The sky above is impossibly blue, striped with bright bands of clouds tinged pink and orange with the coming sunrise. There are a few stars still sparkling in the heavens, and the moon, bigger than it looks beyond the borders of this land, hangs low and near.
The pack of spotted jackals is also near. Their baying is a goad. If we do not find some shelter, some escape, we are done for. The wind whips our scent into their long noses, maddening them. They will tear us to pieces if they catch us.
I am not worried. I have no reason to be. Not yet.
We are all gasping as we run up the side of a low hillock, even me, long used to ascents. I am weighted down with most of our gear and our water reserve, and that, I am less used to, though the last month has hardened me considerably.
“Come on, Bridget!” shouts Dr. Sangare, pelting pell-mell down the side of the hill, nearly slipping on the waving grasses. One hand keeps her tattered, dusty bowler in place against the gusts, the other windmills her back into balance as her pack slams hard on her hip. Her tweed jacket flies open, revealing the knives strapped across her chest. She is good with them, but not good enough to stop a pack of ravenous dogs from rending us limb from limb. “We must get to that . . . thingy!”
The thingy is a rocky prominence in the distance. If we were closer to home, I would think it was a cairn to mark the path for travelers. But we are not close to home, and here there are no marked paths. Or travelers, for that matter.
“I don’t think,” gasps Bridget, “we’ll make it.” She is struggling too, nearly tripping as her skirts whip and snap around her ankles like a prayer flag. The leather-and-bronze hip holster glimmers bright as her flaming hair; she is an excellent shot, but the dogs are too many, too quick to make her superb marksmanship useful.
“We must make it,” says Dr. Sangare. Her fierce determination steadies Bridget. They are a good team, they complement one another.
Neither calls to me. Why should they? I have proven myself strong and reliable time and again, and besides, I cannot return their encouragement. Anyway, I was not hired to cheer them onward. I was hired to carry into Leng what they could not manage by themselves, and haul back what they raided from the barrows of her ancient queens.
As we keep running, the spire in the distance takes on new details. To my surprise, it does appear to be a cairn—but an enormous one. Vaguely pyramidal in shape, wind and rain has smoothed away the rougher edges of the piled boulders; some have tumbled from the heights and lie scattered about the base.
“It’s too far.” Bridget is lagging behind her companion; I can see her legs are shaking with fatigue. “Dily . . . I . . . I don’t think we’ll be dying rich.”
“What’s our plan once we’re there?”
Dr. Sangare’s question distracts Bridget from her worries; she is already assessing the tactical possibilities, and runs the faster for it. “To the top,” she says. “High ground. We’ll each take up a station, pick off as many as we can with boulders, rocks, my pistol, whatever we can find. Maybe if we keep them at bay for long enough, they’ll get bored.”
“All right,” says Dr. Sangare. Sweat gleams on her dark forehead, it glistens like stars against the night sky. “Got that, Krishna?”
She looks back. I nod.
“He’s smiling,” observes Bridget, as we redouble our pace. “The fuck is he smiling about? Doesn’t he know we’re in danger?”
“Try asking him,” says Dr. Sangare.
“Right,” says Bridget.
If I could, I would tell them that we are in danger . . . but not in danger of dying. I would know. But I cannot tell them, so I do not, and we run on in silence.
Though they carry less than I, they have more trouble than I climbing up the slippery rocks when we reach them. Well, neither grew up trekking from village to village over dangerous passes, or scrambling up escarpments to get at berries or birds’ eggs.
As the jackals bound closer, a slavering, yipping, howling mass of furry and toothy hunger, Bridget slips a second time. I sling off my pack and go down to help her up.
“Thanks, Krishna,” she wheezes, as she clambers up beside me, now marginally safer.
Unlike many visitors to my home village, Bridget and Dr. Sangare have always been polite. I nod in response to her thanks, and shouldering the pack, I point higher.
Dr. Sangare has gotten above us, squatting on the top of the rock pile. The sun has risen, and she tips up the brim of her bowler, squinting in the dawn light.
“There’s an awful lot of them,” she observes.
“We’ll do what we can. I mean, we’ve made it this far.” Bridget hauls herself onto a flattish boulder and sets to looking over her pistol. “Krishna, anything to add?”
“Even facing down death, still silent as the grave?” Bridget shakes her head. The handful of ruddy curls that have escaped her tight bun bounce.
“Here they come,” says Dr. Sangare. Her black eyes glint as she raises a boulder the size of my head over her own. Hurling it down upon the jackals, it bounces once, twice, then strikes one in the face. Its jaw is torn off, and the resulting red spray mists those next to it. The jawless jackal runs another step, then falls over twitching.
The dead jackal’s companions pause for a moment to look at the ruined corpse of their companion, then turn to look at us. One growls.
“Woo!” cries Dr. Sangare, pointing at the dogs. “That’s right, you mangy mongrels!”
Dr. Sangare turns around, looking this way and that for another rock. She spies a candidate, resting at the meeting point of two large boulders. She steps out onto the flatter, lower of the two. It wobbles beneath her foot, and tips inward.
“Dily!” cries Bridget, leaping to her partner’s side, but the doctor is already sliding, slipping into the black chasm. She screams, once, and then we hear a terrible thump.
Bridget is there, kneeling, peering down, calling Dr. Sangare’s name. There is no response. I peek over the edge; it’s impossible to see anything.
A growl turns my attention behind me. Three jackals have gained the top of the mound. One barks. Another snarls. I think about what color the snarl might have been, in my mind, before my color-sense changed. Before I could only see one color in my mind. One color that meant one thing.
They advance. I make my decision.
I push Bridget into the blackness. She screams as I jump in after. But of course, I do not make a sound as I fall.
• • • •
I used to hear in color, and count and smell, too. The sound of Mother patting out parathas was warm golden yellow, the smell of our yak a fresh green; a pile of five stones was maroon, but a pile of seven, pale purple. I didn’t see these colors, not exactly . . . Zopa, our yak, was creamy white and warm brown, and stones were . . . stone-colored. Just the same, I knew the colors were there, hovering at the edges of my understanding of the world, but vital to it. When I thought hard about certain things, I could sense the color with it in my mind. It was never distracting; in fact, it often helped me remember things, like how many sheepskins I’d last seen in the barn.
All that changed when I went to see where the star struck near the base of Chomolungma, Mother of the World, which visitors call Mount Everest. The night before, we all had seen it streaking through the sky, its tail redder than the War God’s skin. Everyone was curious, of course, but some people in our village refused to go see what had fallen—the old-timers in particular said that if it had been cast out of Heaven, it was not for man to look upon. Those of us who would go went anyway, laughing at them, and at their children, sour-faced and resentful at being kept at home.
The crater was smoking like a cup of su cha on a cold morning when we came upon it, but in spite of all the dead trees and blackened stones, the earth was not too warm to walk on. Still, the strangeness of it put off many of our party, and they stood well away from the lip of the depression.
Something did seem wrong . . . it was the shadows, as if the sun shone differently upon that place than elsewhere. My sister begged me not to go nearer, and many agreed we should turn around. I would not listen, and went to see, walking over the hot earth until at last I saw what lay at the center. It was a rough, vaguely spherical stone, not much smaller than a wagon-wheel. I approached the steaming boulder, and saw a long fissure ran along it.
I am not sure what I thought I might see if I gazed into its depths, but gaze I did. What lurked within was of such a strange nature! I would call it a color . . . but it was not a color I knew.
No one else looked within, in part because I am told once I saw this sight, I uttered a wordless cry and staggered back before collapsing. And the next day, when others from our village went to inspect the place, the object, and whatever had lurked within it, had unaccountably disappeared.
This was all told to me afterwards; I lay unconscious for nearly a week. And when I awoke, I found that either I or the world had changed. Whatever it was, color or something else, I had been blinded by it, in part. I still saw, but from that day forth, I no longer felt the blue-green comfort of the number nine, or knew the crimson warmth of the sound of cattle lowing.
It had also taken my voice from me. I could not say a word after waking from that strange, dreamless slumber. Before I got used to silence, I would try, only to become so overwhelmed with the memory of what I had seen that it seemed to me the world spun faster under my feet, and I was in danger of falling off it. I quickly trained myself to not speak—or think about speaking, and not long after that, I found I would rather keep silent . . . for I discovered that seeing what I had seen had not only taken something from me, but given me something in return.
I first noticed it when grandmother passed me my plate of dal bhat one night. Her hand shook in a strange way, spilling the hot lentils on my lap. Later, when I was resentfully scrubbing out my chhuba, I thought about her, and how the color, that color, had infused the memory, clinging to her as a butterfly clings to a flower in a stiff wind. I did not understand the significance, but as long as I thought of her, the color was there.
A day later, a spasm shook her. She messed herself, and then she started making a sound halfway between a groan and a cry. There was nothing anyone could do. She wailed and grunted all night. When the dawn broke, she finally stopped, but it was because she had died.
For a time, I worried I had killed her. I carried the weight of it like a faggot of wood until I saw the color again, in my mind, when my father’s brother by marriage went to another village to trade, and stayed away longer than expected. A day later, a party was sent out to find him, only to discover he had been crushed beneath a falling tree while camping for the night. It was not clear when the accident had occurred, but I thought it unlikely I had caused it.
Just the same, I felt no relief, for I knew then the awful truth about what it meant to see that color in my mind. It was a terrible thing, and I felt I would almost rather die than live among those I loved, knowing when they must die.
When Dr. Sangare and Bridget arrived in our village, asking for a guide to Leng, it surprised my family when I volunteered to escort the two strange women to that dangerous land from whence few ever returned. I helped them to understand as best I could that I wanted to go—made the point that my knowledge of English would be a boon to their little expedition. In the end, they accepted my gestured explanations, and let me go, though reluctantly.
For the first time since I was struck dumb, I was grateful that I could not communicate the truth. How could I explain that I would rather focus my attention on those whom I did not care if they died?
• • • •
The expedition started off well enough. Dr. Sangare and Bridget were excellent travelers, willing to wake up early, help fix meals, and best of all, they kept to a reasonable pace and therefore never suffered from the altitude or the distance. They had packed more than necessary, but everyone always does; I knew that from hearing my cousins talk about guiding hikers. But my companions hadn’t taken all that much more than they needed, and they always carried some of their own gear.
They were kind and friendly, always making sure I was eating and drinking enough, and never making fun of me when they did something I found bizarre, or vice versa. I knew that trekkers were often rude to their guides, so I felt lucky. It made the journey much more enjoyable than I expected.
They knew about me only what the other English-speakers in my village had told them—that I had learned English from a monk who had come to our monastery all the way from Kathmandu, that I had often trekked through the Himalayas, and knew the pass that would take them through to Leng. They told me similarly little of themselves, but I put together a kind of history from their conversations, so I knew that Dr. Sangare had traveled to England from a country called Mali in order to study medicine. But, as women were not allowed at the university, she had learned to dress and act like an Englishman in order to earn her degree, and liked it so much she retained her suits even after she left.
Or rather, was asked to leave. After only a year. Pretending to be a man had gotten her in the door, but she could not pretend away the color of her skin. The other students had made life difficult for her, stealing her books, humiliating her in class, preventing her from accessing the various laboratories open to the student doctors. In order to get enough experience in dissecting corpses, she’d ended up needing to exhume her own. When she was caught, instead of seeing her dedication for what it was, her college had shown her the door. Dr. Sangare was of the opinion they’d been only too glad to see the back of her; almost grateful to her for giving them a reason to do so, so early in her career.
Bridget was possessed of as checkered a past. She had had many trades, most of them involving some degree of law-breaking, and was possessed of many skills, the majority of them illegal. She was a survivor, cunning and wise, but kind and cheerful too.
Dr. Sangare had opened an unlicensed women’s clinic after being dismissed, helping working women with illnesses picked up in any number of common ways, as well as providing family planning services. It was there that she’d met Bridget, and while one was dark and the other fair, one educated and one world-wise, each had seen herself in the other.
The capital Dr. Sangare used to open her clinic had come largely from the sale of certain personal effects she had claimed from those bodies she had procured while still in medical school. Unfortunately, given her chosen clientele’s lack of solvency, she didn’t make enough to keep herself in medicine and meals and to also bribe the lawmakers into looking the other way when they realized what she was doing.
Bridget stuck by Dr. Sangare even after the scandal, offering her a place to stay when her clinic was shut down and her assets were all seized. While living together, they discussed the sensational news regarding a Dr. Carter’s recent expedition to Egypt—as well as the estimated value of what he had discovered. Dr. Sangare knew how to rob a grave, and Bridget knew how to get by on not a lot, even in unfamiliar places, so they decided almost that very night to try something similar. The pockets of the unwary and the graves of the damned supplied everything they needed to get to someplace with deeper pockets and more fabulous graves. And in order to make the most from their efforts, they decided that they would keep the expedition to just the two of them.
How they settled on Leng, I never did find out. All I heard was that they had “obtained” a map allegedly showing the burial valley of Leng’s ancient warrior queens; after we made it over the pass, it was toward this we headed. I was never as convinced of its existence as they were, but I hoped it was real. Though I was appalled by Dr. Sangare’s grave-robbing, and alarmed by Bridget’s nonchalance about having been a hired killer, thief, and prostitute at various times in her life, I came to respect them both for their determination and passion. I came to like them.
I like to think they came to respect me and like me, too.
• • • •
I awaken, tasting dirt and blood. I spit out a tooth, which bounces away and disappears. It is black down in the pit; I see nothing but a patch of sky through the hole we tumbled through.
I feel around in the darkness, and cut myself before discovering our lantern, shattered in the fall. Were I able, I’d curse, for the hot gush between my thumb and forefinger makes me aware of the sticky blood on my face, in my eyes; the scrapes all over my body.
I find some bit of ragged cloth and wrap my hand, which makes it easier to get one of our emergency candles lit. The brightness sets my eyes watering, but eventually I can see enough to look around.
We are in a conical cave. Cobwebs cling to everything, and the floor is littered with dusty chunks of masonry. The most interesting thing is the staircase, spiraling to the hole above along the side of the structure. I frown at it, as I feel my aches and pains from the fall.
My two companions are slumped on the floor. I trot over to them. They are both breathing, but Bridget’s arm is twisted under her body in a way that sets my stomach rolling. She will need medical attention. Fortunately, there’s a doctor close at hand.
I drizzle some of our precious water onto Dr. Sangare’s face, getting a little in her mouth. She sputters and licks her lips, then gingerly pushes herself to a seated position.
“Krishna!” She looks around. “Are we safe?”
“How did you get down here?”
I point skyward.
“You jumped?” She seems annoyed. “Now we’re all stuck!”
I point at the stairs. Her eyes widen.
I shook my head.
“What a damn fool thing to do!”
I raise an eyebrow, folding my arms over my chest. She sighs.
“What I mean is thank you.” She winces, stretching out her legs. The knee of her trouser has been ripped away, and her black flesh beneath is red and pink with blood. “At the very least we’re safe from those jackals in here.”
I point at Bridget. Dr. Sangare gasps, and pulls herself over to her partner.
“She’s still out cold! We need to get her up.”
I pour water into Bridget’s mouth. She does not stir.
Dr. Sangare frowns. She looks worried. I am not. If Bridget were in real danger, I’d know.
“Bridget!” She shakes the girl. “Come on!”
“Gngh,” says Bridget, eyelids flickering. “Ow.”
We get her up, and take a look at her arm. It is definitely broken.
“We’ll have to set it,” Dr. Sangare says, frown deepening.
I can see how much pain Bridget is in already, and hold up a single finger. While they watch, mystified, I pack a chillum with hash. I pantomime how to smoke.
“What . . .” Bridget winces. “I suppose I can’t ask why.”
I consider this and point to my arm, making a wracked expression, as if I’m in pain.
“I see.” She looks to Dr. Sangare, who shrugs. “Well, I suppose I’ll try it . . .”
I help her get the pipe lit off the candle, and encourage her as she hacks and coughs on the thick smoke. When we see the relaxation on her face, we know it’s time.
Dr. Sangare puts her belt between Bridget’s teeth, a wise precaution. It is my job to hold her as Dr. Sangare sets the bone. She screams, but recovers quickly, as Dr. Sangare splints the arm and then constructs a makeshift sling from a scarf. When she’s finished, I pass out some goat jerky.
“Well, that’s done,” mumbles Bridget, through a mouthful, “but even if the jackals are gone, I’m afraid I’ll need to rest a bit.”
“I suppose I’ll do some exploring,” says Dr. Sangare, finishing her portion with one enormous bite. “This place must have been made by people for some purpose. Let’s see if they left anything behind.”
She grabs a piece of firewood and makes a torch of it, tearing Bridget’s petticoat into strips to wrap around one end and dousing it all in the last of our lamp oil. Bridget giggles, watching this, but I make the concerned Dr. Sangare understand that this is normal, a side effect of the hash.
Dr. Sangare begins to wave her torch about. We see there is a cavernous door in the wall; a corridor that slopes downward. We must be beneath ground level, but we can go yet deeper.
She looks from the door to me. “Krishna—want to come?”
I look from Dr. Sangare to Bridget. The girl nods.
“I’ll be fine,” she says vaguely, helping herself to more jerky.
Before I go, I wrap the remainder and tuck it out of sight. If the hunger comes on her, as it can with hash sometimes, I don’t want her eating everything we have left.
The ceiling is much lower in the tunnel. Dr. Sangare and I pad along, her hunched over; me upright with my head only a few inches from the rock, winding our way deeper as we go. Our path is a spiral, curving in on itself, a continuation of the staircase leading out of the conical chamber above. I see Dr. Sangare checking her pocket watch every so often. She’s timing our descent. It occurs to me that this is a woman used to sneaking around in unfamiliar places.
In unfamiliar graves.
“I wonder what this place is,” she mutters. “It wasn’t on our map . . .”
I cannot muse with her, but having looked at that map, which had only the vaguest markings, I am hardly surprised it left a few things off.
Eventually the tunnel bottoms out. A low gate has been built into the living rock, two stone slabs topped with a third. There is a chamber beyond the portal, and Dr. Sangare immediately squats down, thrusting the torch within and peering about.
I am more concerned by the hideous carving of a jackal-headed monster that sits atop the portal. Wings curve from its shoulder blades and teeth from its maw. It is hideous, sinister, and Dr. Sangare’s torchlight glints off the polished stones of its eyes in a way that makes it look almost alive.
I find it strange that no door blocks our passage. There is only this silent stone guardian protecting what lies within. I note there is some kind of writing carved at its cruel feet.
“Coming?” asks Dr. Sangare. She seems excited.
I point to the statue; the unfamiliar script. Dr. Sangare shrugs impatiently.
“There’s gold in there,” she says, and darts inside.
I consider whether I will go in after her, and that’s when I see it. The color. Like the halo of flames surrounding the glorious goddess Palden Lhamo, the color is all around Dr. Sangare in my mind’s eye. I cannot say anything, and when I think about trying, the blackness appears behind my eyes with that telltale sensation of faintness.
Something about this place has doomed her. She does not know it, but I do.
I dart inside after her. Perhaps it isn’t too late.
Once I’m through, I can’t think of the color in my mind, for I am overwhelmed with all the very real gold. It limns the cave and every object in it, red-gold and yellow-gold and orange-gold, depending on where Dr. Sangare’s torch is burning. She is running to and fro, staring at everything, mouth open.
“Krishna!” she calls. Her voice is pitched higher than usual. “This is it! Look at it all!”
I am looking. Heaps of coins, diadems, bangles, cloth of gold, gold and jewel-encrusted weapons, even mirrors; the golden backing riming the reflective glass like early ice along the edges of a frozen puddle. It is a queen’s barrow, such as my companions dreamed of finding.
Dr. Sangare whoops and sings, racing from one pile to the next, selecting baubles and shoving handfuls of coins in her pockets. I sit back, dismayed, wondering what here could spell her doom. Is there a trap? A curse? Everything and nothing seems possible in that glimmering grave.
She slings a heavy chain of gold links around my neck before I can stop her. “Very handsome!” she hoots, before going deeper to see what else she can see.
I am still squatting near the entrance when I hear, “Krishna!” I lope quickly after her, worried, but when I find her amid the splendor, I see that she is excited, not upset. She has found the queen—or at least a queenly-looking skeleton, perched upon a throne. She holds a sword in one hand, and some sort of idol in the other. The weight of a heavy crown has caused her clean white skull to list forward.
The crown comes to two strange points. They look like long ears.
“I want it.” Dr. Sangare is transfixed not by the crown or the sword, but by the golden object clutched in the queen’s left hand. It is a miniature version of the guardian I saw above the tomb’s entrance. “Hold this,” she says, thrusting the torch into my hands.
The color in my mind is brighter than ever, and I realize the idol is the source of the danger. I pluck at her tweed sleeve, urging her to leave it be, come away.
“What?” she asks, annoyed.
I point at the statuette and shake my head. She rolls her eyes. I tighten my grasp on her wrist. I shake my head again. I wish I could tell her something, anything, but I cannot, so I do not.
“Don’t be so superstitious,” she snaps, wresting herself free.
I step back. I have never heard a tone like that in her voice. It frightens me. I point at it, and her, but I know not how to tell her without words that the gilded thing means death.
“I didn’t hire you to lecture me,” she says, turning back to the idol. She lifts it gingerly enough, but the skeleton comes unbalanced once the weight is gone, and falls forward with a rattle of dry bones. The head bows, the sword clatters to the ground in a puff of dust, and the free hand jerks forward.
A finger points directly at Dr. Sangare.
She takes no notice; she is too entranced by her find, the tiny model of a winged snarling jackal now cradled in her hands. She leans in to the torchlight, studying its intricate details.
“Bridget,” she breathes, “oh, Bridget . . . don’t you worry. We’ll die rich, yes we fucking will.”
I resist the urge to knock it out of her hands, cast the thing away. What good would it do? She is resolved upon having it, was resolved before she even picked it up. I see it in her eyes, and in her posture. The way she touches it.
“Just think of what the British Museum will pay for it.” She grins at me. “Eat your heart out, Lawrence of Arabia! Dily of Leng is about to eclipse your fame!”
I carry an armful of riches back up the spiraling corridor, but my heart is heavier than the gold. I can share none of their joy over the find, though I know it is extraordinary.
They do not notice my mood. They are too busy delighting in their fortune. Dr. Sangare shows it all to Bridget, piece by piece. I notice she gives every item to her partner to fondle, save for the idol. That, she holds before Bridget’s eyes, keeping it in her own hands.
“How much can we carry back, is the question?”
Bridget and Dr. Sangare look over at me.
“Krishna, what do you think?”
What I think and what I can communicate are two very different things. I look at their gear, and think about the volume of gold below our feet. Assuming they are willing to leave behind everything that is not essential to our survival, I imagine I can carry back quite a bit of splendid treasure.
In order to get this across, I rummage through a bag. I find Dr. Sangare’s favorite teacup and Bridget’s two spare corsets. I show them to my companions, mystifying them, and then set them away from the pile of gold. I point to one, then the other, and shake my head.
“We’ll have to downsize.” Bridget gets it first. “Of course! I can help with that, while you and Dily pick out the choicest keepsakes.” She sighs. “I see now why expeditions always have a dozen or more people, camels, horses, carts . . . too bad we couldn’t afford all that, eh Dily?”
“Next time,” she says.
Dr. Sangare and I spend the next few hours down in the queen’s vault. I do not fail to notice the bulge in her coat pocket as she sifts through the treasure. She did not leave the idol above; it is with her, with us, in the cave. I wonder if she put it down if the color would retreat from my mind, but I have little hope of this. Dr. Sangare’s hand finds the object often, checking to make sure it is there as she selects other items of varying size and varying value.
I am flattered by how strong she must think me, but eventually I must protest, when the pile grows to unreasonable proportions.
I make a motion that I hope conveys my desire that she stop. She gets it after a moment, and sighs.
“All right,” she says wistfully. “But I can carry some too, you know.”
I glance at the heap of treasure. It is more than three men could carry comfortably, and while Dr. Sangare is strong, Bridget has never been particularly robust, and now she has a broken arm. But, I know it will be easier to object when she realizes she may risk tearing the canvas of our pack and taking nothing back at all.
Even with her broken arm, Bridget has not been idle. She has significantly reduced their gear. I return a few crucial items, and then set to loading our spoils.
“Let’s eat and go,” says Dr. Sangare, eyeing the stairs and the patch of light above. “I want to be out of this hole.”
“All right,” says Bridget. “I suppose there’s no advantage to waiting around.”
There is, but I cannot explain they should sleep, that both look vaguely maniacal after all the excitement. I just pack, and pack, and pack, occasionally checking the weight and then packing more.
When I feel I have loaded the bag sufficiently, I alert my companions. Bridget has been dozing, but Dr. Sangare is awake, staring at the winged jackal, watching it as if it might fly away at any moment.
“No room at the inn?” asks Dr. Sangare, pointing at the remainder.
I have no idea what she means, not really, but I shake my head.
“Ah well, it can’t be helped,” she says, hefting the bag. Her eyes widen. “You’ve packed it so heavy I’ll be amazed if you can make it down from here, much less carry it back to some place where we can hire a cart. You sure this is all right?”
“You never fail to impress, Krishna,” she says.
I smile, but it feels strained. The color is still around her, and I cannot feel like a triumphant adventurer with that hanging over me.
I follow Dr. Sangare and Bridget up the curving steps to the top of the cave. They are in a fabulous mood, and agree there is no way the jackals will have lingered as long as we were unconscious. I have no idea how long we were really out, but I too hope it was long enough for the pack to lose interest and hunt some other game.
It appears so. We are the only living things to be seen on that windswept, forgotten plateau when we emerge, save for a few bees buzzing in the tall grasses.
“Can I help you? Do you need help getting down?” Dr. Sangare is already halfway down from the top of the rock spire, but Bridget remains with me. “I know I only have one arm, but . . .”
I smile; shake my head no. I am touched that in her condition she would think of me, but I am more worried for her than for myself.
She takes it slowly, and is able to clamber down without incident. Afternoon fades to evening as we descend.
Dr. Sangare waits for us near the bottom, sitting cross-legged on a boulder.
“All right!” she says brightly. “Time to go home!”
I step off the rock. My feet sink into the springy turf, going deeper than normal due to the weight on my back.
“Home,” says Bridget. “Fancy that. And far sooner than we expected!”
I help her down beside me, and she favors me with a smile.
“I like this buttered cha we’ve been getting,” says Dr. Sangare as she jumps down beside us, “but a cup of builder’s tea sounds like—”
A distant rumble as her feet touch the ground stills her tongue. At first I think it is thunder, but then the rumbling grows louder, and louder, and the rock spire begins to shake. I back away quickly, and my companions follow me as the structure collapses in on itself with a tremendous roar of stone pounding stone; earth falling onto earth.
We watch in shock, getting dust and dirt in our open mouths. When it is over, Dr. Sangare spits, rubs her eyes and whistles.
“Glad we took so much with us,” she says.
Bridget gawps at her. “We almost died,” she exclaims.
“I thought you didn’t want to die poor.” Dr. Sangare grins at her.
This time, it is a howl that interrupts their banter. It appears we are not the only ones who noticed the disturbance on the plateau.
“Where are they?” asks Bridget, glancing about. “Where’s it coming from?”
Dr. Sangare looks to me, as if I might have an answer. I shrug. The wind makes it difficult to tell. We wait, tense, and watch.
The first black shape on the horizon answers the question. Bridget spies them first, points. Dr. Sangare draws her knives.
“You want to make a stand?” she asks.
“Where can we run?” is Dr. Sangare’s answer. I see her point, dump my pack, and draw my khukuri. Bridget already has her pistol in hand.
It seems like there are more of them than before as they bound closer to us, their shadows long in the fading light. The jackals fan out and surround us, circling us as we stand back to back, the pack with all our loot at the center of our triad. They snarl and growl and snap, some even dart in momentarily to see if we will break and allow ourselves to be swarmed. I am frightened for the first time, for I never can tell when a person will die once the color touches them, and I do not know whether my talent extends to myself. Bridget seems safe, for now, so perhaps this is not the end for us. I cannot imagine how she alone would escape.
The dogs circle us. Up close, I see their pelts are ragged; their bones show through the skin. Starvation makes them vicious.
“Flea-bitten mutts,” hisses Dr. Sangare. “Come closer, I dare you!”
“They have no reason to keep back,” says Bridget, her mind whirling. “They’re waiting for something.”
“They’re waiting for us to flinch,” says Dr. Sangare. “They want an opening.”
“Do we give them what they want?”
“I think it’s time. I’ll fire a shot into one, see what they do.”
I clutch my khukuri a little tighter as the rapport echoes across the plateau. A howl is cut short, and then they mob us.
My khukuri is sharp, and I know how to use it. I slice downwards across the throat of the first jackal that springs at me, and the blade glints red in the last of the light. As the jackal falls dead, another leaps; I kick the first away and raise my knife again, this time chopping straight down through the skull of the beast.
As I jerk the blade out of its brains, two come at me. I drop low, use the pommel to stick one in the eye and then bring it back around to stab the other. I get it in the side, and it takes a second strike to finish it off. By the time I’m done, the first has bitten me on the calf and is worrying at the meat there. I yelp but keep my head and stab it in the side of the neck. Its jaws tighten as it dies, and I fall back, coming down hard on my ass as the beast shits itself in its death throes.
I crane my neck see how my companions fare. Bridget has felled a pile of them with her pistol but is now frantically trying to reload in the twilight, standing behind Dr. Sangare, who is holding her own with her two knives, their long straight blades dripping wet. As ferocious as we three are, there are more of them than there are of us, and I fear for our survival even as I avoid trying to see if Bridget now falls here.
“Got that bang-stick reloaded yet?” asks Dr. Sangare, stumbling back after kicking away the corpse of another jackal.
“Not quite,” says Bridget. “Sorry, I just need a bit more time!”
Time is what we don’t have. I turn back to see more jackals approaching, three this time. I cannot stand, my bitten leg buckles under me when I try, so from a crouch I use one leg to propel myself at one. I stumble, off balance, so the slash of my knife takes its ear off, and cuts another on the bridge of the nose. This just makes them mad, and they shake off the pain to lunge at me. Sensing the third has gotten behind me, I roll out of the way. Two collide with one another, but the third jumps over them and is on me. Its heavy paws pin my arms, it slavers in my face, teeth inches from my nose.
Then it is off me, jumping high in the air like a startled cat. I sit up, knife in hand, but it is slinking away, tail between its legs. They all are—the bloodied and the whole are drawing together, bristling but submissive. I get unsteadily to my feet and hop to Bridget and Dr. Sangare, who are bitten and scratched, but alive.
“Something’s spooked them,” says Dr. Sangare. “They would have overwhelmed us, why —”
A sound makes us turn to the rock pile, where a shadow looms, dark against the darkening sky. Slowly, it pulls itself from the rubble, like some awful newborn crawling from its dead mother, and even though I can see the moon through its hazy form, it seems heavy, weighted, misshapen.
“What the hell is that?” breathes Bridget, as transfixed as I.
I have no answers until the lumpy mass that appears to be its back bubbles and writhes, unfurling into two great wings.
I am not the only one that recognizes it.
“Run!” shouts Dr. Sangare, as she turns and takes off. Bridget follows, slower, but slowest of all am I, limping behind with my injured leg dragging through the grass. Where they are headed, I cannot say. They are not thinking those kinds of thoughts. They are only eager to be gone, and I cannot blame them.
Unlike the last time we were all running together, Dr. Sangare says nothing to encourage Bridget; does not look back at me. She is fleeing from the horrible looming thing. She does not seem to think its ephemeral nature will make it any less dangerous. Neither do I—my khukuri cannot cut smoke and shadow.
“Dily!” calls Bridget. She is struggling, the jolting of her broken forearm is taking its toll, but Dr. Sangare is not listening. She only slows momentarily when the idol falls out of her coat pocket, bouncing several times and rolling to a stop, gleaming bright in the grass. Turning on her heel, she looks at it only a moment before leaving it there.
In my mind, the color does not leave her. She is still marked for death, and as I hear a terrible flapping behind us, I sense it will come from claws as sharp as they are insubstantial.
Bridget does not have to turn back to retrieve the cursed thing. She reaches; I see the color. Her hand draws closer. I am too far behind her to stop her. Time seems to slow; before her fingertips brush the gold I see the color brightening, resolving, spreading over her. I muster my courage, and though my vision begins to swim and the colors of that twilit field grow duller, I shout at her not to touch the cursed thing. I cannot sit by a second time, let it happen again.
Her fingers close on it as the beating of wings grows louder.
• • • •
When I wake, it is night. The moon hangs huge and low above me. The first thing I feel is astonishment that I am alive. The next thing I feel is pain, all over, in my arms and legs and chest, and especially in my calf, where the jackal bit me.
I sit up, carefully, and look around. It is quiet. No shadow looms anywhere, winged and terrible.
A crumpled thing lies in the grass several yards from me. I drag myself over and see it is Bridget. She is dead, torn to pieces. The golden jackal is nowhere to be seen. I apologize to her, in my mind, for not being braver sooner. Tears roll down my cheeks as I pray she will pass quickly through the bardo and be reborn.
As I cry, I hear a sound, and I see a second figure lying in the grass. I pull myself away and limp over to find Dr. Sangare. She is no better off—worse, really, because she is still alive and clearly in great pain. She too has been torn and worried by whatever came for the idol.
She looks up at me, and smiles.
“You were right,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
I shake my head. I do not want an apology. It is I who should apologize—if I had mustered the courage to speak before she touched it the first time, perhaps we would not be here.
“Krishna . . .” she coughs. “I’m in so much pain. I know we asked you to bear so many of our burdens. Can I ask you to carry one more?”
I have never killed, never wanted to kill, but I know it would be a kindness to oblige her.
I know too that it was not the idol, nor the demon thing we saw that was destined to kill Dr. Sangare. It was me. I damned her with my inability to speak . . . or was it unwillingness? For the fear of a few moments’ dizziness, I failed to say what needed to be said, and that knowledge feels heavier than the pack I bore to Leng, the gold in the tomb . . . even the task that now falls to me.
I push these questions away. There is work to be done.
I smile at her, trying to apologize without words, and unsheathe my khukuri.