“My head hurts, Selma.” She murmured, her face buried in the pillow of the couch. “Leave me alone.”
“Alone! How can you be alone in this very moment!? You’re unbelievable! You did invite him to come at least, didn’t you?”
“He almost invited himself.”
“Please, Lara! Have you talked abou...?”
The Turkish girl arose, upset, and left the room abruptly. At the door she met Charles, who came with a bottle of wine and two glasses. “Beware of the dog.” Selma warned pointing to Lara.
When she closed the door, Charles laughed. “Sometimes I think that girl would be better suited as a gossip reporter rather than an archaeologist. And you, as always, making friends...”
“If she keeps annoying me, I’ll send her to sleep in the graveyard.” Lara groaned, writhing on the couch.
Charles laughed again and uncorked the bottle. “Look what Winston found in the cellar! A top quality vintage Burgundy. Let’s try it.”
Lara’s mouth twitched. “I bet you’ve spent days drinking my cellar.”
“And looking after your house and taking care of your beloved ones, sweetheart. But neither Bathsheba nor anyone else has shown up.” He poured two glasses and offered one to Lara. Then he looked out the window and said: “He’s that man, isn’t he?”
Outside in the garden they saw Winston, who was supposed to be overseeing the gardener’s work on the hedge outside, but who was instead heading for a strong man who’d just parked an impressive motorbike. He was being welcomed with the greatest of kindness, probably due to the intimate admiration the butler felt for him because of his sketches.
“See that?” Lara grunted. “My own butler conspiring against me.”
“Well.” Said Charles, laughing. “He’s just being polite. By the way, where did this guy come from? Looks like a mixture of McGyver and Terminator.”
Lara winced, tired, but said nothing.
The door opened and she and Charles stood up in their seats. Lara was wearing a beautiful long skirted silvery grey suit that enhanced her skin and had her hair tied back. She could almost imagine Selma’s malicious comments about her pretty looks, but for her it was clear it was to “show respect to the visitor” and “impose with due dignity to a host.”
“You’re stunning.” Charles had told her, and now Lara had the impression of reading the same message in Kurtis’ eyes.
Then, a scream broke the awkward silence. Selma suddenly appeared and practically threw herself around the man’s neck, while depositing two noisy kisses on his cheeks. “Kurtis! You look well!” Said the girl. “Two years without seeing you, glad you’re okay, I thought you...!”
Lara didn’t hear Selma’s enthusiastic words or what Kurtis answered. She just felt a deep anger inside her due to Selma’s behaviour. Not because of jealousy - that would’ve been nonsense, but because in her spontaneous and friendly reaction, the Turkish girl was exposing Lara as a dry and rude person. Suddenly, she felt like getting up and screaming out loud, but she didn’t know why. “Enough, Selma.” Lara then spat dryly. The girl pulled away from Kurtis and glared at her, but she, ignoring her, told him. “You tell me.”
Kurtis looked around. Lara was gracefully installed on her couch and behind her, Charles waited in silence, like a bodyguard. Selma was uncomfortably staring at the floor from the chair she was now sitting in. Then Winston, horrified, realized that nobody had offered Kurtis a seat and hurried to offer him a chair.
Smiling wryly with all the impudence of the world, Kurtis turned the chair, sat with his legs apart, elbows on the back’s seat, and crossed his fingers, resting his chin on them. Lara took this gesture as a challenge.
“Wow, what an audience. Do I have to bow and kiss your hand, M’lady? Or should I just kneel and lick your shoe sole?”
“If it makes you happy.” She muttered, annoyed by his attitude. Then she looked at the others and saw that everyone was ready to burst into laughter, except Winston, who looked at her sadly, as if to say: This is not right.
“I’d prefer them to leave us alone.” Kurtis pointed.
Selma jumped up and hurried to leave the room, as if wishing to leave them alone. After a moment’s hesitation, Charles followed her, and finally Winston, throwing Lara a glance she couldn’t interpret as he closed the door quietly.
“What’s wrong with you, Lara? You’re behaving like a sulky child.”
“Stop it, Kurtis. You came for the Shard.”
“And for something else.”
Lara stood indignantly. Oh, the nerve! “That something else is not going to happen.”
“I want to know why you’re mad at me.”
She pursed her lips. For a second, she thought she’d hold on, but finally she broke out: “What did you expect? You vanished two years ago. I didn’t know whether to leave you for dead or not. And suddenly you show up again and pretend everything is exactly the same as before you left. Well, not at all! Take your Shard and get outta here. I don’t want to see you.”
Kurtis stood motionless, looking into her eyes, as if he couldn’t believe what he just heard. Then he murmured: “Need a smoke.” He got up, pulled out one from a snuff pack and lit it. Then he approached to the wall, leaned on it and took a drag. He looked nervous. “Let’s see... you got a problem with understanding.” He said slapping his forehead with two fingers. “First, what am I? No, wait, don’t tell me. I’ll tell you: a Lux Veritatis. Did you forget what that means?”
She didn’t answer.
“I told you, Lara. I told you I couldn’t stay with you. You and me can’t be together. That’s why I left.”
“Great, since that’s the reason you’ll leave again.”
“You shouldn’t be angry. I told you, very clearly, how my life is, how it has always been: all the people I cared for have died at the hands of my enemies. It’s their way to get revenge. I didn’t want the same to happen to you.”
“Don’t give me that gibberish. You did it for your own stupid sense of honour, for all that bullshit about having a mission to fulfill.”
“Dammit, Lara. I expected more of you.”
Lara jumped up, walked to the door and opened it. She poked her head into the hallway and said: “Winston, instead of standing there spying, call Radha and tell her to bring the velvet box.” Then she slammed the door and turned back to Kurtis: “I also expected more of you. Why don’t you face the truth for once? You took advantage of me in a bad way. We were together in a difficult situation and I got carried away. What I don’t know is how I could be so stupid! Of course, I’ve a bad reputation, right? Easy girl. What amazes me is that you didn’t stay to get everything.”
Kurtis stood up as if the wall had burnt him: “I’m not that kind of man!”
“I don’t care. I neither forgive, nor forget.”
He put again the cigarette in his mouth while muttering something about it being surreal and a little more about he was running out of patience. He took a deep drag, blew the smoke slowly and said: “You may stay with your ridiculous and selfish ideas. These two years have been torture for me, because I’ve tried to forget you but I simply can’t...and don’t turn your face away from me like some offended maiden. If you can’t understand why I left, at least you should to understand why I’m putting up with this. In fact, it’s for the same reason.”
To Lara’s great relief she didn’t have to hear what reason was - although she could imagine...and fear it, because at that moment the door opened and Radha entered. The little Indian girl carried a velvet case in her hands. But when she just looked up, her black eyes widened in horror at seeing Kurtis – then she screamed and fell full length on the damask carpet.
Lara and Kurtis rushed at the same time to the small figure, which was pale and unconscious.
“You scare kids.” Lara took advantage to make a cruel joke, but she cut it off when seeing Radha truly unconscious and Kurtis watching her in silence. Then Lara looked up and asked: “Do you know her? ...”
He murmured: “I think so...but it was a long time ago...”
Later at night, when Radha recovered from her impression, she’d tell Lara why she knew Kurtis, although it had been a long time ago and he barely remembered her. Radha was nine years old when the Foreign Legion ransacked Khusuma Bharadji’s village. It really wasn’t an attack itself - for what harm could those poor, miserable people do to them? But merely a raid...just for fun.
The little child was kneading manure to make bricks, a very common task among children in India. Beside her, her older sister, the gentle Sita, sat staring at her.
Sita was fifteen and had half of her face burned, devoured by the acid that her alienated husband had thrown over her after she’d tried to escape several times. That hateful man had died of old age and Sita had gone home, expelled from the house. Dressed in white, befitting her status as a widow and with a shaved head and a deformed face, she’d to cover her face so nobody could see it. She was only a shadow of what she’d been, and all ignored her. It would’ve been better for her to cast herself on the pyre of her deceased tormentor. The only one who took pity on her was her younger sister, who contrary to what the strict Hindu custom ordered, she was always bringing her food and conversation. “Don’t you miss your lost beauty?” Radha told her, knowing that her sister had always been admired for the delicacy of her features.
But Sita always replied: “I haven’t lost my beauty, Radha. I see it right now in your face.”
Over time, Radha was convinced that what had destroyed her sister wasn’t acid, but marriage. And she trembled while waiting for the day when a man would lay a finger on her.
Suddenly, they heard screams at the village edge.
Sita stood, covering again her misshapen face with a veil. Then they heard the first burst of shrapnel.
“Dacoit!” Radha shouted while rising, pronouncing the name of the most feared criminals among the locals.
“No.” Said Sita. “They’re legionnaires.”
Radha didn’t ask how she knew that. She wouldn’t have understood that her older sister had to offer her body to those white men to get some food and survive, always keeping her face veiled. After all, the face wasn’t what they wanted in a woman, and they never would’ve come again for her if seeing how she actually was.
Sita took her hand and led her into the jungle, which was very close. They huddled under some leaves and remained silent. The cries and shots were increasing. And suddenly, the first blast sounded. Radha cowered, terrified. Sita, who was looking over the bushes, said: “The village is burning. They have set it on fire.”
Radha gave a sob of fear. Her sister seemed strangely quiet. Was she not afraid of that? “What will become of father, mother, and our brothers?”
“May the benevolent Lakshmi have mercy on them. I’ll take care of you.”
They remained motionless for a moment, and suddenly, some branches creaked a few steps from them. Before she could react, Sita lifted her with a jerk and pushed her forward. Something whizzed past next to her ear and slammed in the bark of a nearby tree. She gave a cry of terror and buckled her knees.
“Run or you’re dead!” Sita screamed in her ear.
Suddenly, four huge figures cut off their way. They were strong, pale-faced men, terribly impressive as they were covered with dirt and with that wild and fierce expression on their faces.
Radha tried to retreat, but strong arms lifted her up and carried her on a back before she could even react. She struggled, but her nine years were little against that brutal man’s strength. She looked back but only managed to see two of them dragging her sister, taking her by her white robe. She would never see her again.
The young girl knew it wouldn’t help at all, but she yelled. She screamed with all her strength while her captor took her through the jungle. The journey didn’t last long; soon they reached an open area full of barracks, tents, and trenches. It was the Foreign Legion camp.
“Hey!” Shouted gleefully the legionnaire who had kidnapped her, throwing her to the ground as if she was a sack. “Look what I found!”
The other released grotesque laughter and came to look at the girl, who was paralysed with terror and didn’t even react when someone dragged her into a dark damp barrack. When they reached the door she regained her strength and clung desperately to the door frame, screaming so hard that he shushed her in one punch. That didn’t make her flinch, because suddenly, in her tender and childlike mind, she’d begun to sense what they wanted to do with her, and so she began biting and kicking to try to get rid of those dirty hands that held, beaten, and rummaged her under her torn sari fabric.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Radha didn’t understand those words or any other she’d heard, as they were expressed in French; but they had the power to stop their attackers who turned towards the one who’d spoken, another legionnaire who’d just arrived.
“Hey, Trent!” Shouted the one who was holding her. “Tell me what you think about this!” And pushed her so brutally that Radha fell into the arms of the other legionnaire, who held her firmly, but not violently. “We got her from the village.” He continued. “You didn’t want to come with us...”
Without uttering a word, that guy went through his colleagues and got inside the hut, grabbing the girl with him. That provoked the laughter of the other legionnaires, who applauded and whistled with obscene shouting: “What chutzpah, Trent! When finished, please tell us!”
The door closed, darkness pervaded everything, and Radha was no longer but a naked and huddled girl sobbing terrified in a corner, waiting for that brutal man to do with her what he wanted...
She heard her attacker coming and going with something and a flame was kindled in the midst of the darkness. It was the soldier’s lighter, in whose light Radha saw his face. He was pale and severe as the others, and his hair was dark. A shallow cut beside the eye bloodied his left temple. But she couldn’t help but notice his eyes. She’d never seen someone with such eyes - they were blue. “Shit.” He murmured. “You’re just a kid.”
She was shaking so hard that her teeth chattered and shook. The legionnaire reached out and touched her shoulder, which caused the girl screaming and going aside.
“Don’t yell, kiddo. I won’t do anything to you.” A slight smile appeared on the soldier’s face, and although Radha couldn’t understand him, she was reassured by the calm tone of his voice.
That soldier felt sick. Sick of himself and sick of the world around him. He knew this was usual - the military, pushed to the limit of their endurance in inhuman missions that made them go crazy out of loneliness and pain, eventually became cruel killing machines, as well as thieves and rapists. Since no one had compassion for them, they had no compassion for anyone. Not even for a nine-year-old innocent child, nor for a village of poor people. He knew that, and hated them all, even his own self - for he was no different from them.
He got up, determined, and handed her a jacket, with which Radha covered herself immediately. Then he opened a trapdoor in the floor and pointed to the tunnel. It went across the camp and the soldiers used it to escape from their disciplinarians. Despite language barriers, Radha understood perfectly. She approached to the hole and, before going down, she turned and quickly taking the legionnaire’s rough hand, kissed it in gratitude. Then she dropped in and ran across the tunnel - towards freedom.
The legionnaire stared for a moment at the trap door, sighed and dropped it. Then he went to confront his peers, which were no longer men, but beasts.
And that extraordinary man had been none other than Kurtis himself.
When Radha concluded her story, Selma was happily smiling and Lara was silent. The Turkish archaeologist was glad to have no reason to see her heroic image of Kurtis disturbed. As for Lara, she wasn’t surprised at all, for if among that horde of savages whom everyone knew as the Foreign Legion there was a single man who would save Radha of injury and misery, that had to be Kurtis, so overprotective and clean in the depths of himself, though all that surrounded him rotted.
And what about Radha? What strange fate had taken the same girl to be saved by both Kurtis long ago and Lara now? The British explorer didn’t believe in fate, but she couldn’t take her mind off that smiling girl with black eyes looking at her now. What higher power had placed her in her hands? Was it okay now to discard her like old clothes now that she’d escaped the fire as she was spared by Kurtis from being raped, just to have her conscience calmed...?
“Radha.” She said then, and didn’t recognize her own voice and why she uttered those words. “Would you like to stay and live here in Surrey?”
The child’s eyes opened ecstatic, and like the kid she should have never ceased to be, threw herself at her lap with her arms around her neck as she kissed her cheek: “Oh, bahanji, I’d love to stay!”
Lara stiffened - she’d never been hugged by a child, but then relaxed and smiled. Selma looked at her silently, both surprised and pleased with her decision.
“Ahem, ahem...” They turned. Winston waited politely in the doorway. “Which room do you reserve for Mr. Trent? Due to Miss Deli’s indisposition, I figured he’d stay overnight.”
Lara frowned. “The doghouse will suit him.” The elbow she received from Selma in the flank cut off her breath. “Okay.” She granted, rolling her eyes. “Give him the room down the hall.”
Winston came out and sighed. Kurtis, at the foot of the stairs, exhibited a wry smile. “Well, where does the dog sleep?”
The butler blushed to the ears and mumbled: “I’m sorry...”
“No worries, pal.” He said, loading the haversack over his shoulder. “By the way, is she always like that when pissed off?”
Winston took a quick glance over his shoulder, and after making sure that no one could hear him, murmured: “Nah, she’s even worse.”
“Then I pity you, Winston. You’re a saint.”