the position of your senior wife. She must at all times insist that she is right in everything.”
“I am right in everything,” Opodartho said, from the other side of the fire. “At least when it comes to your knowledge and mine, I am.”
This blatant piece of falsehood set my blood to boiling. “Lord,” I said between gritted teeth, “I demand and insist that you choose between the two of us right now. I’ve tolerated enough insults and humiliation at the hands of this slattern, but I can’t stand it any longer.”
“Just tell me what happened,” my Lord said, rolling his eyes. I wondered whether they were burning from the smoke from the fire, but when I asked him solicitously about them he merely seemed annoyed. “Tell me what you’re fighting about.”
So I repeated what had just passed between the vicious little slattern and me. But instead of taking my side, as I had fully expected, Onek Mangsho frowned at me angrily.
“Chheechkaduni,” he said, “this is ridiculous. Of course Opodartho was completely correct, and you are reacting like a child. Sit down this instant and be quiet.”
Now, as the reader knows, I am not just prettier but far more intelligent and knowledgeable than the trollop, and of far nobler birth and more refined upbringing besides. Also, Opodartho’s presence in my life had heaped so much insult and hurt on my head that I saw, literally, red with anger.
“I will not sit down,” I snapped. “I gave you a choice, Lord. Since you choose Opodartho, I am leaving now.”
“Chheechkaduni,” Opodartho said, “don’t be silly. Come and sit down.”
That this asinine, ignorant, scheming slut should call me silly, of course, enraged me still further. “You can sit down as long as you want,” I said. “I’m leaving.” And, turning around, I stormed off into the darkness.
“Chheechkaduni!” I heard Onek Mangsho shout. But, without paying him any heed, I stalked away.
“Let her be, Lord,” Opodartho said, her voice carrying through the night air. “She’s just acting out. When she gets tired of it, she’ll come back.”
“I will not come back, you vile she-jackal,” I said to myself. I had, actually, thought of going away for an hour or two and then returning, but the slattern’s words made it impossible. “I’ll never come back again.” Of course, what I actually meant was that I wouldn’t come back for a day or two, but that should be time enough.
As I had said, we’d made camp on the top of a low hillock, and the ground on all sides sloped away in all directions. In the daylight, the ground had seemed to my eyes fairly smooth, but I found that it was actually grooved and fissured, full of dips and wrinkles, all of which were at least head-high to a tall man. I’d expected that I would be able to keep the fire in plain sight, and therefore orient myself; but within minutes I could see nothing of it at all.
This would probably not have mattered if I had been able to navigate by the stars. But that was the job of low-born slatterns like Opodartho, not of refined ladies like myself, who are concerned with higher things. So, despite the tart’s offers to teach me, I had never learned the art. At night, I could not make my way about at all.
Having, therefore, decided to wait for daylight, when I might be able to see where I was going, I sat down on a convenient rock, and thought I could rest a bit there. My heart was hammering and my mouth dry with anger, and the more I thought about Onek Mangsho’s perfidy in supporting Opodartho, the more furious I became. I should, I decided, disappear for several days, until they came looking for me and begged me to return to them.
But would the strumpet even let my Lord suggest coming to look for me? Perhaps I should wait till the next evening and then go back after all.
I had just about reached this point in my thoughts when I smelt a familiar musty odour. And then something snuffled near my hand, and whined.
I jumped up so quickly I believe that I must have shot right into the air, like a startled windwolf. The smell should have warned me already, and if I had not been so furious I believe I would have noticed it earlier. I was at the worst place I could possibly be.
I was sitting outside a dire hyena pack’s den.
Everyone knows all about these foul beasts, so there is no need for me to describe them further. But just imagine my feelings when – alone in the darkness – I found myself next to a den of the creatures; more, a den full of whining, snuffling cubs. The pack must be out foraging, but if they returned unexpectedly and found me near their offspring...
My mind boggled at the image of their ravening jaws and furious yellow eyes. These vile creatures do not even wait to kill their victims before eating them – and that’s when those victims aren’t threatening their families. I could not even begin to imagine what they would do to me if they found me.
Instinctively, I reached for the knife at my belt, and froze. There was nothing there.
Curse that vile Opodartho and her evil, infuriating ways!
In my anger, I completely neglected to take any of my things with me when I had walked away from the camp. Except for the clothes and shoes I had on, I had nothing, not even a water bottle. Indeed, even my long knife lay where I had put it down, next to the fire. I had nothing even to defend myself with, should the dire hyena pack return.
I am, as anyone who has read my adventures will know, not a cowardly woman. There are, I will wager, few in the world as brave as I am, so unwavering in the face of danger. But there are certain circumstances in which it is, perhaps, forgivable to lose one’s head temporarily – and being next to a dire hyena den with nothing to protect oneself with is one of those times.
So I am not ashamed to admit that I panicked. I have no clear memory of what I did next. I vaguely recall scrambling as fast as I could over humps of stone and down gullies, at times running and at others crawling on my hands and knees under overhanging boulders. When I finally grew so tired that I had to stop to draw breath, a considerable period of time must have passed. The light of the thin slice of the waning moon was enough to show me that I was totally lost; I hadn’t the faintest recollection of any of the topography around me. Apart from being lost and exhausted, I was also thirsty and had lost my shoes and torn my travelling robe in several places. My hands, knees and the soles of my feet were cut and bleeding. I began to grow concerned that the blood trail would lead the dire hyenas, or even windwolves, to me.
I had to find some shelter to spend the rest of the night. During the day, perhaps, I could get my bearings and decide what to do. Slowly, mindful of the danger from a roving dire lion or even a vampire hog, I crawled up the largest of the boulders around me to try and see if there was anything I might be able to use as shelter.
And right there, in front of me, was a large building, glittering white in the moonlight as though it were made of crystals. I could see lit-up windows, and it seemed to me that I could hear the faint sound of music.
Still not quite believing what I was seeing, I descended from the boulder and began walking towards the shining white building. I forgot even the pain in my feet, so entranced was I at the prospect of being able to spend the night in safety. With every step, my exhaustion seemed to fall away like dust from my garments. I even found myself smiling.
Now, as I had mentioned in these accounts of our travels, when we had been faced with the Horrendous Howler of Hamaguri, I had discovered that at night distances are difficult to judge. Though I had imagined from my rock that the building wasn’t very far, however long I walked towards it, I didn’t seem to get any closer. The moon, a pale slice, hung above, giving some light, or else I must surely have caught my feet in one of the many fissures in the rock and injured myself further.
Slowly, I came to the realisation that the building was enormous. It was because it was so far away that I hadn’t understood that before. At length, when I finally got close enough that it no longer seemed to recede into the distance with every step I took, I had to tilt my head back a little to see the roof. It must have been one of the single largest buildings I had ever seen.
And it was beautiful. Not only did it glitter like crystal, but the walls were set with elaborate carvings, which I could not see clearly in the darkness but which seemed to me to show beautiful young women and handsome men, in various poses. Up near the roof, more statues linked hands and danced together.
I curled my lip with scorn at the thought of how this ethereal beauty would have been completely wasted on the loutish Opodartho. Even Onek Mangsho, though he had some refinement and culture, would think less of the beauty of the building and more of what he could get from it in terms of money or food and clothing. But, fortunately, being of much higher temperament and artistic soul than either of those two, I could appreciate it more than they would ever have. Indeed, if only I had not been in such urgent need of shelter I might have stopped once or twice to appreciate the view.
I had come within sight of the main entrance, which was guarded by a gate set with bronze plates studded with spikes, when suddenly, not very far away, I heard the unmistakable sound of a dire hyena calling.
I am sure that any reader of these chronicles of mine will know how the call of these despicable creatures can strike terror in the bravest heart, even when heard from the safety of the ramparts of some walled city. As for me, bleeding and alone in the middle of that rocky plain, the sound chilled me to the core of my being. I knew what it meant, that whooping ululation: one of the pack had found my blood trail, and was calling to the rest of its clan. And they would come, loping in their ungainly way, which seemed so slow and clumsy but was actually far faster than a man could possibly run.
Fortunately, I was not too far off from the gate. Even as I sprinted as fast as I could towards it, I threw one glance back over my shoulder. And what I saw gave me wings.
The pack was coming. They had burst out of the shadows that gathered near the rocks from where I had first seen the building, and were galloping across the rocky plain in between. I could see their open jaws, their bristling manes and speckled hides. And I could hear them, whooping and grunting to each other as they came.
I began pounding on the gate with my fists, as hard as I could. I even screamed for help, in the trade language. The hyenas were so close now that I could hear their excited panting, and hear the clicking of their claws on stone. A few more moments, and the first fangs would tear into my skin, and then it would be all over.
At least I would not suffer long. Dire hyenas do not waste time in eating their victims alive.
I believe I might have fainted with terror in another instant, when the gate sprung open. A hand reached out, caught me by the wrist and dragged me inside, even as the gate clanged shut behind me.
If my legs had not already been weak from terror and exhaustion, they would have gone weak at that moment, because I found myself looking up into the face of the most handsome man I had ever seen. Not even the best-looking men we had met on our travels would have been able to measure up anywhere close to him. He held me in his strong arms and looked down at me with eyes that were dark with concern.
“Are you all right, Lady?” Even his voice was as marvellous as his appearance, deep and sonorous as the legendary Bells of Ghontabajey. “I ran as fast as I could to open the gate for you, but I hardly thought I should be in time to save you from the hyenas. They are cruel beasts, and I would hardly wish such a fate on someone as beautiful as you.”
How I wished the slattern Opodartho could have been there at that moment to listen to this wonderfully good-looking man tell me I was beautiful! It would have permanently wrecked her self-satisfied smugness. But, then, the slut was such a shameless hussy that she would have not lost a moment in attempting to ingratiate herself with this wonderfully handsome man, so probably it was better after all that she wasn’t there.
“I’m all right,” I said, though my heart was still hammering and my mouth still dry. “I’m all right – now.”
If he’d caught the inflection in my tone he didn’t let on to it. His eyes were still concerned. “You don’t look all right, Lady. Your hands and feet are cut about, and – if you’ll excuse me pointing it out – your robe is torn.”
I looked down at myself and saw that he was right, but laughed lightly at his worry. “It’s nothing compared to what would have happened if you hadn’t saved me from them,” I said, nodding at the gate behind me, on the other side of which the dire hyenas still whooped and snuffed. “Besides, these little cuts will heal soon enough, now that I am in good company.”
His expression did not relax. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I can never let such a beautiful lady suffer even a moment longer than I must. Your wounds have to be dressed, and you must have new clothing to replace this tattered garment.”
While I was, of course, not particularly overjoyed to hear my best travelling robe called a “tattered garment”, his evident concern and worry, and his praise of my beauty, pleased me exceedingly. But I was astonished by what he did next. Bending quickly, he picked me up in his arms and began carrying me into the building.
I protested, though the sensation of being carried in his strong arms was both novel and exceedingly pleasant, and grew even more so when I put my arms around his muscular neck. But he laughed off my protests. “The bottoms of your feet need to be seen to,” he said. “I don’t want them to suffer from any further contact with this rough stone.”
“My name is Ghutghutey Ondhokar,” he said, as he carried me through a small yard into which the moon shone dimly, and up a flight of steps. “May I know what your name is, Lady?”
I had got so used over the course of our travels to giving a false name at all times that one sprang automatically to my lips. “Nakishur Petni,” I said, and immediately regretted not giving this wonderful man my real name. But by then, of course, it was too late. I could not take it back without explaining all about Onek Mangsho and Opodartho, and all the sordid details of our flight from our village and our adventures since then.
“Nakishur Petni,” he repeated. “That’s a delightful name.” We had come into a large hall, lit by torches which burned in holders on the wall. Ghutghutey Ondhokar carried me to a reclining chair in one corner and put me down into it, so carefully that I felt not the slightest jolt. “Rest a moment, Lady Nakishur Petni, while I make arrangements to have you looked after.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I began to say, though half-heartedly. Ghutghutey Ondhokar had already turned away. Then I noticed that he was looking at someone else who had come into the room.
It was a young woman, with a dark triangular face and flashing, angry eyes. She glanced quickly at me and then at my saviour. “Who’s this?”
“This is the Lady Nakishur Petni,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar explained. “She was being chased by a pack of dire hyenas, and ran here looking for shelter.”
“And you had to drag her inside, of course?” The girl’s voice was as dry as the desert wind and as stinging as the sand that it blew. “Of course you had no other choice.”
“I had no other choice,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar told her. “In fact, I got her inside just in time.”
“Yes,” I put in. “I was very, very lucky.”
The girl looked at me and back at Ghutghutey Ondhokar. “We’ll see who’s lucky,” she said nastily. “It seems to me that there are far too many lucky people around here!” Turning, she flounced away, her shoes cracking hard enough on the floor to make everyone know how angry she was.
My wonderful saviour was obviously embarrassed at the behaviour. “Don’t mind her,” he said. “That’s my cousin, Roktochosha Charpoka. She’s just...got a temper. But it doesn’t matter, really.”
“And she’s in love with you,” I wanted to tell Ghutghutey Ondhokar, but was wise enough to hold my tongue. If it had been Opodartho, she...but I should not, I thought, be wasting time thinking of the absent strumpet. “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I said. But I knew the young woman was in love with him, and foresaw that there might be complications if I were to stay on here for a while.
“Let me make sure of that, Lady Nakishur Petni,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said. Going to a cupboard set into a wall, he began rummaging inside it. My ripped robe had, in the meantime, fallen open to expose parts of my anatomy that I wasn’t, as yet, ready to display, so I struggled up in the chair to pull the torn edges of cloth together. I had hardly managed to do so when my saviour returned to me, carrying an armful of little pots and bottles, along with wrappings and bandages of various kinds.
“Lie back and relax, my lady,” he said, and got to work on my feet, his gentle hands swabbing the dirt and crusted blood away. Soon a warm glow of contentment filled me, as he finished with my feet and began on my hands and elbows. I sighed with pleasure as the last of the pain drained away.
“That’s done,” he said presently. “Now I will have a slave girl take you to change your clothes, and then I expect you will be more than glad of something to eat and drink.”
At the mention of food and drink, my stomach and throat suddenly clenched with hunger. As I had said, ever since Onek Mangsho, Opodartho and I had fled the haunts of the Giggling Goblin of Golafata Gorjon, leaving almost all our possessions behind, we’d been hard pressed to find food. I had, therefore, not really eaten in several days. I would, in fact, have been more than happy to eat right away and leave the new clothes till later, but my torn robe meant that those parts of my anatomy I didn’t yet wish to reveal kept getting exposed.
So, when Ghutghutey Ondhokar’s slave girl appeared, I allowed her to conduct me down several passages to a room where several gowns of various fine stuffs were hanging from pegs in the wall. The girl – a poor creature indeed, plain and dumpy with a face only slightly less ugly than Opodartho’s – handed me one dress after another, and watched avidly as I tried them on.
“Oh,” she said, clapping her hands, as I put on a long, floor-trailing gown of pale blue, “this brings out your colour perfectly.”
I don’t know why, but I felt a sudden urge to spite the creature. “Well, I don’t like this one,” I said, taking it off. “I don’t care if it does bring out my colour. Hand me that maroon one in the corner.”
As I put on the maroon gown, which, true to tell, was shorter and much more convenient than the blue one, I saw that the slave girl looked rather unhappy. Though she was only a slave, I felt a moment of near-shame at my unnecessarily brusque tone. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Onyomonoshko, Lady Nakishur Petni,” she said.
“Well, Onyomonoshko, thanks very much for your help.” I hesitated momentarily and gave her my travelling robe. “Would you like this?”
The girl took it with every appearance of gratitude, and no wonder, because it was one of the best travelling robes one could get. “You’ll have to mend it,” I warned.
“I can do that,” she said, happily clutching it to her bosom. “I was to take you back to the others now.”
As I followed her through the corridors, for the first time I had the time and interest to take a look around my surroundings. The building, quite obviously, was very old, yet in excellent condition, and the hangings on the walls were richer than any I had seen since our sojourn in the palace of the Paranoid Prince of Pongopaler Porikkha, where we had that terrible adventure that still sends shivers down my spine whenever I think of it.
The slave girl Onyomonoshko conducted me to a small open terrace, overlooking the moonlit desert, where three people were sitting around a table in the light of several torches. One was, of course, Ghutghutey Ondhokar, and his handsome features were split by a broad smile as he saw me enter. The second was the young sharp-featured woman I’d seen before, Roktochosha Charpoka, and she glared at me as furiously as she had earlier. The third was an old lady, so old that her hair was partly grey and wrinkles had appeared at the corners of her eyes. I quite believe she might have seen as many as fifty summers.
“This is our guest, the lady Nakishur Petni who I told you about, Mother,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said, rising to welcome me. “Lady Nakishur Petni, this is my mother, Ojosro Obhishaap, who is the matriarch of this house and whose merest wish is our command. Roktochosha Charpoka you already know.”
“We’ve met,” said the angry-looking girl, and turned away with an audible sniff.
“Pay no attention to her, my dear,” the old lady said to me. “My, you are even more beautiful than my son had given me to understand. Sit down and allow Onyomonoshko to serve you food and drink. You must be famished.”
I must relate that I have no memory of what I ate and drank at that meal. My thirst and hunger were so extreme that it was only with the utmost difficulty that I preserved my gracious table manners and ladylike mien. Ghutghutey Ondhokar and his mother watched me as I ate, smiling at my evident need for the food and drink. Roktochosha Charpoka glared at the wall past my ear.
“Tell me, my dear,” Ojosro Obhishaap said finally, when I had finally sated my ravenous appetite to some extent. “Tell me how you came to be fleeing across the desert to our door, chased by hyenas, in the middle of the night.”
Now, of course, I am a quick thinker, so I had already prepared a story. “I was part of a group of travellers,” I began, “on the way from the city of Korkosh Kolorob to the oasis town of Shukno Kuo.” Fortunately, we had visited both these places during our travels, as I have described in the Episode of the Elegant Egotist of Elopatharey, and I could answer questions about them, if necessary. “I was the concubine of a great merchant lord named...” I hesitated. I had, actually, forgotten the name I’d thought of.
“Named...?” Ojosro Obhishaap prompted.
“Among our people,” I temporised, “it’s not considered polite for concubines to take their lords’ names. But it doesn’t matter, anyway. We were on a trading journey from cities on the far side of the western mountains, where, as you may know, the best cloth and tableware are to be found.” This was quite true, and they all nodded, except the girl Roktochosha Charpoka, who kept glaring past my ear. “Of course we were travelling in a caravan with other merchants, for protection.
“At first all went well. We had disposed of almost all our wares at Korkosh Kolorob, where he had turned a fair profit, and my lord had bought quantities of a metal for sale in Shukno Kuo.”
“Which metal was that?” Ojosro Obhishaap asked. “We have a great need of metal ourselves. If only we had known of your caravan, we would have asked you to sell it all to us.”
“I think it is called iron,” I said. “It’s heavy, dull stuff, anyway, not the sort of thing that appeals to me. But my lord said it would fetch a good price in the markets of Shukno Kuo.”
“Iron?” Ojosro Obhishaap’s eyes opened wide. “I really wish we had known of your caravan.”
“It would have been better for us if you had,” I told her. “We were planning to conclude our business at Shukno Kuo, and head back home with our profits. We had been on the trail for a very long time, and both mine and my lord’s hearts had grown weary with homesickness for our native land. But it was not to be.”
“Why ever not?” Ghutghutey Ondhokar asked. “What happened?”
“Three days out from Korkosh Kolorob,” I said, drawing from my memory of our trek from that misbegotten place, “as we passed the Broken Lands of Bhangaghor, we were set upon by bandits. Though we fought back bravely, and dispatched several, they were too strong for us. Most of those of us who weren’t killed were made captive and dragged away in chains, no doubt to be used as provisions when required.
“My lord and I were among a small group – no more than five in all – who managed to get away, leaving all our possessions behind. Since the bandits had gone in the direction of Korkosh Kolorob, we had no option but to keep travelling towards Shukno Kuo, though, of course, it was much further away. We had no water or food either, of course – nothing but the clothes we were wearing, and a few weapons, including a sword my lord had at his side.”
“Oh, you poor darling,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said sympathetically. I saw Roktochosha Charpoka dart him a venomous glare at the endearment. “No wonder you were looking starved and weak.”
“We travelled by night and tried to shelter during the heat of the day,” I said, warming to my tale. “Of course we suffered terribly from hunger and thirst, there being nothing to eat or drink in that desolate waste, except for a few thorny plants which my lord said were poisonous.
“In the end, it became clear that if we were to survive, we would have to kill and eat one of our number. Normally, of course, we would have used food slaves, but we had none. Nor did anyone say anything about drawing lots. But, just as we were about to set off on our nightly march, I noticed that Projapoti Shuopoka, the former leader of our caravan, was whispering with the other two in our little band. They huddled together, whispering, and over their shoulders kept looking in my lord’s direction, and mine.
“It was obvious that they were waiting only for an opportunity to fall on us. My lord, however, was distracted by his thirst and hunger, and by the pain of a wound he had suffered during the battle with the bandits, so he probably hadn’t realised the danger. I was trying to alert him without tipping off our companions, but I despaired of being able to do anything to save us. In his injured condition, my lord could not do much fighting, and as for me, I could not battle three murderous men alone.
“I’m certain that they would have set upon us in a moment or two more, but for something that fortuitously happened.”
“What?” Ghutghutey Ondhokar’s eyes were wide with wonder.
“From somewhere close by, we heard the sudden cough of a dire lion. I am sure you will all recognise how terrifying the noise was, there in the gathering darkness, with no protection from the beast’s slavering jaws.
“Projapoti Shuopoka and his henchmen were terrified. They quickly broke up their little conspiratorial huddle and came to us, glancing around nervously.
“ ‘Eh, friends,’ he said, his oily face streaming with sweat, ‘it’s best we keep our weapons ready and move on as quickly as we can, no?’
“We agreed, and as quickly as we could, we moved away from that place. But the dire lion kept roaring and coughing at irregular intervals, and we could not tell if it was following us. So our three enemies did not dare to attack us, but of course they would as soon as they believed themselves safe.”
I took a moment to marvel at my own inventiveness, and wished again that the strumpet Opodartho could have been there. How many times had the silly trollop accused me of being dull and unimaginative! If only she could have listened to me now!
“It was a very dark night, fortunately,” I continued, “so dark that it was difficult to even see my hand before my face. My lord held my other hand in his, and I suddenly felt him tugging at it insistently. He was moving away to one side, and warning me to follow.”
I paused to sip a little water from a goblet, both to wet my throat and to give me a chance to make up more of my tale. “We were lucky that the dire lion chose that moment to roar repeatedly, and so loudly that the noise covered up the sound of our footsteps. It also panicked Projapoti Shuopoka and his friends into running. We could hear their hoarse cries of fear. By the time the lion had fallen silent, we had moved away far enough that they would not find us again.
“ ‘My lord,’ I said, when we had stopped a moment to catch our breaths, ‘it was fortuitous indeed that the dire lion chose that moment to begin roaring and saved us, or we should have been dead by now and eaten.’
“My lord laughed shortly. ‘There’s nothing to be happy about it,’ he said. ‘We’re still in the middle of nowhere without food or water, though we are at least free of those treacherous vermin. Did you really imagine I hadn’t noticed that they were conspiring against us?’
“ ‘So what should we do now?’ I asked.
“ ‘I can’t last much longer at this rate,’ he said. ‘My wound is hurting me sorely. We will move on till morning, and search for shelter where I can stay for a while. Tomorrow night, you will go on alone, and see if you can find help. At the least you may be able to save yourself.’
“I would have wept many bitter tears at this, for I did have great regard for my lord. But I could not spare the moisture. ‘I will find help, and I will return for you, lord,’ I said.
“ ‘It does not matter if you don’t,’ he said, ‘for I doubt that I will live till you return. But let’s keep going, and we shall see what we shall see.’
“So all night we moved on, and by great good fortune, shortly before dawn, we came across something that must have once been a hut of some kind, made of earth and stone. It had mostly crumbled away, but enough was left to provide shelter enough for us to spend the day and recover our energies as best we could. But my lord was too weak to go on further, and most reluctantly I had to leave him there, promising to return with help as soon as I found any. I left him the sword, as defence in case the dire lion returned, or some other menace threatened. I could have done nothing more.”
I paused again, and drained the last of the water from the goblet. “There isn’t much more to tell. I had walked as far as I could, till the dawn of the day, and carried on again in the evening. I had just about given up hope of finding anyone when I became aware that I was being shadowed by dire hyenas, and knew that it was only a matter of time before they attacked me. I was preparing myself to die when I saw this place in the distance, and ran as fast as I could for succour within your gates.”
There was a long pause, and then Ojosro Obhishaap reached out and put her hand on mine. “My dear,” she said, “you’ve been through a lot of suffering. You should go and rest now, and recover your strength. After that, we shall decide what to do.”
“I’ll show her to her room,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said, jumping up and taking up a candle from the table. “She needs sleep. Come, Lady Nakishur Petni.”
I followed him down a passage on the other side of the terrace, through several sumptuous halls with rich hangings on the wall and a floor so smooth and polished it felt as though I were walking on frozen water. Involuntarily, I yawned. I had not slept in a long time.
“I see you need rest.” Ghutghutey Ondhokar smiled at me, but his wonderful eyes were still filled with dark concern. “Tomorrow, we can think about putting together a search and rescue party for your lord. But, frankly, from what you tell me, I doubt sorely that we will find anything of him but bones.”
It was no part of my plan to involve myself in any search party, of course, but I resolved to put back that problem away for the moment. “What is this place?” I asked. “I was amazed at coming across it in the middle of this desolation.”
“You are in Hotath Hortal,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar replied, leading me up a flight of stairs. “Once it used to be a fortress, meant to guard the trade routes against bandits like those who attacked your party.” He looked over his shoulder and grinned. “But if they hadn’t attacked you, I would not have had the pleasure of your company, so I’m grateful to them.”
My heart skipped a beat at the grin. “It’s huge,” I said.
“Yes, but it used to be much larger. Most of it has vanished over the centuries. Only this palace is left, and the remnants of a village in that direction.” He gestured. “The village used to house soldiers back when this was a fort, but of course there are none and it’s all just ruins.”
“And your family has lived in it always?”
“Not from the beginning, but certainly for longer than any of us can remember. One of Ojosro Obhishaap’s ancestors was the last military commander of the fort, and he stayed on with his family when the soldiers left Hotath Hortal.” We had reached a long corridor, lined with doors. “Of course it’s a bit too large for us now, but perhaps in future – if things go well – it could be full again.”
“That would be nice,” I said. “From far away, I thought I heard music and laughter, and imagined it to be full of merry people.”
“Did you? It must have been a product of your imagination, brought on by exhaustion. Well, here we are.” Ghutghutey Ondhokar showed me into a room so luxurious that for a moment it took my breath away. In the course of our long and arduous travels, I had probably lain on larger and softer beds, felt thicker carpet underfoot, and run my fingers through heavier wall draperies – but not all at once, in one place, and not in the recent months of hardship and turmoil.
“It’s only a small and poor room, not fit for a lady such as yourself,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said. “But I hope it will suffice for the night. Perhaps, later, we can make other and more appropriate arrangements.”
“It will do wonderfully,” I said, passing my hand reverently over the coverlet on the bed. It was on the tip of my tongue to invite him to share it with me, but I fought the temptation down for the present. Such behaviour would have been fitting for a wanton like Opodartho, not for me. Besides, I was tired. “It will do very nicely, thank you.”
“If you need anything,” he said, indicating a bell that hung above the bed, its clapper attached to a cord, “just ring it and the girl Onyomonoshko will come to attend to you.”
“Thank you, Ghutghutey Ondhokar,” I said. “I’m very grateful to you and your mother for your help.”
“No need to thank us,” he said, laughing and putting the candle down on a stool. “Sleep well, Nakishur Petni, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
When he’d left, I looked around the room. Apart from the bed and a large chest beside the far wall, covered by a heavy embroidered cloth, it had a rack for clothes. Taking off my new maroon dress, I hung it on the rack and slipped into the bed. I anticipated that I would be asleep in seconds.
I could not have been more wrong.
Hardly had my head touched the pillow – which was blissfully soft, as though made of air – that the door swung open, and someone strode in. “Listen here, you!”
My eyes flew open. In the guttering light of the candle I recognised the intruder. “What do you want, Roktochosha Charpoka?”
The young woman’s face was filled with hatred and fury. “I want you out of here, that’s what.”
I sat up in the bed, allowing the sheet to fall away enough to display my naked anatomy; it was certainly far superior to Roktochosha Charpoka’s, as far as I could judge under the green dress she was wearing. “Isn’t that up to Ojosro Obhishaap?” I asked. “Isn’t she the one in charge? Or are you telling me different?”
“I’m not interested in what you think,” she snapped. “If you know what’s good for you, whoever you are, you’ll get out of here tonight, and never even look back at Hotath Hortal again.”
“Or else you’ll be responsible for whatever happens to you.” She wagged a finger in my face. “Don’t imagine that you’ll be able to get away with whatever you’re planning in that ugly head of yours.”
“I’m not planning anything,” I protested. “I already told you, I was travelling with my lord when we were attacked by bandits and...”
“Yes, I heard all that claptrap. I don’t believe a word of it, not that it matters. I’m just telling you to get out of here if you know what’s good for you.”
“I’ll think about your advice,” I said sweetly, though livid at her for speaking so crudely of my lion story. “In the meantime, I need a little sleep. To become nice and pretty, you know, like you.”
With a furious snort, Roktochosha Charpoka stormed out of the room, leaving the door ajar. I stayed sitting up in bed, considering the situation. I’d known that I would have problems with her sooner or later, but hadn’t imagined that she’d make a move so soon. Obviously, she was afraid of the effect my beauty and sophistication would have on Ghutghutey Ondhokar.
I began to wish that I’d had at least my beloved long knife with me. If Roktochosha Charpoka had half as much courage as she had bad temper, she might decide to do away with me during the night. It would be easy for her to kill me as I slept. Then she could carry my corpse to one of the several open terraces we had passed on the way up here, and throw me down to the desert. The dire hyena pack, if it were still around, would finish me off swiftly. By morning there would be nothing left, not even a splinter of bone.
There might be suspicion pointing to Roktochosha Charpoka, but there would be nothing more, no proof of any sort. Nobody could do a thing to her, even if they were inclined to.
I slipped out of the bed to lock the door. However, there seemed to be no way to do so, not even a latch. I thought for a moment, and decided the only safe option would be to drag the chest across the door and leave it there. Since the door opened inwards, it should at least provide enough obstruction to make noise enough to wake me up if she attempted to enter.
Then I discovered a further problem. The chest was far too heavy for me to drag!
I could not budge it at all, not even the span of a fingernail. There was nothing for it but to empty the chest of whatever it contained and then hope it was light enough to drag across the door. Pulling off the embroidered cloth, I found that the lid had no knobs or handles. Somehow, wedging the tips of my fingernails into the crack between the body and the top of the chest, I managed to lever the lid up. Picking up the candle, I peered inside to see what was so heavy.
There was nothing inside. The candle’s guttering light illuminated only the bare wooden sides of the chest. Frowning, I leaned forward, holding the candle lower.
There was no bottom to the chest. The sides were fixed to the floor, and where the bottom should have been was only an oblong of pure darkness.
Now, as I have said many times before, I am not a peasant like Opodartho. I have had a good upbringing, and I know not to prod and pry into things that aren’t my business. But I know that at times one has to set aside one’s breeding and upbringing in the interests of survival. This was one of those times.
Bending as far forward as I could into the hole, I held the candle at full stretch. All it showed, at first, was smooth stone walls vanishing downwards. But then the flickering light illuminated metal to one side, and I realised that there were rungs leading down into the darkness.
Obviously, I was in much greater danger than I’d anticipated. Even if I could have somehow locked the door, Roktochosha Charpoka could easily climb up the rungs, open the lid of the chest, and murder me in bed. Even if I stayed up, without a weapon I could not do much, except perhaps ring the bell. All that might do was summon the slave girl Onyomonoshko, and I had no illusions about what she might achieve to help me, even if she dared to go against Roktochosha Charpoka.
One of the many things I had learned during the course of our travels is that, if an encounter with danger is inevitable, it is always better to go seeking it rather than have it come to one. That way, one has the initiative, and usually the element of surprise on one’s side. Therefore, pausing only to pull on the maroon gown, I hurriedly climbed into the chest and began descending the rungs. My descent was awkward, since I was one-handed, carrying the candle in the other, but fortunately the shaft was so narrow that I could brace my back on the other side. Soon I felt smooth cold stone under my feet and found I was in another passage, narrow and low-roofed so that I had to bend my head a little in order not to knock it against the ceiling.
Hurrying along this passage, I soon came to a larger corridor. I didn’t want to enter it, because if Roktochosha Charpoka happened to appear suddenly, she could not help but see me.
But the longer I waited, the greater my danger grew. If she didn’t come along this passage, she would come into my room through the door, and, seeing the open chest, realise immediately where I was. So, reluctantly, I began walking down the corridor, stepping on my toes and ready to run at the slightest hint of danger.
I had gone far enough for my candle to have melted down to a stub when I heard the music.
Now, I had been assured by Ghutghutey Ondhokar that the music I had thought I’d heard out in the desert was merely my imagination. But this was no imagination. I stopped and pressed my hands to my ears, and the music faded. I removed my hands, and I could hear it again, a high reedy noise like a flute, and below it, a low thrumming like a slow, great drum.
A chill ran up my spine. Ghutghutey Ondhokar had lied to me. There could have been no reason for him to lie about the music. And on the tail of that thought, I remembered something else. It was Ghutghutey Obndhokar who had put me in that room, which had a secret entrance and no lock on the door.
Why? What was going on?
The music was getting louder and clearer, as though it was just on the other side of the wall, and I could feel a faint vibration in the stone with my hand, in tune with the drumming. It was as if the entire gigantic building was thrumming to a slow, gigantic heartbeat.
It was at that moment that my candle, burnt to a stump, finally flickered and went out.
For an instant my heart seemed to freeze – and then I realised that I could still see. From somewhere further up the corridor, a faint light was showing.
If there is one thing I remember more than anything else of this entire adventure, it is the next few moments as I edged cautiously down the corridor, my back pressed against the wall, in the direction of the light, the music echoing around me while the stone walls and floor thrummed to the beat of that drum. I am only being honest when I say that my mouth was dry with fear, and that I could feel my heart beating so fast that I felt it would almost leap out of my chest.
The light was coming from a round window in the wall of the passage, through which the music was also coming. I edged slowly towards it, ready to turn tail at the slightest provocation, but I was lucky. Nobody was there to notice as I crept up to the window, and nobody heard me when I peeked through it and gasped in shock.
The window opened high on the wall of a large, circular room, which was lit by torches burning in tall holders set on the floor. Incense was burning, too, filling the air with bluish smoke and a strange acrid odour. In the centre of the room, on a raised dais, stood a figure in a cloak, a hood drawn down over its face. In its hands was a flute, the thin, reedy notes flying up towards the ceiling. On the floor before it was a huge drum, so large that there were two people, one on each side, beating on it. I could not make out the person on the far side, but on the near side, despite the eddying incense, I could see the face clearly enough.
It was Ghutghutey Ondhokar. It was the same man who had denied that there was any music, the man who had put me in the room with the secret entrance, the man who had saved me from the dire hyenas in the desert.
And there, around the walls of the room, were shadows that seemed alive. I couldn’t make them out clearly – they seemed to grow and shrink, and just as I’d thought I could make one out, it would fade away or move and it would change its appearance. Each time Ghutghutey Ondhokar and his unseen companion struck the drum, the shadows danced and jumped.
I don’t know how long I stood there watching, but all of a sudden I realised my danger. I was still unarmed and alone, lost in the middle of a building in which a homicidal young woman might seek to attack me at any moment. I had to find some way out of here as quickly as I could.
How, in that moment, I cursed Opodartho, for making me fight with her! How I cursed that slatternly, shameless, scheming tart, for if she had not provoked me beyond tolerance, I would still be safe by the fire with Onek Mangsho. But cursing would achieve nothing.
I have said that the air in the room below was thick with incense smoke; and while I had been watching it had grown even denser, so thick and acrid indeed that even up above in the passage I was finding it difficult to breathe. The same conclusion seemed to have been reached by the people below, because abruptly the flute fell silent, with the drum following a few moments later. The silence was so sudden that I felt as if someone had stuffed pieces of cloth in my ears.
For an instant I was relieved; the unnerving noise of the drum had subsided, and only then did I realise how badly I had been affected by it. But then I realised something else: if the people below were no longer engrossed in their music, they would be free to leave the room, and they might well come looking for me.
It was this realisation that finally galvanised me into action. Though, without my candle, the passage was completely dark, I rushed along as quickly as I could, brushing my fingertips on the wall to orient myself, and rubbing my feet along the floor at each step so as not to be taken by surprise if I encountered a staircase. I followed the passage round two or three turns before my toes felt the floor fall away. There was a staircase at my feet, going down.
But I didn’t descend those stairs, because just as I had negotiated the first few steps, I saw the wavering glow of a torch, coming up.
Seldom have I thought as quickly as I did in that moment. Fleeing back down the corridor was pointless – it would merely take me back to the room with the open door. Nor was there any niche or side passage I could see that might provide shelter. And in another moment, the bearer of the torch would come round the bend of the stairs, and see me.
There was only one option, and I took it. Running on tiptoe back down the passage, I found the window again. One glance was enough to show me, though the air was nearly opaque with incense, that the room below was empty.
It was only the work of a moment to hoist myself on to the windowsill, squeeze through, and drop into the room. I had no time to think, or I may have hesitated too long. I landed on a slightly yielding surface – which later turned out to be a rolled-up carpet – and threw myself against the base of the wall directly below the window. If anyone looked through it, that was the place I was least likely to be seen.
I was not a moment too soon. As I lay against the wall, desperately trying to control my panting breath, a torch was thrust through the window above me. The room’s circular wall was dark, as was my gown; if I had worn the pale blue dress I had been offered I’d have been seen at once. The torch, held at the full extension of an arm, waved around a couple of times and then withdrew. Cautiously, I raised my head. There was no light visible through the window.
I had got away for the moment, but – as I knew when I looked at the huge drum and the dais, on which the flute still lay – I still had to escape by whatever means I could.
It was easier said than done. At first, groping my way through the choking incense, I couldn’t find the door at all. It was only by running my fingers over the wall as I walked around the room that I finally found its edges. It was fitted so closely into the wall that I couldn’t have possibly recognised it otherwise.
It was with some difficulty that I pushed it open. For one thing, it was remarkably heavy and unwieldy. For another, I was afraid that somebody might be on the other side, see the door moving, and come to investigate, so I paused after every little push to listen for noises. At last I managed to push it open enough to squeeze through. On the other side was yet another passage, though this one was lit by torches, which stretched away on either side. At random, I turned to the left. After only a little distance, I came to a bend, and turning it, I literally bumped into Roktochosha Charpoka.
It was impossible to tell which of us was more surprised. For a moment we stood, staring at each other. Her face moved and writhed with emotion.
“You!” she snapped at last. “I told you to get out. What are you doing down here?”
I saw no point in trying to reply to her question. Using both my hands, I pushed her in the chest, so hard that she was thrown backwards, and even before she hit the ground I had already turned and was running hard the other way.
I didn’t run far, though. Turning the corner, I collided heavily with someone, and found myself being held in a pair of muscular arms.
“Why, Nakishur Petni!” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said, gripping my shoulders to stop me from falling. “Whatever are you doing running around in the middle of the night, here?”
I struggled, unsuccessfully, to break free. “Let me go!”
“Calm down, calm down,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said soothingly. “What’s wrong?”
“Let go of her,” Roktochosha Charpoka said. I heard the scrape of her shoes on the stone as she came up behind me. “Let go of the little chit and let me at her. She just tried to kill me.”
“I never did,” I said indignantly. “I was just defending myself.”
“Calm down,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said soothingly. “Please calm down, Lady Nakishur Petni. Let’s just go and sit down a moment, shall we, and you can tell me what happened.”
“She’ll lie through her teeth,” Roktochosha Charpoka said. “Just wait and see.”
“You stay out of this!” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said, and I heard real anger in his voice. “Now, Lady Nakishur Petni, come along with me and we’ll talk over what happened.” He drew me along down the passage, past the door of the round room, and to a small chamber with a few chairs. Gently pushing me into one, he sat down opposite me. “Now tell me what happened, Lady. Why are you wandering around the passages when you should be asleep?”
“I, um,” I said, “could not sleep. I heard music – loud music – and I was walking around trying to find out where it came from. After all,” I said accusingly, “you told me there was no music here.”
“Yes, well, about that,” he said, blushing a little. “I’m afraid I might have fibbed a little. You see, Lady, we have private religious ceremonies here – to gods who are unknown to those who live elsewhere. We don’t worship the Cannibal Spirit, you see. And tonight is the day of our monthly religious festival, when we pray and play music all night long.”
“And you didn’t want me disturbed by your ceremonies?” I asked. “That’s why you didn’t tell me about them?”
“That’s right. You must have exceptionally keen ears, though; I never thought you’d be able to hear the music in the room I gave you.”
I smiled at him. “That’s all right. If you’d just told me, I should never have dreamt of questioning your religious practices.”
“Good,” he said, smiling back. “Then you won’t question them now, either.”
Before I could ask him what he meant, strong hands grabbed me from behind. Thick ropes were pulled over my arms and legs, across my body and over my throat. My vision began to go grey and flicker, as I desperately struggled for breath.
“Don’t strangle her!” from a very long way away, I heard Ghutghutey Ondhokar shouting. “She’s got to be kept alive for the...” His voice faded to silence as my vision faded to black.
I felt a hand slapping my face, lightly and repeatedly. “Wake up,” a voice said. “Up!”
I blinked open my eyes. I was in the round room, sitting in a chair. I could tell that I was tied securely to it – I could not move my arms and legs at all.
“You’re awake,” Ghutghutey Ondhokar said, and lowered his hand, which he’d raised for another slap. “Good.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. My throat hurt to speak. “Why have you done this to me?”
“You’ll find out,” Ghutghute Ondhokar said. He stepped away, walking over to the drum, and tapped it a couple of times, experimentally. “You said you were wondering about the music? Well, you can listen to it as much as you want, now.”
I opened my mouth to say something – what, I had no idea – when someone else walked into my field of vision, and glanced at me casually. “So you got her?”
“Yes, Mother,” Ghutghute Ondhokar said. “She says she heard the drum and was wandering round the corridors to see what it was. Of course, that doesn’t explain why I found the chest lying open when I went up just now.”
“Ah.” Ojosro Obhishaap smiled at me, the smile without the slightest trace of either humour or good feeling. “You see, my dear, you should have just stayed in your room. Not,” she added thoughtfully, “that it would have done you any good, of course.”
“That’s right,” Ghutghute Ondhokar said. “Your presence is...required here. The festival demands it.”
“The festival?” The words were barely out of my mouth when I remembered the cloaked and hooded figure I had seen earlier, playing the flute. “What fest...”
“Shh.” Ojosro Obhishaap went over to her son and they took their places by the drum. The thrumming began again, now so close that it jarred the air in my nostrils and filled my head with sound. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to get myself under control.
When I opened my eyes, the hooded figure was standing on the dais. Through the eddying incense in the air, I could see the flute raised, and the high notes of the instrument joined the thrumming of the drum in a cacophony which threatened to unseat my reason.
Unless there was someone in this palace I hadn’t met, I knew who it had to be, of course: Roktochosha Charpoka. She must have decided that, not being able to scare me away, or kill me in my bed, she would make use of me in her religious rites. I had no illusions of what that use might be.
Then the figure in the hood stepped off the dais and walked over to me. And as it came, things began changing and wavering in the room. The shadows seemed to suddenly grow, immensely tall and monstrous, and hung over me on all sides, like crouching predators. The hooded figure, too, blurred and twitched and grew to monstrous proportions, so that it seemed to fill the room. As though at a very great distance above me, I saw the hooded head bend forward, still playing the flute, though with one hand only. In the other hand, I saw with dull acceptance, was a big knife.
I had no desire to move, no wish to struggle to try to save my life. All I could do was watch the knife come down, slowly, and move in the air around my face. The flat of the blade ran down my cheek, round the curve of my chin, and caressed my neck. Another instant and, I was sure, I would feel it slice into my skin. And I wished at that moment that I could have at least said goodbye to Opodartho. Stupid slattern she might have been, but I didn’t want to die with a quarrel still hanging in the air between us.
But I didn’t die. The knife, instead of slicing into my throat, continued up my other cheek, and then withdrew. As though from the bottom of a well, I watched the immense, hooded shadow turn and walk away, still playing the flute.
Somehow, through the inertia gripping me, I knew that this was only the start. Roktochosha Charpoka would be back, and next time the knife would begin cutting. She would probably take her time, drag it out as long as she could – and there was nothing I could do at all.
Ghutghtey Ondhokar and Ojosro Obhishaap were pounding the drum furiously now, the sound merging into a continuous rumble that filled me from the top of my head down to the soles of my feet, and the shadows had flowed up to the ceiling and seemed about to come down on my head. I could barely even think any longer, and merely watched the hooded figure on the dais, its back to me, play the flute with one hand and hold the knife aloft with the other.
A hand came quietly down on my mouth, clamping down on my lips. “Don’t make a sound,” a voice said, very quietly, in my ear. There was a brief flash of pain at my wrists and the ropes around them parted. I felt movement around my feet, and the ropes around my ankles fell away, too.
“Come,” the voice murmured very quietly in my ear. By now I could barely understand what I was seeing, as the shadows leaped and cavorted like live things, and the two at the drums merged with the figure on the dais in one mad whirl. I barely felt myself being pulled to my feet and drawn away, towards the door.
In the passage outside, my mind began to revive, and I realised that I had probably been drugged, to make me docile and unresponsive. I remembered that I had also seen the shadows leaping and dancing in the upper passage when I had been looking down through the window. It must have been something in the incense smoke.
I would have said something about this, but I was being dragged along by my arm so quickly it was all I could do not to stumble and fall flat on my face. I only caught a glimpse of my rescuer, a dark swirling cloak enveloping his or her entire form.
A few moments later I found myself in a place I recognised. It was the terrace where Ojosro Obhishaap and Ghutghutey Ondhokar had given me supper earlier. I turned to my rescuer, who had slowed to a fast walk. “Thank you for saving me,” I said.
“Thank me later,” said a voice I had thought never to hear again. My rescuer turned to me and grinned without humour, drawing the cloak away from her face. “Your hosts will be after us in a moment, Chheechkaduni.”
“Opodartho,” I said stupidly. “What – where did you come from?”
“Later,” she snapped. “We have no time now.” I saw that a rope had been tied to the railing of the terrace, and she pushed me towards it. “Climb down, quick!”
“The hyenas...” I said, remembering.
“Forget the hyenas. Go!”
Without further ado, I began climbing down the rope. Fortunately, the fresh air had driven the fog from my mind, or I would assuredly have fallen. The rope was thick and knotted at intervals, which gave purchase for my hands and feet, but even so I was shaking with effort and streaming with sweat when I finally reached the ground. Above, I saw Opodartho descending hand over hand, much more quickly than I had.
“Chheechkaduni,” another familiar voice said from behind me, but I was prepared for it this time. “I’m so glad we got you out of there.”
“I’m so glad to be out of there too, Lord,” I said to Onek Mangsho. “However did you come here?”
“We’ll talk about that later,” he said. “We still have to get out of this hellhole.”
I realised that we weren’t out in the desert yet; we were standing in the yard within the outer walls of Hotath Hortal. “How do we get out?”
“This young lady will help us,” Onek Mangsho said, gesturing. Only then did I notice another figure standing behind him. Her clothes had merged so completely with the shadows that if I hadn’t been shown where to look I never would have seen her.
“Who’s that?” Before the words were fully out of my mouth, the woman stepped forward and the wisp of moon illuminated her face. “What – you?”
“That’s what I normally say to you, isn’t it?” Roktochosha Charpoka looked me up and down. “You’re lucky, Nakishur...what’s your real name again? Oh, yes, Chheechkaduni. They don’t seem to have started cutting you up yet, or you’d be in ribbons by now.”
“They?” I was flabbergasted. “Aren’t – weren’t you the one in the hood, inside there?”
“If I were,” Roktochosha Charpoka snorted, “do you suppose I’d have tried to warn you to get out, over and over, as I did? Are you really that stupid?”
I was about to think of a stinging retort when Opodartho broke in. “We have to get away as fast as possible,” she said. “There’s no time to waste arguing.”
“Yes, come on.” Roktochosha Charpoka led us round a corner and to a small building, little more than a tiny hut, which stood next to the wall. “They’ll be looking for you by now,” she said to me, as she pushed open the door. “I suppose they’ll be keeping an eye on the front gate, which is .why I’m not letting you out that way.”
“But why are you helping me?” I asked, watching her light two tiny candles which she took out of a pocket of her gown. “Shouldn’t you be on their side?”
“I have my reasons,” she snapped, as she led us inside and down a flight of steps. “This place will be mine by rights, and I’m damned if I’ll let her take it from me.”
“Who, Ojosro Obhishaap? But doesn’t she have it already?”
“You don’t have a clue, do you?” The steps ended at what seemed to be a blank wall. Handing one of the candles to Onek Mangsho, Roktochosha Charpoka bent and pressed a point near the floor. With a low grating noise, the wall began to rise. “There,” she said, pointing to a flight of stairs rising on the other side. “This is as far as I go. I’ll nip back now, and take up and hide that rope before they see it. Goodbye, and never come back here again.”
With another grating noise, the wall slid down, and left us standing on the other side.
“Let’s get out of here,” Onek Mangsho said. “We have only a little time before daylight, and I want to be as far away from here as possible before then.”
“Yes,” Opodartho said. “It’s not a place I ever want to see again.” She paused. “Wait.” Rummaging in the bag at her shoulder, she extracted two objects which she threw on the floor at my feet. “Here.”
With astonishment, I recognised my shoes, which I had lost during my panic flight across the desert. As I pulled them on, Opodartho also produced my long knife. “We had to travel light, following you,” she said. “We’re going to have to get back to the camp and retrieve the rest of our things, but I thought you’d be glad of this.”
With my beloved long knife tucked into the belt of the gown, I felt, at last, complete. I couldn’t believe how I had survived the night without it, and resolved that I would never let myself be more than arm’s length from it again.
“Let’s go,” Onek Mangsho repeated, impatiently.
We walked up the stairs and along a short passage, which ended in a room with a rough mud floor and an open door on the far side. It was a hut, I realised, and, looking through the door, I saw several more, most of them crumbling to ruins.
“Ghutghutey Ondhokar – the man in there – told me that there was a village behind the palace,” I said. “This must have been the garrison’s barracks, once upon a time.”
“We came from the other side, following you across the desert,” Onek Mangsho told me, as we made our way through the ruins. It was a much larger place than I’d imagined, as complex as the Maze of Golokdhadha. “After you left we soon grew worried about you, especially when we heard the sounds of a pack of dire hyenas. But even then we wouldn’t have found you but for the good luck of coming across your shoes, first one and then the other, which showed us in which direction you must have gone. And then we just followed the noise of the hyena pack till we saw that building away in the distance. The hyenas were still hanging around, so we had to wait a long time till they lost interest and left. Afterwards we were approaching the gate when that young woman saw us from the terrace and came down to let us in.”
“She seemed to have been expecting someone to come after you,” Opodartho said maliciously. “She said you’d been telling a transparently false story and were obviously not the sort who could survive any time at all on your own.”
Onek Mangsho threw her a reproving glance. “She also said you were in grave danger, about to be sacrificed to whatever deity they worship in there. She said it had been a long time since they’d got a sacrifice for the ritual, so they’d make you last as long as they could. The only way to save you, she told us, was to sneak you out of there. Opodartho is the one of us who’s most expert in these things, and she followed the instructions Roktochosha Charpoka gave her, to find you.”
“I still wonder who she –“ Before I could say anything more, Onek Mangsho suddenly stopped, raising a hand.
“Do you hear that?” he said, quickly blowing out the candle.
“What?” I hadn’t heard anything, and when I looked at Opodartho, she, too, was shaking her head. “What is it, Lord?”
“Somebody’s following us,” he said. “I should have put out this candle before we left that hut. Stupid of me to have forgotten.”
I strained my ears, but couldn’t make out anything out of the ordinary; but then my head was still faintly ringing with the noise of that drum and the flute. Opodartho, however, was looking back over her shoulder, with a frown on her face. “I heard something,” she said.
“Come on,” Onek Mangsho murmured quietly. “Move fast, and stay close to the walls.”
Suddenly it occurred to me that the hyenas might have returned. Three of us were better than one, but even three wouldn’t be a match for a pack of dire hyenas. A thrill of terror shot up my spine, and my feet began hurrying of their own accord. I kept looking over my shoulder for the first glimpse of an onrushing snout, fangs bared to kill.
And then, with a sudden shock, I realised that I had separated from the others. At some point, we’d turned in different directions. I had no idea where they were. All I could see around me were the broken huts, their tops silhouetted against the sky.
And then Ojosro Obhishaap and Ghutghutey Ondhokar stepped out of the shadows on either side of me.
“Why, Lady Nakishur Petni,” the woman said. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous outside in the desert at night?” She was swinging a hatchet in one hand as she spoke, emphasising every word. “Anything could happen to you when you’re out alone like this.”
I realised that they didn’t know about Onek Mangsho and Opodartho, but it was little comfort. They could kill me long before my companions could launch a rescue attempt. I remained silent.
“Besides, it’s rude to leave without saying goodbye,” her son added. He had a large knife, which he held, as though be accident, at my side. “We were devastated to see that you’d left us and gone.”
“Yes, we’re very fond of you, Nakishur Petni, my dear.” Ojosro Obhishaap raised the hatchet a little. “Now let’s go back to Hotath Hortal, and resume the interrupted festivities.”
“I’m not going back,” I said, wishing I could reach for my long knife, but they’d have gutted me before I’d got it out of my belt. “Not for anything.”
“Oh, but we insist,” Ghutghutey Ondohokar informed me. “We’re compulsively hospitable, you know.”
At that moment, the air around us reverberated with a noise that nobody could mistake for an instant. Somewhere, very close to us, a dire lion was roaring.
It struck my two antagonists like a physical blow. They jumped away from me, raising their weapons. Another roar split the air, even closer. It was too much for them. With wild yells of terror, they sprinted away into the darkness.
Not that I was in any better position than they. The lion was as likely to attack me as them, and I couldn’t even escape back to Hotath Hortal for safety. With no other option, I began running in the opposite direction, as fast as I could.
And then I came face to face with a figure in a cloak and hood, a raised knife in its hand...
Exhaustion had blunted my reflexes, and that was what saved me. The hooded figure lunged forward, the knife coming down. If I’d reacted as I normally would have, I’d have ducked instinctively right into the path of the descending blade. Instead, it merely slashed my gown down the front, and my attacker stumbled, unable to right herself.
That was all I needed. My beloved long knife virtually jumped into my hand by itself, and rose and fell, rose and fell again.
Opodartho and Onek Mangsho came up to me as I stood panting over the hooded corpse. “What’s this?”
“She attacked me,” I told them. “She’s the one from inside there, the one who was going to cut me up. I thought she was Roktochosha Charpoka, but –“
“Doesn’t this robe look familiar?” Opodartho prodded the corpse with her foot. “Look –“
I looked at the robe. Even before I bent to pull back the hood from the face, I knew who I would see.
In the first faint light of dawn, the girl Onyomonoshko’s face stared up at me.
“So that was what Roktochosha Charpoka meant,” I said.
It was evening, and we had managed to find our way back to the camp site. I had thrown away the ripped maroon gown, which in any case was totally unsuited to travel, and had put on one of my other travelling robes. After a brief rest and a small meal, we were all feeling much better.
“What are you talking about?” Opodartho inquired.
“Roktochosha Charpoka said she wouldn’t let ‘her’ take the place from her,” I explained. “She meant this girl Onyomonoshko, who must have established a hold over Ojosro Obhishaap and Ghutghutey Ondhokar, and was planning to usurp Roktochosha Charpoka’s place. And that’s why Roktochosha Charpoka wanted to save me from them – to sabotage Onyomonoshko’s festival sacrifice of me, which would have further increased her hold over the old woman and her son.”
“Um,” Opodartho said. “I caught a glimpse of him while I was rescuing you. He’s very good-looking, isn’t he? Did you fall for him?”
“Of course not,” I said indignantly. “I never would have fallen for a treacherous killer like him.”
Opodartho merely grinned wickedly, and I saw her exchange glances with Onek Mangsho. I decided to change the subject.
“Lord,” I said, “wasn’t it very fortuitous that the dire lion roared just then, in time to chase the two of them away? Did you see the lion anywhere?”
Onek Mangsho stared at me. “Chheechkaduni,” he said, “there was no dire lion.”
“Of course there was,” I insisted. “I heard it roar. Ojosro Obhishaap and Ghutghutey Ondhokar heard it too, and ran for their lives.”
“Oh, you mean this lion?” Onek Mangsho said. He cupped his hand over his mouth and the air around us trembled to a terrific roar. “Chheechkaduni,” he said, “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten that I learned how to roar like a lion from the Hirsute Hermit of Hokchokiye. I’ve practiced it often enough in your presence.”
“So that’s where I got the idea from,” I muttered, looking down at my feet. “It wasn’t an original bit of imagination, then.”
“What are you talking about, Chheechkaduni?” Onek Mangsho inquired.
“Nothing,” I said, blushing suddenly and unaccountably. “Nothing at all.”
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My dear Bhishon Boka
Dear son, I must commend you for your efforts in securing this manuscript. I am convinced that it is, indeed, a portion of the writings of the ancient witch Cheechkaduni, on whose head no amount of curses will ever suffice. Although these pages do not give any indication of any treasure – quite the reverse, in fact, because it seems to imply that the harridan and her partners in crime lost most of what they had – it does confirm that they were both resourceful and highly capable adventurers. It is, therefore, more than likely that they re-created a fortune, and that it must be still hidden somewhere.
From what I read in the parchments, I am also convinced that there must be a lot more of the writings of the accursed trollop to be discovered. I therefore commend you to be as diligent in your search as you are discreet, and to leave no stone unturned in your hunt.
I also strongly agree with your suspicions regarding your cousin Hotobhaga Gordhob. Though he is, of course, my nephew and as such I have a moral duty towards him, it is undeniable that his primary loyalty is only to himself. But as far as Lokloke Jeebh goes, while of course I will not force my wishes on you, I would like you to tell me what you have against marrying her. After all, she may have a face like a vampire hog and an appetite like a windwolf, but she has the great habit of never speaking with her mouth full. Since her mouth is never empty, this means that she never speaks at all.
With all best wishes, and hoping to hear of your further success soon,
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014