by Shreyas Adhikari
She has hair as black as night. Skin as sable as night. Eyes as dark as obsidian. She stands beneath the arched canopy of intertwined mango and apple branches, framed against a dark entrance. Behind her the passage leads to only the gods know where. Perhaps the very womb of the earth.
The girl raises her hands towards me. The fingers are sticky with blood. Red blood, redder than a cherry, redder than a wood rose, redder than a ruby. Her pale, chapped lips open wide like she wanted to devour the entire world. An unearthly shriek tears out of the tender throat.
“Pandurang! You moron!”
He woke up with a jolt. The sunlight seared into his eyes like a hot knife, robbing him of all senses for a full moment. Had this been the hinterlands of the north, some dirty Rohilla would have stuck a dagger beneath his chin right then and laughed maniacally all the time. He berated himself silently while rolling onto his belly and shaking his head several times. It was unbecoming of a warrior to fall asleep on the eve of a mission.
Raghunath sneered at his comrade. He was a handsome man, tall of stature, green-eyed and blessed with a healthy peach complexion that dropped maidens in his lap like fruits in summer. A long, jagged scar ran down the side of his face. Earned during the campaign in Palkhed when he had lost his footing fighting a grizzled Pathan. Raghunath did not think it marred his beauty in the least. On the contrary, women always thought it lent him an air of the mysterious, battle-scarred soldier.
“Should have slept on the way,” he remarked.
Pandurang yawned and waved it away. The road had been long and arduous and the Pindaris—the god-awful Pindaris—played dice and sang bawdy songs endlessly. Marathas could sleep while riding; it was a speciality bred into every son of the empire since Shivaji. A very useful trick indeed. But in the hot, humid air of the east it was nigh impossible. He twisted his neck around to check on their companions. Ten warriors in their unwashed tunics and loose trousers, knives held between teeth and eyes roving everywhere, stretched out behind him in a semicircle. Pandurang was rather uncomfortably aware of the fact that they could very easily slit his throat, loot his corpse and vanish into the marshlands and dense towns around if the fancy caught them. Pindaris were not exactly known for loyalty like a regular infantryman from the rest of the realm.
“Kaal Kothri lies just ahead,” Raghunath continued, stung by the silence of the older man and filling the awkward silence with his own voice. “It will not be well-defended, but the Nawab must have sent his men after the last time.”
Pandurang crawled forward like a child, dragging his rich white uniform along the wet, maggot-ridden mud of the slope. Once he had reached the top, he produced an ornate telescope beset with small sapphires and peered through it. It had been purchased from a French sailor and could carry the sight over a large distance indeed.
There, just beside a sluggish river that trickled like blood in the veins of a giant, stood the village. A cluster of huts with thatched roofs and walls covered by cow dung patties, encircled by a palisade of wooden stakes. Smoke rose from a dozen cookfires. Oxen lowed, donkeys brayed and a lone horse munched on grass in someone’s backyard. A gaggle of children played around the well, producing loud, carefree shrieks. A dread seized Pandurang’s heart. He had fought enough battles to know that once the blades started singing and the bullets flew, it was the innocent civilians who died first.
But then he saw the soldiers sent to guard them. Bearded, turbaned men possessing arms of corded muscle and thick bull necks. They leaned on spears and muskets while scimitars dangled from their belted waists. Unlike irregular militiamen, these did not dawdle about idly or smoke ganja around a fire, blissfully unaware of the storm that was about to burst upon them. They were grim faced and alert, sweeping the treeline with keen eyes to spot any attempt at an ambush or an attack. It was a testament to the Nawab’s fabled hoards of gold that he could afford to hire such talent for his subah.
“Baluchi matchlockmen,” Pandurang muttered, replacing the telescope. “Twenty in all. Sharp and well-rested.”
The Pindaris hissed foul oaths while Raghunath merely smiled. The former were little more than thugs for hire who preferred to cut a man’s throat while he slept. The latter had been trained by the finest war masters of Nagpur and wept if a foe fled before offering a good fight. Both had their uses. Pandurang called two of the Pindaris who carried rifles with them.
“Ali, creep around the edge of the slope and reach that huge banyan there,” he pointed out the landmark. “And Mahmud, take the other side directly facing your friend. When I give the signal, fire and keep firing until the skirmish is over.”
The scrawny young man named Ali nodded but looked daunted. “Sardar, what is in it for me?”
“Don’t you bloody sellswords think of anything other than money?” Raghunath snapped. His righteous anger threatened to bubble to the surface yet again.
“Honour doesn’t put food on the plate, sardar. Money does.”
Pandurang raised a hand before the situation could worsen. Warriors were a strange lot. They always kept their egos before the success of an expedition and often sacrificed the need of the hour to vainglorious urges. He could not afford a single mistake now.
“Five more shivrais. If the barracks whine about it, I will pay you from my own salary. Now go.”
The two Pindaris hugged their slender rifles close to the chest and rose, running away in crouched fashion like apes. The rest huddled closer to him and made their own assumptions about the village. Some tested the edge of their steel. Others whispered prayers to protect themselves against bhut-pret and ifrits. Pandurang did not blame them. For a decade now, bands had been sent to this precise village for raid and plunder. None of them ever came back. The Senapati had once reported to Raghoji himself that there lay some ancient, vile curse upon the region, something that worked its way beneath the skins of men like flaying knives, and corrupted the flesh. That a man of logic could make such conclusions was shocking for the king, who immediately decreed that more raiders would be sent to Kaal Kothri to raid the village and any surrounding hamlets. So more warriors took up the tulwar to prove their valour and vanished forever in the maw of the jungle.
“Do you believe there is indeed a curse here?” Raghunath asked.
Pandurang snorted. The trilling of crickets, the chirping of songbirds and the rustle of the breeze seemed oppressive to him suddenly. All smashing into each other, becoming one horrendous cacophony. He wanted to escape it. Wanted to escape one unholy circus created by nature to another created by mortals. The clangour of freshly honed swords cleaving shield, arm, neck and belly. Watering the earth with gore.
“We’d have been chewed up and spat out by now if there was indeed some monster roaming around. Kaal Kothri has clearly not been touched by one of our bands, meaning calamity befell them well before they could attack.” He coughed up a little bit of the dirt that had gotten inside his throat from all the crawling and lying prone for hours. “There’s no bogeyman here.”
“Do you think the Bengalis are training tigers and panthers to attack us?” Raghunath remained unconvinced.
The other officer shot him an exasperated look. “Time to go to war.”
Ali and Mahmud had taken up positions on the high ground, half-hidden by the bushes. The remaining Pindaris had finally girded their loins and firmly clenched dagger and sabre in fists. Raghunath kissed an amulet dangling from his neck and laid a hand upon his tulwar. The screams of birds and monkeys just increased in pitch instead of fading into a sudden silence as usually happened before a fight. It was as if they were trying to warn the people about some calamity about to crash down from the heavens.
Then a brief moment of quiet. The calm before the storm. A bowstring drawn to the ear. The hammer of a musket cocked.
One of the Baluchis below sniffed something and moved forward, one arm raised to warn his comrades. His eyes raked the spot where Pandurang had hidden himself. Once. Twice. They widened in alarm. The Maratha cursed. Damn turbans and their tendency to give away the wearer.
“Har har, Mahadev!” He roared and drew his tulwar in a smooth flourish. At the same time the Pindari sharpshooters opened fore and the Baluchi who had spotted Pandurang died, his skull exploding into bits of bone and brains. The man immediately behind him was thrown back with the force of the bullet slamming into his belly. The other guards wasted no time in readying their weapons and rushing to the front, but by that time the raiders were already charging.
Pandurang and Raghunath led the warriors straight into the middle of the enemy vanguard. When the bards spoke of battle, they tended to gloss over the filthy bits and weave poems of silver words. Only the rank and file soldier knew what a horrifying, gut churning affair it really was. Some of the matchlockmen got off shots but the velocity of the charge saved the Pindaris from getting skewered before they could land a blow. In a heartbeat Pandurang was among the Baluchis, laying about with his elegantly curved sword and slicing off limbs. Raghunath watched his rear and fought like a madman, mixing thrusts and backhands with the dainty footwork of European fencers. He swore like a madman as he slew. Cursing their mothers for giving birth to milksops. Their fathers for teaching them combat well enough. He screamed at them to come forth and experience the honour of falling to a Maratha’s blade.
The Baluchis fought well. They were a hardy bunch and loyal to the man who had paid them, but the terrain and the gods were against them. The raiders had pinned them against the palisades of Kaal Kothri and engaged them in savage hand to hand fighting. Their famed, long-barrelled guns were of no use here along with their spears. Men strove breast to breast for supremacy. A Pindari ducked beneath a pesh-kabz’s slash and drove his own chhura into his foe’s belly, drawing it to the side so that the resultant gash violently vomited loops of innards. Raghunath got scored in his shield arm and avenged the insult by pushing his scimitar inside the Baluchi’s open mouth, angling it so the point burst out of the back of the head. Pandurang was spat at in the eye and blocked his assailant’s desperate swing more out of instinct, pulling out and firing a small pistol from point blank range. For his pains, he received a spattering of dark red blood and bowels all over his boots and trousers.
The skirmish lasted about twenty minutes. Three Pindaris died and one had his leg taken off at the knee by a lucky cut. All the Baluchis went down fighting and cursing their killers, gargling blood and thoroughly disembowelled. Pandurang sank his tulwar into the soft soil and panted like a dog. His face was a mask of sweat, grime and gore. A veritable Rakshasa’s face. Raghunath wiped his scimitar on a dead man’s collar and returned it to the scabbard, grinning triumphantly at Pandurang. Then his face became sombre once again.
The villagers had come out of their houses and stood in the middle of the village like lost sheep. Men in dirty dhotis and vests, or bare-chested. Frail women, young and old, clad in saris so repeatedly washed that all the colour had seeped out of them. Children that had been playing just some minutes ago now peeked out from behind their mothers, frozen at the sight of the hard-eyed men glaring back at them. Bathed in the remains of those supposed to protect them.
For a full minute the Marathas and the residents of Kaal Kothri looked at each other. Each gauging the other. Raghunath strode forwards to stand beside his captain, tilting his head so he could speak to Pandurang without taking his eyes off the villagers. As if he did not trust them for even a second.
“What do we do? They are shit scared and unarmed but there is a garrison just three miles north of here,” he growled. “If we let them go, they will only inform the Nawab’s men. Perhaps they will send cavalry after us.”
“No. We ask them to surrender their valuables peacefully and then gallop away before they realize they have been robbed,” Pandurang replied. His arms felt like lead. There was an ache somewhere in his groin. He desperately wanted a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Before his lieutenant could protest, Pandurang pushed open the rickety gates to the village’s entrance and sauntered in. Oddly, the people did not move. They stood still like wax statues and gazed at him with bovine eyes. He found it just the slightest bit; people in most of the villages he had raided in the past either took up whatever tools they could lay their hands on and fought the warriors or simply ran, sobbing and wailing like banshees, towards the nearest outpost where they could hide behind a solid wall of shields and spears.
Pandurang cleared his throat. His Bangla was not as good as his Marathi or Hindi, or even Persian. But he could speak a sort of pidgin. “If you have any gold or silver, give it up now and spare yourselves.”
A fly settled on an old man’s eye. He did not blink. Pandurang’s brow furrowed in curiosity. What on earth is going on?
“Do you understand?” he called out, panic making his voice louder unintentionally. “Do you wish to die?”
Raghunath pushed him aside roughly at the same moment that one of the women uttered a guttural scream and ran towards him. In her right hand she clenched a dao, like the ones used by Javanese pirates. Her teeth were bared like those of a panther and she looked like she wanted nothing more than to drink his blood. Pandurang crashed down to the ground, jarring every bone in his body the moment Raghunath stepped forward, swiping out his scimitar. The charging woman stepped right into the path of the blade and her head flew off her shoulders, bonking dully of a banana tree and dropping to the ground.
The villagers followed the execution as one. Then they looked back at the Marathas. Growls rumbled out of their chests. Lips began curling back over startlingly white teeth.
“Fire! Fire!” Raghunath screamed. “Kill them all!”
It was a massacre. Pindaris had a nose for trouble and they had already primed their rifles for use, training them upon the mass of villagers. At their officer’s command they pulled the triggers in rapid succession. Then dropped the cumbersome guns and pulled out pistols, discharging them at once. The villagers of Kaal Kothri stood no chance. With bestial howls, they tried to rush the raiders but could not get to within even an inch of them before being cut down. Even the little children, half naked and begrimed, transformed into feral cats, hissing at Pandurang and Raghunath. It was like mass hysteria had gripped the populace.
Raghunath gripped Pandurang’s arm and pulled him up, upon which the latter simply stared at the pile of corpses before him in utter shock. In all his life and so many battles, he had never seen such an event. There was a ringing in his ears. A sound that sucked in all other sounds and made it a thousand times worse. Like the little, ant like demons banging drums and blowing flutes near the giant Kumbhakarna’s head to wake him up.
The Pindaris surged ahead with wild whoops. They knew what they had to do. People who had been warm and breathing just seconds ago were kicked away unceremoniously, some after being checked for bangles or rings. A woman’s bloodstained necklace was ripped from her throat and stuffed into a Pindari’s pocket. Doors were broken down and huts ransacked. A couple of oxen shied away from all the blood and piss, bellowing in indignation as one leering youth even stabbed the piles of hay for hidden valuables.
“What do you think happened to them?” Raghunath asked, pointing at the corpses. Many of them still had vicious snarls frozen upon their faces. “It’s like they were possessed.”
Pandurang had his reservations. The Maratha Empire was young but it already placed a huge emphasis on science, arithmetic and logic. He had spent an entire month the previous year at the Pune College, the first of its kind in India, debating theology with a learned pundit from Kashi. Ghosts, spirits, disembodied souls, witches in the woods and rakshasas who lived in the twilight of the world... they were all easily dismissed. Most had not been witnessed by a large number of people, and many who had seen them or claimed such were either under the influence of bhang and afeem, or they had grown up with tales of monsters lurking in the forest. Forming a preconceived notion from the very beginning. Think there is a demon beneath your bed for two days and you will hear snarling on the third.
But what explained an entire village going mad and attacking fully armed warriors with hands and teeth? He could still see in his mind’s eye how all the men and women and children had glared at him with unconcealed malice. Without a flicker of emotion upon their faces. How the fly had landed on the old man’s eye and he had not even blinked.
“I have no idea,” Pandurang replied softly. The air was ripe with the stench of death. A flash of movement in the distance caught his eye. He shushed his friend and drew a bicchwa dagger from his ankle sheath, moving stealthily across the red ground. There... in the dappled shade of a banyan. There was a small shrine, very much like the thousands of little dedications housing idols of gods and goddesses where pilgrims, soldiers or travellers could pray. And someone was hiding behind it.
Pandurang locked eyes with Raghunath and nodded meaningfully at him. Then he counted to three, raised the dagger high and stepped around the shrine quickly. Ready to kill whatever was concealed there.
A girl. Barely ten summers old. Slender as a willow switch. Brown as a nut. She looked up at Pandurang with terror writ large in her doe eyes, shrinking further into herself.
Something made the Maratha stop. He was never a wanton killer of men anyway, but now his hand locked into place as if ghostly fingers had clamped it. He breathed hard, then lowered the bicchwa into its sheath again. His arms rose on their own accord and spread towards her in a placating manner.
“Don’t be scared,” he whispered to the girl. “Don’t be scared. I will not harm you.”
We probably just killed her parents, he added ruefully in his head. The girl licked her lips and trembled. She had probably heard of Maratha Bargis raiding the rich Bengali countryside before from bards and legends. To see one towering over her, sword hanging at the side and pistol tucked into a saffron cummerbund... must be mind-numbing. He half expected her to bare fangs and jump upon him any moment.
“What is your name?” Pandurang tried again.
She blinked. “Kali.”
A smile cleaved his face from side to side. His mind was already racing back to the fields and fens of Bengal to Nagpur, to his estate, the villa with hypostyle halls and muslin curtains skirting large French windows. The chamber he had set aside for Padma. Beloved Padma. His darling, the apple of his eye. A nurse had been begged from the local infirmary to look after her for hefty fees. Doctors had arrived from Travancore, from Paris, from London. All of them had mixed their enzymes and elixirs, measured her temperature, and in the end shaken their heads sadly.
This girl, Kali, reminded him so badly of Padma that it was all Pandurang could do to control his tears. A terrible urge to spring forth and envelop her in a bear hug reared inside him like a snake. He resisted it. The smoke of battle had not settled yet. And she was still frightened as a rabbit caught by wolves.
Kaal Kothri was not as wealthy as some of the other villages in Bengal. Its wealth lay primarily in its fields of wheat and paddy. Crops did not qualify as plunder anymore so the Pindaris had to make do with whatever thin plates of bronze and silver they could find in the humble homes, a piece of anklet here and a necklace of pearls there. Everyone was disappointed. But a bit of glimmer was better than jack squat, as the saying went. One man named Krishna fetched the party’s horses from a gully about fifty paces away where they had been hitched. The meagre loot was loaded into saddlebags.
“Kill her and be done with it,” Raghunath said. He had come to see what occupied their leader so much. “The king will never approve and the gods will frown upon us forever, but it is an act of mercy.”
Pandurang slapped his thigh in anger. “Mercy? Tell me you feel merciful while ramming a knife into a nine year old child’s guts.”
“There is no mercy in leaving her here. She can’t fend for herself. Who will feed her? If you can’t kill her then at least bring that nag over here, seat her upon it and send them both galloping to the north. Let them find a larger village. Or a garrison.” Raghunath had lost his earlier swagger. Probably because all the sounds of nature had suddenly stopped. The birds, the insects, the frogs. All deathly silent. Overhead, the sun had been swallowed whole by the serpent Ketu and night crept over the land. With night came unease and even men who would trade jokes and sing merrily under usual circumstances found themselves mired in doubt. Goblins were seen behind every rock at night. It was imperative to move out before complete darkness smothered them.
Pandurang made a snap decision. He gently placed his hands on Kali’s waist and scooped her up in his strong arms, making for the Kathiawari stallion that one of the Pindaris was holding for him. The other Maratha officer shook his head in disapproval and followed him. “She will not survive, sardar. Where will you keep her? Certainly not a nautch school? Or god forbid, a whorehouse.”
He did not answer. Just placed Kali on his horse’s back and swung into the saddle. Nagpur was a bustling city. One of the centres of the empire where traders, philosophers, adventurers and people of a thousand different callings and faiths crossed paths daily. One could very easily start their own story there. The stews and nautch schools were a profitable business no doubt, but as a Brahmin he would lose his caste and honour immediately if word got out that a shiledar of the Maratha Army had sold a child to one of the perfumed, voluptuous dames who ran these shady institutions. No, he would use his contacts at the College and get her into one of the new-fangled classical literature departments that were springing up from the ground these days.
Deep in his heart he knew he was desperately seeking some sort of redemption. Some respite from the ache that gnawed on his soul day and night.
“We make for Nagpur!” Pandurang called out.
With a flick of the reins they were off, one of the last Bargis sent to plunder the Bengal subah as part of an alliance between Raghoji Bhonsle, Lord of Nagpur, and Rustum Jung, whose brother-in-law had been deposed by the current Nawab. Times were changing. The French had defeated the British in a series of wars to the south. The Compagnie francaise pour le commerce des Indes Orientales, also called the French East India Company, had signed a treaty with the ever growing empire which granted them monopoly trading rights in exchange for the promise that the Europeans would remain firmly within their enclaves. Lessons were learned from earlier debacles. The best minds from the dying Mughal Empire and an impoverished England had migrated to Pune to help native Maratha engineers to bring about what the world was calling a stunning feat of modern science. The Industrial Revolution. Soon there would be steam powered carriages and repeating cannons, if the daily rags were to be believed.
The age of savagery and plunder was fast becoming extinct. The Peshwa knew this. His various sardars and generals knew this. The Marathas could no longer be viewed as the horse-warriors of the past who mounted lightning fast skirmishes upon the enemy and vanished hours before an adequate response was organized. When the Europeans looked at India, there should be wonder in their gaze. Not hatred once reserved for the hordes of Genghis Khan or even Attila much farther back. Hence the Bargis were recalled in twos and threes and then altogether. To hell with alliances that corroded reputation.
They rode for ten miles before it became impossible to see the land around them. Pandurang called a halt and camp was made, mostly a fire near a brook and a circle created by the horses. Everyone sat inside the circle and chewed dried strips of meat. Nobody spoke. The recent firman that all bandits were to be recalled and absorbed into the army again, hung heavy over their heads. The Pindaris especially. Irregular horsemen and roughshod mercenaries that they were, there were scant opportunities for them to prosper in the coming time.
Kali sat near Pandurang, playing with his horse’s mane. The girl had not opened her mouth ever since she told him her name. He carved off pieces of meat from his own rations and gave them to her, and Kali ate them without a word. But apart from that she did not offer any more conversation. The men cast dark glowers at her. None dared question the shiledar; he was a gentleman and officer who possessed his own horse and sword. But he knew they did not approve.
Raghunath finished counting his shivrais and tied his pouch tightly to his waist. Then he warmed his hands at the fire, stretched his legs, and cracked his joints. Pandurang watched him keenly. Sure that the man would utter disparagement now. Remind him how he was a fool for bringing along a village girl to a city like Nagpur, where the cultural shock could be crippling for her. But Raghunath said nothing. After a while he simply wished his captain good night, pulled a thick blanket over himself and went to sleep.
The others dozed off soon after that. Pandurang stayed awake for a long time, poking the embers of the fire with a stick and trying to glean scenes from it. The human mind found patterns in the most random of occurrences. In inanimate objects. It created people, cities, seas and animals from fallen leaves and burning faggots.
“Do you want my blanket?” he asked Kali. She had already fallen asleep on the bare grass. Arms acting as a makeshift pillow. Legs folded close to the belly. Smiling as fond memories touched his mind, Pandurang snuggled beneath his own blanket and closed his eyes.
I see the girl again. This time she is naked, feasting on the carcass of what appears to be a rather large animal. She dips her head into a nest of exposed ribs and tears out great gobbets of flesh. Pink strings of gristle dribble from her mouth. She pays no attention to me, fixated on the act of eating.
I take a closer look at the carcass. The legs are bent at a strange angle and the head is too oval to be a deer or buffalo. The ribs... the hands... I realize not with any particular surprise that it is a man. So badly eviscerated that his features are almost unrecognizable. Even the blood has thickened on his rotted clothes and the loam around him. The girl rips out a long tube of intestines and sucks on it in delight. I cannot be sure in the failing light but it appears to me that the corpse is wearing the white and crimson of a Maratha footman.
Shouts in the morning. Pandurang woke up blearily, head packed with the dense fog of the confusing dream. The camp was in utter disarray. The Pindaris sounded panicked which in itself was not a rarity. Usually they would just pack up and run if a challenge appeared too daunting for them. It was the anxiety in Raghunath’s voice which alarmed him.
“What is the matter?” Pandurang asked while rising to his feet in a fluid motion. Kali was also awake. She had taken out a brush of boar’s bristle from one of his saddlebags and was brushing the horse’s coat with it, crooning a Bangla melody.
Raghunath looked distraught. “Mahmud is gone. We woke up this morning and his pallet was empty. Like he got up and walked away sometime in the night.”
Pandurang quickly checked the corral of horses. Mahmud’s mare was very much present, stamping her feet and snickering in nervousness. In fact, every beast present was skittish. “He did not take his horse. Or his gold. What kind of a Pindari leaves his gold behind?”
He was at a loss for words. The others checked the bushes and behind the rocks for him, wondering whether he had passed out drunk on rice wine in the night. Pandurang threw a curious glance at Kali but got rid of the subsequent thoughts. The idea that such a small girl could slit a full grown man’s throat, drag him to a faraway location and dump the corpse in some muddy ditch was fantastic. Rolling up his sleeves, the officer joined the hunt for the missing bargi.
They found him after just an hour of searching. In five different places.
The arms had been ripped off with deliberate slowness and tossed aside like a couple of twigs, bones jutting out of the frayed muscles and skin. In a patch of tall grass. The legs were a mile downstream in the opposite direction, half eaten and crawling with maggots. A copse of mango trees held the intestines which looped around their branches like some macabre garland. Parrots pecked at the pinkish stuff and mocked the warriors as they gazed back with consternation. A large portion of the torso had been abandoned just beneath the tree, propped against the trunk listlessly. Bits of his clothes still stuck to Mahmud’s torn, scratched, body.
In a clearing beyond the copse, the Pindari’s head stared in abysmal horror at Pandurang from a wooden post which perhaps in some bygone age had served as a road sign. The tongue lolled out, lank and dry, and the low-lidded eyes accused his comrades of not being vigilant enough. The beheading had not been clean.
The less hardy men vomited their dinner and rushed back to the camp, clawing out prayer mats and beads to beseech the heavens for succour. Raghunath said nothing but chewed on his moustache. Pandurang shook his head in sorrow, then removed the head from the post and brought it back, burying the grisly object in near the brook. As far as he knew the man did not have any close relations or next of kin save his band. He would not be missed much. But the manner in which he had been killed... butchered like a sheep. Almost as if the beast which had committed the crime wanted some perverse pleasure out of it.
Kali did not show much interest. She glanced at the severed head mutely for some time before turning back to the horse she was brushing. The Pindaris glared at the child with open hostility now. They were certain she had something to do with the killing.
Pandurang felt doubt himself. He took the girl by her arm and walked a few paces away, kneeling down so he faced her directly. “Child, do you know anything about the man who died? Do you know who might have done this?”
Kali played with a knot in her dirty skirt. “Why did you kill all of them? She did not like it.”
The Maratha scowled hard. “Who is she?”
A shout snatched his attention away. Raghunath had discovered something in the ground and he crouched over it, his moustache wobbling furiously. Pandurang jogged over to him. There, on the dark, rich earth fragrant with new rain and rife with the rats and voles and toads who had died with the rain, were a set of hand prints. Wider than a man’s palm and longer than an average human’s fingers. There was an extra digit which curled backwards from the wrist like a cheetah’s dewclaw. Raghunath poked a finger in the print and it sank around two inches in.
“It was here last night,” he remarked. “Huge and bloody strong. Armed with claws. And definitely related to us.”
Pandurang considered it for a moment. If only the teacher of mathematics could see him now. Dallying with monsters in the vast Bengal subah. “Are you sure it is not a wild beast? Tigers can grow up to terrifying sizes in these parts.”
“You have hunted tigers in Kashi. Tell me, does that look like a pug mark to you?”
It did not. They covered up the strange mark with earth to not spook the Pindaris and told them nothing. Kali watched them from a corner of the camp. Her eyes unblinking, filled with neither dread nor alarm. It was a case of cold irony. Hardened soldiers who had fought and slayed countless foes in battle were on the verge of collapse but a slip of a child remained calm. That itself was unsettling.
Pandurang gave orders to mount up and start riding west at full speed. They would reach the borders of Nagpur the next day if the current course was maintained faithfully. Nobody needed any encouragement. They knotted the reins around their hands and drummed their horses’ flanks cruelly, sending the animals thundering down the plains. When twilight painted the sky purple about seven hours later the party halted, once again made a circle of horseflesh and lit four fires. One at the centre of the camp and the rest arranged like a triangle around the perimeter, blazing brightly to chase away the phantoms of the night. Meat was passed around along with a hip flask of whiskey. Men settled down to brood.
Raghunath told Pandurang about an incident from ten years ago. A party of bargis had set out from Nagardhan to do their lord’s bidding, thirty men strong and each one of them a cavalryman of the army. It was time when the ministers still advocated maintaining close ties with Rustum Jung and political correctness was yet not discovered. Out of the thirty men only one ever came back to Nagpur. Deprived of his warhorse and turban, sword and lance. Gibbering nonsense about the night attacking his brothers and carrying them away one by one. Upon examination by doctors from the college, he was declared insane and confined to a sanatorium.
“He kept blabbering about some creature of the night that had four arms and ten heads,” Raghunath recounted, gazing dreamily into the dancing flames. “Poor man had had his wits addled by whatever ungodly thing had killed the rest of his band.”
Pandurang nodded. Sleep threatened to engulf him. “Maybe he had been tortured. The Nawab’s men ambushed them and left one alive to tell the tale.”
“Damn it, shiledar. You are still thinking like a soldier. Get down from your high horse. Scrounge among the witches, the medicine-wives, the vamacharis.”
“Are you suggesting our adversary is supernatural in nature?” Pandurang asked. He tried to inject some contempt into his voice, but drowsiness robbed half of it. The other half was barred by his own confusion. He wondered whether bringing Kali along had been a good decision. By allowing his heart to rule his head, he had actually condemned himself and his men to a doomed fate. But the girl lay curled up at his feet even now, and abandoning her in the wild would be an ever greater sin.
“What else could it be?” The younger man spoke. “Should have taken a priest along. Or at least one of the vamacharis who sell charms for a song nowadays everywhere in the empire. Did you see Mahmud today? He was toyed with, Pandurang. Wild animals don’t do that.”
There was a truth to his words that could not be denied. The man had been utterly destroyed. And whatever took him had come very close to their camp, probably broken his neck to prevent him from crying out in pain, and then dragged him away. The thought that a hideous cannibal monster had been just inches away while he slept gave the Maratha shivers. He took extra care to post two sentries around the camp while all of them slept side by side in a row of pallets. Covered with a thick wad of blankets and weapons close at hand. The slightest rustle, the faintest click of claw against stone, and blades would come singing out of their sheaths. Kali huddled close to Pandurang for warmth and comfort and promptly fell asleep. Regarding her with wary eyes for some time, he willed himself to slumber as well.
The girl stares long and hard at me. I have disturbed her meal and perhaps she considers tearing into me with tooth and nail, tearing out my liver and plucking out the eyes from my head to eat like grapes. The thought stirs my loins. The naked girl resembling a Greek wood nymph, flecked with blood and smeared with mud, hair cascading down the bony shoulders and small breasts. A medley of expressions stamped upon the face. Hunger, caution... lust.
A loud crash yanks her head abruptly to the left. There, something is watching us. From the shadows of the undergrowth. Something tall and black, merely a suggestion of a form. Unmoving. Silent. I squint to see what it is, but the girl seems excited. Dropping the hand she was eating with relish, she darts away into the darkness like a deer. An ululating howl of delight rips out of her lungs.
Raghunath’s yell of fright woke everyone up.
In a trice tulwars were rasping to life as warriors sprang to their feet and rushed hither and thither, crying out challenges to various demons. It was still an hour before dawn. Pandurang armed himself with both his sword and pistol and scanned the surroundings, heart hammering in his chest. Raghunath was staring madly at the spot where they had set sentries scant hours before. Both the men no longer stood.
“I saw it!” he cried out. “I saw the fucking monster! I was pretending to sleep when it appeared from there!” A shaky finger pointed at the long line of trees that had flanked them all the way from Kaal Kothri. Seemingly endless. Tall, ancient towers of leaf and bole that hid only the gods knew what unspeakable horrors in their midst. Pandurang felt a frisson of primal fear as he gazed upon them. A raven shrieked back at him, as if daring the brave warrior to explore its home.
Instead, he caught hold of his lieutenant and slapped him viciously across the face. “What did it look like? Where did it go?”
Raghunath gulped. He looked shocked out of his wits, which was quite unnatural for a man of his flamboyance. “Like the night come alive. Too dark.”
There was no use getting anything out of him. Pandurang gave the man some whiskey out of his own flask and sent him to sleep while he inspected the dead sentries. Krishna and Ali. Two of the best Pindaris he had fought alongside in many campaigns. Hard men, one from Mirzapur and the other from Indore, who had faced hissing, spitting, much better armoured soldiers of twenty different lands and races and forced them back with sheer muscle. Torn apart like rag dolls now. Cleft open from chin to groin, eyes gouged out leaving black pits behind. And arms broken so badly that nubs of bone protruded from the skin in many places. Their swords were still inside the scabbards and the powder was still dry. Meaning both had been dispatched at the same time or one after the other but so swiftly that they did not have enough time to even comprehend what was happening.
And scattered all around the site were the same abnormally large, humanoid hand prints.
Pandurang dragged the corpses away from the camp and tossed them into one of the bigger fires, adding a load of faggots and some black powder from his store of cartridges to help the process along. The stench of burning flesh charged the air. He came back and ordered the remaining men to stay awake for the rest of the night. They were only too happy to agree. Every man sat with his back to the other and clenched blades tightly, rifles loaded and placed on the ground before them to enable instant firing.
Kali crawled forwards and tugged at Pandurang’s sleeve. He stooped low, and she whispered in his ear. “She is out there. Hunting you. I can smell her.”
Keeping his voice low so the others could not hear him, he questioned who she meant. “Is it someone from the village?”
“No. She was there when my grandfather decided to found Kaal Kothri with his companions. She was always there, sleeping in caverns beneath our feet. Hunting pig and nilgai in the forests and fields. The occasional child. My grandfather made a deal with her.”
Pandurang’s curiosity was inflamed further. Could it be that a savage, primal cross between man and monster dwelt in the wild lands around Kaal Kothri? One intelligent enough to understand the various emotions of human beings and feel them itself?
“Tell me more about her. Please.”
“We made offerings to her every week. Sometimes a buffalo. Sometimes a mule. Sometimes a couple of chickens. One year she refused all other animals we set before her and took to destroying our fields, so a child was given up.” Kali said it so normally that it did not seem she was affected by her people sacrificing livestock and offspring to a barbaric entity. It was quite natural for her.
“And she protects you from bandits in return?” he pressed further.
The girl nodded. “My mother told me once that she is actually a goddess who favours us. So we modelled our lives after her mannerisms. Filing our teeth once the thirteenth year was reached. Eating raw meat.”
“What is her name? How do you know she is a female?”
Kali was mute again. She did not have the answers to these questions. Pandurang abandoned the line of inquiry and bade her sleep while he held vigil. The night suddenly seemed to stretch on and on, smothering them all in a veil of Stygian darkness. The trees in the distance swayed as the breeze caressed them, silent and sinister. It seemed like one mammoth trap. Designed to crush men who breached the womb of Bengal with sharp iron in hand and murder in their hearts. One wrong step and the jaws of wood and steel would snap them all up, chew them into bloody bits and spit out what remained.
The day dawned grey and morose. Raghunath had developed a fever which ravaged his body. He shook off all help and mounted his horse himself, though once he was seated firmly in the saddle he simply rested his head on the stallion’s neck and closed his eyes. Pandurang drew up beside him with Kali in front of him. The last four Pindaris formed the rear guard. They were bristling with weapons harvested from the dead, primed and ready to go. The riderless nags and mares were also brought along because if nothing, they could fetch a good price in the bazaars.
After an hour Pandurang spotted the post which marked the end of the Bengal subah and beginning of the Maratha Empire. The land dipped unusually, undulating like the coils of a giant subterranean serpent, skipping and hopping till it met a vast wetland where snipe and ducks honked noisily. The air became sweet and light. Pandurang breathed it in, letting the honeyed taste linger at the back of his throat and spread all the way through his limbs like a balm. Driving out the sense of corruption and unease that had accompanied him since the plunder of Kaal Kothri.
Kali squirmed in her seat. She winced all of a sudden and tried to get down, frantic in her efforts. At the same time the Kathiwari neighed in panic and started rearing; Pandurang retained his seat and his neck only because of his rigorous training at the military school. His hand strayed to the hilt of his tulwar even as he wondered what the matter was.
All the other horses were snorting and whimpering now, striving to break away from the column and bolt. Kali clapped hands to her ears and began writhing. Like in the throes of a seizure. Beside Pandurang, Raghunath slipped down from his saddle—nay, he was pulled down! “Bastards!” Pandurang roared while swinging his legs over the horse’s back. He landed on the ground and drew his tulwar, eyes hot and bright as live coals. The Pindari called Kaak stabbed Raghunath multiple times with a dagger in the spot where his shoulder met his neck. The warrior was too weak to defend himself. He just glared at his killer as if that was enough to burn him to ashes, and then died quietly. A tiny stream of blood bubbled out of his mouth. The other Pindaris stood in a circle around their comrade. The swords had not come out of the sheaths yet but three rifles pointed his way. French in design, grooved barrels, premeasured cartridges making it quick to reload. Pandurang made a mental note to ask all the quartermasters of all the Maratha houses to forbid mercenaries from taking weapons from the state stock.
Kaak wiped his bloodied dagger on a length of his own turban and stood up. He did not have the malicious glint of treason in his eyes like most mutineers did. On the contrary, the man looked scared to death. His face was pale as a sheet of mill paper.
“Sardar,” Kaak began. “Your reputation as an honest man is well known in Nagpur. If we deserted, you would have come after us with a large troop of shiledars.”
Pandurang watched his friend and lieutenant lying lifeless upon the ground. In a different land, not even the minarets and stews of his beloved home. He felt despondent and bemused at the same time. Despondent because it was a terrible loss to the army and humanity in general. Bemused because for all his talk of sexual prowess, Raghunath had ultimately died a bachelor and his heart belonging to no woman. He hefted the tulwar in both hands and half-crouched, slipping smoothly into battle position. Kali hid behind him.
“It is all because of her,” Kaak continued, pointing at the little girl. His comrades nodded in sullen agreement. “She is cursed. Give her to us.”
“You have already committed treason, Pindari,” came the growling reply. “That’s why the Peshwa advises us against hiring your kind. Unclean, barbaric, uncivilized. And bloody cowards. Don’t add to your sins by slaughtering a child.”
“Don’t preach morals, Maratha.” Kaak had grown bold with his act of rebellion. “Two days ago, who ordered us to open fire on a village full of civilians? Your own friend.”
He launched into a diatribe against how the empire was a juggernaut that crushed those who defied it underneath it. It was a monolith carved from the bones of a hundred kingdoms and dynasties, a million people. It was the rakshasa that had beggared honest folk in the name of employing them. And while he cursed and spat, the birds fell silent all at once.
“She comes,” Kali whispered. Pandurang heard but did not acknowledge it. He sensed the shift in the air as well. The sweetish smell of decay. A feeling of cold dread in his gut. His grip on the sword turned clammy and nigh slipped, but he maintained the posture anyway. If they opened fire he would become paneer cheese within a millisecond and die before he knew he was hit. But before that could happen, an unearthly shriek rang out of the last neck of the woods.
Kaak broke off mid-rant and turned in that direction, all the bravado seeping out of his bladder in a trice. He shouted at his friends to aim muskets and hold. Pandurang had to smile. Lesser men always sought to become leaders in the middle of a crisis by eliminating the ones above them. He bid his time for a lunge that would kill the obnoxious Pindari and save him from getting shot due to knee-jerk reactions from his friends.
Something emerged from the treeline and leaped towards the group at incredible speed. It was taller than the tallest man Pandurang had ever seen, black as boiling pitch and possessing a skull which angled steeply towards the front. The creature’s hair billowed like a horse’s tail as it ran towards them on all fours, long and braided with little trinkets that appeared to be gold and silver from this distance. Full melon breasts swung wildly from a ridged chest. Holy Durga, it is indeed a female. A woman almost. Pandurang fought to keep his rising panic in the nether regions firmly and rooted his feet to the ground. Whatever happened, he could not afford to let his wits be overwhelmed now.
A Pindari fired his musket. The ball slammed into the creature’s arm but she did not falter. With a wolfish howl she launched herself upon him and began ripping into the unfortunate man with long, spider like arms. He screamed in mortal agony and bawled like a child, the sound cutting off suddenly when she ripped out his throat. There was blood and excrement everywhere. Another Pindari fired from point blank range and hit again, only to be disembowelled with a casual swipe of dagger like claws. The last Pindari threw away his gun and started to flee. The monster snarled and skewered him with a finger, twisting it inside the wound while blood leaked out like a rivulet.
Kaak twirled his tulwar once and decided he would go down in history as a man who had slain a monster from the bowels of hell. But before he could take even one step forward, Pandurang exploded into action, lopping his head clean off his shoulders. Doing so, he came face to face with the huntress that had stalked his party so long. So close that he could count the wrinkles in her hide.
She had hair as black as night. Skin as sable as night. Eyes as dark as obsidian. In her sharp cheekbones and flabby chin he found a feral beauty. A beauty that only a bard could appreciate. The thin mouth, lined with yellowish fangs, dribbled blood and bits of flesh. She smelled of birth and death and afterbirth. Mould and morning dew, burning wood and freshly turned soil, the salty ammonia odour of piss. The mixture of scents reached inside Pandurang and brushed away his fears, igniting a lust he had not felt for years. He felt his groin harden.
“Don’t kill him, mother,” Kali chirped. She ran up to the monster and hugged one of her fleshy, elongated legs. Some of the bestial hunger drained out of that alien face. “He’s a good man. He protected me from the bad ones.”
Pandurang breathed hard, leaning on his tulwar’s hilt for support. He felt euphoric and depressed at the same time. As if he had one foot each in two boats, sailing down the holy Ganges. The monster growled once and nuzzled Kali like she was her child, keeping her eyes on the man all the time. She did not trust humans. Violent humans.
“You can go, uncle.” Kali turned around to speak to him. There was a smile upon the girl’s pinched face. A bright smile. She was with someone she loved and trusted. “She came for me. And she will not harm you.”
Perhaps it was the sheer outlandishness of the scene in front of him or something else, but suddenly Pandurang snapped out of the reverie. A watchful god had grabbed his hair and pulled his head out of the pond of honey he had been drowning in. The Maratha officer awakened. Priorities were asserted again.
“If I go back to Nagpur,” he told Kali. “I will have to file an official report with the Senapati. Word will reach the Peshwa and he will hastily commission a huge army to march into Bengal and capture, or kill, your... mother.”
Kali played with one of the hooked fingers and buried her face in the creature’s downy chest. “You will all die. No matter how strong you are. Mother was out hunting in Morshidabad when you arrived. You escaped her. The next time fortune may not favour you.”
His eyes narrowed. “The Empire has some of the world’s best warriors. What can one creature do against a thousand full-blooded soldiers?”
The smile turned sinister. “Who said there is only one?”