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•   A BIANNUAL LITERARY MAGAZINE BROUGHT TO YOU BY DESI WRITERS' LOUNGE   •

Volume 15


Fables and Folklore - Fall 2015


Fiction

Ahsan Masood

Written by
Ahsan Masood

Ahsan Masood is a Lahore based artist, writer and a teacher.

        
      
       
            
              

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Zulaikha


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The author is currently working on his first fantasy fiction novel. The following is an abridged selection from the work-in-progress.

Zulaikha

Kami was watchful of where he placed his feet. He wanted to leave this place, but not before they had found the girl. The Fakirs had built their sanctuary inside a hollowed-out part of the mountain: a spacious hall with pillars, which reached all the way up to its cavernous roof. The Fakirs had used their mystic powers to hide their sanctuary from prying eyes: the only way to access it was by scaling the steep side of the mountain. The Fakirs relished their solitude. But now it appeared that their tactics had failed to protect their way of life.

Mai Kanwaan had been told of the attack at Mount Miraj by her crows. They had come, cawing and flapping their wings in worry. Having heard what they had to say, she immediately sent Sawan, Kami and Sherkhan to run to the aid of the Fakirs at Mount Miraj. She knew that they would be too late, but hoped that the girl had survived. The winds had whispered the name of a marvelous rani to Mai Kanwaan, and had told her of the girl’s fateful meeting with her, which would change the face of the Sulemani Takht forever. The winds had also spoken that should the girl fail to fulfill her destiny, the Sulemani Takht would fall.

Kami leaned against a pillar for support, a deep rumble passing through it the moment he touched it. He pulled back immediately. The pillar creaked open, revealing a hidden compartment within. Inside, sat a girl coiled in a tight bunch, her olive green eyes wide open in a frozen gaze. The Fakirs had known that their end was near. They had hidden the girl within the hollowed pillar to spare her from sharing their gruesome fate.

“Are they all dead?” she asked.

“We have to get out!” urged Kami. The girl would not respond.

Kami lunged at the girl’s hand, pulling her out of the tiny chamber.

Once on her feet, the girl found herself standing amid the bloodied bodies of the men who had cared for her for so long. Whole and in pieces, they lay scattered upon the floor in every direction. Kami had not meant for her to see this. The horror of the scene forced her to her senses. She screamed.

“Glory to the just maut! You found her!” exclaimed Sawan. “We have to go. Now!”

But it was already too late. Her cries had attracted the attention of the very monsters responsible for her screams.

A tall figure with a gaping mouth, laced with razor sharp teeth, stood at a distance. Its burnt skin stretched tight over its body. It had no visible eyes, nose or ears, its facial features long lost to whatever condition ailed it. The creature’s unusually long limbs heightened its ghastly appearance. Bony fingers extended like sharp talons from its hands. There was blood on its body, not its own. It stood still, licking its lips and calculating its next move.

“Fitna,” it hissed, whilst looking at them. “The hour of cleansing draws near. Infidels will perish!”

The creature rushed towards Sawan and his companions. Its hands sliced through the air with an uninhibited desire to kill; it could already taste the blood of its prey. Sherkhan growled under his breath as he too ran to meet the approaching monstrosity before it could reach Kami and the girl. The creature, however, was determined to not let anything stand between itself and its would-be victim.

Its talons repeatedly lashed at Sherkhan’s face, in an attempt to scratch his eyes out. Sherkhan caught hold of the monster by the arms with his bare hands, wedging a distance between him and the creature. Gripping its arms firmly, he swung the creature and sent it crashing into a pillar.

The crash would have knocked out any other person. But this was no person. Quickly recovering from the impact, the creature stood up and prepared to charge again.

“Bandish,” yelled Sawan, standing protectively in front of the girl and Kami, should Sherkhan fail to restrain the creature. Black ropes came streaming out of his hands, wrapping themselves tightly around the creature, freezing it mid-motion. The creature struggled underneath the ropes, biting at the air as it tried to reach its adversaries.

“Fitna,” it hissed, whilst looking at them. “The hour of cleansing draws near. Infidels will perish!”

The creature began to twist, its head jerking upon its immobile body. Knowing that there would be no release for it today, it had already set in motion plans of a different kind. A snap followed, not very loud, but loud enough to be heard. The creature had broken its own neck. The ropes binding it disintegrated into black smoke as the creature fell to the ground in a lifeless heap.

But it did not remain still for long.

The carcass began to tremble and swell in places. Fiery sparks forced its mouth open and poured out. Something prodded and poked at it from within itself, as its skin began to tear. The monstrosity that had lain within the creature lived on; it refused to die with the body and now struggled to set itself free from its prison. A hydra of shrieking flames ripped through the carcass, setting everything it touched on fire.

“Run!” screamed Sawan.

Kami tugged at the girl’s arm, forcing her to run with him towards the sanctuary’s entrance; Sawan and Sherkhan followed close behind. But, the meager landing outside the sanctuary brought them to an abrupt halt, lest they fall to their doom below.

Smoke and red hot embers poured forth from Baku’s nostrils as he heaved his forelimbs in the air, pulling at the carriage behind him. He too was fighting the same creatures outside, throwing some over the edge, whilst impaling others with his horns. Hordes more were scaling the side of the mountain towards the sanctuary’s entrance.

Sawan rushed to help the great beast in his battle; Sherkhan flanked him on the opposite side. More and more of the same creatures kept coming towards them, the flames behind them growing angrier with every passing second. Sawan sliced their limbs off and cut their bodies open with his talwar; others he bonded with incantations before pushing them off the landing. But where Sawan trusted his talwar and spells, Sherkhan held the same faith in the brute force of his bare hands. However, no amount of pain or the loss of appendages deterred the creatures. The fire roared on. Kami and the girl huddled closer to the carriage.

The battle raged on as Sherkhan and Sawan attempted to clear enough space so Baku could take flight. They knew that they would have to hurry if they were going to survive the raging fire behind them and the crazed monsters in front.

The girl screamed as one of the creatures lashed out at her. Kami grabbed her by the shoulders and rushed her inside the carriage, while Sherkhan pulled at the creature from behind, its talons narrowly missing their mark.

“Get in!” yelled Baku at Sherkhan and Sawan.

The inferno raged on, threatening to engulf the entire mountain. There were no creatures with them now, but there would be many more at any moment. Yet a moment was all that they needed. Baku pulled at the carriage with all his might and leapt off the landing. He soared high above the mountain, the carriage with its precious cargo trailing behind him. The girl held onto Kami’s hand tightly, as the light from the burning sanctuary below danced across their faces.

“What did the Fakirs call you?” Sawan asked.

“Navera,” she replied. She was dressed in clothes that were similar to what the Fakirs had worn: an ankle-length green shirt and a wide sash around her waist. A tightly wound braid crept down her thin frame — she was a girl of unprepossessing features.

Sawan wasn’t particularly good at comforting, and Sherkhan never spoke. She appeared to have calmed down, though still seemed unsure of whether she was out of danger or not. The day was still young and who knew what chance meetings with stranger folk awaited her.

“Are you hurt?” asked Sawan. Navera shook her head. They had been lucky to be able to escape with all their limbs intact, luckier than the Fakirs had been.

“What were those things?” Kami wondered out loud.

“I do not know,” replied Sawan, “though I do know that they were dark creatures carrying a powerful tilism within.”

“What did it say? Right before it killed itself,” continued Sawan, his eyes narrowed as he forced himself to remember.

“Fitna,” whispered Navera.

“What does that mean?” asked Kami.

“It means monster,” Sawan responded.

“Fitna,” whispered Navera again. Though this time she did not mean to recall what the creature had said, but to name it instead.

Not knowing where one is does not particularly mean that one is lost. It just means that one is freer in that moment to be whoever they want to be, without the burden of any identities that tie one to a particular land.

The carriage wobbled in the air, which was quite odd, since the skies were clear and it was high noon. Another harsh jolt and Sawan poked his head out of the window, remembering that not all who had been engaged in their recent skirmish were inside the carriage. A deep red gash on Baku’s shoulder glistened in the sunlight: a parting gift from the creatures no doubt. Baku was struggling against the weight of the carriage. Though Baku was a hardy warrior, Sawan could tell that the wound would prove to be fatal if they did not immediately stop. But before he could interject, Baku went still in midair. His massive head had slumped to one side. The carriage plummeted towards the ground.

“Baku!” screamed Sawan.

Baku regained consciousness just in time to pull the carriage back in the air, saving them from the impending doom that awaited them below. The carriage landed on the ground with a thunderous crash throwing everyone to one side in a heap. Sawan and Sherkhan scrambled out of the carriage. They knew that Baku would not make such a precarious landing unless something was terribly wrong.

“I am alright! I just need to…I just…I just lost my footing for a bit… Nothing to worry about,” assured Baku between strained breaths.

Sherkhan attempted to have a closer look at the wound, but Baku was having none of that. He moved about anxiously, refusing to let anyone get close to him.

“I said I am alright! It would take more than those weaklings to hurt me,” bawled Baku, wheezing in the desert air. He was not the sort to admit to weakness. Sherkhan removed Baku’s harness and attempted to clean the wound, only to quickly decide otherwise. He motioned Sawan to have a closer look at the now blood-drenched piece of cloth in his hand.

“Baku, this is no normal wound. It is laced with venom,” cautioned Sawan. “The wound will not heal by itself. You need to turn, we cannot treat you here.”

A wild look had crept into Baku’s eyes. He began to pace uneasily in the desert sands, his body shuddering with involuntary spasms. The wound had changed color; dark bubbles formed on its surface; noxious black foam trickled down from it. He grunted and shook his horns, hoping to rid himself of the pain. Whatever the nature of the poison, it had begun to show its true colors. Sherkhan tried to calm Baku down, but to no avail. His giant frame crashed backwards into the carriage, his hooves dug deep into the sand. His mouth had begun to foam.

“You need to turn. Please!” Sawan implored. Baku stilled his frame as he stared at his companions. But the calm did not last. Baku violently shook his horns once more as he raised himself on his hind legs. Either he was preparing to come crashing down on them or gut them to death with his massive horns. Baku’s cloven forelegs hovered in the air for a moment, locked in his threatening pose. But he would not move. Frozen in that moment, Baku had turned to stone.

The Fakirs were an ancient and a peaceful folk who had dedicated their lives to understanding the mysteries of this world and the worlds beyond. They possessed immense knowledge and had passed much of their wisdom to Navera. 

“Do not worry. He is only sleeping. This way the poison will not spread and he will heal faster,” Sawan reassured a horrified Kami. “It is best we make camp, we will be spending the night here.”

The blazing sun had made their only cover too hot to sit inside it. With no shelter in sight for miles around, Sherkhan made a makeshift canopy next to the carriage.

“Where are we?” asked Navera.

“Only the wandering prophet would know,” answered Sawan, his gaze running across the endless desert that stretched on all sides.

It is good to not know where one is, sometimes. Not knowing where one is does not particularly mean that one is lost. It just means that one is freer in that moment to be whoever they want to be, without the burden of any identities that tie one to a particular land.

A brief respite from their recent ordeal: now was the time to gather their thoughts and calm their minds. Already exhausted, Navera gathered herself into a tight bunch and went to sleep.

Bellowing horns echoed through the desert, disrupting the unmoving sameness that surrounded them on all sides. For a moment Kami thought that it was only he who had heard it. But as the horns blared again, Navera too shifted uncomfortably in her sleep. Ever vigilant, Sherkhan pointed towards a black streak visible in the distance.

“Ghadawa,” declared Sawan.

He knew now where they were, the Hakra Desert, the very heart of the Ghadawa territory. The horns were a warning for would-be intruders to steer clear of their caravan and their lands. The Ghadawa famously claimed ownership over every grain of sand touched by the sound of their horns. They were desert nomads, known for taking what they desired, by invitation or by force. It was best to not cross their paths and pray that they did not cross yours.

“They are not turning, they are coming this way,” Sawan exclaimed, glancing towards Baku’s towering stone figure and the sleeping girl in the Fakir attire.

“Navera, wake up!” Sawan shook her. She woke up with a start, instinctively digging her hands into her sash.

“Listen to me. I’m going to cut your hair. Some men are coming, bad men. They will take you if they find out that you are a girl. I will not be able to protect you. We have to hide who you are from them,” said Sawan with grave urgency in his voice.

The Fakirs were an ancient and a peaceful folk who had dedicated their lives to understanding the mysteries of this world and the worlds beyond. They possessed immense knowledge and had passed much of their wisdom to Navera. Though, being who they were, they knew little of what it meant to be a woman, and neither did they waste any time in educating her on the charms of being one. Sawan was hoping that the lack of such guidance might help the girl escape unnoticed.

“Keep your head straight,” instructed Sawan. Navera shut her eyes, bracing herself for the swish of Sawan’s talwar. A soundless wave of the metal and her braid was no more. She held it in her hands, her eyes welling up.

“It is just hair. It will grow back,” said Sawan, as he ripped off a long piece of cloth from the canopy. “Bind your chest. Tightly,” he commanded, offering the piece of cloth to Navera. “If anyone asks, you are Nava, my apprentice in training.”

Navera nodded vigorously, assuring him that she had understood everything he had told her.

Once her transformation was complete, they buried the severed braid in the sand a short distance away from the carriage. They could not risk her secret being discovered.

The caravan moved steadily: a black stain spreading across the golden sands, slowly yet surely. Horns continued to blare across the gloomy expanse of sand, a herald of impending doom. The caravan was well over a hundred men strong; some on camels and others on foot. In the middle of the caravan, twelve camels in two files held a rectangular container between them. A mass of them surrounded the slow-moving container in a tight ring around it. They carried curved scimitars around their waists, and had red symbols painted underneath their eyes to signify their rank. With Baku in his stone form, Sawan knew that between him and Sherkhan, they would not be able to fight off all of the Ghadawa men. He knew that they would have to behave with as much tact as possible.

At the front of the caravan rode a man wrapped in dark scarves, through which only his piercing black eyes were showing. He controlled his camel by pulling at the chains passing through the animal’s nose ring. With a gesture of his hand he ordered the caravan to stop and dismount, though he himself remained seated. His eyes narrowed down on Sawan, before momentarily sizing up the small party of four and Baku’s stone form.

“Rohiwa, Chief! Sawan Lashar, consul to the Mai Kanwaan and sworn guard to the Mound of Dasht,” declared Sawan, his back straight and chest puffed out. He had introduced himself in such a manner countless times before: first his name and then his office, always together. Though this time, Sawan did not intend to merely impress the other party. It was a desperate attempt to claim the protection that comes with holding certain titles and affiliations. The stranger appeared uninterested in both. His severe gaze fixed on Baku.

“What brings the honored guard of Dasht amongst the murderous men and godless thieves of Hakra,” he mocked them, looking down upon them from on top of his camel.

“We have no business here. My party and I are only passing through, and wish for nothing more,” said Sawan with one hand steadily resting on the hilt of his talwar, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice.

“But these desolate sands might want something from you,” the chief replied.

Sawan knew a threat when he heard one. “Ensure our safe passage and the Mound of Dasht will reward you well for your services.”

“Markhor. Magnificent creatures,” the Ghadawa chief muttered as he continued to eye Baku’s stone form. “We will take the beast,” announced the chief, his tone expressing the finality of his words.

“The Markhor is not for trade. But we can pay for your most gracious services with gold, water and provisions,” replied Sawan sternly, the cold steel beginning to warm underneath his ever ready hand.

“That was not a request,” the chief sneered, baring his yellowed teeth.

Men surrounded the carriage on all sides, their scimitars drawn. Two crept up behind Kami and Navera: securing their torsos with one arm, and pushing daggers to their throats with the other.

“We are under the protection of Raja Warsoo, ruler of the Sulemani Takht,” said Sawan. “When His Highness hears of this,” Sawan started to speak in his final bid to intimidate their would-be captors, only to be interrupted by the chief.

“Warsoo is dead.”

Sherkhan looked towards Sawan: the slightest signal and he would pounce on the men and rip their throats out. But there were far too many of them, and Sawan did not wish to incapacitate any more of his own retinue. There was nowhere to run and they could not afford to leave someone behind. Sawan relaxed his stance and signaled Sherkhan to stand down as well. It was best to live today to fight tomorrow.

“Throw them with the pretender,” commanded the chief.

The Ghadawa men dragged the four of them towards the giant crate: a weathered old box made entirely of ancient wooden planks. Nails covered every inch of the blackened crate, each of them bent and rotting with rust. A giant silver latch secured its door, the only opening in the crate.

The stale air inside wrapped itself around their bodies, filling their lungs with despair. Slivers of light shot through the gaps between the wooden planks of the walls, cutting through the darkness of the compartment. Loose chains and stray grains of sand littered the floor. The chief’s men fastened these chains to their ankles and necks, leaving little room for movement. Outside, the men plundered the carriage, bagging some things and leaving the rest to be swallowed by the desert sands.

The Ghadawa were notorious for their persuasive ways of making people talk. Some took longer than others, but in the end everyone submitted to their will.

“Are they going to kill us?” Kami whispered.

“No. They will not. We are worth more to them alive than dead,” Sawan assured him.

“What will they do to us?” squeaked Navera.

Sawan did not know how to respond. He knew the answer but he preferred not to alarm the already traumatized girl.

“They will sell you at Mastmandi. You will make some Amirpur Nawab very happy for an hour or two,” a disembodied voice replied from a corner of their prison.

They were not alone.

Chains clanked as the silhouette of someone rising within the shadows became visible.

One could see even in the meager light that she was a creature of extraordinary beauty. She wore a long lehenga, which started just below her navel and licked her feet at the other end. A thickly embroidered blouse bared most of her torso. A dainty nose ring teased her upper lip and white bangles ran all the way up her arms. Her payals chimed in protest to the slightest motion. Her slender neck was decked with several strings of charms set in silver. Amongst her little totems she also wore a collar of coarse iron with an ominous padlock. Chains connected with the collar, tethered her to her prison. Knotted pieces of rope and smaller locks grew on the chains like vines.

“Your Highness!”An alarmed Sawan exclaimed.

“Royal titles have little meaning when dressed in bondage,” she retorted.

“I do not know how this came to pass, but we will get out of here. There will be retribution for their conduct and the terrible lies they spew about Raja Warsoo,” vowed Sawan, trying to comfort the young Rani. “This, I promise you!”

“I am Zulaikha!” thundered the woman, “Firstborn of the high concubine of Raja Warsoo, Lord of the Sulemani Takht. I have no use for your help or for your promises!” she snarled.

“My brother was a fool to trust his council. Warsoo is dead and the clans are at war again. He cannot unite them under his banner. He will burn, and the kingdom will burn down with him. Much blood will be lost before peace can be restored,” continued Zulaikha, letting her body sink underneath the weight of the chains.

“What are they doing to Baku?” interrupted Kami, spying through the gaps in the wall behind him. Alerted by his words, Sherkhan too turned around to peek through the wall. The chief’s men had slaughtered a camel and were now tracing mysterious symbols on the sides of Baku’s stone form. Alarmed at what he saw, Sherkhan immediately decided to test the strength of their prison by beating his body against the wall. The structure was stronger than it looked. Not the sort to be dissuaded, Sherkhan began to ferociously pull against his chains.

“It is futile to struggle,” stated Zulaikha pragmatically. “These bonds cannot be broken by tooth or bone. Only by the hand that sealed them can they be undone,” she continued to reason with a flustered Sherkhan.

Sawan strained against his own chains to try and see what was going on outside. “It is a spell to bind Baku to their will. But do not worry, without knowing Baku’s true name the spell will fail,” he reassured Sherkhan, who finally let go of his unbroken chains.

The caravan made camp as the sun set; tonight, they would rest and celebrate their recent loot. The men gathered around a roaring fire, singing songs that only they could understand. Camels with bells attached to their hooves danced while they sat feasting on roasted meat and wine. Their singing continued late into the night, stopping only when the fire died out and the inebriated men collapsed around its dying embers. The sudden calmness brought a wave of sleep on everyone inside the blackened crate as well.

The darkness of the night sky had just begun to drain when the prison’s occupants were woken up by the sound of someone unlocking its door. The Ghadawa chief lumbered inside, his dark figure appearing darker against the slowly brightening sky. He held on to the walls for support as he stumbled towards Zulaikha, still drunk from the previous night’s festivities. Sawan’s talwar, sheathed at the chief’s waist, glinted in the feeble morning light. Zulaikha greeted the chief with a coquettish smile; she knew why he had come. The chief licked his lips, edging even closer to her, not a mistake his sober self would have made. Once within an arm’s length, Zulaikha abruptly extended her torso and spat on him. Her spit burnt through the many scarves he wore, narrowly missing his face. The chief frantically threw his scarves to the ground, stamping on them with his feet.

“Ungrateful whore!” He spat at her.

“What is the beast’s name?” he barked, having lost his festive demeanor. No one answered.

“What is the name of the wretched beast?” he repeated, louder this time. Seeing that none of them were willing to talk, he grabbed Sawan by his jaw.

“You look like someone who can take a lot of pain before cracking,” the chief remarked.

Sawan defiantly stared back at him, clenching his jaw underneath the chief’s grip. The Ghadawa were notorious for their persuasive ways of making people talk. Some took longer than others, but in the end everyone submitted to their will. But right now, time was of the essence: it would be morning soon and by then it would already be too late.

“I don’t have time for this,” said the chief, letting go of Sawan’s face. Surveying the compartment for the smallest person there, his gaze fell upon Kami. The chief promptly began to unlock the boy’s chains as everyone looked on in horror. Sawan had mentally prepared himself for enduring gruesome acts of torture at the hands of the Ghadawa chief. What he had not expected was him not being able to save someone else from the same fate. Once the chains were undone, the chief grabbed Kami by his hair, dragging him towards the door. Sherkhan growled aggressively, stealing quick glances between Sawan and the chief, his eyes imploring Sawan to do something. But what could any of them do?

“I am a girl,” a scream came from behind the chief.

He turned around to face the source of the claim. Navera had undone her shirt, revealing her bound breasts. The chief let go of Kami’s hair; Kami’s head hit the floor with a thud. He had other interests to attend to now. Standing in front of her, the chief forced Navera’s tiny body against the wall and slid one hand down to her groin. His face broke into a sickening smirk. Already drunk, the chief fumbled with her shalwar with a nauseating passion. Navera neither squirmed nor screamed. She was not even there, she was elsewhere. The chief did not need to struggle with her trousers for long.

Relishing what he had uncovered, the Ghadawa chief devoured her with his eyes. The girl dug her hand within her sash. She looked fearful, not as much of what was happening, but of what was about to transpire. The chief was far too busy to care for anything that Navera might have been thinking. Such was his state of bliss that he barely noticed her remove a gilded pair of scissors from the sash around her waist. Reflected light from the instrument shone on his face as he looked up to search for its source. With a swift motion, Navera drove the instrument straight into his heart — once, twice, thrice. The chief stared at her in disbelief before collapsing on the floor. His dead eyes continued to gaze at her as he lay in a pool of his own blood. The metal chains that were used to restrain them began to disintegrate into dust. Sawan rushed towards Navera, who was staring blankly at the chief’s body. She still held the bloodied scissors in her whitening knuckles, refusing to let them go. Kami did not quite understand what had just happened, but he knew that the girl had saved his life.

The men scrambled towards their discarded weapons, bickering and fighting over the blades, each wanting to claim the honor to be the first to present his head to Zulaikha.

“Navera, he is dead,” Sawan said, trying to comfort the girl as he eyed the scissors in her hands.

“This is all that they had,” she began to weep, “this was the only thing they had and they gave it to me. They told me to use it to protect myself. If they had kept it, maybe they would be still alive.”

It was not in the nature of the Fakirs to fight, let alone carry weapons. It was no surprise that they could not protect themselves against the Fitnas.

“They didn’t have anything else to fight with. They had this and they gave it to me,” she cried, clenching the razor-sharp scissors in her hands.

By now, their bonds had completely reduced to dust. The walls of their prison too began to creak, whilst the nails on the outside fell to the ground. Bereft of the magic that had once held the crate together, the cell began to collapse, crushed by its own weight. Soon, nothing more was left of it except a pile of rickety old planks surrounded by rotted nails all around.

Standing in the early morning hours, the group found themselves surrounded on all sides by scimitar-wielding men. With the chief’s death, there would be no peaceful escape for them. According to the ways of the Ghadawa, only blood could cleanse a transgression of blood. Sawan removed his talwar from the chief’s corpse and signaled Kami and Navera to stay back.

“Put your trinkets away. These men do not understand the language of cold steel,” remarked Zulaikha calmly as she broke the ranks and sauntered towards the drawn scimitars. The men, frightened, took two steps back for every step she took towards them. They yelled and waved their weapons threateningly at her, telling her to keep away. A few more steps forward, she turned around and said, “It is best you do not see this.”

Knowing full well what was to come, Sawan instructed the other three to close their eyes.

“No matter what you hear, do not open your eyes!” he commanded.

Sherkhan beckoned Kami to come to his side and forced him to look away, following suit himself. Noticing that Navera was somewhat still in a daze, Sawan pulled her close to himself and put his hands across her face, squeezing his own eyes tightly shut.

Not in any particular hurry, Zulaikha delicately bared her toes from underneath her lehenga. Her feet and fingertips were dipped in henna, and her eyes darkened with kohl. She was a remarkably beautiful creature. She reached for the sand at her feet, lightly touching it, before solemnly pressing her fingertips to her forehead. With a slight tap of her bare heels, she tested the sound of her payals. She was ready.

Zulaikha flung her dark hair behind her and arched her back, as she began to sway to music that only she could hear. Each of her hypnotic moves was followed by a gleeful chiming of her payals, in perfect sync with her movements. Though still fearful, the men looked tremendously enamored with Zulaikha’s intricate motions: never before had there been anyone in more absolute, simultaneous control of their bodies and the spectators’ gaze. Kami and his companions did not see what the men of Ghadawa saw. They did not see her radiate with every fantasy that men dream of. They did not see her delicately remove one piece of clothing after another. They did not see the men of Ghadawa prostrate themselves before Zulaikha, throwing their weapons, oaths and gods away.

Zulaikha stood there clothed only in the payals on her feet. Her hypnotic dance had come to an end. She gasped for air. The men of Ghadawa were not in the desert anymore. Now they were somewhere else, far away from the mundane realities which weigh heavy on the shoulders of men. Some bowed down, and others retracted in a mixture of fear, awe and lust. Murmurs promising eternal servitude grew from the crowd.

“Name what you desire and we shall deliver” was the unanimous plea from the men, begging for a chance to please her.

Zulaikha held her ground, torturing the men with her silence.

“I wish for your heads,” she spoke finally, much to their joy.

The men scrambled towards their discarded weapons, bickering and fighting over the blades, each wanting to claim the honor to be the first to present his head to Zulaikha. Hurriedly, they drew their blades to their own throats and attempted to decapitate themselves with varying degrees of success, though none survived the ordeal.

Baku’s stone form shuddered in the first ray of the morning sun. He had awakened from his slumber. The wound was gone, and except for the mysterious markings, he looked quite like his usual self. Though he was surprised to see a naked rani and the vigilant party of four, encircled on all sides by corpses with slit throats. This was not how he remembered having left those who were in his care. He bent down on one knee, bowing his horned head in front of Zulaikha, for he too had recognized her royal lineage.

Zulaikha asked to be escorted south to the city of Baagh, whose people were still loyal to her cause. She did not bother with needless niceties and hollow words of gratitude. She did, however, bid everyone farewell, with as much courtesy as she could muster. Moments later, Baku took to the skies with the carriage trailing behind him.

Strange are the workings of fate: to meet some as shackled strangers and part as free comrades. They would surely meet again in the future, hopefully in fairer circumstances. This was not a goodbye, but the beginning of something far more interesting.

 

 

 

 

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