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VALLEY OF THE GODS

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Summary

A self-centred Himalayan prince from the highest caste in the world chooses a mate in an attempt to cure the genetic interbreeding defects of his remote kingdom of Malana. The virgin, hailing from London, happily believes in her fairytale romance…that is…until she sets foot in the Valley of the Gods…and finds that her lover, Prince Raj isn’t Prince Charming after all. Stuck in the rustic mountains, feeling no better than a lab rat, she struggles to come to terms with a clash of cultures, drugs and lifestyles. In a sinister twist, her newborn child is chosen to be the sacrificial lamb for the local God of War and she is forced to escape her living hell, venturing into the forbidding wilderness of Zanskar, facing ferocious bears, avalanches plus of course her prince and his cronies in hot pursuit. The story goes back in time to how Malana came into existence. In 325 BC, Coenus fell in love with his captive slave only to lose her in an avalanche as they followed his young but ambitious king over the Himalayas in a bid to conquer the world. Coeus was one among many of Alexander the Great’s soldiers who chose to remain in the Valley of the Gods. Considered the highest caste in the world, they soon settled into farming life where their descendant Prince Raj still rules to this day.

Genre:
Romance / Drama
Author:
Joan C. Guyll
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
13+

THE FULL MANUSCRIPT

PART 1

THE VALLEY OF DREAMS

1 – London, UK, March Year 1

2 – London, UK, October Year 1

3 – London, UK, October Year 2

4 – Pindos, Macedonia, January Year 3

5 – Malana, India, June Year 3

6 – London, UK, July Year 3

7 – Valley of the Gods, August Year 3

8 – Manali, India, September Year 3

9 – Malana, India, October, Year 3

1 – London, UK, March Year 1

It was one of those dreadful days in London – incessant rain and grey depressing skies. Shimmering headlights struggled valiantly to penetrate the day-time gloom. Lea gazed through the misted window of her Kensington flat. I really must get a life, she thought, 20 years old, still a virgin and the highlight of my day is waiting for the post.

She wrapped her flannel housecoat closer to her body and began analysing herself. Actually she compared herself with her friend Sharon Manners, a pure Brit. Sharon had an older sister from whom she learned about being street-wise. Lea on the other hand, was an only child of immigrant parents, Luka Takakis, a Macedonian and Esta Hedayati, a Persian. Lea’s ultra conservative parents did their weekly shopping at Tesco, which was where they were now. Sharon’s mother shopped at Harrods. The Takakis family wasn’t poor but Luka and Esta believed in thrift. Lea had been schooled in Catholic convents all her life. If they had found a Women’s University, they would have sent her there too. No boy could ever be considered good enough to date their daughter. Indeed no girlfriend was encouraged to visit either. It was only Sharon’s tenacity that kept her in touch with Lea. She made Lea her one-woman support group. Whenever Sharon wanted a listening ear for her latest problems with guys she could count on Lea to be there. It was convenient that they lived next door to one another and even more convenient that her discarded men would not be snatched by Lea.

As distant thunder rumbled outside, Lea fantasized herself entwined in the arms of Sean Connery. Snuggled in front of a crackling log fire in a remote mountain hideaway, he is wearing a herringbone sweater – a gift from me. He smells of expensive aftershave and we share a glass of wine. She sighed. Why isn’t this happening in reality? Where’s my James Bond? Is it that time of month again?

It had been happening quite regularly, this budding sexuality and her desire to find the love of her life. Perhaps I’m one of those late developers. Some day, my prince will come. She hummed Snow White’s theme song. Then she remembered Sharon showing her a porno cartoon strip of ‘What Snow White Did with the Seven Dwarfs’. She blushed deeply, grateful that she was alone.

The truth was that her parents were one of those rare couples who were completely in love with each other. They never needed anyone else and they expected Lea to be the same. Lea being an only child had been included in their circle but their over-protection made her an outcast among her peers.

A man walked through her gate. The post, she stirred from the sofa to intercept the delivery, rain, sunshine or snow, the postman always delivers. She heard the letter box flap creak and watched a big buff envelope being ejected out of the slot. It fell with a clatter on the linoleum floor of the hall. Lea’s heart jumped at the sight of the University of London crest on the envelope. Not being one who liked suspense, she ripped it opened and scanned the enclosed letter.

“Yes!” she twirled delightedly. She had been accepted into the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Running into the kitchen, she picked up the phone to call Sharon.

“Hey Sharon, you’d never guess what’s happened.”

“Don’t tell me – you’ve found a man!”

Sharon, who believed that a woman should never be without a man, was currently in-between relationships and sounded worse than the soggy rain.

“I got into London U!” Lea shouted with glee.

“Bastards! I got rejected. It’s not fair. I’m English after all. How could they give you a place and not me?” For the first time in their friendship, Sharon let slip her racism. “Look, I’m kinda busy at the moment, trying to write an appeal. Bye.”

Shocked, Lea slowly replaced the offensive receiver. Somehow the prospects of going into a new University didn’t seem quite as exciting now. The phone rang almost immediately. It was probably Sharon calling back to apologise. As it turned out, the voice on the other end was gruff and serious.

“Is that Miss Takakis?”

“Yes, it is.” Lea replied somewhat puzzled.

“I’m sorry to inform you that there’s been an accident involving Mr. Luka Takakis and his wife…”

She couldn’t remember what else he said but she knew she was to go to St. Mary’s to identify the body of her mother at the mortuary. Her father was in intensive care. She remembered nothing of how she got there. The police asked a few scattered questions about her parents at the hospital ward. Then she was led to the ICU. She looked at her handsome father, lying under a profusion of tubes and bloodied bandages. The respirator rose and fell in the silence of the room. To Lea, her father had always been the gentle giant. His rough-hewn face fitted into his heavy frame and he resembled “The Thing” – a Marvel Fantastic Four comic superhero that Lea was fond of as a child. He was, to her, a symbol of solid dependability. Now she could hardly believe that this broken fragile being had once been the stalwart of her life.

Lea reached out to the only part of her father that appeared unchanged. With two hands, she grasped his one palm and squeezed it, willing him to live.

“Papa” she managed to say and nothing else.

In moments of sorrow, words become meaningless; deeds would seem more appropriate but right then, Lea felt a sense of utter helplessness. Someone in a white face mask mumbled something about there being not much time left. Through a blur of tears Lea saw her father’s eyes flicker open. A sign of recognition, a grimace of pain, a twitch of his hand in hers and he was gone, victim of a drug addict’s botched car theft. The papers called it a senseless killing. Lea called it the end of her world that up until then had been filled with love and security.

Uncle Yorgos, Luka’s older brother, who still lived with their mother, arrived on the first flight from Pindos. Her first sight of him at the airport sent a jolt through her system. Yorgos was an older version of her father. Although he was in his sixties, the burly man still had a head of thick black hair. His eyebrows were so bushy; they almost formed a straight line cutting his face into two craggy parts. He took control from the moment he arrived and Lea wondered if being in control could be a family trait. She was amazed that despite his foreign ways, he was able to do everything he wanted, insisting politely and firmly, whatever was needed to give his younger brother and sister-in-law, the last respects and customary rites that they deserved.

Lea sat in the domed church watching the Macedonian Orthodox priest swing a silver jar of incense around her parents’ coffins. The haunting Macedonian hymns sung by white-clad choirboys echoed into the high ceiling and Lea grieved as the songs spoke of sadness akin to her heart.

The night before Yorgos returned to Pindos, he sat in front of Lea and talked.

“What will you do now little Lea?” Uncle Yorgos insisted on calling Lea ‘little’ despite her age. But she did look diminutive in her black dress of mourning.

“I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll look for a job.”

“What about your education? I remember the last time your father wrote to me, he mentioned that you wanted to do some Masters Degree in health or something.”

“Yes, in tropical medicine, at the University of London. But…” Lea wanted to say that it was before her parents had passed away, when they were still alive and everything was secure and wonderful. Instead she bit her lower lip and tried to control her tears.

Yorgos shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Yorgos had three sons, no daughters. His wife Eleni was a strong woman not given to tears. Noticing Lea’s reddening eyes, he cleared his throat and he ploughed on.

“I know we Macedonians don’t think girls should be highly educated Lea. But you are alone in London and if your parents have left enough for you to continue your education, then you must go on and be like the son that they would have had.”

“But what’s the point. I’m all alone now. I never did anything except what they wanted me to do.”

“Well, rest assured that if I know Luka, he’d want you to do this Masters degree. Of course, the alternative is to come home to Pindos with me. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to face your yaya if she knew that I’ve left you all alone in London.”

“Pindos! That’s ridiculous. London is my home. I can’t run away to somewhere I don’t even know.” Lea wiped her tears.

“You know your yaya will always welcome you. But remember this Lea, God made man special. You know why?” Yorgos pointed his finger to the sky, “Because man was given the wisdom to choose. In any situation, we could choose either to accept it or reject it. You grieve now and it is right to cry. But there will be a time when black clothes should be put away and ashes cleaned from our foreheads. If we choose to keep on the black clothes of grief and the bitterness of ashes in our mouths, we will be choosing death. Look at us in Macedonia.” Shaking his head, he continued, “Two world wars and everything in shambles. People still hating and fighting for centuries. Who suffers Lea?” Yorgos tightened his brow and his eyes shone directly into Lea’s, “The voiceless children, always the innocent and the young. Promise me Lea. Always choose to live.”

Lea felt a sense of déjà vu. These were words her father would have said to her. And from that moment Lea chose to live.

2 – London, UK, October Year 1

It was the Fresher’s Ball, her first in the University. Dress code: Tails and Diamonds. You can dress in any colour as long as it’s black, it said on the humorous invitation card. Lea wore an off-shoulder velvet gown. Sharon had presented it to her after they made up and before leaving for Paris – she had decided that since English guys were so gauche, French men would make a nice change. Lea’s silky black hair, its colour and texture, matching the gown, cascaded around her pearly shoulders. Gold streaks of her royal blue Afghan lapis lazuli sparkled as she walked beneath the ten-tier chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the entrance to the Great Hall. Her sapphire eyes glowed with sensuality. Diamond studs accentuated her delicate ears. As she ascended the uneven wooden stairs leading to the Ballroom, the slit in her gown, parted slightly, revealing her long legs and her dainty feet encased in stilettos four inches high. She knew the slit went way too high but it was the fashion of the times. Nervous and unused to walking in heels, she slipped and faltered. A firm hand clasped her arm, arresting her fall. She half turned and found herself looking into a pair of dark eyes, only inches away. He was standing so close behind her that she could smell his baby sweet breath. Then he smiled and said “Are you alright?”

“Th...Thanks.” Lea stammered, unfamiliar with being in such close proximity with a dashing stranger.

“Hmm...You still seem a bit shaky. May I have the honour of escorting you in?” he offered her his arm. Then he whispered as if they had agreed to conspire, “In case anyone asks, my name is Raj, Raj Khan.”

He wore tails, with a black top hat and a bow tie. Everything fitted him like a glove. Their entrance together evoked gasps from some of the girls. Lea didn’t miss the withering looks cast in her direction.

“Come and meet my friends.” He had insisted and gradually he took control of her whole evening as if it was the most natural thing to do. Like a lost puppy who had found its owner, Lea was immensely relieved.

“Tell me about yourself. Are you a Princess from a faraway land? With your beautiful eyes and smooth velvet skin…” he had guided her onto the Balcony and standing close, traced his finger down the contour of her face without actually touching her.

Lea stopped breathing. Contain yourself! Don’t show him how inexperienced you are. She could almost hear Sharon in her head. “I come from the land of Kings.” Ughs! That’s just so corny! She bit her lip in desperation. What would Sharon have said? She was relieved when he laughed with a deep resonating timbre.

“And I am a prince from the Valley of the Gods. Perhaps there’s a chance we’re absolutely compatible?” He quirked his eyebrow, jesting.

She laughed for the first time since her parents died.

They talked through the night. Intoxicated by the endless flow of wine, Sharon didn’t enter her head again. He drove her home and, all too soon, they were parked outside her gate. When she turned to open the door, his hand hovered over hers and he said, “Allow me.” Leaping out, he rounded to her side and opened the tiny green door with a flourish.

“Your Highness.” With his bow tie askew, he waved his top hat in the air and reminded Lea of a penguin. She couldn’t stop giggling. He looked so cute.

Pausing at the door, Lea wondered if she should ask him in but he pre-empted her by placing his palms together.

Namaste, Memsahib. Thank you. Till the next time.” Then he turned and walked back to his car.

Lea closed the door behind her and heaved a huge sigh, what a night!

Several times during her first week of classes Lea looked out for Raj only to be disappointed. Another week passed and she was beginning to think that the Fresher’s Ball was a dream until the official photos were published. She saw one which they had both posed for. The photographer had caught them on the Balcony after one of Raj’s jokes. She was laughing and the moment had been captured. Lea immediately ordered a copy.

“Has anyone else ordered this?” asked Lea, biting her lip as she tried to sound nonchalant.

The girl at the Student Union looked at the photo and sneered “Oh, him! No. Prince Raj gets into every Fresher’s Ball and picks the prettiest girl up every year. I’ve never received an order from him. I guess these blue-blooded types gather their memoirs in other ways.”

Lea left the office utterly dejected, her bubble burst. She thought about writing to Sharon and telling her of her brief moment of…of what…fantasy? Sharon would probably laugh at her. These men are a penny a dozen, Lea. She would say and she would be right too.

“Hey princess! Need a ride?” He was sitting on top of his MG, parked outside her front door the very next day.

“Hi.” Lea was uncertain of how to behave.

Two weeks of silence, wild rumours of his reputation and then he popped up just as she was losing interest. What is going on?

“I was driving along the M4 and she insisted on coming this way. I kept trying to over-ride the controls but as you can see it’s no use. This car has a mind of her own. She insisted that I should invite you along.”

“Who…what are you talking about? Where?” Lea stood her ground, confused.

“My car - Drive in the country - Me and you.” Raj grinned.

“Is this your modus operandi? You mesmerise girls with your wit and humour, then you disappear when they are under your spell. And you reappear only when their interest start flagging so you could what? Throw out another line and reel them in?”

“I’m sorry. I’ve underestimated the power I have over women. Were you really mesmerised?” He enlarged his blue eyes in an attempt at humour but failed.

“Look, I don’t have time for this. Go bait someone else.” Lea turned away exasperated and began walking towards her door.

His hand reached out and held her arm. A familiar gesture that reminded her of that first night he had saved her from falling down the stairs.

“Lea, please, I’m sorry. Come for a drive around the block. I talk better when I drive. I’ll explain. Promise.” His cockiness disappeared. Lea saw his sincerity and accepted.

“I stayed away because I had to clear up some things.” The MG was back on the M4 heading towards Oxford.

“I didn’t realise that around the block meant going up to Oxford and back.” Lea maintained her distance.

“OK. The truth is I couldn’t get you out of my mind. If you talk about being mesmerised, it was you who mesmerised me. I’ve never met anyone quite like you. I mean, all these English girls are alright for a couple of hours but they’re too full of themselves. You know what I mean? Anyway, I wanted time to think things through. I realised after that night at the Ball that you are …special, so…untouched.”

“Untouched? Was that why you didn’t touch me the whole night?” Lea remembered how much she wanted him to and long afterwards, in the privacy of her bed, alone, she had imagined how it would be if he did.

“I didn’t want you the way I wanted other women Lea. Believe me, if you’ve heard of my reputation, it’s all true. I make no apologies for my actions. You’ll never know how difficult it was for me to leave you at your front door that night. All my instincts told me that you were ready if I were to …”

“You certainly are presumptuous aren’t you?” Lea didn’t let him finish. “I mean, what right...”

“I masturbated when I got home.” He cut in.

“What?!” She stopped short.

“I’ve never had to Lea. Women are so easy for me. Listen, this is not working out the way I wanted. There’re a lot of things you don’t understand about me. Let’s start again.”

Lea waited, not trusting herself to speak. She was still shocked from the abrupt confession. Either he was a pervert or he was too honest. She, who had never confided to another soul about the stirrings of her own sexuality, suddenly wished Sharon was in London to tell her how to react.

“About five years ago, my father sent me here to do my degree. It was a historical decision. No one in our village had ever left our Himalayan Valley before. I remember my culture shock. You know the behaviour of a dog just released from its cage? Well, it was like that with me. I went crazy with the freedom, the diversity of the West, the liberated women…”

“That’s how you made a name for yourself at the University then?”

“Hmmm. A name I’d rather not have. I’ve changed though. I have one more year to go in my Masters programme and I’ve been given the royal command to make the most of my last year.”

“Why a two year programme? Why didn’t you finish in one year?”

“You know what parents are like. My father expected me to handle some business deals while I am here. Network, network, network. I didn’t have time to do the full time programme. Come to think of it, it was a blessing in disguise, wasn’t it? Otherwise I wouldn’t have met you.” Raj stole a quick glance at Lea as he ran his fingers through his black mane of hair which was flying wildly in the open-top MG.

“You sound frustrated with your parents.” Lea’s eyes were drawn to his sensual body language. He reminded her of a lion, a leader of the pack.

“Parents can be too controlling sometimes.” Raj shrugged.

“I wish mine were around to control me.” Lea sighed.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Tell me what happened.”

She found that telling him about the accident was easy. His honesty inspired confidence. It was touching the way he empathised with her. It was like a continuation of the Fresher’s Ball. Lea, who hadn’t been able to talk to anyone else about how much grief she endured and the utter loneliness after the funeral, began to open her emotional floodgates.

Their drive ended back at her apartment with him planting a kiss on her forehead. “This will do for now. I don’t want to spoil it for us.” He winked and left.

The next day she found a card taped to her front door when she returned from her classes. It read:

When days are filled with sunshine,

How close we hold a friend

It’s good to share the laughter,

And dreams that have no end.

But when the days are shadowed

And touched with pain or grief,

The bonds of friendship tighten,

Almost beyond belief.

A romantic, a gentleman and a prince, she smiled, enjoying the attention. She heard the phone ring as she turned the key and rushed in to pick it up. It was him. Her heartbeat raced.

“Hi, just wanted to hear your voice.” He said.

“I didn’t know you’re a poet.” She countered.

“Confession - I plagiarised it from the Net.”

She laughed, feeling light-headed.

“I must see you.” He sounded serious all of a sudden.

“When?” She could hardly breathe. His desire was contagious.

“Tomorrow. There’s something I want you to see.” He sounded mysterious.

She was intrigued.

This time, he drove them to Kew. Walking past the conservatory, they strolled hand in hand along the leaf-strewn avenue. The autumn colours of red and gold splashed across the landscape and Lea was infected with an inner glow.

“Look, there, the apples are on sale!” Raj pulled her into a run.

“Apples? Was that what you wanted to show me?”

“Of course! Apples remind me of home. Our valley is famous for its apples.” He was already buying some Red Delicious and Bramley. “When I first came to London, I felt so lost. I’d never left my home before and it didn’t help that your British Immigration treated all Indian Nationals with distrust at the airport.”

She could hear the ache in his voice, an aching she could identify with because it was her own, now that she too was alone.

“I feel like a stranger in my own country sometimes. My best friend Sharon…well, ex-best friend, really…”

“Ex-best friend? What happened?” he voiced concern and she soon found herself telling him everything about her friendship with Sharon. When she came to the part about the day she found out what Sharon thought about her, she swallowed hard. He took her hands in his and squeezed them gently.

“Lea, you and I are more alike than you realise. We’re like twin souls and I’m glad we finally found each other. Trust me Lea, now that we’re together, everything will be alright.” He gazed deep into her eyes and in that instant, she knew that she had found someone who could understand her and everything would be alright.

No day passed without her either hearing his voice on the telephone or seeing his face at her door. Lea was drawn into the relationship by Raj’s vivacity. She realised how cloistered her life had been till then. Raj introduced her to an England that she had never experienced, the plays, the restaurants and the culture. They went to museums, took long drives in the country and relaxing walks in the parks. Lea felt like a tourist in her country of birth, a country which up until then had seemed foreign to her because her parents had brought her up in a box.

“In a box?” Raj looked at her with an eyebrow quirked up.

They were having tea at the lovely Mill Dene Garden in the little town of Moreton-in-Marsh in Cotswold. This was the side of Raj she liked – his love for the English countryside took them on regular forays.

“Well, yes. You see, my father wanted a new life when he left Pindos. He tried to assimilate English society when he came here but I guess the English were not ready to assimilate him. My mother was the same - Persian by birth and no longer in her country. So they were attracted to each other like two shipwreck survivors. They couldn’t go back and they couldn’t go forward. So they just built a kind of shell around them and when I came into their lives, around me also. A kind of box, you know, like a child presented with a nice box which he promptly fills up with all his little treasures. That’s what my parents did. They wanted to protect me from losing my heritage and they didn’t want me to be rejected by the English so they protected me from that too.”

“Why couldn’t your father go back to Pindos after the War?”

“I don’t know. I think they tried. I remember photos of me as a baby being carried by my Uncle Yorgos and my yaya. But my parents never mentioned that visit. Things changed, papa said and he was always sad when he talked about Pindos, so I didn’t dig further into it.”

“So that’s how you became so…untouched.” Raj leaned closer to Lea and whispered.

Embarrassed, Lea pushed him away but he caught her hand and pulled her towards him.

“Wait. There’s a spot of cream on your face I’m trying to wipe off.” Raj smiled boyishly as he took her face in his hands and their eyes met.

Lea blushed as she waited for her first kiss. They had been seeing each other for more than a month and Lea was getting impatient. His lips felt soft and warm. Not wet and slurpy like Sharon once described some loathsome boy who was learning to kiss. His breath smelled of strawberry jam. He didn’t lock her mouth up like those Hollywood movie stars ‘sucking face’ as the Americans so crudely say. No, it was heavenly. Touch and go, touch and go. Little feathery kisses, like an angel alighting and taking off.

“There. The cream’s gone.” Raj released her.

“Shall I put on some more?” Lea surprised herself.

Raj roared with laughter and paid the bill.

“Don’t tempt me. I doubt the management of this place would be amused if they saw us rolling all over their rose garden in carnal bliss.”

“We could say the romantic ambience of the place triggered us and we could not help ourselves.” Lea trotted happily out with Raj.

“That may give them an idea to change their advertising tactics. Strike out Mill Dene Garden, a place of tranquillity and peace, and replace it with, ‘a place where passions ignite and the scent of love drives men to forget themselves’.”

“Maybe they’ll give us a discount for helping them with their advert.” Lea retorted.

He threw her the car keys as they strolled out. He had been teaching her to drive. The brave face he put on whenever she ground the gears or shuddered the car from loss of clutch control, endeared him to her even more.

It was as if they were destined to meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. The jerky start was forgotten and she never asked what things he needed to clear during the first two weeks he kept away.

Lea couldn’t help thinking that if her parents were alive, they would approve of Raj. Caught in the excitement of the chase, she believed that Raj was perfect. Perhaps her parents had engineered it from Heaven. She needed someone to look after her and the security of belonging to a man.

Christmas holidays were a week long. He flew her to St. Moritz where his friend owned a chalet. It was the first time she had seen such deep snow. Running into the virgin snow field, she dived in, stomped around and made giant footprints. She was like a child again and a snowball fight erupted the instant he threw one at her.

By evening, Lea was completely exhausted from her first day on the slopes. Raj proved to be a competent skier but preferred to help her balance on her skis instead. They dined in a cosy log cabin where he introduced her to Swiss Fondue. Skewered mushrooms, cubes of baguette and vegetables were dipped into the bubbling Emmental cheese. Slightly inebriated with white wine Lea was completely at ease as the evening progressed. When they returned to their chalet that night, Lea’s feeling of anticipation rose again. This would be their first night together. Would he make the first move? Her heart began beating faster.

The chalet was cold and Raj started fussing around the fireplace in the lounge.

“You look like an expert at this.” Lea commented as she watched him criss-crossing logs into a pile and adding pine cones to catch the flames.

“Of course I am. Back in Malana, it’s all we ever use.” He began puffing on the glowing embers to build the crackling fire up. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and build a little nest behind me so we can cuddle later?”

“Ooh, that sounds romantic. I’ll get on it right away Sir!” she giggled and went scouting for rugs.

Lea found two sheep skins and threw them in front of the fireplace. She opened a bottle of chardonnay and brought out her Christmas present for him.

The roaring fire heated up her outstretched hands. With the lights off and the warm glow of the dancing flames, they started cuddling and kissing. Just as she felt his hand move under her sweater, she broke away and said “Hey, I’ve got a present for you.”

He smiled, understanding her apprehension, took the parcel and began opening it.

Holding it up, he exclaimed, “A Herringbone sweater! Just what I needed.” He stripped off his cashmere pullover and wrapped the beige polo neck around his shoulders. “It fits.” His eyes teased her.

Glimpsing his bare body, Lea’s heart ached and she couldn’t bring herself to say, “That’s not the way it’s meant to be worn.”

Taking her hands into his, he rubbed them gently to warm them. Bringing them up to his lips, he blew on them. Then he looked at her through his long lashes. The sexual tension electrified her and she stirred. The goblet of Chardonnay tipped over on her lap.

“I’m all wet.” She laughed nervously.

“Hmmm…let’s check and see.” Raj pulled her towards him and kissed her fully, his tongue probed deep.

“Hmmm...” she gasped at the suddenness of his passion and felt him fumbling with her wet skirt.

“Stop it. We might shock the natives.”

“Good. They need to learn a thing or two. Swiss people are too wooden.” As he slipped his finger into her lace undies and touched her. “Hmmm…you are wet…come on, let’s get these things off you.” He led her to the bed slowly undressing her.

Lea, who up till now, had only imagined what it would be like, closed her eyes and enjoyed the culmination of all her fantasies and the reality of what was happening.

As each piece slipped off, he used his index finger to brush her exposed skin. His lips followed with kisses. Starting from her smooth forehead, he stroked her eyebrows and then down her nose. Tracing down her cheek, he planted kisses from one end of her lip to the other, first the upper lip, then the lower lip. She opened her mouth to receive his tongue as he explored further. His finger traced on, down her neck and over her shoulders. He resumed kissing her wherever his fingers touched. Then as he circled a nipple, which was erect and almost bursting with the excitement, he rolled his tongue once around it and grasped the mound of her breast with both hands. Lea let out an involuntary gasp. He sucked it as if it were full of milk. Lea grabbed his head and tried to push him away. Raj attacked the other nipple. Lea gave up trying to control herself. She moaned with ecstasy and arched her back to meet the force of his desire, pushing his head into her breast as well. But he wasn’t finished, he would not mount her. He stopped to take off his clothes. His body was long and supple. Muscles rippled under his tanned skin. Her breath quickened. Then his fingers started down again. He reached her belly button and felt his wet tongue exploring inside. She never thought this would be erotic but strangely, it made her wild. Clawing his arms, she wanted him to come up and get on top of her. She couldn’t wait to be entered. Instead, he moved lower. She held her breath as he traced his finger over her Mount of Venus. When he traced the triangular patch of dark pubic hair, her legs opened. His tongue flicked across her wet clitoris and soaked it with passion. When he finally came up to her and covered her mouth with his, she drank in her own smell as he claimed her from below. He moved urgently as if he couldn’t hold himself in any longer. She tried moving to his rhythm. She felt a searing pain and then her head exploded in pleasure. She had climaxed. He held her until her shivering stopped.

“Did you come?” She asked him.

“Lea, I didn’t know it was your first time.” He stroked her bare back. “No, I don’t need to come.” He smiled down at her.

“I’ve read that all men need to climax.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m glad I’m your first Lea. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For waiting.”

“Oh.” Lea decided that she had a lot to learn. He was a good teacher. The following night, she’d asked him to count the number of lovers he’s had since he was fifteen. ‘Heinz 57’ he joked.

By the time they returned to London, he had persuaded her to move into his St John’s Wood penthouse. Weekends were spent on long drives in the country. In spring, their trips to the Cotswolds resumed. Picnics by gurgling brooks, hand-picked daffodils by the bushel and poems of love slipped into her pockets during the week or in sandwiches he had packed for her lunches. Like two saplings intertwining as they grew, he had made her completely dependant on him. The only thing he was reluctant to speak about was his country. He kept everything about his home and family a mystery. Even his mail was directed to a post box. He never talked about his family. The only thing he concentrated on, was her, it seemed. Then one day, he came home and she noticed his jaw muscles twitching.

This was the first sign of things not going right. She asked him what was wrong.

‘Nothing,’ he replied, his face dark and brooding.

‘Raj, what’s wrong?’ she persisted.

‘Stop prying bitch!’ the first harsh words she had ever heard coming from him and directed towards her. She felt them like a slap across her face. Turning away, she ran into their bedroom and slammed the door. He came after her and apologised profusely. They made up by making love. He never explained the reason for his mood change. But after that first time, his mood swings became more regular. Once a week, whenever he collected mail from the Post Office, the moods would resurface. But those first harsh words had taught her not to ask. She was afraid but she didn’t know what she was afraid of. She finally confronted him the day she found him in their bedroom, high on a joint. He spat out the words like a cornered cat. It was the end of summer and nearly a year from the time they first met.

“Mother wants me to go home.”

“Why? What happened?”

“I told them about you and mother must have freaked out. Knowing her, she must’ve nagged my father to death about this. She probably blamed him for sending me over here.” He told her of his attempt to change his parents’ minds. Not only did they totally reject the idea, they cut off his allowance. “Now, I have no choice but to go back.”

“Why do you need an allowance? You can stay here and find a job.” Lea tried to find alternatives.

“Stop it Lea, don’t you think I’ve considered that? I can’t give up my heritage. I’ll go back and sort it out.” And he would not discuss it any further, choosing instead to light up another joint.

It was a relief to Lea that Raj was leaving not because he wanted to but because he had to. Yet, she was perturbed that he had kept all this to himself instead of sharing it with her. His withdrawal into marijuana frightened her. How could anyone who was in control all the time so easily lose it?

3 – London, UK, October Year 2

It had started to rain. Large drops splattered on the windscreen and clattered on the bodywork. They sat in silence, watching the raindrops perform on the glass. Tiny drops dribbled slowly to join others, getting larger, heavier, gathering speed, cascading down and finally, out of sight. London is a miserable place for the broken-hearted, she thought sadly. Rivulets raced one other to reach the bottom. A teardrop quivered on the brim of her eye. She clenched her fists. ‘Damn!’ she muttered under her breath and bit her lower lip to hold her emotions in check.

The MG was parked under an antiquated street lamp. His face was in shadow while the light from the lamp illuminated hers.

“Will you be alright?” His voice seemed a little strained as he watched the rain making abstract patterns on the grass.“Don’t worry about me.” She tried to bite back the malice screaming to be released and failed.

“Of course I won’t be alright. Why don’t you tell your parents to mind their own business? Why don’t you fight for me? Is your inheritance so damned important that you’d rather give me up? What about the things we shared? Money isn’t everything. Love conquers all.”

He sighed deeply in response. “I am a Khan born to royalty, born to rule. I can’t go against my parents’ wishes. That would make me no better than a bastard, an outcast.”

“For God’s sake, this is the twenty-first century. Falling in love with someone not of your race is no longer taboo.”

“There’s a lot you don’t understand. Look, some people can live on love and fresh air but I can’t. They’ve terminated my allowance. I can’t pay my rent and if I don’t return home, they will disown me. To disobey would be sacrilegious in their eyes.”

“You’re damned right I don’t understand. But help me to understand Raj. I’m not stupid. I’m sure I can grasp how your parents’ think if you’d explain things to me. But you always choose to remain silent on the subject about where you come from and who you are. Surely I’m entitled to know. We’ve been together for one full year.”

“One beautiful year.”

“One bloody beautiful year, Raj. That’s what I find so frustrating. It seems so easy for you to give up everything and leave. I mean, out of the blue, you get this letter summoning you home and zap, you’re off! You tell me to keep your car as if it can replace you. Are you ever coming back? Where do I feature in all this? Are you going to be able to write to me? Where the hell is your kingdom anyway?”

“Lea please, there’s no point getting angry. I can’t break my mother’s heart.”

That made her even angrier - Angry and hurt. What about my heart? She wanted to scream at him. She felt him turning to look at her. Not wanting him to see the hurt in her eyes, she turned away. Her silver pendant with the brilliant blue lapis lazuli caught the light from the street lamp as she moved. His fingers stretched out to play with it. It was a family heirloom given to her by her mother. Fragile, delicate, and extremely beautiful, just like you, she remembered those words he had used when he first noticed the pendant. She also remembered how he kept pestering her about her origins thereafter. Is this a Spanish Inquisition? She had playfully asked. I didn’t realise that my pick-up lines are so rusty. Damn those Spanish lessons, he had retorted with charm and made her laugh. She felt another tug at her heart, the pain of these snippets of memory would surely haunt her for a long time. His hand strayed to her long hair and brushed loose strands away from her shoulders, stroking the soft curls that framed her face. As he took her chin in his hand and turned her face to him, she fought it no longer. Her eyes searched for his love in the full sensual mouth that she had kissed, in the dark brooding eyes with such long enviable lashes. He stirred; she heard his breath catching as he gazed back at her. Taking her hand in his he kissed it and she felt the warmth of a tear silently rolling down her cheek. Lifting his hand, he gently wiped it off.

More tears. He took out his handkerchief and gently soaked up the tide. She wrapped her hand over his and in that instant her resolve crumbled. She sobbed, her heart breaking with the pain and wept into his handkerchief, recognizing and at the same time, missing his aromatic scent - the scent that always used to turn her on, the smell of his nearness, their intimacy.

He turned away and swept a hand through his hair. His tense face and quivering lower jaw muscles were the only outward signs of his emotional state. Lea knew all his nervous gestures well. After a year together, their intimate knowledge of one another had almost woven them as one.

“I’ll never forget you” he mumbled, as if to himself.

Just tell him to get lost. She fought the opposing forces within her. He led you on. Made you love him and dumped you - all in the name of what - filial piety? What in the world is that?’ She invoked her anger to strengthen her resolve and it did. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Smelling the earthy steam rising from the warm-soaked patch of freshly mowed lawn outside, she composed herself. The rain slowed to a drizzle now. The worst had passed. He turned to her once more as if trying to imprint her face into his mind forever. Smiling weakly, almost apologetically, he opened his mouth to say something, some consolatory word, but decided to open the door instead. He got out in silence, hunched against the light rain. She gazed after him but he had already walked into the shadows and all she could see was an expanse of glistening fresh-cut lawn interrupted only by parting tread marks.

The engine cut through the heavy darkness. She watched the wipers swish away little rain droplets still clinging onto the windscreen. Swish, swat, swish, swat. As she pulled away from the curb, she tried to concentrate on the lonely road stretching before her. An immense weight descended upon her heart and her tears flowed once more.

4 – Pindos, Macedonia, January Year 3

The smell of roasting chestnuts filled the air and squeals of delight from Lea’s little cousins brought her mind back to the bonfire.

“Yitis nearly time, Lea. This time you have the honour of placing the badnik in the fire.” A croaky voice cut into her thoughts.

Lea smiled and took her yaya’s wrinkled hands in hers. She squeezed them tenderly, glad for the warmth of kinship. It was Kolede, the Macedonian Christmas eve. Surrounded by excited children, Uncle Yorgos shouted encouragement as three younger versions of him hauled a giant oak log down from the hills. This was the annual tradition for Yorgos and his eldest sons, to cut the log or badnik from the woods below Mount Pindos.

“Now, I do the most difficult part, eh?” panted Yorgos as his three sons and all his grandchildren laughed at his joke.

Lifting a huge axe high over his head, Yorgos let the momentum of its weight smash down on the log. His clean stroke was met by applause.

“The Father,” everyone shouted. Yorgos, wiping his hands, lifted the little piece tenderly as he would a newborn babe and passed it to his mother. As the eldest woman in the family, yaya took the log as she did every year and carefully laid it on the bonfire. A spray of sparks flew up into the cold wispy air. One particular spark drifted higher than the rest before burning out. Lea’s gaze followed the spark and lifted her head to the brilliant stars in the velvet sky. Wondering whether Raj could see the same stars, she sighed, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. She felt a tug at her elbow and looked down to see little Akis, the youngest of her nephews looking up at her with his large blue eyes.

“Come, theia, it’s your turn soon.” Akis pulled his aunt over to his father’s side.

“The Son,” yelled Yorgos as he smashed the second piece from the main log. This piece was now handed over to Eleni, his wife, representing the second generation, mother to his three sons and grandmother to five. More applause as this was placed on the bonfire.

“And the Holy Spirit!” Yorgos picked up the last, heaviest piece and passed it to Lea. This would have been handed over to Lea’s mother, Esta, if she were alive. Since both her parents had passed away, the third piece was now handed over to Lea. Lea carried the log with effort and plonked it into the fire, creating a massive burst of sparks. Someone struck a few chords on an accordion.

Dobra Vecher I Vesel Badnik!” every one shouted. Then with kissing and hugging, the festivities began.

“Dance theia!” Little Akis pleaded with his aunt.

“I don’t know how.” Lea’s face flushed. All this was so new to her. Luka, her father, determined to blend into the English culture, had not followed the customs and traditions of his people. Throughout Lea’s childhood, he had only brought her back once, when his own father passed away.

“Go Akis, dance with your sisters,” yaya’s voice cut into her thoughts. “Ah, that boy! He is so like his father. One second your eyes are away from him and he is up to mischief. So unafraid he is.”

Lea could tell from yaya’s voice how proud she was of her youngest great grandchild. Yaya, dressed in black from her headscarf down to her socks and shoes, epitomised the typical Macedonian widow. Almost a century old, yaya had shrunk into herself and looked like a little pixie with a wrinkled prune for a face. But there was nothing sour about her – she smelled of lavender and her love for the family shone through her twinkling eyes and in her mild admonishments.

“Tell me Lea, why are you here?” yaya squeezed Lea’s hand and fixed her with a penetrating glare.

“I…I wanted to know where I belong.” Lea looked into the dancing flames as she spoke.

“Ah, my little Lea. Fifty years ago, your father ran away from here. Yet I remember the day as if yit was yesterday. He was so young – so eager to leave for the new country. So eager he didn’t even turn his head to look at his mother waving wildly at the truck. That big truck that took him away to safety, took a big part of me, Lea. But he was so eager to go. To find a new life he said. After the war, yit was like a miracle to finally get a letter from him to tell me he was alive. I was so happy Lea. My youngest son Luka, alive!” Yaya paused to wipe the tears flowing from her eyes.

“I still have the letter Lea. You want to read it? And I thought, ah, he will come home now. Now it is safe, he will come home. Then whoosh! He married that Persian witch and he told me he won’t come home after all. His father was so angry with him Lea, there were many angry words. Too many and then nothing - nothing until the day Luka sent me a photograph of you Lea. You had your father’s eyes. So big and trusting. Like sapphires they burned into my dreams. But your grandfather was a proud man and he wouldn’t let me write to Luka. When he died...” at this, she crossed herself and said a quick prayer for her dead husband, “I finally had the freedom to ask my son to come home. My Luka and that woman came. And you, you were so tiny, in your little white blanket with those sparkling eyes staring at me. I remember those eyes. But that witch...” at this point yaya spat into the ground, “wanted nothing to do with us. She wanted your father to go back to London. She poisoned him against me Lea.” The old woman grasped Lea’s hand so tightly as if she wanted to replay the whole scene and somehow stop the inevitable. “And you left. You all left. And then they died in that horrible accident. God bless his soul,” yaya crossed herself and sighed.

Yaya you are boring Lea with your stories again.” Yorgos interrupted and winked at Lea.

“Go away. Let me speak with my grandchild. Tell your yaya Lea. Tell me who has stolen the sparkle from your eyes,” yaya pulled Lea closer to her and held Lea’s face in her wrinkled hands.

Trying hard not to embarrass herself, Lea bit her lower lip and smiled weakly.

“You mustn’t mind yaya, Lea. She has kept herself alive all these years because she loves to live other people’s lives. Come yaya. It’s time to serve dinner.” Eleni smiled warmly and nodded to Lea, then took her mother-in-law firmly by the shoulders and guided her, muttering and grumbling, into the house. Lea followed them in.

The ten-foot dining table was piled high with food. For starters, there were kalamata olives, taramosalata and feta kopanisti. Side dishes of steaming ceramic pots of fasolada bean soup and dolmades made Lea’s mouth water. Every one of the ladies had contributed something. Jars of melitzana and piperies toursi from secret recipes, pots of ‘you can’t possibly stop at one’ yiahni, plates of flaky ‘these will melt in your mouth like angel’s breath’ tiropita and hortopita, as well as sarma and lots of local breads, cheese and salads.

The smells of these foods triggered memories of a happy childhood. Although they were in London, her father never failed to find Macedonian food to serve up for their Sunday lunches.

Lea sighed, overwhelmed by a mixture of nostalgia and regrets. Twenty-two years ago a clash of personalities had forced her father to choose between two women. Lea was surprised how embittered yaya still was, after all these years. She suddenly thought of Raj and wondered if her feelings for him would turn bitter after some time. The circumstances were certainly similar. A son, forced to choose between his mother and a woman he loves. In Luka’s case, he chose Esta. Raj, on the other hand, had chosen his mother and spurned Lea. No, I won’t allow myself to be embittered. Life is too short to bear such fierce grudges.

Yaya’s voice jerked Lea back to the present.

“Lea, sit here, next to me. Yorgos tells me they don’t have real food in London. My poor child, no wonder you are so thin. Here, yeat, yeat!” yaya started piling pastrmka on Lea’s plate. It was the only ‘meat’ allowed for the Kolede, everything else was vegetarian. The smoky scent of baked trout aroused her hunger and Lea finally gave in to her grandmother’s pleas. For any Macedonian, the best part of dinner is dessert. Space has to be made for it and the table was cleared by many hands. Eleni brought in her prize-winning Pasta Flora, a lattice-topped tart filled with apricot puree.

“Apricots from our own garden, Lea. You must try it.” Eleni dumped a huge slice on Lea’s plate.

“That’s too much Eleni. I can’t eat all that,” Lea protested, feeling her tightened skirt around her waist. “I’ll share this with Akis.”

“No, theia. Akis has his own.” piped Xenia, another one of Lea’s nieces.

By the time dinner was over, Lea couldn’t face another Karidopeta, Ravani, Diples, Kadaife or Loukoumades. Each dessert seemed sweeter than the former. She was greatly relieved when little Akis came and pulled her by the hand.

“Theia, come and dance with me. The others won’t let me in.”

She joined the circle outside. The bonfire crackled and sparked. Yorgos and a few other old men were already dancing the oro. Drunk with retsina and raki, they drew out their pistols and as the tempo of the music quickened, fired shots into the night. The reverberation echoed throughout the valley. This was the way of the mountains, a way for villagers to say “Dobra Vecher I Vesel Badnik!” to the neighbours.

Is this what it means to belong? Does belonging take away the emptiness inside? Lea envied the way her relatives threw themselves into the spirit of the season. With effort, Lea suppressed any further thoughts of Raj and joined the circle of dancers, determined to enjoy herself with her family, even though it was only for another week.

That night, with her face snuggled under the feather quilt and soft pillow, she relaxed into the rough hewn oak-wood bed. The room was musty and full of old books, knick knacks collected over the years and family photographs. There was even one of herself, being carried by her father. Half the photo had been cut away. No need to guess who that was! Lea sighed. As much as she loved her grandmother, she felt a little disappointed that the old woman would still hold a grudge against someone who died five years ago. Thinking of her parents, Lea began to miss them and in the quiet hours of Christmas morning, hot tears stained the pure white sheets.

She had flown to Pindos for Kolede because she was looking for comfort. The pain of Raj’s absence from her life was too great to suffer alone. Here surrounded by relatives, she had hoped she would get the support and peace she needed to deal with yet another loss in her life.

Drab skies releasing an aimless drizzle greeted Lea as her plane landed in Heathrow. The London weather in January matched her mood – bleak and depressing. Although yaya tried every trick in her book to persuade Lea to stay longer, Lea was anxious to get back to London. Perhaps Raj had sent her letters.

Turning the key in her front door, she tried to keep her hand from shaking. Perhaps his letter is lying there waiting for me.

“Woof!” Lea heard Mrs. Manners’ Jack Russell greeting her.

“Hello Baps! Hello Mrs. Manners.” Lea pushed the door and felt something behind it – a pile of mail.

Before Mrs. Manners could answer, Lea squeezed into her house and slammed the door.

“Humph. Young people are so rude these days!” Mrs. Manners mumbled while Baps scuttled ahead, straining against her leash.

Sweeping up the papers strewn haphazardly on the floor, she mumbled under her breath in anticipation. New Year cards, bills, adverts, bills, adverts and nothing. No foreign postmarked envelopes. Nothing. Lea bit her lip as she felt her eyes prickle with tears. When will I stop being such a fool? The bastard has probably married and forgotten all about me. She thought bitterly. Plunging her hand into her pocket for a tissue to blow her nose, her fingers grasped the smooth worry beads yaya had given her just before she left. Pulling them out gently, her fingers kneaded the shiny black beads. I’m not alone, she tried consoling herself, and I do have family, family who love me. She sniffed. But the ache in her heart was accentuated when she remembered how her grandmother and the other villagers of Pindos accepted their simple ritualistic lives. They clung to the old ways, even the old grudges! Lea knew that for her, this wasn’t the answer. She needed something more.

She scoured the daily papers for the next two weeks looking for a job that would help her gain her PhD. It was an irony when she was offered the post of a research assistant in St. Mary’s. The large ostentatious building revived the painful memories of her parents’ violent death. However Lea had survived and she saw no reason to let the opportunity pass.

“The pay’s not much but the work is fulfilling.” The hospital HR Administrator promised.

Her main area of work was to document case studies of recurrent miscarriages in the third world countries, comparing data on medical treatment collected from the UK and various other international health organisations. Her predecessor had left for a Christmas holiday and never came back to work. The backlog pile was at least 2 feet deep. Lea attacked the pile without constraint, working longer and longer hours as her meticulous nature asserted itself.

The job required her to interact with many overseas researchers which meant tonnes of emails in her laptop. There was little time left for social activities and that suited her. Sharon never came back from Paris and her emails were getting less frequent. Lea wasn’t unduly upset. She surrendered herself to her all consuming job as any workaholic would do, shutting out the emotional trauma that had somehow dogged her for the past couple of years; happy to sit in front of a computer for hours analysing data, communicating to faceless individuals, while the world moved on without her.

5 – Malana, India, January Year 3

Raj paced his room impatiently. His mother sat cross-legged on the floor, wrapped in a warm woollen blanket. The resemblance between mother and son was unmistakable, the dark blue eyes, the fine chiselled face, even the fairness of skin.

The queen began slowly. “When your father and I were married, I was only twelve years of age. We knew we were betrothed long before of course. We grew up aware that it was meant to be. Our horoscopes were matched at birth and everything was as perfect as the gods have predicted. But even then, at twelve, when he spoke to me about his dreams, our future, he stole my heart. Your father was a dreamer and I was determined that as his wife, I would fight to make his dreams come true. When he told me of his decision to send you away to that foreign land...into the world outside, to study, I did not object. However, my heart broke. You were our only child and it was as if he was asking me to sacrifice you to the gods. To send you away was the hardest decision I have ever made.” The queen’s eyes glistened as she looked into the fire, remembering the pain. “I remember the nights I laid in bed, crying silently after you had gone. And he would come to me, hold me and assure me with his life that you would not only return but you would return a much better man. I believed in him. I think I survived the painful separation only because I believed in him. And you came back eventually. Your father was right. You are a better man. You are aware of your duties as a King of Malana. Of course it was a shock when he passed away so suddenly. I have always objected to his crazy ideas of fishing for trout. But he enjoyed fishing and it was a delight to see the huge smile on his face whenever he caught anything and brought it back to show me. I used to personally cook the fish for him, just so I could see his child-like joy. I didn’t know he had to climb down the gorge to find the hiding place of the trout then. I guess I was happier in my ignorance. But he was an optimist. He loved his fishing and when he slipped into the gorge...”

The queen’s voice cracked. She suppressed a sob. Raj went to his mother and enfolded her in his arms.

“Mother, don’t dwell on that. The gods have taken him to a better place. Now he has all the fish he can eat.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, of course. When I was in England, I learned about their beliefs of a place where all people go after they die. It is called paradise, where the gods live. It is a happy place, mother.”

“You are a dreamer my son, just like your father.” She stroked her son’s face tenderly for in her eyes, he was still a boy.

“But my dream will become a reality, mother. That’s what I keep trying to tell you. This girl I met in London, she is perfect. I spent two weeks tracing her ancestry before I made up my mind to nurture our friendship. She has Macedonian blood. Her father was born in Pindos, a small village on the Greek and Macedonian border. Historically, his ancestors could have joined the army of Alexander.”

“Then if they had, how is it possible that he was born in Macedonia?” the queen added doubtfully.

“Not all the Macedonian soldiers stayed in India. Many did make it back to their own country when Alexander died. Mother, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, my studies have shown me that it is futile to hope for a miracle cure. The only way to save our people is to introduce fresh blood into our stock. That’s why I want to bring Lea here and use her to strengthen our people again.”

“Only the two of you? I don’t see how it could work son. I realise I am an old woman and not familiar with these modern science you have learnt…”

“Mother, this is the start. Once we deliver a healthy child together, we will show our people that with new carefully selected blood, we could ensure perfection in our future offspring. Imagine a future Malana where all children have blue eyes, strong hair and teeth. Mothers will no longer weep when they give birth because their babies will be alive. No more deformities to plague us.”

“What of Kamala? What shall we tell her family?” the queen shook her head.

“I need you to back me up on this Mother. I know the council will consider your wishes. They respect you, like they did father. Many of them feel I am too young and tainted because I have been away and spent too many years in a foreign land. They distrust my ideas. But with you behind me, I will succeed.” Raj stood up and paced the room again.

The queen looked up at her son. She saw her husband in him. An idealist but always with the people foremost in your heart. She noticed the dark rings under his eyes. He had not been sleeping well. His dream of saving his people burned into his mind and his worry that if he left it too long, this perfect woman in England would forget him. She knew him so well and was afraid for him. Will you have the strength to fight for this cause? The council, the high priest and the family of Kamala - So much to take on and all because you believe you will be the one to save our people.

“Your father always took slow careful steps. He never rushed into things. Like the time he decided that you should be sent to England. He had his reasons and he persuaded the council to accept this because he knew that once in place, you would fulfil your duty and make the right connections for our trade.”

“Yes, and now our village reap the rewards because my new connection with the drug syndicate in Europe has meant higher returns for us. We’ve successfully cut out the middlemen who had grown fat sucking us dry all these years. Likewise for our problems with procreation, I have a solution and it is Lea. Mother, remember the pendant? It is identical with yours. There must be a link between us. This is meant to be. I feel it.” Raj pleaded.

“Even I have no idea what the pendant represents any longer. The story has been lost but I know it is old, very old. I am tired son. I need to rest now. Perhaps it is best you bring this girl here to our valley and with some living proof, it might be easier to persuade the council to see our point of view.”

Raj did not miss the “our” reference. He flashed a triumphant smile and hugged his mother tenderly. “I knew you’d help mother. Thank you.”

As the queen left his room, Raj sat down at his Oakwood desk and began to implement the next stage of his grand scheme. The line has been tested; it’s time to apply the lure.

6 – London, UK, July Year 3

When the letter arrived, she had just returned from a full day at the lab. She stared at the beige envelop with the royal seal as if it was alive and dangerous. Normally, Lea would have ripped it open like any other letter but this one was special. Now that the long awaited moment had arrived, Lea felt a sense of anti-climax and decided to leave it on the dining table, unopened. It was nearly midnight by the time she finished her shower and wandered into the cold kitchen looking for food. She peered into her fridge. There was a cup of chow mein from the Jade Garden Takeaway. It smelt funny. How long has this been sitting here? She couldn’t recall. There was a carton of Rogan Josh from the Kumar’s Indian Takeaway. Deliberately slow, she heated up both the cartons in the microwave and sat herself down in front of the TV. She couldn’t remember what she watched. She couldn’t even remember if she ate everything. By 4 a.m., Lea summoned the courage to slit open the envelope.

Darling Lea. (Sweet nothings!)

Not a day has passed without me having you in my mind. I miss you deeply. (Why did it take you so long to write then?) So many things have happened in the last ten months that we’ve been apart. I can’t begin to tell you everything. I miss our long intimate chats into the night. (Damn you Raj!) You must be extremely angry with me for not writing sooner. Darling, please forgive me. Things here haven’t been easy. (And you think things have been easy for me here in London?) I want to assure you that I still love you very much. And that’s why I’m writing now. You see, my father, the king, has passed away. He died in a freak accident a month ago. I am glad I was here for mother. Grief aside Lea, the news is that I will be crowned king in his place. There is now a possibility for me to help my people in a more positive way.

Since my return, I have been collating the statistics of births and deaths in our valley. I’ve come to realise that my village is in a crisis, a health crisis. Lea, I need you to help me. From old connections, (WHAT old connections??) I know you’re now working in a leading research unit dealing with miscarriages. Somehow I knew that you are my answer to my people’s problems. How about a field study trip to a remote Himalayan village? You could even do your PhD thesis based on this! (You’ve got all the answers haven’t you, Raj) Will you help me darling? I know that my sudden departure from London was unforgivable. But you must understand that my hands were tied. (I didn’t see any handcuffs.) I’ve enclosed a blank cheque. You know my bank account at Lloyds. I still have something there. So please feel free to draw upon it for any expense you may incur in your preparation to come to me Lea. (Bastard! What the devil are you trying to do?!) I invite you over to my country and my kingdom. Come to me, come see where I live. I need you now, Lea, more than ever before. (Do you think money will absolve everything Raj?)

All my love, Raj

She could not sleep all night and was on the verge of phoning in sick the next day when the phone rang. Oh no! Could he be calling me about my decision?

But it wasn’t him. In fact, she received another shock. The Head of the Recurrent Miscarriage Unit wanted to see her for her six month probation review.

“I won’t take up much of your time Lea. So I’ll get straight to the point.” Dr. Jane Cooks had ushered Lea to a chair. White-haired, matronly, she took off her reading glasses and smiled. But Lea could see that underneath the nice granny look, Doctor Cooks was no pushover.

“You are confirmed. Your work has been exemplary and I’m very happy to say that we at St. Mary’s would be pleased to make you a member of our permanent staff. However,” at this she paused and took out a letter from her drawer, “a week ago, the Board received an interesting letter from India. It appears that your research work has attracted the attention of a prince living in the Himalayas and he has requested that we send you to do a detailed study of their problems. Their village, he claims, is inhabited by descendents of soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great. Miscarriages are now their main concern because their gene pool has deteriorated - something about being the highest caste in the world and not being allowed to mix with the outside world. Obviously this is most unorthodox. I mean, we’re a Research Division on Miscarriages but he seems to think we’re National Geographic…or…or...the Discovery Channel.”

“May I see the letter ma’am?” Lea tried to remain calm. When she read it, she came to the name of the prince and it confirmed her suspicions. It was Raj. What the hell is he trying to do?

“He has actually offered to fund the Hospital in exchange for your secondment to India. A cheque of £100,000 was enclosed. It’s a tidy sum. We checked with Lloyds Bank about the authenticity of the cheque and were assured that it would not bounce.”

“Has the Board come to a decision?” Lea kept her voice level so as not to betray her emotions. First a personal letter to her and behind her back, a bribe to her employers to let her go on a research trip. Touchè Raj.

“Well, yes and no…frankly. The board feels that as a new member of our research staff, it’s not proper to send you into the field without any practical experience, shall we say. So, we counter-offered with a proposal of sending a more experienced team of researchers there and …”

“He rejected it?” Lea interrupted unable to maintain the slow pace at which this twist was unfolding.

“Yes, it’s all quite mystifying really. We thought you might shed some light on this matter Lea. Do you know who this man is?” Doctor Cooks looked directly into Lea’s eyes as she spoke.

“Yes. We were in the same University. He knew I did my Masters in Tropical Medicine. In fact, he’s written a letter to me as well.” Lea skimmed over the details.

“Do you think it’s a hoax?” Doctor Cooks frowned, showing her utter disdain at such frivolities.

“I doubt it. After all, the cheque is not a dud.” Lea interjected.

“Well, the board has decided not to accept his proposal. It all sounds a bit fishy to me.” Dr. Cooks frowned.

“Ma’am, if I may, could I make a suggestion to the board?”

That was how Lea found herself sitting at the large conference table surrounded by a group of ten elderly men and women. Some were old enough to have retired twice over. Yet, there they sat, rigid and solemn. Like the stone gargoyles that stare down from the hospital’s façade. Why don’t these old people just retire? Lea wondered silently. Just then, they all turned to face her and for a moment Lea imagined that they could read her mind. She smiled with guilt.

“Miss...er…Tataski is it?” one of the oldest men began.

“It’s Miss Takakis, m’lord.” Jane Cooks looked down her bifocals at the Chairman, Lord Byford.

“Yes…quite...quite…these foreign names…you know…very confusing sometimes...” Lord Byford looked at Lea and smiled patronizingly.

Lea looked back at Lord Byford, noted his ill-fitting dentures, his pigmented skin and the milky pupils. She wondered what kept some of these old fossils alive. Power? Position? She clenched her fist under the table and willed herself to be nice.

“Let’s get on with it, Byford. We haven’t got all day. My bridge session starts at noon and this is a mere formality after all.” The lady who spoke sported a pretty pink pillbox hat and matching suit. Unfortunately the whole ensemble was designed for a young twenty year old and not for an octogenarian.

“Yes Henrietta my dear, quite, quite.” The old man waffled on. “Er, Miss Takakis. We understand that you know the conditions of this most extraordinary offer from …er… Nepal which we have decided we can’t possibly accept. Sending someone so young to do research in a strange country that no one here seems to know anything about, is somewhat irregular I must say, even though £100,000 is a lot of money. Dr. Cooks concurs that you’d be hard to replace considering what you have achieved in the last six months here with us.”

“I have given much thought to it Sir. And I thank Dr. Cooks for her confidence in me. But I wish to make a suggestion to the board about this offer. I would like to make a trip to this village and examine the situation there. At the end of this assessment period, if there is anything I could do to help them, I would then recommend that St Mary’s accept the money while I stay on to help the village with their problems. However, if there is nothing I could do, I’d like to return to St. Mary’s and we should then return the cheque to them as is proper.”

The whole room was silent when Lea finished.

“What about your expenses during this assessment period?” the pink lady named Henrietta piped up.

“I intend to do this as a thesis for my PhD ma’am. So I will bear the costs until such time as I am convinced I can help them.” Lea looked around defying the board members to refute her suggestion.

“If I may be so bold…” Jane Cooks stepped in, “I must add that this offer from Miss Takakis to undertake this venture upon herself is courageous and fair. She has told me that she is acquainted with this Prince Raj. I suppose she also knows what she is in for.” Dr. Cooks looked deep into Lea’s eyes as she spoke.

Lea had spent the last three days thinking about her options. On the one hand, she knew that accepting any kind of monetary consideration from Raj whether directly or through the hospital, would be a form of obligation. It was the wrong thing to do. In the one year of living together, she had known Raj to be a generous man but the last few months before he left, he seemed to change. She wasn’t so sure at the end, who he really was. But whatever the reason, it appeared that he now wanted her by his side and he wouldn’t stop until he got his way. Lea was enticed. She decided that the best thing to do was to go to him but on her own terms.

“I know Raj. He has asked me for help in his village. I wish to go on my own expense and I take full responsibility for this task. That’s why I am suggesting that the hospital decline the offer of money from him, until I find out for sure what it’s all about.”

“Miss Takakis…was he…is he…a gentleman?” the chairman coughed into his handkerchief as he said this.

Lea knew exactly what the chairman wanted to know. He was referring to their real relationship.

“As far as I know Sir, he is. I have given this offer much thought. I’d very much like to take up the challenge but I know that I can’t do this under the auspices of St Mary’s. I understand the board’s decision to reject the offer. It does seem immoral if St Mary’s were to accept the money in exchange for sending a new employee into the unknown. This is the best solution for us all. So I’d like to apply for a year’s sabbatical and go out to India for this task.”

Murmurs among the senior members of the board and nods all round revealed that Lea’s suggestion was acceptable.

“I thought Lord Byford said Nepal. What’s India got to do with it?” Henrietta spoke up.

“The village lies in the Indian Himalayas ma’am. It isn’t in Nepal.” Lea explained.

“Oh, I thought the Himalayas were in Nepal.” Lord Byford shook his head in disbelief.” Has the border been moved?”

“Not since Monty messed it up….” Another old crony spoke up and caused a few chuckles.

“Really gentlemen. I for one think Miss Takakis has hit on a brilliant suggestion. Let’s vote on it. I have to leave very soon.” Henrietta insisted, looking at her watch. The meeting ended with ten for and zero against. Dr. Cooks was the only face that showed a trace of anxiety.

It took another six weeks before Lea was packed and ready to go. Towards her departure date, she was inundated with the memories of their past relationship. How much of her decision to go was due to her desire to do field research on an ancient civilisation? How much of it was due to the feelings she still had for him? In the end, she knew the answers. She still loved him. He had asked for her to go to him and she could not stay away.

7 – Valley of the Gods, August Year 3

The Valley of the Gods nestles within the Greater Himalayas surrounded by peaks of over ten thousand feet. From the air it reminded Lea of a luscious green jade lodged in an onyx ring. As the tiny plane took a ninety-degree turn, Lea, who boarded the plane from Delhi, along with other passengers, gasped at finding herself staring right into the hillside homes of the villages perched on the mountainside. It was a far cry from the London-Delhi flight on the first leg of the journey. The transfer seemed like a regression in time, moving from a modern A380 to a tiny wasp of a Fokker Friendship.

An opulent Indian, with his stomach spilling out of his badly tailored suit, left his seat and ran from window to window, clicking ten shots a second on his brand new (stickers still intact) DSLR camera. He completely ignored the pleas of the stewardess to return to his seat. Lea looked over and noticed that his companion was a petite Indian lady overdressed in a garish red sari trimmed with gold, looking somewhat embarrassed in her seat. Lea had watched enough Bollywood movies with Raj to surmise that the couple must be newly married. The tikka on the bride’s forehead was as big as a 50P coin.

Lea felt like punching the man in the nose when he rudely intruded at her window. Her thoughts of Raj pushed aside; she confronted the man with an icy stare.

“DO YOU MIND... you are invading my privacy!?”

“Excuse me?” He gave her a toothy grin. The bad breath, rotten brown teeth and betel stained lips repulsed her and she shrank back into her seat. Without the slightest awareness of her disdain, he gushed eagerly on, “Sorry madam. Yam from Delhi. Just married honeymoon, no. Sooo beautiful, yar - Himachali, Walley of the Gods.”

Lea’s eyes fixed on his crooked teeth and wondered how his quite attractive young wife could stand the thought of being kissed by such a hideous creature. Undaunted by Lea’s sarcasm, he moved to another window one seat behind to click some more.

Lea closed her eyes - the flight had been too long and she was in no mood for small talk. Even her attempt at keeping the unbearable Delhiite at bay was in vain. She told herself that she must remain calm. It had been almost a year since they parted so painfully. Not for the first time her mind wandered back to the events that had led her here. Her mouth was dry and her heart thumped louder as the plane descended into the valley. What am I getting myself into? She thought as she unfolded the letter from Raj and read it for the hundredth time. Alright, I’ve come for a specific purpose – to do research. But what about Raj? Is he married? Does he still love me? How shall I greet him? Shake hands? Kiss? Ok, focus now. Priorities. Get my head screwed right. Don’t allow the heart to run away with my emotions now. Despite all the self-talk, she found herself shivering and it wasn’t because of the cabin temperature.

The passengers on the Vayudoot flight to Kulu were no different to those on any other International flight. They were already standing up and making their way to the small exit at the plane’s tail-end before the plane taxied to a stop. First in line was the betel-chewing Delhiite. He towed his shy bride behind him, oblivious to her predicament as she struggled with three matching red bags. The other passengers though less subdued, took up the space in the narrow aisle of the forty-seater plane. A few, obviously known to one another, began chatting on where they’d been and what they’d bought. They chatted about the prices of apples and Lea guessed that they must be landowners of the many apple orchards, from which the valley achieved its fame.

For the humble villagers, the metallic bird landing on the airport tarmac never ceased to be a magical sight. This day was no different. The magical bird had flown in and everyone who wasn’t doing anything better was there to meet it - whether there was someone familiar to greet or not.

Lea remained in her seat until every passenger had left. She fingered her silver pendant as she gathered her thoughts and nerves. Standing up, she picked up her small rucksack and moved to the exit. As she emerged into the full sunshine, she faltered. While other passengers were eagerly scanning the crowds in expectation, she kept her eyes on the rickety staircase, noticing the rusty nails and the crude workmanship. Her heart pounded in her ears, her hands were icy cold even though the day was warm and the Himalayan skies a vivid blue. The jet engine slowed to a low-pitched whine, and excited voices greeting in different tongues could be heard.

“Lea!” A familiar voice rose above the rest.

She looked up and there he was. Her heart squeezed. He looked so fresh and handsome, waving at her with a garland in his hand. Self-consciously, she pushed away the loose curls on her forehead, trying to tidy herself all too late.

“Welcome to the Himalayas” he said as he placed a garland of fresh yellow marigolds around her neck. The villagers were immediately curious and began to gather. This was no ordinary foreign tourist - she was welcomed by the prince.

Lea smiled, bit her lower lip, not trusting herself to speak and offered her hand to Raj. Undeterred by her gesture, he hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks.

“Surely a handshake is no way to greet an old friend.” He smiled and lifted an eyebrow. Sparing any further embarrassment, he took her by the arm and led her to a waiting car. While all other cars had to stay outside the airport gates, his royal car, an Ambassador of not so recent vintage, was the only car allowed in. The prince’s chauffeur, a burly giant, greeted her and took her rucksack.

“My bags,” she remembered as the car sped away.

“Don’t worry, my man will pick them up and follow us in the other car,” Raj reassured her with a smile.

In the privacy of the backseat, with the curtains drawn, time froze. Lea had lived through a thousand simulations in her mind of how she would act when the time came, when they would be face to face and alone. But nothing had prepared her for this. She stopped breathing. His eyes sought hers and held them. It was as if he was looking for the love he knew would still be there. Ten months of separation had not changed one iota of how she felt for him. She forgot all her self talk about letting her head rule her heart. When he raised his hand and brushed a loose strand of hair from her face, the tension broke. She gasped for air and let out a sob.

“Come here.” He whispered and pulled her into his arms. He held her as she wept, stroking her back and mumbling softly, “You’ll be alright now darling. Now you’re here, everything will be alright.”

After he felt her sobbing subside, he fished his handkerchief out from his pocket and wiped off her tears.

“Oh God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” She chided herself. What a silly thing to do, breaking down like that.

The scent from his hankie triggered her emotions again. He tried to put his hand on her shoulder but she pushed his hand away and shook her head. Awkwardly, she looked out the window. He took the hint and respected her silence.

Their journey of more than an hour took them on a picturesque road winding upriver, passing fields of wheat with rich brown ears waving in the late summer sun. An aroma of ripening apples wafted into the car as the wheat fields gave way to luscious hillside orchards. Distant snow-capped peaks beckoned and unfolded as the car climbed. A river thundered through the gorge, its icy blue-slate waters sourced by hanging glaciers in the upper mountain reaches. It was a magnificent welcome.

“I’ve heard visitors describe this as the Swiss Alps.” Raj ventured. “Except of course, our mountains are higher. See the houses? They are not Swiss chalets. Stonemasons hew granite into rectangular blocks and the roofs are made with slabs of slate. The Himalayas are still young. We experience earthquakes from time to time so the people have devised quake-proof homes. That’s why we interleave wooden beams with stone.”

Raj’s attempt to steer clear of emotional issues succeeded and Lea asked, “I like the clothes your people wear. What are they?”

“Well, our people dress in homespun wool. Women wear colourful wraparound cloaks called pattus reaching to their ankles. There! We just passed one. And men wear dark thick jackets, Western style with straight narrow beige pants. See the old men sitting outside their homes over there? It’s all home made. You can see the looms outside of the houses. See, there.”

Lea recognised the pride in Raj’s voice.

Now I know why he loved his long drives into the English countryside. All those years away, he must have missed his home, thought Lea. There’s so much I don’t know about him.

“I’ve missed you so much” Raj whispered into her hair, breathing in her aroma and bringing back poignant memories of their time in London.

Pushing him away gently, she sighed, “Raj, we need to talk.”

“Lea, I know I’ve got a lot of explaining to do and we need to catch up on a lot of things. But seeing you again overwhelmed me. I told myself that I shouldn’t touch you until things are sorted out. But the moment I saw you coming out of the plane, I was just so happy Lea. I had to touch you to make sure it wasn’t a dream. I seriously didn’t think you’d come. Not after how I left. I wish I could replay that period and instead of leaving you in London, I could have brought you back with me. But I wasn’t sure then of my future. I wasn’t sure of anything then.”

“Why didn’t you write Raj? You could at least have written to me to tell me how things are.”

“Lea, I tried. Believe me. I think I’m guilty of wasting an acre of trees in writing paper alone. Writing and tearing them up. But until the time my father died…” Raj broke off and turned to look out the window. Lea sensed his grief and reached out to touch his arm, “I was in limbo. I couldn’t promise you anything darling. But now, I do see a future for us.” He turned back and his eyes were red. “That‘s why I wrote and asked you to come.”

“I’m sorry about your father Raj.” Lea empathised.

“It hasn’t been easy for you either, has it?” It was a statement rather than a question. “Will you let me make it up to you darling?” Raj opened up his hand, palm up, waiting for her response.

She took a deep breath and managed to stop herself from telling him how much she had missed him. But her hand reached out and clasped his all the same.

“Raj, I don’t think I can live through another hurt like that. When you left, I felt so abandoned.” Her voice broke.

She heard him say “But you’re here darling and that’s all that matters now.” Then Lea couldn’t keep her distance any longer. This was what she had desperately hoped to hear. She no longer wanted to play games, act aloof and make him grovel. He had his reasons and his much loved father had passed away. She forgave him as lovers always do when they really need to believe that love conquers all.

Tenderly, he took her oval face in his hands and bent to kiss her. Starting gently at first, unsure of her reaction, his passion grew as he felt her respond. His left arm touched her shoulder while his right encircled her and drew them closer together once more, until nothing separated them.

He slipped so easily into his old familiar ways as he began warming her cold fingers in his. It was an intimacy they often shared in London. Her fingers were always cold while his, somehow, were always warm.

“This little piggy went to market...” he playfully picked up her finger and wiggled it.

Lea chuckled and relaxed. Still the same old Raj.

She nuzzled him like she used to, running her fingers through the soft feathery curls on his nape. He growled deeply.

“You’re turning me on,” he whispered as his hands stroked the length of her back, his voice husky.

“I’m gushing like a tap,” she replied and grinned impishly at his shocked expression.

“Lea! You haven’t changed a bit!” he cried, pretending to be shocked as she pushed him playfully away and they laughed at the joke they used to share.

A disembodied voice broke through their intimacy.

“Sahib, we’re almost there.” It was the chauffeur whom they had all but forgotten.

“What did he say?” Lea asked, curious to know if the chauffeur knew what was going on behind the closed curtains.

“He’s saying we’re almost at your hotel.”

Lea raised an eyebrow. Hotel? What about the palace - no room? Niggling doubts clouded her mind and Raj seemed to sense them.

“Let me explain. Malana is a village with an altitude of about ten thousand feet. To get there involves a full day trek. I’ve decided that for acclimatisation, you’ll need to spend at least a week in Manali, a pretty little town in the valley. We will eventually get to my village but I have a confession to make. I am a prince and I have a Kingdom but the Palace isn’t anywhere near Buckingham’s size or grandeur. Mother also says you’ll be more comfortable at the hotel in Manali. The hoteliers are good friends of mine and they’ve given you the best room.”

Lea remained silent. Her confusion mounted. This reunion was his idea. When he was London, we had lived together for nearly a year. To assume that their relationship would pick up where they left off would be premature. Is there something more to this hotel business? Is there something he’s trying to hide from me? After all, he had hinted about his parents’ objection to her. His father was dead, but there’s still the question of his mother who seems to be a prime influence on Raj from all he has said about her and their relationship. Lea reminded herself to tread carefully. She was in a foreign land, with different customs and traditions. Perhaps the locals will object to their prince sleeping with a foreigner? Then again, that’s silly. They were always together in London. He didn’t think it objectionable then.

“Darling, please don’t be angry. The hotel is a hundred times better than the palace. It has modern amenities, hot running water, a constant supply of electricity and is close to some great restaurants.” Lea struggled with her emotions. It was difficult for her to maintain her professionalism regarding the research and deal with her feelings concerning Raj. She didn’t realise it would overwhelm her. ’I need you now more than ever before’ he had written, so is he going to be staying with me?

“Is it a single room or a double?” she explored gingerly.

“It’s a Honeymoon suite!”

“Ah. You haven’t changed, have you?” exclaimed Lea.

“Wild elephants couldn’t keep me away,” he beamed, happy to see her tacit approval of the arrangement, and relieved that she was beginning to get back into the old ways of accepting his control.

8 – Manali, India, September Year 3

"Sab tik Hai?” he asked as he poured her bed-tea. Bed-tea was a tradition that stemmed from the days of the British Raj. Before getting out of bed, servants would bring in a tea tray with tea in a pot and milk and sugar already added. It was poured and drank before one’s toes touched the cold hard floor. Meant as a gentler way of waking someone up in the morning, it was preferable to a clanging alarm clock. With a cup of hot tea in hand, it was difficult to go back to sleep again. After three days, Lea accepted it as an absolutely civilised tradition.

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Is everything OK?’ - Tik means ‘OK’ in Hindustani.”

“So I should reply, ’Tik, Tik’?” She stirred and stretched.

“Hmm...” Raj replied as he caught sight of her creamy up-tilted breast. He put the teacup beside the bed, bent down, took the exposed breast in his mouth and teased the nipple with his tongue. She moaned softly uncovering the other breast. He looked at them and whispered, “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle that feed among the lilies.”

She heard the words and the rest of the song tumbled into her mind - the Song of Solomon. In university, they shared a love for poetry and had read it together, savouring the love between the most romantic couple of the Old Testament and enjoying the richness of the language used. Now they relived those moments again, as he knelt at her feet and began kissing and caressing them while reciting softly....

How beautiful are your feet, O prince’s daughter

The curve of your thighs is like the curve of a necklace, work of a master hand.

Your navel is a bowl well rounded with no lack of wine,

Your belly a heap of wheat surrounded by lilies.

Your two breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is an ivory tower.

Your eyes, the pools of Heshbon......

Your nose, the Tower of Lebanon.....

Your head is held high like Carmel, and its plaits are as dark as purple;

A King is held captive in your tresses.

How beautiful you are, how charming, my love, my delight!

In stature like the palm tree, its fruit-clusters your breasts.

I will climb the palm tree...’

I will seize its clusters of dates...

Overtaken by the emotions stirred by the words and their own unfulfilled passions of the moment they began making love again, the steaming cup of bed-tea standing forgotten and growing slowly cold. A fleeting thought glanced off Lea’s sub-conscience. No protection. But it disappeared as fast as it came. A whiff of haze caught in the glare of the sun. It had no chance to take hold amidst the heat of their passion.

Lea peered out the open window, gasping at the mountain scenery as their car rounded a sharp bend.

“I never knew you lived in Paradise or I would’ve come earlier.” He smiled indulgently. They had started out early, on the ‘Acclimatisation Tour’ as he jokingly called it. So far, they had driven up to the windswept top of the 11,000-foot Rohtang Pass that separated the Valley of the Gods from the ChangTang Plateau on the Indo-Tibetan border, and were now turning back. Lea was amazed by the harsh landscapes beyond the Rohtang Pass and Raj promised her that they would take a trip to the other side one day. Herds of sheep fattened on the summer pastures of the Himalayan plateau were now returning to the plains two hundred kilometers away. They slowed the progress of any car that happened to be on the same road. Bleating mournfully, the sheep resembled a chorus of white-cloaked altar boys marching down the valley, their voices blending with the impatient honks of the cars. At the lead, a shepherd shook his staff to command the path his sheep should follow, whistling now and then to the flock. Lea was amused to find that the Bible story was true - the sheep indeed knew their shepherd’s voice. Large flocks from different herds would often intermingle indiscriminately. However, whenever one shepherd led off his flock, only his own sheep would follow him. New born lambs were carried around the neck and shoulders of shepherd boys, others hanging from hammocks strapped behind the lead shepherd’s back. Sheep dogs trailed faithfully behind the flocks; their tails hung low showing their fear of being outside their home territories. The body language of the dogs belied their true nature for, when put on guard around their sheep at night, these same dogs would turn into ferocious beasts capable of attacking marauding Himalayan bears without hesitation.

Further down the valley they met a group of villagers coming out from Solang, yet another offshoot that penetrated into the Greater Himalayas. They greeted the young Malana Prince with warmth and his foreign guest with curiosity. Lea, although good with languages, found the local dialect strange and difficult to understand. She merely smiled and nodded polite ‘hellos’. On their way down, the car slowed at a sharp turn and went onto a side-road that could easily have been missed. Gravel crunched underneath the wheels of the Ambassador, the decline was steep and the road was only just wide enough for the wheels of the large clumsy car. Lea looked out in growing concern but Raj held her hand and reassured her.

“Relax darling. Chander has been driving me for the last thirty years. He is the best mountain-driver I know.”

“Where are we going?” she asked unable to contain her curiosity.

“Lunch” he smiled mysteriously, looking through his long dark lashes and making her even more curious. Before she could ponder further, he pulled her to him and kissed her passionately, whispering “It’s so good to be with you in my home.” Her heart melted.

The car had descended onto the valley floor. Climbing out, she realized that they were parked in a secluded riverside culvert. Steep barren rock cliffs loomed over them. It was a natural cul-de-sac. Great oaks swayed gently in the breeze, the crystalline river waters gurgled over smooth rocks. At the far end from which the waters emerged, a pencil-like waterfall splashed over huge boulders. It made a perfect shower. Lea stood in silence and drank in the beauty that surrounded her.

“Hey look, tents, someone actually lives here.” Like a child she squealed with delight and pulled Raj along in her excitement. Standing at the edge of the river, in a field of green clover, stood three tents. They were large, walk-in tents with colourful triangular flags hung from blue tarpaulin roofs. Fluttering lazily in the breeze was a larger flag, with a symbol of an elephant standing next to an armoured figurine in black.

“Raj! It’s your symbol - the one on your ring.” As the pieces slowly fell into place, she turned and hugged him, almost tripping them both into the river.

“Hey, hey, hold your horses young lady! This is a public place!” Raj cried in mock horror.

“Come, come into my humble abode” he said as he parted the heavy drapes and led her into the inner chamber of the royal dining tent. The plain heavy tarpaulin on the outside had not prepared Lea for the luxurious inner sanctum of the tent. Stepping in, she felt as if she had walked into a dream. Fine silk drapes hung from ceiling to floor providing the effect of a Bedouin tent or a scene from Arabian Nights. The similarity ended there. The floor was covered with a finely embroidered Kashmiri silk carpet, so intricate in design and colour that Lea, not knowing much about carpets, could only guess at its age and value. Scented bouquets of Himalayan flowers surrounded candles with tiny flames dancing soft and warm. Large bolsters and cushions positioned carefully on the carpet introduced a low table in the centre of the tent filled with silver dishes. Each dish contained a gourmet delight. There was Lamb Rogan Josh, a fragrant Kashmiri curry made of succulent cubes of lamb which Raj knew had been Lea’s favourite back in London. Another dish contained Saag Panneer, grounded spinach with milky white pieces of home made curd cheese. It was Raj’s favourite and his chef knew that the prince would not consider any meal complete without it. There was also herb-stuffed okra and Moghlai ke Murghi, another of Lea’s favourite chicken dish. On the side were a myriad of tiny dishes of chutneys that Lea found irresistible both in sight and taste. Both sank gratefully onto the carpet, finding their hunger overwhelming all other senses because of the rich tantalising smells and exotic presentation. Fresh air and high altitudes make healthy appetites. The only thing Lea managed to say in between mouthfuls was how much better the food here tasted compared to the little tubs they used to get at Kumar’s Indian Takeaway around the corner from St John’s Wood.

Lea awoke to an incessant buzzing noise and focussed on a summer fruit fly hovering lazily above her head. Pale sunlight streamed through the silk curtains as she slowly recalled that she was in a royal tent.

Raj had arranged for her belongings to be moved from the hotel and had secretly set up the tent camp for them. It was a perfect hideaway and he apologized for not thinking of it before. She appreciated his sensitivity in realizing that his mother’s suggestion was a bad choice. It was impersonal and it had slighted her. This was no way to treat someone he loved. Lea found it easy to forgive him especially since the tent camp was so romantic. After the feast, Raj led her into the second tent. Besides the silk draped walls that Lea had seen in the dining tent, her attention became drawn to a circular bed in the middle of the tent. It was partially covered by yards of pastel chiffon flowing from a pinnacle surrounding the whole bed. Strands of Kashmiri Santoor music from Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma that Lea recognised from their London days, drifted from an unseen source. A richly embroidered sheet of shimmering gold and blue covered the bed. Raj lifted the covers, and pulled her gently towards him. Lea felt her warm skin cooled against the white satin sheets. She sank onto the soft fluffy pillows and they made love once again.

She felt warm and fulfilled, watching Raj sleep like a baby next to her. His arms were still wrapped around her and his soft dark curls had fallen across his face, partly covering the long lashes that she envied so much. Her hand reached down to lift the curls off, her touch tickling him and making him smile. She stroked her lover’s muscled arms and loved them. Her hand moved down between his shoulder blades, kneading the little bumps of his spine and on to the small of his back. Semiconsciously, he moved closer to her and wrapped his leg over hers. Lea smiled, feeling safe. The music reminded Lea of the days when they first started living together. How easy everything was then.

It was their first Valentine’s Day date. He had insisted on giving her a surprise. He left for an appointment for the day but promised to be home by seven. Promptly at seven, the doorbell chimed. She looked out from the upper windows and saw his green MG purring softly by the curb. Darn, he’s back on time, she thought. She had gone through Southall looking for something nice to impress him and was late getting back. When she opened the door, they stared at one another in disbelief. He stood in a dinner jacket, tie, cummerbund and a single red rose in his hand; she, in an ethnic Punjabi suit with a long dupatta of gold and silver threads draped over her head. There was an awkward silence.

“A little overdressed aren’t we?” she raised an eyebrow at him.

He started laughing and she, seeing the humour in the situation, joined the laughter. They ended up having a wonderful time in Hyde Park, feeding the ducks. He’d taken off his jacket, discarded the tie and cummerbund and she’d left the ridiculous scarf at home.

Lea remembered Sharon’s scathing words when they last met in London.

“Lea ma chèrie, you really mustn’t give in to him too quickly. Look how insensitive he was to your suffering. One moment he can’t wait to leave you and the next, he’s manipulating you to go to him. Does he think you’re a dog?”

Am I too soft? Once upon a time, I would’ve given Sharon the same advice. But it’s always easier to give advice than to take it. As she looked down on his clear and untroubled face, she was convinced that this was paradise. Besides, it’s Christian to forgive. Nothing else mattered. Well, nearly nothing. The thought of birth control once again troubled her. I must find those pills I brought. She smiled as she remembered packing them in London. She had agonised over her decision. Bringing them along exposed her innermost desires. She had fantasized how it would be if they made up. I won’t give in to him. I’ll make him crazy with desire. He will have to beg me to forgive him but I’ll wait for at least one month before I let him make love to me. A month indeed! It hadn’t even taken a day for them to jump into bed! She heard the muffled fluttering of the flags above the tent.

My beloved is mine and I am his, and his banner over me is love. She thought happily of the well-known psalm and drifted off to sleep again, wrapped tightly in his embrace.

"Sahib...Sahib...Ek minit ji...Sahib!"

Lea and Raj awoke almost simultaneously. They recognized the voice of Chander, the chauffeur. Raj hurriedly picked up his clothes and threw them on.

“Stay here darling. I’ll see what he wants.”

Lea, still struggling with her clothes, sank back among the dishevelled bed-sheets. She could hear faint mutterings in local dialect and raised angry sounding voices. She couldn’t make out who was speaking or what was being said. Her frustration mounted and she vowed that she’d pick up the local dialect as one of the first ‘things to do’ on her list. Raj came in and sat next to her on the bed.

“It’s the council. They’ve called a meeting for this morning and I have to rush back.”

“Anything wrong?”

“No, just some matters about the coronation and the Dusshera festival coming up. I have to be there darling. It’s expected of me.”

Lea had been told about it. She’d learnt about the importance of the festival and the role in which Raj as the new king would play in it. They had discussed local customs and traditions and she had some idea that the council was a very important system of governance in this Himalayan kingdom.

“What do your council think of me coming here? Do I need their approval to start my research?”

“Not yet. I’ve told them nothing as yet because I didn’t know if you would come.”

“But isn’t anyone questioning your behaviour, seeing you with me for the last five days? Erecting these tents in this secret hideaway?”

“I couldn’t care less darling. It’s nobody’s business but mine.”

“But what about your mother? Hasn’t she said anything? Will I get to meet her?”

“Relax my love. I’ll explain everything in good time, trust me. Things move slowly in the Himalayas. We don’t have rat races here. Anyway, while I am attending to boring political matters, I want you to have this and go paint the town with it.” He flashed his confident smile, the same smile that made her fall in love with him the first time they met, as he pushed a thick wad of rupee notes into her hands.

Dropping her off at the local bazaar, he leaned out the window shouting as Chander drove away. “I’ll be back by six this evening. This will give you a chance for some adventure on your own. Don’t get lost now. Meet me at The Hungry Yak at six. OK, sweetheart?” With that, he was gone.

She stared after the lumbering car until it disappeared. Turning her attention to the main street and the local bazaar, she became aware of the locals looking at her, their faces creased with deep lines. Lines gathered from years of toil under the strong ultraviolet rays of the sun at these high altitudes. The faces smiled and she felt their warmth. She loved their childlike curiosity although some may have found it rude. Lea smiled in return and began walking. Turning into a lane so narrow that, if she stretched out both arms, she’d be able to touch the walls on either side, she followed a steady stream of people going into the heart of the bazaar. Smells of cinnamon, pepper, chillies and cloves greeted her. Red and glittering imitation gold trinkets hung from tiny shops on both sides of the lane. She browsed and wondered what all those things were used for. The shopkeepers were not in a hurry like in the cities and they didn’t try to hustle her to buy their wares. Some were busy knitting and chatting with their neighbours, others with sorting and counting. A side alley led off to a row of tailors. Seated on the floor with their antiquated machines that belonged more in museums than the 20th Century, shrivelled old men with spectacles halfway down their noses, sewed clothes for their customers. Some looked up at Lea as she passed, observing her western clothes with a keen eye, perhaps memorising the cut so that they could reproduce the style for a future customer who may want something modern. In ‘fruit alley’ she was amazed by the varieties of apples displayed in their wooden boxes. Packed in straw were Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, Washington Reds, and crates of Red Delicious. Lea couldn’t resist the plump sweet smelling fuzz-covered peaches and the bright orange apricots. She bought a kilo of each and buried them in her rucksack.

Down another offshoot Lea discovered fresh vegetables laid in tidy rows on groundsheets and musty smells of freshly butchered meat from unfortunate sheep too weak to make it down to the plains. The sights, sounds and smells assaulted her senses. Live chickens squawked loudly as their feet were tied before being thrust into bags for new owners to take home. So different from Bermondsey or Shepherds Bush, she mused.

Turning into another lane, a smell of fried onions and roasted meat greeted her. Following her nose to the source of the delicious aroma, she found a row of small shops with large steam pots suspended over wood fire stoves. Inside, customers huddled on tiny stools and tables, surrounded by walls darkened by years of grease and soot. Lea was enchanted. She stepped into a shop that looked the cleanest by their standards and pointed to what other customers were already tucking into. Momos! - Deep-fried dumplings bursting with minced lamb wrapped in smooth dough and served with pounded green chillies in a deadly hot concoction. The momos were accompanied by a soup of lamb bits in a clear broth with crispy green cabbage served in small clay bowls without any spoons. Lea saw the locals slurping it up, holding the bowls to their lips and she did the same. It was so fantastic that she ate ten momos and contemplated ordering another ten but restrained herself. There was plenty of time to indulge. Lea did not intend to leave this valley in the near future. By the time she finished her exquisite lunch and wandered around the endless lanes weaving in and out through the whole bazaar it was evening.

Darkness descends quickly upon the Himalayan villages as the sun dips behind the high mountains. In an instant, like a flick of a switch, the valleys plunge into twilight.

Street lamps with low voltage flickered as she made her way to The Hungry Yak restaurant to wait for Raj. Being on the main street, it was more popular with tourists and when she entered, she winced as she caught sight of the Delhi cameraman and his bride.

“Ah, madam. Ve meet again, my Missus.” He thrust his new wife towards Lea.

Instead of shaking hands, his wife put her hands together and said, ”Namaste.”

Lea did the same, loving the local way of greeting but noticing that the new bride had her eyes lowered. After much persuasion from the Delhiite, Lea joined them and ordered a local Beer.

“You drink Pink Pelican, madam! Velly good Indian beer. My vife, she goood girl No drink, no smoke. I drink and smoke and yeverything,” he ranted.

Lea raised her eyebrow at the Pink Pelican innuendo but let it pass. She glanced at the time - 6.30 p.m. - Raj should be here any minute.

Suddenly, the table where they were sitting began shaking. Alarmed, Lea looked around, remembering that the Himalayas were young and earthquake tremors were frequent.

“Vhat’s the matter madam, you look frightful.”

“Is it a tremor, you know, an earthquake?” Lea asked incredulously.

The Delhiite let out an extremely loud guffaw, “Yit is only my leg, madam, yit is quaking, not the yearth.”

He turned to his wife, translated the conversation to her and they both began braying like donkeys. Lea was utterly disgusted. The fact that Raj had not appeared as promised did nothing to lighten her mood. When the food ordered by the Delhiite was served, Lea began regretting ever having set eyes on him. He ate with the manners of a half-starved dog. At one point, a piece of cauliflower did not quite make it into his gaping mouth and it swung gaily as he chewed the rest of his food, unaware of the pendulous floret. Lea was so appalled; she had to avert her eyes to quell the nausea churning her stomach. Despite the fully loaded mouth, the Delhiite continued chatting, oblivious to all but himself. He talked about everything, his business, his money, his wife, and his family, his favourite food and so on. Lea spoke little. After the initial outburst, his wife resumed her ‘ideal wife demeanour’, merely listening to her husband’s ranting and graceless mirth. Lea pitied her. She found out without asking that they had met only a week before the marriage. Like most marriages in India, their parents had arranged it. Astronomically, their stars had matched, as had their family backgrounds and fortunes. For them, it was a match made in heaven but Lea noticed glaring differences. One talked too much and the other not at all. One blared out his feats while the other just smiled. Lea found it hard to understand Indian women. Are they all so meek and subservient? Does Raj expect such a girl for a wife? Having experienced Pindos, Lea understood the importance of family too and nothing brought this out more than her visit to yaya’s over Kolede, where she learned that Macedonian men had king-sized egos. However, Lea was born and schooled in London. Despite her traditional upbringing, influences from her peers, education and exposure to the English had made her independent in a lot of ways. In a marriage, both partners would be equal. She had never thought that Raj had a difference of opinion. Now, a worry line creased her forehead and she toyed absentmindedly with her pendant.

“Vhat a beautiful brooch madam. You buy yit from the Bazaar, no?” The Delhiite eyed it greedily.

“Oh this? No, my mother gave it to me.” Lea felt offended that anyone would consider her pendant a cheap bazaar trinket.

“Ah, my vife, she bought too much jewellery from the bazaar today. Many look like that, with lapis lazuli also.”

“Oh you know about lapis lazuli?” Lea was mildly interested now.

“Yes, yit comes from the mountains, a sacred stone to the people here.”

“Really?” Lea wanted to know more.

“Ve have to leave madam, bed time!” He glanced meaningfully to his giggling bride. To emphasise his intent, he began expounding. “The restaurants close early here. No discos in the mountains. Back in Delhi, ve yeat at ten pee yam and the restaurants close at two in the morning. Then yits disco time until four! Now my vife yand yai, ve are going to disco yin our bed. Vould you like to join us?” His eyebrows jiggled.

Lea was appalled at his blatant suggestion and felt even sorrier for the man’s wife. “Really Sir! You’re on your honeymoon!”

The Delhiite guffawed at Lea’s discomfort. Whispering something to his wife, the happy couple waddled off giggling into the night.

Lea found herself on the poorly lit street. The bazaar was deserted now. She peered up and down the street looking for Raj’s Ambassador. The street was deserted. Instinctively putting her pendant into her blouse, she considered her choices. The hotel was downstream, about ten kilometres away but if she turned up without Raj, it would seem strange. On the other hand, the tents were only five minutes in the car. That would take approximately fifteen minutes if she knew the way.

I can find my way back to the tents, she told herself bravely and started walking at a brisk pace. She read somewhere that if one walks at a brisk pace, with seemingly some place to get to in a hurry, the chances of being robbed and murdered are minimal.

As she walked past a lane she recognised as the one she’d taken into the centre of the Bazaar earlier, a dark furry projectile cut across her path followed by a screeching alley cat. Lea screamed and dropped her rucksack. From out of the shadows, a young boy emerged.

"Memsahib...tik?” he asked sounding concerned.

“Oh, sorry,” she flustered, “I’m fine. Tik, tik." she tried to sound confident, using what little she knew of Hindustani.

The boy reached down, picked up her rucksack and handed it to her immediately. She felt ashamed that for a fleeting moment, she had feared he was going to steal it. She stammered her thanks. He flashed a boyish toothy grin.

“Where you go memsahib?” he asked in broken English,

“I’m trying to get back to the tents or hotel...I’m not sure which is nearer.”

“Tents? Oh by river? No far - I take. My name Chotu Ram,” he patted his hand on his puffed out chest and promptly led the way.

Lea felt a little foolish, stumbling along in semi darkness because the street lamps had now been left behind at the bazaar. Luckily the moon was full and it was a fine cool night. When they came upon the narrow road that led down to the valley floor, she finally recognised where she was. The boy turned towards the cliff-side and said “Chorto Pato, chorto pato” which Lea took to mean short cut. She shook her head.

“Uh-uh. I’m not going to go down there. Another few minutes longer won’t kill me. I’ll take the long way down. Thank you very much,” and with that she continued down the road. The boy looked at her in confusion. Foreigners are strange people, he thought. He didn’t understand most of what Lea said but he guessed that the memsahib preferred the longer route. He shrugged and grinned happily as he followed her. It was nice to practise his two-bit English on someone.

“I learn English Memsahib. Like Tenzing Norgay. Good guide. Many money. No cut cut maaa…like father.”

“Oh, your father’s a butcher?” Lea was amused by the chatty boy.

“My father name Badah Ram.”

“How appropriate! Badah Ram, the butcher.” Lea chuckled and Chotu laughed along not understanding what she was really saying.

The gravel path sloped downhill and was narrow. Lea’s hiking boots crunched on loose stones as she stepped carefully over uneven ground where the hillsides had eroded and presented sudden drop- offs. An owl hooted and its haunting call echoed through the darkness. Lea looked up at the cliffs and the dark mountains loomed menacingly over her. Fear crept into her and chilled into her bones. The moon slid stealthily behind a cloud plunging the valley into darkness. Lea stumbled over a hidden mound and pitched violently forward. For a moment the falling momentum in the pitch black darkness terrified her. She imagined herself falling over the edge of a precipice and her arms flailed out. Her screams echoed throughout the valley floor as she landed heavily on her hands and knees and skidded over the scree. The cuts were deep and she went numb with shock. Twisting her body around, she managed to sit up on the gravel path. Her breathing became laboured and the cuts bled profusely. Lea began sobbing as the moon recovered and once again illuminated the path. The boy stood in front of her. His blanched face distracted Lea from her self-pity and she wiped away her tears, embarrassed that she had scared him and thinking that she must look like a clumsy oaf. Chotu didn’t speak; it was an awkward moment for both of them. He picked up her rucksack in silence. Walking in front of her, he led her down, every few steps looking back. She stood up and limped to catch up. Not another word was spoken until they reached the safety of the tents.

The heavy drapes parted silently. A shadow crossed the deep carpet betraying no sound of trespass. The shadow reached the inner sanctum - the silk drapes over the bed quivered. Moonlight shone through the netted windows of the tent, filtering softly onto Lea’s face. A face that formed a picture of innocence and trust. A hand reached down, throwing its shadow across her body, like a knife slicing through the night.

Lea screamed and sat up.

“It’s me darling, it’s only me.”

She recognised the familiar voice and the nightmare faded as she awoke.

“Raj, where were you?” Her voice betrayed some of the worry that had assailed her earlier and caused her nightmare.

“I’m sorry darling. The council didn’t finish till evening and Mother wanted me to stay for a chat after that. She insisted since I hadn’t seen her for days. I had asked Chander to drive back to tell you but it seemed the car broke down on the way and he had a hell of a time trying to get it repaired. By the time he got there, you’d already left The Hungry Yak.”

“Yes. I left because it was closed, Raj.” She said scornfully.

“Darling I’m sorry” he stroked her hair “Please don’t be angry. I didn’t mean to leave you alone like that.” As he said this, he took her hands to kiss them. She winced in pain and pulled them away. It was then that he noticed the blood on the sheets and the cuts on her hands and knees.

“What happened?” he asked in shock.

“I fell,” she said and tears stung her eyes as she remembered.

“I’m so sorry darling” and as he embraced her gently he whispered “I’ll never leave you alone again. I’m a bad host. I shouldn’t have listened to Mother. Please darling, don’t cry.”

She cried even more.

Just at that moment angry shouts and a small boy’s fearful cry of anguish pierced the dawn air. Recognising Chotu’s voice, Lea plunged through the drapes and ran into the dining tent from whence the sounds had come. Raj followed. They were just in time to see Chander lifting his hand and slamming it down on the terrified face of the little ragamuffin. Chotu was only just quick enough to dodge the blow.

Lea yelled, “Stop! What are you doing!?” She launched herself at Chander and the chauffeur retreated in shock, tripping over a stool and landing on his behind.

Raj decided to take control. Seeing Chotu hiding behind Lea, he addressed her.

“You know this boy Lea?”

“He helped me find the tents last night. I offered him the dining tent to sleep in as I didn’t know where else he could go.”

Raj looked at Chotu and recognised him as the butcher’s son. Slaughtering animals for a livelihood, Chotu’s ancestors had condemned themselves to being of the caste of Untouchables, the lowest caste in a land where the cow is held sacred. Chotu and his peasant family lived with this legacy bound by birth and trade.

Raj could see that their mutual adventure of the night before had made Lea grateful enough to protect Chotu. Chander, on the other hand, was acting on instinct. The sight of the untouchable sleeping on the Royal carpets made him see red. The little boy had overstepped his boundaries and had violated the ancient traditions where no one other than a high caste can touch the things the royal family possess. A touch, however slight, by a low caste could defile a high caste. If he could have killed the boy right there and then, Chander would have done it and everyone, including the family of the boy, would not have objected. The sin of the boy was akin to an act of treason and death was a small price to pay.

“Your Highness, he is the butcher’s son.” Chander spat the vile from his throat. Raj looked at his faithful chauffeur of thirty years and silenced him with a raised hand. Chander looked at his Prince as if he’d been slapped.

“Leave us.” With great reluctance and a final glare at Chotu, the chauffeur retreated.

Lea relaxed. I don’t like that man. She thought.

Turning to the boy, Raj said sternly “I don’t want to destroy the tents. But this I will have to do if anyone finds out what you did. Then I’ll even have to punish you and I’m sure you don’t want that to happen.”

“But the Memsahib insisted your Highness. She kept telling me to sleep in there.” Raj raised an eyebrow at the boy’s boldness.

"Achcha!?” he asked, looking over at Lea.

“What’s he saying?” Lea asked, frustrated that she wasn’t able to follow the conversation.

“Go boy. If I hear of anyone mentioning this in the marketplace, I’ll know you’ve told AND YOU’LL BE SORRY,” Raj shouted after the running boy. With an arm around Lea’s shoulders, Raj led her back to bed.

“Darling, Chotu’s father is a butcher. They are the lowest caste in our world.”

“I know about castes, Raj. I am a foreign no-caste which is equal to a low caste, remember? I can’t marry you because you are high caste. I’ve heard it all before.”

“Please darling. There’s more to it. The English have castes too. But they don’t call it castes; they refer to ‘social classes’. You don’t see the queen having tea with her maid. Prince Charles doesn’t hunt with his butler. It’s no different here.”

“Oh, don’t give me that. That boy saved my life Raj and Chander nearly killed him for doing it.”

“Chander was only doing his duty,” Raj explained.

“He didn’t know it was your royal dining tent. It was dark and he looked so tired. I must have scared him when I fell.”

“Lea, I’m grateful he helped you. If not for that, I wouldn’t have let him go. If word gets out that the prince allowed a butcher’s son to sleep in the royal dining tent, I would have to destroy the tent and sentence him to death for the trespass.”

“Death?” Lea blanched.

“I’m telling you the law as it stands. I didn’t make it.”

“Death? For sleeping in a tent of a high caste? What justice is that? What archaic system of government do you have here?”

“Darling, please. The laws of our forefathers have been laid down through the centuries. It may sound archaic but it’s kept our people in check. Crime is virtually nonexistent. The people know their place. Laws are laws. That boy should have known better.”

“Do I get death from sleeping with a high caste then?” Lea asked quietly, partly releasing the feelings of confusion and anger that churned inside her.

Raj looked up with a hurt expression. His face darkened and the muscles in his lower jaw tensed and quivered. He turned away from her and petulantly pulled the sheets around him.

Lea looked at his silent form and regretted what she’d said. She lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. The chiffon cloths flowed from a point above her in tight gathers, loosening gradually until they surrounded the whole bed. The cascading folds reminded her of a river flowing through a chasm, getting tighter and narrower, flowing fast as if rushing towards an unseen vortex. She felt that she too was being rushed through a vortex - a vortex of emotions.

Everything is happening too fast. It’s been a week and he is in full control again. I must focus on why I came. Start the research and see what I can do. Where are those blasted pills anyway? She could have sworn she packed them into her toilette kit. For the first time since she arrived, Lea began to ponder on her decision to come to this valley with such an alien culture.

9 – Malana, India, October, Year 3

“I will always remember my grandfather speaking among the council of elders in a session of the high court. They would sit together and talk of the old days. All the old men of the village would be there. It was a democracy like no other. First the urgent matters at hand would be discussed, then talks of the harvest, the sale and appointment of those who would go down to the outside world to sell the harvest. Celebrations would be discussed in greater detail - like all mountain tribes, we loved our festivals. The villages around us would listen to our advice. We dictated laws which applied to all.”

Lea had insisted on embarking on her research. Her report back to St Mary’s was overdue. Reluctant at first, Raj finally relented when she threatened to pack her bags and leave for home. He started with the region’s history and statistics. This was the first time Raj had opened up about his ancestry. In London, he had been so mysterious, always evading questions about where he came from and what his family was like. He told her of his royal connections only near the end, when he had to leave.

Responding to Lea’s questions about the council, Raj continued.

“I was a child when my grandfather took me to my first council meeting. Like all children, I was curious. Anyway, it was a boring day for me. Apart from the rules and traditions passed down through our mothers, I was reminded in an initiation ceremony that we belong to the highest caste in the world. We were not allowed to mingle with the ordinary folks in case we became defiled if they should touch us. It started as a sign of respect in ancient times as well as for health reasons. Because our forefathers were from foreign lands, spoke no local language, and were not naturally immune to the local diseases, it was best to keep apart. Over the centuries, some of the descendants succumbed to their lusts and married outside the community. But not Malana. We stayed firm to our beliefs and we stood alone - Alone with the protection of our Lord Jamlu. He is a powerful god and people fear him. At first, the other villages respected us for our firm resolve not to intermarry. Every year, they paid homage to our Lord during Dusshera. But in the last twenty years, since the valley began welcoming foreigners into our midst, and the advent of cable TV, the villagers have realised Malana’s ‘caste’ is nothing but the emperor’s new clothes. The highest caste idea has become a joke. Everyone sees that we as a people are threading down a path of genetic suicide. Our greatest legacy has now become our greatest threat.”

“Well, I can see the logic of keeping to your own kind from a medical viewpoint. But I guess those people back then didn’t know that to obtain a healthy genetic pool; they would need at least thirty couples to start a village. Where did they originate from?” Lea was already thinking ahead. She needed to collect data from the villagers.

“It has been our legend that our forefathers came to this part of the Himalayas 327 years before your Christ was born. Their king was Alexander the Great. Having conquered the whole of Persia, his Macedonian army crossed many mountains and seven rivers to reach India. Battles raged for more than ten years in those days. Lots of our people lost their lives in the mountains where the weather was harsh, rations were limited and many were old and tired. Some were ready to quit. Others who brought their wives and children along often lost their whole family. The sequence of events was unclear. It happened so long ago. However, there came a point in time when our forefathers became stragglers. It was a time of uncertainties. Their dream of conquering further lands had died with the death of their loved ones. The battle against the Indian King Porus was the final straw. It was the first time Alexander’s army had to fight against a full battalion of elephants - two hundred of them I believe.”

“Did these stories pass down from your forefathers?”

“Not the full picture. Legends and snatches of it survive and we sing them in our songs. But I did some extensive research in the University library. Remember the times we used to bump into each other there?”

“And I thought you were just hanging about hoping to meet me.”

“Well, I must confess that after that Fresher’s Ball, my mind was not so focused on what I was supposed to do.”

“Stop kidding around. How sure are you about the Alexander connection? Perhaps it’s all a myth.”

“Not at all. One day I’ll show you some evidence that we are descendants of Alexander’s army” he winked at her and added to the mystery.

“So, tell me more Mr. Historian.”

“After Alexander set out on an exploration trip to the Indus, my forefathers decided to stay behind and fend for themselves. They were tired of making war in foreign lands with their King. They no longer wanted to move forward in case they reached the end of the world and fell off. But they were also scared of turning back because they knew the way back was not without hardship. The only way open was to climb back into the mountains. Instead of turning west, where they came from, they headed east. It must have been a hard journey. They crossed many mountain passes, weathered terrible storms and endured the heat of the desert before arriving in this valley. Then they found a sheltered ledge deep in the mountains. It reminded them of the place where eagles chose for their eyries. It was high in the Himalayas and difficult to get in and out of without being seen. Here they settled down. That first village is known today as Malana. Over the years, the village became too populated and the descendants of the lower ranks elected to move out. They settled throughout the valley now known as the Valley of the Gods.”

“Because you were all regarded as Gods being the highest caste and all?”

“Partly. And also because we had so many gods to whom we prayed. Every village had its own god. Amongst them all, of course, Malana’s god was the most powerful. However, our high caste ideal cannot carry us forward to the twenty-first century. Malana people are only allowed to marry within their own community. Through the years, our numbers have dwindled. Many children are stillborn if at all and those who survive show signs of retardation. Our women are beginning to miscarry at an alarming rate. That was why my father, with the council’s consent, sent me to London. We needed to find a way out. They felt that the education and exposure to Western science would help me to find a cure for my people.”

“So you really needed my help after all. It wasn’t a ploy to get me here to renew our acquaintance.” Lea teased.

“What do you think?” Raj pounced on her and started kissing her all over.

“Stop! I give in.” Lea protested and giggled as Raj continued to tickle her. “We’ll need to start with taking some samples of blood. To find out if indeed your people are related to the ancient Macedonians perhaps I could collect some tissue samples for DNA testing. Treatment for genetic deterioration is not going to be easy Raj. There is no miracle cure.”

“Anyway, let’s cross the bridge when we come to it. Enough research for today, time to prepare for your visit.”

“Where?” Lea roused from the low dining table, in front of which they had both reclined after another delicious meal.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? My mother has invited you to visit her in Malana.”

“No.” Lea felt uneasy. She loved the son but it had become apparent that his mother determined what Raj could or could not do. Lea did not feel ready for a meeting with her just yet.

“Don’t be silly, she won’t bite you. She’s sent you a present. I laid it out for you in the bedroom.”

“Really?” Lea shot up and went to investigate, her excitement mounting at what the Queen could have given her.

“It’s beautiful. Oh thank you, thank you” she waltzed around the bed with a richly woven pattu held against her chest.

“I knew you’ll love it. It’s made from pashmina wool. Taken from the undercoat of pashmina lambs, and then only from around the neck area where the wool is softest. You could take a ring and pull the whole pattu through it because it’s so fine and delicate.” As Raj said this, he took it from her and wrapped the whole piece of woollen cloth around her. Then picking up two silver pins which were also part of the dress, he pinned it gently on her shoulders.

“So that’s how you wear it. It’s softer than the cashmere scarf you bought me in London and much finer.” She stroked the pattu tenderly.

“Oh that was nothing compared to this. Mother has her own special resources.”

“I’m going to get some tissue samples from volunteers while I’m there. Will that be a problem?” Lea began organising her laboratory knick-knacks.

“Listen Lea. Take any amount of samples you need from me. But with the others, it won’t be easy trying to convince them to volunteer. Let’s just leave it for this first time, OK?” And with that, the topic was dropped.

The approach to Malana is not easy since the village is built into a cliff side and the path leading to it cuts deep into the steep gradient of the mountain’s west side. All visitors coming up are sighted long before they start to ascend. The trek is demanding - an almost vertical climb with no respite. To reach the village, it is necessary to tackle the climb in a curious sequence of taking two steps - turning one hundred and eighty degrees - taking another two steps - then turning again, each time, climbing higher onto the mountain. The ledge is too narrow for anyone to take a rest. Those who stop on the path hold back others behind them. Following this monotonous routine for two hours to reach the top, visitors have been known to walk straight out, delirious perhaps because of exhaustion and perhaps due to the lack of oxygen at such a height. The resulting plunge into the Malana River gorge claimed many lives.

Although Lea was forewarned of the climb to Malana, she wasn’t prepared for the final assault. She could see Raj’s brown woollen jacket going ahead, then disappearing at the one hundred and eighty degree turns. As she followed, she looked down, making sure her feet were placed on the ledge before stepping. There was no chance to admire the mountain scenery because it was extremely dangerous to lose concentration even for a second. She counted two steps - turned - took another two steps, then turned. Her neck was getting heavy from looking down - her eyes dizzy from the turns. Occasionally Raj would stop and she’d walk right into his back.

“Don’t stop. I’m OK,” Lea assured him.

“I’m pacing you darling and you’re taking the turns too fast. Slow down or you’ll get dizzy.”

“I’m OK, really” Lea insisted.

“Alright, but I’m tired. So don’t rush me. If you follow too closely, I get claustrophobic and then I’ll rush ahead and forget to turn.”

“Oh don’t be silly Raj. You could probably do this climb with your eyes closed!” she gasped for air as she spoke.

“The pattu suits you. I look like a goof in this jacket and tight pants.” Raj tried to take her mind off the tedious ascent.

“Be thankful you’ve got pants! I’m tripping all over myself in this pattu and I can’t even sit in case I tear it or something.”

“Mother will be pleased that you like her gift.”

“Idiot! Get on with it and a little faster if you don’t mind. I’m not an octogenarian you know.”

As they completed the climb and entered the village square, they were immediately surrounded by children. These were not normal bright-eyed precocious kids with pink rosy cheeks but a motley collection of squinty cross-eyed, shabby haired urchins with grubby smudged faces and dirty nails. Unlike most kids who would smile at strangers, Lea noticed that they stared at her with something bordering on rudeness.

“Namaste.” She tried, smiling but the kids didn’t respond.

Raj stooped down to the kids and beckoned them closer. He spoke quietly to them and in a moment their faces were transformed into cheeky grins. Lea was amazed.

“What did you say?” she asked.

“Only that you have special magic and lots of chocolate in your bag.” Raj winked.

“Thank you. I hope they don’t expect me to pull rabbits and Cadbury bars out of my backpack.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.” Raj turned Lea around, fished in her backpack and shouted, “Ta-da!” Pulling out a bag which Lea hadn’t seen before.

Lea beamed, “You conniving…no wonder my bag was so heavy.”

But as she pulled out the chocolates to give to the children, they backed away with fear in their eyes. Lea remembered the ‘No touch’ rule. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot.” She blushed.

“No, just place them on the ground and I’ll tell them to help themselves.” Raj stepped in to salvage the situation.

Raj was right. I really need to understand these people a lot more before charging in with my needles and syringes, she reflected.

The children grabbed the bag as soon as Lea left it on the ground. They then ran off jabbering among themselves.

“You see how much work I have to do here? The children are brought up without manners. They’re like wild dogs without rules. They don’t go to school, they get brainwashed by their parents about their high caste and all they know is ‘Don’t allow any outsiders to touch you’. Come on Lea, mother is waiting.” Raj huffed.

As they meandered through the village, Lea noticed that the Malana houses were similar in design to those in the valley. However, being at least two thousand feet higher, the Malana roofs were stacked with hay in preparation for the cold winter ahead. Lea’s attention was drawn to the beautiful carvings on the timber walls of every house. Raj explained that among their forefathers, there were artisans who could carve beautifully. They carved the legends of their great army and the story of their greatest battles into wooden friezes adorning the houses to this day. The Battle of The Hydaspes - elephants fighting against Thracian helmeted soldiers in cuirasses of bronze worn over leather armour-plated tunics with long spears and round shields, was Lea’s favourite piece.

“So is this the evidence you’re talking about?”

“These and some other artefacts,” he smiled.

They came upon a wooden building set apart from the rest. Lea noticed two pillars marking the entrance. The pillars were Ionic columns carved out of wood, decorated with swirls and other intricate designs.

“This is the Royal Palace. You could have missed it if you’d winked.”

“Be serious Raj. I feel as if I’m in a time-warp and have somehow gone back to 327 BC.”

As they entered through a set of heavy metal-studded doors, about a foot thick, Lea heard tiny clicks similar to tinkling bells. Lifting her gaze, she saw hundreds of carved sticks hanging from the eaves, swinging and clicking in the wind. They reminded Lea of tassels on a carpet and she wondered at the time and talents involved in the making of these tiny ornaments. A chattering group of women in traditional pattus came into the courtyard carrying flowers. Garlanded afresh, Raj led Lea through the throng of women, all aunts and cousins by birth or marriage. The aunts ranged from brown wrinkled faces with toothy smiles to bold maidens, similarly tanned, with chunky rings on large aquiline noses. All stared with unabashed admiration at the pattu Lea was wearing. Lea noticed the structure of their faces; more European than any Indian she’d ever met.

“Nervous?” Raj gave her hand a tiny squeeze and smiled at her.

“Nope.”

“You’re biting your lower lip again” Raj teased.

Lea threw dagger looks at him and he burst out laughing at her discomfort.

“I’ve never seen you happier, son” a strong and calm voice greeted them.

“Mother, this is Lea,” Raj announced, addressing a reclining figure in the room they had just entered.

Lea’s image of an Ice Queen evaporated instantly. Dressed in a pure white pattu identifying widowhood, the queen smiled and beckoned to Lea to take the couch next to her. With white streaks in her hair and fine porcelain skin, the queen reminded Lea of the models in Renaissance portraits. She was beautiful, her mannerisms, graceful. Lea now knew where Raj got his good looks. But her eyes attracted Lea most. They were deep blue and magnetised Lea completely.

“I am glad you came. I hope the climb was not too much for you,” the queen addressed Lea and looked to Raj to translate her message.

“Thank you for inviting me here. It’s a beautiful place.”

Lea stole furtive glances around her and saw that the room was devoid of furniture except the low gilded tables surrounding the floor area where they reclined. The plain walnut panelled walls were indented with small heat retaining windows. In two corners, stood special bronze stands on which tiny clay pot oil lamps flickered. A wood-burning stove sat in the third corner, crackling with the heat of a lit fire.

“I live simply.” The queen had caught Lea glancing around the room.

Before Lea could find an apt reply several aunts and cousins came into the room carrying silverware full of chestnuts, apricots and fresh apples. They bowed to the queen and set the food down in front of her. She indicated that Lea should be served. Tea was placed in a cup and pushed towards Lea.

“I am sorry we are unable to hand the tea to you personally. I’m sure Raj has explained.”

“Yes, I am aware of the rules Your Highness. Raj has told me.”

“Anyway, rules are not the reason I invited you here. My son has not stopped talking about you since his return. He was distraught when we asked him to come back here. He kept insisting that he needed to be in London, giving a thousand reasons for it. And I knew there was only one reason.” At this point she looked at Lea and paused. Lea noticed that Raj seemed somewhat uncomfortable as he translated the queen’s last remark.

Lea waited. ‘Speak only when you are spoken to’, she remembered Raj’s advice.

“And I now understand why. My son has good taste.” She sighed.

“You are beautiful too, Your Highness.” Raj raised his eyebrow and hesitated. Prodded by the queen, he reluctantly translated this.

The queen raised an eyebrow and Lea found this gesture familiar. She laughed nervously.

“And what is so amusing child?” the Queen enquired.

Raj was shifting uncomfortably in his position now but he translated anyway when his mother gave him a cold eye.

“Oh, you are both so much alike your majesty. Even your eyebrows twitch in the same way.”

Anxious to be accepted, fearing that if she didn’t meet with the Queen’s approval somehow, she would lose Raj again, Lea tried too hard to make the Queen like her. The Queen however, was not amused by the attempt at familiarity. She changed the subject.

“I see you have a beautiful pendant. I am a collector of antique jewellery. May I see it?”

“Of course.” Lea was flustered. She remembered Raj making a fuss and insisting she wore the necklace on her visit here. Perhaps it was a way into his mother’s heart. She unhooked the Lapis Lazuri pendant and slipped in on the floor. Raj picked it up and handed it over to his mother.

“Beautiful. An exact match.” The queen smiled as she brought out her own to compare the two. “Do you know anything about this pendant?” the queen asked.

As Lea talked, Raj translated Lea’s explanation of what her mother had told her. It was Persian and would be at least 2000 years old. Handcrafted, it was a talisman of sorts, protecting all women in her family, throughout the generations, from harm.

Returning the pendant to Lea, the queen shook her head and sighed, “That is what our women need, a talisman, protection from giving birth to death.”

When Raj had translated this, Lea spoke up enthusiastically, “That’s why I am here your majesty. I will help to find the strong genes in your people and see if we can match villagers with the identified sets of genes. Marriages will be arranged based on these factors rather than based on family ties, wealth and astronomy.”

The queen listened and smiled, “My son is ambitious. He wants to turn our old world upside down with his new theories. I find it difficult to follow. But there is the question of Ka….”

At this Raj interrupted his mother and a heated discussion followed. Lea sat perplexed and embarrassed. She knew they were discussing something important. Perhaps these sheltered people find it hard to accept new science but there were no other translators and she could not hope to understand what was going on. She noticed the telltale quiver in Raj’s lower jaw and wondered why he was angry.

Two aunts went to Raj and cajoled him gently. The tension eased and the queen spoke again.

“Raj tells me you are happy in the royal tents. As you can see now, this place is not suitable for a girl from the foreign lands,” said the queen, indicating the palace with a sweep of her hand.

“I am happy with the Tents and I thank you for your generosity Your Highness.”

“Before darkness descends, you must return to the valley below. The route is treacherous - be on your guard.” Lea felt a cold invisible hand brushing her spine and she shivered. Is this a personal warning? She wasn’t certain. Maybe it is the manner in which everyone is sent off in Malana. Raj took her hand and led her out. His mood had been dampened by the argument. She could see that the earlier fire in his eyes had vanished. Something had happened in their meeting with his mother and she couldn’t wait to find out what it was.

Out in the village square once more, Raj showed her the place where the council met. It was a small courtyard, made of stones, worn smooth through years of use. Two levels faced the centre indicating the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament.

“We are one of the world’s oldest surviving democracies. Every citizen of Malana has a vote”

“Even women and children?”

“No, we’re democrats darling, not Liberals.” Before Lea could protest, Raj quickly continued “Anyway, the council draws up new policies and laws. We have a jury system and there are no lawyers or judges. Citizens conduct their own cases. So that’s why I didn’t go to the Bar in London. I would have been redundant upon my return.”

“Hmmm,” murmured Lea, feeling aggrieved that she hadn’t had the opportunity to protest about the inequalities of the so-called democracy. They turned a corner and went through a field of marijuana plants at least fifteen feet high on either side of the track. Raj explained the significance of hashish in the ceremonies and Malana’s trade.

“Using the traditional method, marijuana leaves are rubbed continuously with bare hands. People do this while sitting on their front porch, chatting through the day. It’s a great way to socialise. After some time, they scrape the thick gum left on their palms and roll it into a ball. By the end of a day, about a hundred grams of marijuana could be made by one family alone. With the whole village doing this, a substantial amount of marijuana is made throughout the cold winter months, its street value enough to sustain the villagers for the rest of the year.”

The rich sickly-sweet heady aroma of marijuana invaded Lea’s senses.

“Can you get high by smelling it?”

“No. The pungency strengthens with processing - some villagers produce an oil which is more expensive than gold.”

“How many villagers are hooked on it?”

“None.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“It’s true. We use it when we want to relax and in religious ceremonies but we can stop anytime.”

“Alcoholics will never say they are alcoholics.” Lea insisted.

“Trust me Lea. Marijuana is our trade and as a rule, we do not consume our trading stocks.”

“I never knew I was in love with a drug warlord,” she said, nudging him playfully in the ribs.

“Look, if Malana didn’t deal in drugs, we’d be destitute. There is nothing else my people can grow that would make the kind of money Marijuana makes. So, if there were alternatives, I would gladly use them,” Raj answered Lea with feeling.

“Isn’t the government concerned about the drug dealing activities of your people?”

“The Indian government? Of course. But they won’t do anything. They dare not.”

“Why?”

“I’ll show you.”

And with that, Raj turned into another courtyard and before them stood the most fascinating building she had seen in Malana.

A solitary building, unique in every aspect, commanded the centre of the silent courtyard. The Temple of Jamlu, a magnificent solid construction of stone and wood. The architecture was superb even to the untrained eye. However, Lea was fascinated by the external walls of the temple which was covered with hundreds of bleached horned skulls. Horns in all shapes and sizes. She stood in awe trying to identify the original animals from the hanging skulls.

“My forefathers came to this land with all their gods - and you know from Macedonian mythology, there were a lot.”

“Yes, I can understand,” Lea replied “Strangers in a foreign land, alien to all and cut off from the familiar, tend to cling to traditions and customs more fiercely than those who stay behind. They must have dragged along their gods to keep them safe.”

“And to help them overcome their opponents. Lord Jamlu, being the God of War, is naturally the god that we Malanaans chose to call our own.”

“What kind of animals are these?” asked Lea pointing at the horns hanging from the walls.

“Ibex, mountain goats and even the occasional yak. Jamlu demands sacrifices and these are the popular ones although in ancient times, human sacrifices were the norm.”

“Being a war god, what happens when there is no war? Does he become redundant?”

“Darling is your Christ redundant when there is no war?”

“No, I guess not. You have a point.”

“Jamlu has a reputation for being difficult to appease. The whole village knows better than to anger him and the entire valley knows how destructive he can be. People hereabouts fear him and being our elected village deity, Malanaans look to him for protection.”

“So that explains why the police from the Indian government avoid coming to arrest you guys for growing marijuana! Nice to have someone powerful on your side.”

“Seriously Jamlu’s reputation has not been built on myths. Take it from me. I’ve seen his destructive forces with my own eyes.”

“Tell me about them,” Lea urged with mounting curiosity.

“Not here. I’ll tell you some other time. Right now, we have to get down before it gets dark. Let’s go. Don’t worry we’ll come back next week during the festival.” With that, Raj ushered Lea away.

Lea shivered. It could have been a coincidence that the sun was just about to disappear behind the horizon, but the story of Jamlu and his immense hold over the people in the valley intrigued her. She was reluctant to leave.

Raj knew of Jamlu’s effect on visitors with weak wills and he was anxious to take Lea away. A teenage girl peeked out from around the corner of Jamlu’s temple making Raj frown and he quickly herded Lea towards the descent.

Back in the confines of the tent, Lea asked the question that had been burning inside her.

“So, what were you arguing with your mother about in the palace?”

“Nothing.”

“It was about us, wasn’t it?”

Raj took her hand gently and looked deep into her eyes.

“Lea, there’s something I haven’t told you.”

Lea sat motionless, a lump rising in her throat. She hated surprises.

“Lea, the council insists that the marriage and my coronation be held at the same time.”

Lea swallowed hard when she heard the word marriage.

“What marriage?”

“I’ve told mother that I want to marry you.”

“Pardon? Could…could you run that by me one more time? Is that a proposal?”

“Lea, let’s not play games. You know and I know that you want us to be married. That was the last thing we argued about when I left London. And when I wrote to you to ask you to come here, I knew that you hadn’t changed. I also knew that if you came, you would still be expecting me to marry you. Am I not right?”

“Raj! You wrote and asked me to come and do a research and help with the genetic problems your village is facing. Is this a cultural warp thing? Like in your culture this is the way you propose to a girl? I know some cultures in the East where the man proposes by saying ‘Let’s apply for an apartment together’ but honestly!”

“Are you saying that you don’t want to marry me?”

“Is there something wrong with your ears Raj? Are you listening to what I’m trying to tell you?”

“I’m listening to your anger. And I’m trying to explain what it is I’m proposing.”

“So it IS a cultural thing.”

“Lea, you’re still angry.”

“Damned right I’m angry Raj. You lived with me for one whole year and left without an explanation. You kept quiet for nearly another year and out of the blue, you manipulated me into coming here to help you with the medical problems in your village. And now I find out it’s all a song and dance proposal.”

“I know why you’re peeved. You want me to go on my knees and do it the English way, don’t you?” Raj cajoled.

“Actually I’d rather be dragged into your cave by my hair. At least it’s direct.” Lea started laughing, her anger fizzled out.

“I’m sorry. Maybe I should have talked it over with you first.”

“Yes, you could have hit me on my head with a club but talking to me is a lot less painful. And you still haven’t told me what your mother said.”

“I’ve told you. Mother is concerned that the council will not accept our marriage.”

“Hang on a minute. If they don’t accept our marriage, then which marriage are they talking about for your coronation?”

“Look…let me rephrase that. I…I meant to say that to be crowned king, I need to be married. So I’m trying to convince them that I should be allowed to marry you.” Raj swallowed hard. Damn, I nearly put my foot in it.

“Why should the council involve itself with whom you marry? I thought there was democracy in Malana and, after all, you did say earlier that our affairs are private and nothing to do with the council.”

“Remember Princess Margaret who is still heartbroken because she wasn’t allowed to marry her divorcee? It’s the same here. I have to get the approval of the council.”

“I still don’t get it Raj. What is it about the marriage they should be approving?”

“Lea, you don’t understand. It’s OK if we merely want to shack together. But it is a different matter if we want to get married. We have to get the council’s approval if I want to marry you. It’s never been done before, a Malanaan marrying an outsider. Not since the days of Alexander.”

“This is the twenty-first century Raj. Take a look at the world around you it’s moved on from 327 BC - there’s no longer an Alexander the Great - You’re no longer Greeks.”

“Macedonians, we’re Macedonians.”

“Greeks, Macedonians, whatever - you’re Indians - You live in India and you’re regarded by the world as Indians.”

“It doesn’t matter how the world regards us, Lea. We are still the highest caste in the world.” Raj puffed up visibly as he said this.

“Bullshit! Look at you - Look at your village. I saw the cross-eyed children today. Those are definite genetic defects. You’ve said it yourself. And the percentage must be growing higher every year. That’s why you were sent to England - your task was to find a cure.”

“And I’ve found it. My research in pathogen molecular biology and biochemistry led me to the answer that in order to get a stronger strain of people, we need new blood to mix with ours.”

“Oh my God. I get it. You asked me here not because you wanted me to check out why your people are having all these medical conditions. God! I’ve been so blind. I must have looked the complete idiot with my theories on getting DNA and identifying the stronger strains of genes for genetic matches. All this time, you asked me here so that you could use me as a lab rat. It’s all beginning to make sense now Raj.” Lea buried her head in her hands. “And I thought you loved me. I even fell in love with you, thinking that it was some guardian angel making it happen for me. Admit it Raj. You handpicked me. That night at the Fresher’s Ball was no accident.” Lea looked up, her eyes glistening with tears.

“Don’t be ridiculous Lea. I love you and that’s a fact. Yes, you were half right. I found out the truth about my people and how to help them in the best possible way. But our meeting was not fixed. Lea, please don’t cheapen our relationship.”

Lea’s eyes widened with shock, “Oh my God. It was you who took my birth control pills. You were trying to impregnate me!”

“Lea, you’ve got this all wrong. I met you at the Ball and felt an instant attraction. Your being part Macedonian was a bonus. I admit that the research bit was my way to entice you here. But I wanted you with me and this was the only way I could think of to make you a part of us. I played an ace with my people to get them to accept you, a foreigner, into our midst.”

“Alright, if you are telling the truth and you do really love me, then why not marry me and let’s get on with our lives. Let’s go back to London, have our baby, send them photographs to show them you were right and when they come around to thinking like you, we’ll come back for a visit.”

“Don’t be silly Lea. I cannot leave my people. I am to be crowned King and I have duties to perform.”

“Do YOU love me?” asked Lea in desperation.

“Of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked you to come. I acted on my own in this. Love came first. Then the plan of showing you to mother and the rest of the Malana people came later. I risked being rejected by my own mother and my people in openly being with you. People are all talking about us around the whole valley. But I don’t care. I need you Lea.”

“Yeah, like a lab rat.”

“No! It’s not like that. I need your strength to fight this system; I can’t do it on my own.”

“I can’t fight your battles for you Raj and I don’t belong to your culture. Your mother is not my mother. Your kingdom is not my kingdom! Your god is not my God.” Lea retaliated angrily.

Raj sighed deeply and shrunk visibly. “Please don’t turn against me as well Lea. You’re all I have left.”

Lea looked at him and felt sorry. It isn’t easy to be a king, she thought. It seemed all so clear before - She accepted his invitation to come to India because he said he could use her expertise on genetics. She was sure that it was just his excuse for wanting to be with her. And she loved him all the more for that. Now, the whole picture was getting murky. She was no longer sure of anything. England seemed so far away now. All the values she grew up with were meaningless in this archaic society where time seemed to have stood still. People thought differently here. They placed country before personal desires and they really believed in their heritage.

She knew about heritage because she was different from the other children in her school with her jet black hair, her sparkling blue eyes and her easily tanned skin. Even though her parents did not encourage her to mingle with the English, in order to survive, she had learnt to adapt. Lea was now English in the way she thought, as English as the lily-coloured women back home. She needed to change to survive over there and as London became more cosmopolitan over the years, it also became easier for her to blend. Now in this valley, it seems she is back in square one, fighting to be accepted again.

“Look Raj, there is still something that you’re holding back. I think I made a big mistake in coming here. Maybe I should go back to London,” Lea surmised.

“NO!!” Raj almost jumped up from the bed in his agitation. Instantly, he realized his folly and reverted to his playacting, “Lea, darling, can’t you see that I’m doing my best to make the council accept this controversial change? I promise I’ll marry you if it’s the last thing I do. Please Lea, work with me. Don’t leave.” His voice broke and he turned away. “I won’t know how to go on.”

Moved by her lover, in his confused state and need for comfort, she softened and gently massaged his shoulders, hugging him from behind. His body relaxed and he turned back to face her.

“Lea…I love you…” he murmured, as his lips searched out hers.

They tumbled into bed. The urgency of their sexual need consumed them and Raj tore at her clothes without restraint. Her fingers moved deftly to his pants and pulled them down, releasing his inflamed manhood. He kissed her and breathed in her scent as he plunged himself into her depths. Her gasps were muffled by his lips on hers. Feeling her wetness, he grew more excited and thrust in long even strokes, increasing the momentum as she moaned louder and louder. She curved her body to meet his attacks. It was as if they were challenging each other to be the fiercer. Normally in perfect control, the need to possess her was too strong. Raj tried to stop himself; he froze, holding her body away from him.

“Don’t move. Please don’t move.” He begged.

But Lea would not allow it and shoved herself into his groin as hard and as fast as she could. It was his turn to groan as he lifted his head for air. His orgasm shook his body and she clung on tightly to his wet back. With perspiration dripping from his forehead, he let out a deep sigh and said “You win.” Actually I win, thought Raj as he lay back, completely satisfied, knowing that he was still in full control of Lea.

PART 2

THE VALLEY OF FEAR

1 - A village in Asia Minor, Summer 334 B.C.

2 - Haranpur Camp, India, Summer 326 B.C.

3 – Battle of Hydaspes, India, Late Summer 326 B.C.

4 – The Shingo-La Pass, India, Spring 325 B.C.

5 – A village in Asia Minor, Spring 325 B.C.

6 - Valley of Lahaul, Autumn 325 B.C.

7 – Malana village, India, Summer 317 B.C.

1 – A village in Asia Minor, Summer 334 B.C.

The Achaemaenian period, circa 550 B.C. to 330 B.C. was one of the golden eras in Persian history, in terms of culture, economics, politics and social affairs.

Yazdin’s family belonged to an Aryan tribe, heirs to the Median dynasty. Her village consisted mainly of craftsmen skilled in the art of shaping gold, silver, bronze and iron. Her father was one of the best. Normally a peaceful little place, today, the village was in disarray. She heard her father calling out.

“Yasmin! Yazdin! Come, quickly.”

The urgency in his voice quickened her pace.

“What is it piça?” her heart pounding.

“People from the next village are running through saying there’s an army, swarming through our lands. They stop at nothing and they will take away all our men to be soldiers. I am an old widower. They will not want me but you two, you must escape.”

The twins disagreed vehemently. “We’ll not leave you!” They said in unison, clinging to the old man.

At the time, Alexander was indeed marching through the mountains of Asia Minor, in his pursuit of the Persian King Darius. However, most villagers in the path of the chase had nowhere else to go. They could only pray that the invading armies would be merciful. This pacifistic stand did not preclude that their women might be molested or captured by the soldiers.

At the first sounds of the barking dogs and braying mules, the old man shifted the rough hewn bed in their neat little hut to reveal the grain cellar in the ground. Outside, the whole village panicked. Mothers were screaming for their children. Doors were slammed shut and bolted.

“Come with me Yazdin. Get in and hide. There is space enough for us both.” Yasmin had pleaded with her twin.

But Yazdin would not hear of it. She had a phobia of being buried.

“You know my fears, Yasmin. If I get buried, I will probably give us both away. I’ll hide in the cupboard. No one will find me. Anyway, piça needs me to help him cover the hole. Go in Yasmin. Everything will be fine.” Yazdin tried hard not to cry. She was as frightened by the growing din outside as her sister. But she would not hide in the hole.

“Yasmin, you must stop crying now, my child. I will look after your sister. Trust me.” Their old father kissed his youngest daughter on her forehead and helped her in. Together, Yazdin and her father covered the hole with rough jute and made a tiny hole where a reed poked through. Then painstakingly, they scooped little mounds of earth and camouflaged the cloth. The final touch was to drag the bed over the covered hole. Yazdin swept the earthen floor to erase all evidence of the hiding place.

“Yazdin, get into the cupboard now. Quickly now, the footsteps are getting louder.”

The urgency in his voice sent Yazdin scurrying into her hiding place.

In an attempt to keep the invading Macedonians out of their home, pots of food had been left outside their doors. Yazdin and Yasmin had filled two pots with the best food they could cook. They hoped that the soldiers would take the food and leave them alone. But the soldiers wanted more. Their flimsy wooden door was no match for the fierce looking Macedonian soldier who stormed into the hut. He saw the old man alone and sniffed the air suspiciously.

“Where are the women in your home old man?” Argus, the black bearded one kept a varied collection of women slaves. Having sampled the pots of food outside, he had the idea that an additional cook for his harem would do him good.

Unfortunately, Yazdin’s father could not understand his language. He cowered on the floor gibbering for his life.

Argus, frustrated by the old man’s futile gestures, decided to search the place himself. He opened a cupboard. Inside he found Yazdin curled into a corner. Her face was fully veiled as was the custom for women in those times. Dragging her out, he threw her across the room. Her body slammed against the bed and shifted it. Yazdin’s father rushed to help her up. Although pain shot up her arm, Yazdin refused to look her father in the eye for fear of giving her sister’s hiding place away. She concentrated on using her body to cover the tiny corner of brown jute that had protruded out from the under the disturbed bed. Argus ransacked the cupboard and found the old man’s tools.

“No, please, not my tools. They are for my work. Please.” The old man cried.

“Shut up you old fool.” The rough soldier looked at father and daughter and for the first time noticed her beauty. Her veil had been torn off from her face. He rushed up to her and was about to grab her from the protective arms of her father, when a commanding voice interrupted.

“Leave them alone, Argus.” Coenus stepped into the hut.

“Wha...I was only trying to get more food out of these scoundrels.” Argus’s face turned ashen at the sight of his officer.

“I saw the food they left at their doorstep outside Argus. There was no reason to plunder. You are wasting time. Get on with your march.” Coenus kept his voice low and in control.

“But look at the tools this man was hiding.” Argus tried to defend himself.

“Give them back to him. They are worth nothing to us but everything to him.”

“And the girl?” Argus would not give up.

“The girl is mine.” Coenus surprised even himself as he said it. But he knew that from the moment he saw her that he would not forgive himself if he did not rescue her from Argus. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on.

“I will look after your daughter old man. I promise you this.” Coenus looked at Yazdin’s father and nodded.

He then took his cloak off and wrapped her up in it. Carrying her out of the hut, he placed her over his horse and rode to join the departing army. Yazdin’s father was aghast. He knew there was nothing he could do to prevent his daughter from being abducted but he ran after the horse and the soldier anyway, wailing loudly as he went. He could see that all over his village, others were also as unfortunate and old women and men were crying everywhere.

By nightfall, silence returned to the tiny hamlet. Yasmin had emerged from her hiding place. She had heard the muffled sounds of the fight within the hut and she had heard her father crying.

Now, she sat by the little fire in the hut and cried piteously. Her sister had sacrificed herself to save her. She would probably never see Yazdin again. While her father sat staring into the fire, rocking silently in his grief, Yasmin wrapped her hand around her silver pendant, intricately designed, studded with lapis lazuli. It was one of a pair, given by their father during happier times. Yasmin stared into the dancing flames.

“May the gods Ahurani and Anahita hear my prayer. Let my sister’s pendant and mine be reunited one day, as surely as our twin souls will reunite when we die.” She pricked her hand and smeared blood over the pendant to give life to her words. Then slowly she allowed the blood from her pierced hand to drip and sizzle in the fire in the hearth. The vow was made.

2 - Bank of the River Beas, India, Summer 326 B.C.

Coenus looked at the torrential river before him. It was summer and the river was like a gigantic brown cobra. Its body of mud and silt fed by tonnes of glacial ice-melt. It writhed through the Valleys, rising and dipping over the contours of the land, devouring every movable thing in its path - rocks, stones and even trees; swirling and thrashing against giant boulders anchored in midstream.

He picked up a stone at his feet. For a moment, his eyes wandered over the open sores and blood encrusted leather thongs. Fighting to control his rising anger, he hurled the stone across the wide expanse of water, aiming at one particular boulder. But it was too far. The stone dropped short and disappeared into the foaming water. Coenus’s heart sank with it.

A bad omen. I shouldn’t have done that, he thought.

He picked up another stone, this time consciously averting his eyes from his feet. The pebble felt smooth and cool in his palm, the result of years, nay, centuries of being rubbed against other pebbles, fighting the elements, buffeted by torrents of icy glacial waters.

Perhaps the tiny pebble started its life as a giant boulder, and now it’s become so small. Coenus felt nostalgia creeping up on him; I was once the giant boulder - ten years of fighting enemies I didn’t even know existed - killing barbarians - making widows and orphans - plundering the defeated and enjoying the spoils of war - ten years of nomadic existence away from home in close proximity with forty thousand others - ten years of lost youth. I survived the stifling heat of the plains, the death-chill of the mountain passes, the clawing grasp of raging rivers and the black swirling waters of bottomless seas, now I’ve become a tiny pebble, an insignificant little stone.

He shook his head and shrugged his despondency off like a cloak. Positioning the pebble between his thumb and index finger, he flung it at an angle against the rushing waters. This time, the stone skimmed over the surface three times before it was swallowed and swept away. He felt better with his performance and smiled.

"Atta." A sweet wispy voice rang out amidst the thunderous hiss of the river. Coenus turned, his spirits lifted as his brown eyes met the blue of his seven-year-old daughter, Cleo.

“What are you doing here little one?”

“What are YOU doing here Atta?”

Coenus chuckled at his daughter’s boldness.

‘The war does things to children. They grow up too fast,’ he thought ruefully.

“Go back to school. Your teacher will be worried.”

“It’s so boring back there. I want to be where the action is. I want to kill the blackies with you!”

“Cleo! Where did you learn such language?” Coenus feigned shock.

“Nowhere, I just thought of it myself.”

Coenus shook his head. He pulled the tiny child into his arms, tousling her dark curly locks and turning her face towards his own, he whispered tenderly, “Little one, you’re growing up too fast for Atta.”

"Atta, I’m not little anymore, I can hold a pike up now and plunge it into the smelly chest of a blackie. Eronis is teaching me to shoot arrows too. Tomorrow, I’ll be able to shoot straight into the black heart of a blackie.”

Coenus cringed and corrected her, “Cleo, the hearts of our enemies are not black. They are red, like the blood in our own veins and they bleed like us. You must not say things like that.” Cleo looked into her father’s eyes and placed her cool hands on his flushed and bristled cheeks.

“Don’t be sad Atta. I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I promise.” Coenus smiled and thought sadly, Killing comes so easy when you’re young.

Ten years ago, he too had been young. And when his king had summoned all young Macedonians to join in the conquest of the Old Persian Empire, Coenus had not hesitated to sign up. The call of the unknown, visiting exotic foreign lands, fighting shoulder to shoulder with other ambitious Macedonians. To follow their charismatic king was the dream of all young men. In the beginning, everything was as he imagined it would be. In fact, things were even more wonderful than he’d expected. There were women of different races to be had, gold and jewellery beyond his wildest dreams every time they won a battle. In between bouts of drinking and wild celebrations, he ‘rescued’ a Persian girl and made her his mistress. Cleo was the result of that union.

“Cleo!”

He heard the familiar voice of his mate. Yazdin stormed over the plains clutching a whipping vine. Cleo shrunk behind her father instantly. Coenus knew better than to stand between mother and daughter in a disciplinary matter. However, he had no wish to see his little daughter punished severely. Coenus met the blue eyes of his mate and remembered the day he had first seen her. He had thought her eyes were as blue as the Mediterranean Sea but they were defiant too. This same defiant beauty had won his heart. During the first few months of acquiring her, his life was turned upside down. The battle to tame her was the most challenging battle he had ever fought. She was a brave lioness, a cunning fox, a purring cat and a fragile butterfly all rolled into one. He never knew if he’d live through the night whenever he was with her. Then when she got pregnant, he showed her kindness by gifts and presents, softening her and mellowing their stormy relationship. In taming her, he found himself changed.

“Yazdin, Cleo was just telling me how she was enjoying school. In fact, we’re just on our way to see her teacher.”

Yazdin looked from father to child. Pursing her lips, she retorted, “Yes, I guess the teacher was so anxious to see you that she sent Cleo all by herself to the front to find you.”

“What’s that? I can’t hear you very well with the roar of the river. Let’s go back where it’s quieter” he said gently guiding both his women away from the river.

"Atta, can we see them?”

“Who?”

“The Bl....I mean Indians.”

Coenus turned back and gazed at the opposite bank of the river swollen to double its normal size because of the etệs-iai, the seasonal rains. Anyone moving on the opposite banks would look the size of an ant from this distance. King Porus, ruler of the Indians, had at least a hundred thousand soldiers at his command. And like ants, they were camped along the river, waiting to confront the Macedonians should they attempt a crossing. The evening sun was just dipping over the horizon.

“Can you see the smoke from their fires, Cleo?”

“That’s smoke? I thought they were clouds, dark clouds.”

“No, those are the cooking fires of the Indians.”

“So many of them?” Cleo’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“It’s not the size of an army that’s important Cleo, it’s their battle strategy. We have had all of our success because of our king’s battle skills.”

Yazdin shivered. She hated the fighting. Even though her peaceful life in a Persian village was shattered eight years ago, she had not forgotten the trauma of being abducted. In fact, she considered herself lucky that it was Coenus who had taken her by force and not the loathsome Argus.

Coenus knew that Yazdin was still haunted by her experiences. He held her and in his quiet way, he helped her to talk about it.

“Remember that first night in my tent?”

“How could I forget? I was terrified.” She buried her head in his chest.

“But I tried reassuring you as best I could.”

“Yes, in Macedonian - that didn’t help since I only spoke Persian.”

He smiled. “Well, I did offer you some of the best clothes I could find.”

“Ah, but then you started signalling me to your bed…”

He started laughing “I’d never seen you more terrified. I wasn’t going to rape you. I was just trying to make you feel at home.”

“Ha! And I guess handing me over to those wild women was your great idea of home sweet home.” She punched him in the ribs playfully.

“When I heard you screaming like a she-devil I thought they were killing you.” He laughed harder.

“What would you do if a strange gang of women came at you with buckets of water, tearing off your clothes and…?”

“Believe me. I wouldn’t put up a fight. I would be more than happy to co-operate!” He grinned.

“They tried to pull off my pendant. I had to grab it so tightly. They nearly broke my fingers to get at it.” She closed her eyes and felt pain stab at her heart. “It was all I had - the only thing that linked me to my family. I would rather die than lose it.”

Coenus sobered up. He stroked her hair to calm her. “I know. It was my fault. I didn’t know you had the pendant. My instructions were that you should be given the luxury of a bath. Those crazy women. But you gave them the thumping they deserved. If they hadn’t outnumbered you by five to one, you could have easily slugged them all.”

“If you hadn’t charged in and grabbed them by their hair and pulled them off me…” she shook her head, thinking of the possible consequences. She remembered him washing her and cleaning around her clutched fists, wiping away the blood. His voice soothed her then as it did now. Time had warmed her to his gentleness. The bullying Macedonian women were cautioned never to touch her or take her pendant again. Death being the penalty for theft, they paid heed. Eventually she bore Coenus a daughter, Cleo, their love child.

Coenus was a happy man. In Yazdin, he had found his soul-mate - a strong and caring lover and of course, a wonderful mother to his child.

“Let’s get back Coenus.” She touched his arm and he felt her shivering.

“Your hands are cold Yaz. It’s not good for you now that you’re nearly full term,” said Coenus as he gently rubbed his callused fingers on her bulging abdomen. “Don’t worry. Alexander will lead us into another triumphant battle. You’ll see.”

“But I heard that this time there are more elephants - two hundred of them,” said Yazdin despairingly.

“Elephants don’t scare me, Mamma. I’ll send the mice in amongst them and send them shrieking and trampling all over the blackies.”

“Cleo!” both parents called in unison as Cleo darted away towards their own campfires that were already lighting up beyond the mud flats. Seeing their daughter skipping off merrily, Coenus pulled Yazdin to him and kissed her passionately. Yazdin responded and for a moment, the impending battle was forgotten.

“Coenus, the women were talking of a growing resentment in the ranks. What’s going on?”

“The men are tired. This may be the last battle for most. We’re so far away from home and there are fears the crossing of the high passes on the return will kill them this time.”

“I heard Eronis suggesting that we ask permission to stay behind and make our homes here.”

“Here, in the midst of all these enemies, whose fathers and brothers we’ve killed, whose villages we have plundered? I’d take my chances with the high passes, I think.”

“But Cleo needs a home, somewhere to settle down and live like a little girl should. The way she’s growing up scares me - so filled with hate-talk I don’t even know her sometimes.”

“I know Yazdin, I see it too. But I need time to plan, time to think of where we should go and where to stay. It’s too complicated right now with battle plans to think about.”

Suddenly a din filled the air as they talked. A rabble-rousing sound of shouting and rowdy chants, filled with trumpeting from the long bronze flute-like salphinx and drumbeats thundering in the evening light. Fire beacon bearers sent messages by shading or flaring the flames. The evening manoeuvres had started. Coenus knew the sounds well. They had practised these manoeuvres on the edge of the riverbanks every day at different times. The Indian Army on the opposite bank, seeing and hearing the commotion would rush out and prepare to meet the onslaught, thinking that the Macedonians were preparing to cross the river. However, nothing ever happened. The Macedonians would practice at different spots of the riverbanks and the Indians would rush to the same spot on the opposite banks anticipating an assault. After a few months of the same thing, the Indians were less enthusiastic and began thinking that the Macedonians were merely performing a ritual and it was best to leave them to it. They relaxed their guard. On top of that, it wasn’t good for the morale of the Indian soldiers, being made a laughing stock by the Macedonians who booed and teased the Indians when the manoeuvres were finished. It was a war of nerves and psychological tactics. None could equal Alexander in this deadly game.

Eronis came running at full speed. “Coenus, have you heard? Tomorrow’s the day. We’ve launched the ships at the bend in the upper river bank and tomorrow we cross.”

Coenus seized Eronis by his thin bony shoulders excitedly. “Are you sure?”

With his eyes ablaze, Eronis raised his hand and said, “I swear on Zeus, it’s true. The gods have been consulted and one of the oracles had a dream of a lion devouring an elephant. You know the significance, Coenus. Alexander is the lion and our enemy is the elephant. We will win this battle.”

“Then I must prepare. Yazdin, make sure Cleo stays with you all day and she doesn’t get caught up with the initial surge. Stay back, way back. This is going to be a tough one.”

The battle fever was contagious and the two friends rushed off to tell others of the good news, leaving Yazdin looking sadly after them.

Another battle, she thought wearily, another massive purging and scourging of lives. Will it ever stop?

She trudged through the mud and began to look frantically for Cleo. The women and children had also received the news and everyone was excitedly shouting or preparing for prayers and sacrifice to the gods and goddesses. Thank the gods our camp is beyond earshot of the enemies, Yazdin thought, otherwise, the element of surprise would be lost. Weeks and weeks of false manoeuvring would be wasted.

Cleo appeared red-faced and panting,

"Mamma, we’re going to cross tomorrow. Where are my bow and arrows?”

“Cleo, your father says you’re to stay close to me from now on. I don’t want you running off again you hear?”

“But Mamma, I can shoot straight now. I want to fight with Atta in the front.”

“Cleo, if you fight in front, who’ll look after us at the back?”

“Nicolas will be here and I’m sure Eronis will stay with us as usual.”

“But we need a REAL fighter Cleo and you’re the only one we’ve got.” Yazdin knew that the only way to get Cleo to follow instructions was to humour her.

“Umm....., you’re right. I guess I’d better stay then.”

“Now let’s prepare sacrifices to the Goddess Enyo and the God Ares for victory for us. Go catch some chickens Cleo.” Yazdin had adopted the Macedonian gods of her mate. Although her Persian Gods were different, she had long ago assimilated the two cultures. She decided to make sacrifices to Ahurani, the Goddess of Water for a safe crossing of the raging river and Anahita, the Persian Goddess of War. Thoughts of the Persian Gods always brought back memories of her own family especially of her twin sister, Yasmin. She missed the closeness they shared. Where was she now? Was she safe? Yazdin sighed. There were some things she would never know. Her life, centred on Coenus and Cleo, were all she lived for. Like all the other women in camp, she did not dare risk offending the gods and bringing catastrophe on her family, her life. Hurriedly she began the elaborate preparations for sacrifice and prayers.

3 – Battle of Hydaspes, India, Summer 326 B.C.

Dawn was breaking as Coenus emerged cautiously from the heavy bush undergrowth. The sun hid behind ponderous dark cumulus clouds and the wind howled through the valley. Coenus peered into the darkness where the river should be. He could see nothing. Instead the hiss of the seething water met his keen ears. His heart throbbed with a mixture of fear and excitement.

Rain had started much earlier in the night and if not for his heavy woollen shirt and leather-bound bronze armour, Coenus would have been shivering from the cold clinging dampness caused by the pouring sheet-like rain. It was the perfect cover. The swollen river roared even more loudly than usual and together with the thunder, the overall tumult drowned any sound created by the mass movement of troops in the night.

Ten thousand men crept about in the cloak of darkness. Before them, Coenus led, mounted on his faithful steed, Orion. Barely able to see in the pitch-black gloom, leather-thronged sandals over corn-covered feet trudged through the mud-pools while hooves splashed noisily alongside. Coenus whistled a predetermined tune. Another whistle answered from a bush. Something stirred and many more troops appeared from behind their camouflage. Alexander rode up to converse with his men. Upon his command, bushes were moved, revealing a flotilla of boats and galleys by the riverside. The plan had been worked out months beforehand and everything fitted into place. Boats had been carried in pieces from their last sea crossing and now quietly reassembled here at the Jhelum River. The first men to cross with their leader consisted of the horse borne Companions. They were Alexander’s personal bodyguards drawn from elite cavalrymen and archers and Coenus was one of the oldest and most trusted.

At a precise and predetermined moment the remaining thirty thousand troops waiting by the lower banks began to perform the usual ritual of shouting, fire signalling and trumpeting. Infantrymen rushed forward and boarded rafts made from chaff-filled skins, they pushed off and started floating downstream.

Having seen the manoeuvre day after day, the Indians were not impressed and besides, they were confident that they outnumbered the Macedonians. Monsoon rains still fell in the mountains, keeping the river in full spate and too dangerous to cross. They could see that the main army had not diminished in size.

However, they had not bargained on the additional troops hidden from view behind the thick bushes all these months, the same troops that were now advancing upstream and preparing to cross the river from an unexpected point.

Upriver, exhilaration filled the throng of men. It had been many months since their last battle and the inactivity, despite the daily exercises, had drained their morale. Now, at last, they would again be involved in a glorious campaign.

As the three galleys slipped into the water, Coenus felt uplifted and raised his eyes to the dawn. The rain had stopped and the air was fresh as it blew gently on his mud-streaked face. Saying a silent prayer to Ares, he then turned to look behind him. His eyes picked out the smaller crafts following the galleys and swept across the men rowing furiously against the swift-flowing currents. He could hear the whinnying and nervous stomping of the horses on the wooden floorboards as the galleys heaved and rolled, their noise only added to the usual ruckus created by the morning manoeuvres downstream.

When they finally landed, the first to leave the ship were also the first to be disappointed. They discovered that they hadn’t in fact crossed the river but had landed on a midstream island. The river still flowed swiftly and there was no hope of dismantling the ships to refit them on the other side, they were bound to be discovered, sooner or later.

It was then that Alexander made a quick decision to let the horses and Companions swim across first and have the chariots and infantrymen follow the boats. His reasoning being that the horses were strong swimmers and the element of surprise would not be completely lost.

Coenus, keeping Orion on his right, clung on to its mane and waded into the chilly waters of the Jhelum. Instinctively the horse stooped to drink but Coenus urged him on. The grey stallion snorted its resentment yet obeyed his master. The icy waters crept into Coenus’s armour and weighed him down. If not for his hold on Orion, Coenus would have found it difficult to move. The horse, eager to get out of the water, plunged ahead, nostrils flared, eyes bulging with exertion, as he charged through the swift currents of the Jhelum.

Probing the water’s depth, amidst fear of losing its foothold on the slippery river rocks, it managed to move steadfastly on. Coenus, in his heavy military gear, felt anxious as he sank deeper into the rushing river. He coaxed his mount.

“Come on old friend, we have been through many campaigns together. Don’t let me down now.”

One slip and he would be sucked downstream through the narrow channel in an instant. Just when it seemed that his head would be underwater in the next step, Orion suddenly surged forward and upward as the riverbed rose to meet the shoreline. Hugging the horse to him as they reached the far side, Coenus patted Orion’s neck.

“Well done my friend.” he muttered delightedly to his horse. The horse quivered and shook water droplets off its glistening body. However, Coenus’s joy was short-lived. A scream of terror came from behind him in the river.

One of the shorter men had stumbled and been instantly swept off his feet. His horse had bolted and would have been swept with him had it not panicked and somehow scrambled up the last few feet of the bank alone. A brown head bobbed up and down with arms flailing in a desperate appeal for help that could not possibly come. Coenus felt sickened as he remembered the sinking pebble he had thrown. Who could have thought, it would be Perseus, one of his most devoted men? Emotions cannot be given full rein in wars and Coenus knew he must not let their comrade’s death demoralise the rest of the troops. He barked fiercely at the other men floundering in the water, determined not to lose any more.

“Get on with it. Stop frolicking in the water like babies!”

As group after group of horses and their riders reached dry land, they formed a circle and quickly rearmed themselves. Alexander crossed with ease. His horse was strong and he was confident. Half the battle is lost when fear exists was his motto. Alexander had never known fear in his life. In the meantime, Indian scouts, seeing the arrival of the first wave of troops, rode at breakneck speed to inform their king of the crossing. Alexander’s men could not hope to catch up with them to cut them off. Nevertheless, his plan had worked. The crossing was unexpected and they were not met by any enemy forces. Their greatest challenge was still to be faced - the elephant battalion.

Some of the original force had remained in the galleys, sailing downstream with the infantry who were unable to cross the deep channel. Unseen by the fleeing scouts, they provided an instant advantage to Alexander. Once they landed, Alexander quickly regrouped his men to form an assault team. They then began their march towards the Indian encampment to make full use of their surprise crossing. There was no time to mourn those who failed the river-crossing.

King Porus sat in his Tent surrounded by his generals. As scout after scout rode in to announce Alexander’s crossing, he stood up impatiently and strode out. Looking out across the river, he could see the main body of the enemy still encamped, not attempting to cross. He couldn’t figure it out.

“But they haven’t moved yet. What are these foreign devils up to?”

“Father, it may just be a ploy. They are trying to distract us from leaving our camp to meet the troops upstream. Then when the way is open for them here, they’ll start crossing and attack us from behind.”

“Your Highness, I think the Royal Prince is right. We should not let them trick us into such an obvious trap,” agreed General Sukhram.

“It cannot be so simple...I have heard that Alexander is a great fighter. This is too obvious,” General Ravi added.

“Father, I’m sure it’s as I’ve said. And General Sukhram agrees too - let me ride out with him and we’ll handle them ourselves. The scouts said they number only two thousand, this can’t be the main assault party.”

“If you’re right, then do as you suggest. But there’s something that still troubles me - go not only with Sukhram but Ravi also.”

“No, father, Ravi-ji’s elephants will slow us. I’ll be able to handle it. Trust me,” urged the general.

“Your Highness, there is no time to waste. Soon they’ll reach the sand plains and then their swift horses will have the advantage over us.”

“Go then and may Ram protect you.”

Coenus saw them coming from a distance and informed his leader. Alexander spread his cavalry and prepared for battle, placing Coenus and the other Companions on the flanks. The archers rode out on the chariots and started shooting at the advancing enemy. Coenus’ first thought was to thank the gods - no elephants in sight! Greatly encouraged, he spurred Orion forward uttering the war cry.

"ALAILAILAILAILAI!"

Prince Ranjit charged forward too, leading the Indian cavalry in a face to face encounter. However, his riders fell like flies as the Macedonian arrows found their marks. Too late, Prince Ranjit saw the concealed Macedonian archers behind them and as Indian cavalry rode into the milieu of archers, they were quickly surrounded by the famous Macedonian Phalanx armed with sarises. These were lances fastened with bronze heads which Alexander had increased to five-and-a-half metre in length to great effect. General Sukhram violently flayed his sword, seeking to protect his Prince from being massacred like his men before him. His basic instinct was to order a retreat but, he realized that whatever was left of his force were beyond help. From behind, the Companions blocked off all possibilities of a withdrawal. The rash Prince abruptly turned his mount about and tried to flee. His movement, so sudden and unexpected, caught General Sukhram off guard and Prince Ranjit’s horse ploughed straight into his General’s. Coenus spurred Orion into the melee and immediately took advantage. He struck them down in one mighty swing of his sword and killed them in their clumsy embrace. The skirmish was decisively ended.

With their shadows lengthening ahead of them, like daggers slicing across the Indian plains, Coenus rode with the rest of his comrades, to meet up with their fearless leader and together face the might of King Porus. Despite the heavy downpour of the night before, the scorching heat of the Indian sun had dried out the mud. In its wake, the Macedonian army advanced in a cloud of orange dust.

Coenus froze when he saw a massive grey wall approaching them. Orion sensed his master’s anxiety and his flanks shuddered. Bobbing his head, he appeared eager to move ahead. Coenus reined him and swallowed hard, rasping, “Time enough Orion, time enough - take it easy boy.”

The Himalayan Griffin caught an up-draught and rose majestically into the clear blue skies. It could see other vultures riding on thermals below, catching up. The carrion eaters circled languidly. There was no hurry. For the last few hours, they had observed much activity on the plains and smelled the blood. Ascending slowly in spirals, the Griffin drifted silently, keeping a yellowed eye on the activity below. Its neck, garlanded with a collar of white feathers, twisted around as his eyes centred on two massive land forces magnetised towards each other. The constant beat of drums and blaring of trumpets from the opposing forces almost harmonised the common cause. As the two groups drew closer, the clamour subdued as the pace of the march slowed to a halt. There was a moment’s silence as both armies poised. Time appeared to stand still as dust wisped around stealthily skywards in the unnerving quiet. With an uncanny sense of timing, the Griffin let out a harrowing shriek, shattering the tranquillity just as a tumultuous roar rent the heavens from the two mobilised groups below. The rest of the soaring vultures screeched in unison to add to the sudden cacophony of sound. Macedonian war cries, blaring bugles, crashing drums, the thundering hooves of forty thousand horses attempted to drown two hundred trumpeting elephants, charging in splendid formation. Their onerous pounding footsteps rose to a crescendo and the ground quaked. Macedonian bronze clashed against Indian iron, bones crunched under gigantic pachyderm feet, blood curdling screams filled the air as death and destruction descended into the mayhem of a hundred thousand men, all fighting for king, country and their lives.

Alexander’s greatest battle had finally begun. In a stroke of ingenious strategy, he led his Companions towards the left flank of the Indian Army, concentrating his attack on the Indian chariots and cavalry. His main aim was to avoid the wall of elephants, seemingly impenetrable from his stance. His planning paid off. The Indians faltered. Their chariots, overburdened with six to eight soldiers with only two shields among them, could not be effectively applied against the faster and more manoeuvrable Companions on horseback. The right flank of the Indian cavalry came charging to the aid of their weakening left flank.

Whipping his horse to a frenzy, Coenus saw his opportunity at once. Swinging sharply around, he rode hard behind the platoon of hypaspists and sarises-bearing phalanx who were concentrating on the elephants advance. Emerging suddenly from behind the ranks, Coenus closed in on the rear of the right flank of Indian charioteers and cavalry. Surprised by the versatility of the Macedonians, the Indians soon lost their momentum and fell back, right into the paths of their own advancing elephants. In the array of friend and foe fighting on foot, some elephants went berserk and stampeded into their own army.

Coenus found himself facing the direct onslaught. His fear of elephants soon diminished as he saw how the elephant wall cracked as injured elephants became disoriented. Thick dust rose around him, choking him. His breathing became heavy and laboured and his eyes smarted from the dust. His ears rang with a hundred decibels of noise. Like a blind man in a raging storm, he could only rely on instincts to direct his line of battle.

Suddenly, emerging from the dust cloud, an elephant came charging in his direction. Orion responded swiftly, sidestepping and veering away to the left. The chariot and archers behind Coenus were too slow to react. The elephant trampled them like straw, crushing bodies and horses beneath its weight. Raising its trunk, it took hold of a Macedonian archer and hurled him screaming to his death. Coenus took aim at the mahout straddling high above him and shot his arrow. He missed the mahout but hit the elephant in his giant flapping ear. Looking down at Coenus, the mahout now trained the enraged elephant towards him, determined to trample both horse and rider to death, the elephant turned. Coenus had only a split second to shoot another arrow and this time, the arrow found its mark. The mahout, struck in his left shoulder pitched forward and fell screaming under his mount’s gigantic foot. The elephant checked its charge, its back foot hanging in midair. Looking down, the elephant saw its crushed handler writhing in the last throes of death. Uttering a plaintive screech, it lowered its trunk to prod the broken body, hoping for it to rise. Receiving no response, the huge beast began to sway from side to side, grieving its loss. It could no longer continue - its sorrow over the loss of its mahout too great to bear.

Squeezed as if by a giant claw, the Indians were forced to retreat. It was a retreat straight into the jaws of death. The remainder of the Macedonian army left behind to distract King Porus’s attention had by now crossed the river on hundreds of rafts. They cut off the Indians’ retreat and closed in for the kill.

With sweat dripping from his black and distinguished moustache, King Porus, though injured, fought on bravely beside his men. Despite the elephants’ debacle, he still had tens of thousands of foot soldiers to rely on. However, they were no match for the phalanx with their long lances that could kill before they even got close.

The stench of blood rose on the wind. Dusk was falling rapidly and across the battlefield, bodies lay broken and wasted, soaked in black mud, blood and gore. The storm had subsided to a steady drizzle. Mixed with the pitter patter of rain drops in bloodied pools, soft gurgles of blood bubbled from crushed and open lungs, low moans of men waiting to die, an occasional wild thrashing of a mortally wounded elephant and the flash of lightning reflected in the open eyes of men who could no longer see. The Griffins, growing restless, began descending in ever closing circles. They knew that the time for feasting was at hand. They had waited all day and would not be robbed of a feast.

All around him, his faithful men lay slaughtered. The stench of blood and gore reminded Porus of the many hunts he used to go on where rows of tiger carcasses lay clubbed and bloodied. The battle had long ceased when, from afar, he spotted a lone horseman riding fast towards him. A messenger, no doubt, he thought bitterly, sent to offer me a chance to surrender. His eyes were misty, grating with battle dust. When he finally focussed, he stiffened, recognizing the rider as an arch enemy, his sworn foe - a traitor - aiding and abetting the foreign devils.

King Taxiles reigned in six horse lengths from King Porus. He lifted his left hand in a half salute.

An insulting gesture which Porus took to mean I’ve finally defeated you, you old bastard.

Before Taxiles could utter a word, Porus spat from his royal mount and addressed an aide, “Tell that stinking pile of elephant dung to get out of my sight.”

“Porus, Porus, old fiend. I am a mere emissary. Sent here by his Royal Highness, Alexander to offer you ...”

Before he could finish, Porus, brimming with bile, flung a spear straight at Taxiles, narrowly missing him. Taxiles turned in haste and fled amidst the jeers and laughter of the defeated Indian army. With blood seeping from his armour Porus slumped back into the howdah.

“Your Highness,” General Ashish, with great concern, ventured gently.

“No, leave ...”

He exhaled in a deep sigh of dejection and defeat. He had never lost a battle before and his pride pained him more deeply than his physical afflictions. Sensing his men waiting for instructions, he lifted his head and gazed once more at the devastation on the ground. He felt as if he had aged a thousand years. Nothing in all his training had prepared him for this moment. He knew what it felt like to win wars, the triumph and the pride. He remembered feelings of relief at still being alive - the comfort of seeing his men beaming with joy. But not this! Not the pain, the moaning of the hurt, the stone-faced men slumping around, dazed and exhausted. Porus envied his adversary, Alexander. What he must be feeling now. Yes, Alexander can afford to be magnanimous. After all, he has defeated a mighty Indian King. What an arrogant dog to have sent that traitorous pig to come and discuss peace terms with me. I would sooner have died, King Porus thought bitterly.

Shortly afterwards another tiny dust cloud appeared in the horizon. General Ashish rode up to announce “Your Highness, it’s another messenger.”

“No doubt an improvement from the last. But then again, anyone would be better than the last one.”

General Ashish smiled in response to his king’s rhetorical question. The messenger was none other than an Indian lord who had served under King Porus at one time. With great respect, the message of reconciliation was laid before the Indian King. All the wounded and captured would be returned to him, on condition that he paid an annual tithe to Alexander and allow a clear passage for Alexander and his men to cross his territory. The messenger conveyed Alexander’s admiration for King Porus’s courage and dedication to his men. The offer was indeed generous and in due course, King Porus accepted the treaty graciously.

Murmurs and mutterings rose from groups of Macedonian soldiers camping along the riverbanks. In the past few years, this had become a common phenomenon. But the latest battle had taken a heavy toil and the men were displeased. The most heated arguments came from the tent of Coenus.

“I don’t see the logic of his actions anymore. I mean, why fight so hard and then give everything back?” Eronis, the charismatic archer, hissed angrily. “When we started with him, I was one of four brothers. The first one was in the Battle of Granicus. I was only sixteen. My eldest brother Erato was killed by a Persian dog who had a concealed a dagger in his cloak.’ Eronis spat into the dirt at the mention of the coward. His listeners spat as well, in agreement.

“My brother did not see it until it was too late. He died honourably in hand to hand combat. My second brother Erebus died from a fever while in Tarsus. What poisonous insects inhabited those Syrian cities, I’d never know. But it nearly killed Alexander as well. Remember? And some of us were already saying perhaps it’s time to go back.” Murmurs and nodding of heads greeted Eronis’s tale.

“But the worst was the siege of Tyre. My youngest brother Erin was buried alive by the burning sands of the Tyrians. I remember those red coals raining down on our ships. I was terrified. If our ship sank, how are we to swim with all our armour? I nearly lost my mind. I know we all joined for the promise of riches in the first place. But after these past ten years, I am beginning to think that there’s more to life than money.” Silence greeted Eronis’s last words. They all pondered on the gravity of their plight.

Argus, his black spiky beard framing a dark face out of which two half-crazed eyes stared, responded, “Well, I for one am not satisfied with my rewards. I heard that the Indian Kingdom had gold and jewels beyond our wildest dreams. Why didn’t he negotiate for those?”

“Merely asking for a safe passage is so unlike him. Is he going soft?” another old soldier pondered.

Coenus sat in a corner. His mind wandered to the battle of the day. He saw the whites of Perseus’ eyes bulging with fear as he realized that he was being swept away by the river currents - the grasping hand stretching out appealing for help - gripping thin air. Images of charging elephants haunted him. He could almost smell the orange dust blasting in his face as he came within an inch of death, dwarfed by the bellowing bull elephant in its rage. He shuddered at how close he had come to being another smear in the blood strewn battlefield.

He couldn’t help but agree with the present consensus. It all seemed a pure waste of time and effort. The sacrifices appeared absurd in proportion to the rewards. Perhaps, in all probability, it was time to leave. Just then, the tent folds parted and the men froze.

“A boy! A son for Coenus! Why are all of you so quiet? You’re all behaving as if you’ve seen a ghost or something!” The atmosphere in the tent relaxed when the men realized their fear was unfounded. Speaking of deserting their king was treason and the penalty was death. A lusty wail came from the little bundle Ninne, the old nursemaid held in her hands and the spell was broken. She handed the new born to the proud father.

“Congratulations adelphos! You’ve become a father once again!” Eronis flashed a brilliant smile and spoke out heartily. Everyone seemed to start speaking at once and Coenus received a few hard pats on his back. Someone brought out some wine and the toasting began. For a while, they forgot their general dissension and started to celebrate the new addition to Coenus’s family. It was customary to offer a toast to the ‘new soldier’, a boy born to the marching army. On this occasion however, everyone left this toast unsaid. It was their way of electing Coenus to speak up for them and thus end their fighting days.

Coenus peeked into the women’s tent. “Is she awake?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, I am,” whispered Yazdin.

“I think he’s hungry so I brought him back” said Coenus handing his whimpering child gently into Yazdin’s arms.

Yazdin lay on a bed of soft sheepskin. The baby suckled hungrily. “He looks like you” Yazdin smiled sleepily.

“Hmmm. He has his mother’s eyes,” replied Coenus, stroking his lover’s forehead and running a thumb down the side of her finely sculptured face. He bent and kissed her gently on the lips.

“How was the battle? I am sorry I chose such a time to deliver. I guess he couldn’t wait to join his father in a fight.”

Triggering the memory of the battle, Coenus’s face became taut for a moment. He forcefully swept the thoughts aside.

“Was it that bad my love? I’m sorry.” Yazdin took his hand and kissed the raw calluses. Rubbing her soft face against his leathered hand, she pulled him toward her. Coenus snuggled into the warm bed. He inhaled her scent and felt his heart swell with love. I would give my life to make this woman happy, he thought to himself, I guess it’s time to leave. Cradling her gently, he kissed his mate on her forehead and they both drifted soundly to sleep, exhausted from their battles of the day.

It was the usual post-battle oration. Alexander first gave credit to all his men for their bravery, then a further promise of reward all across the board. This met with only a scattering of applause. What the men really wanted to hear was their King’s plans for the future, especially their future. Would he take them home or would he pursue his dream of conquering the world? They had seen enough. They had braved falling off the edge of the world. Yet their King appeared to be drawn towards even further horizons.

At the end of his speech it was clear that Alexander had no intention of turning back. The men began to mutter and a rumble went through the ranks. No applause greeted his final utterances. The atmosphere was sullen and simmering with discontent. Alexander was sensitive to the mood of his men. He looked at Coenus and asked, “What is it you wish?”

“My King, we have followed you for ten years. Whenever and wherever you said to go, we have not hesitated to follow your orders. But my lord, my beard has seen ten winters and it has now decided to stay in winter as you can see.” Laughter could be heard among the ranks for Coenus’s snowy white beard was well known. “We are thankful that you have led us this far, we have seen things that an ordinary mortal could never hope to see, possessed wealth that would turn a rich man in Macedonia green with envy. But what are all these if we do not spend some time to sit and tell our children of all we have encountered? What good are riches if we become too old to enjoy their rewards?” Pausing before hurling the last card on the table, Coenus looked around and saw the ashen faces of his men, all downcast, waiting for their leader’s reaction. “Some of us are tired Lord. We are afraid that another battle would mean the end of us. We have wives, children, all we want. Some of us wish to go home and others such as me are even too old for that. We want to find a place to make a home right here and stay till we die. I have no hope of ever seeing Macedonia again my Lord. My old bones are tired, my feet are tired. I need to rest.” At this, some of the troops found enough courage to mumble their affirmations and nod their heads.

Alexander knew that Coenus spoke from his heart. At any other time this would have been regarded as treason. However, Alexander knew the limits to which his men had been extended in following him. He could not have asked for subjects who were any more loyal than his present Companions.

“If that is what you really want, Coenus, I will grant it. I just need to know who else wishes to stay with you.”

At this, Eronis shouted, “Hail King Alexander the Greatest king of all time!” Thunderous applause broke out.

By the end of winter, Coenus had collected almost two hundred men. A third of these were old, crippled or too tired to go on with their king. They were provided with rations, animals for wool, meat, milk and additional treasures from the central treasury. Together with wives, concubines, maids, servants and children, the numbers grew to over five hundred. Coenus grouped the people into three. The first were the most able bodied men coupled with old women who looked after babes in arms; the second group were made up of women with older children and the elders and finally the less mobile cripples made the third group. They set out as spring approached. “Yazdin, you will travel with Cleo in the second party. I would have preferred we travel together but this would be the most efficient way. The old nursemaid Ninne will travel with me. She may be old but her spirit is like one possessed, she will help with our son as well. Eronis takes the rear as he must pace the older ones, who will surely lag behind.”

“Ah, I become a shepherd dog then, snapping at the heels of those who drag their feet, moaning and groaning as the day lengthens,” Eronis remarked.

“I’ll come with you Eronis and be a shepherd puppy,” Cleo offered eagerly.

“No, Cleo, you stay with your mother. There are dangers that we do not yet foresee and Eronis needs his full attention for the responsibilities ahead.” Coenus looked firmly at his daughter and added “This is not a game.” Cleo pouted and had no time to rebut as Yazdin pulled her away saying, “Come, we have a lot to prepare.”

Twenty men sat around the campfire reviewing the days ahead. They had argued and presented suggestions as to where they should go. There was unanimity that they could no longer venture south. The southern weather was rumoured to be so hot that people perished like moths in a flame. They could not go west, back through the dangers already known. Stories of a valley rich in soil and bountiful in water had reached some of them from Indian acquaintances. They all agreed that they needed a haven, a place they could lay down their arms, till the earth as they did before and live in peace once again.

“Let’s follow our dream and go northeast, where the wind blows and the Indians have suggested,” Eronis suggested. Murmurs of assent greeted him.

“But the mountains are in our paths and the trail will still be treacherous from the winter snows. Maybe we should wait till summer when the passes are negotiable,” Panisis ventured.

“If we wait, we may as well never leave. I vote with Eronis and I vote for leaving now. We’ll have to take the consequences as they come. For every decision, there will be sacrifices. For some, more than others,” Coenus added firmly.

The men greeted his vote with a mighty hail. The long journey thus began. Many would remember Coenus’s words when the time came for sacrifices greater than any of them could ever have foreseen.

4 – The Shingo-La Pass, India, Spring 325 B.C.

The dark mountain pass loomed ahead. Coenus raised his eyes and saw that dawn was yet to be. The full moon cast long eerie shadows from the surrounding peaks onto the mousse of untouched snow. Pregnant glaciers hung precariously on either side. The air was still. Coenus felt a sense of foreboding. He had sent the group of old men herding sheep, goats and mules over the pass the day before. The animals had cut a path through the deep snows easing the way for the other groups. However, a heavy snowfall throughout the night had made the track barely discernible. If they didn’t make use of the first group’s path that day, they may not have a track left when weather conditions improved.

Prayers and offerings had been made to the god that ruled this particular pass. As was customary, the old woman in their group who was an oracle, had divined that the spirit of this pass was that of a Goddess named Kala. Care must be taken that the spirit was not angered and the usual sacrifices had been made. The womenfolk had also prayed regularly to Eos and Nox, the goddesses of dawn and dusk. Coenus faced the senior members of his group and explained.

“There is no time to pause. With sunrise, surface snow will melt and weigh down the crust of hard snow underneath. This will destabilise the whole slope.”

“The path made by the animals is still good. I tried it.” Argus insisted. “Let’s eat before we leave.”

“No. The compressed snow-path will no longer sustain any weight when the melt water drains below. The gods alone know how deep the snows really are in this forsaken place.” Coenus retorted. “I once sank to my eyes in such snow. I had to swim out to save myself. It was like escaping from the jaws of death. I doubt if the women and children will be able to survive if that happens. Now pass the word down that silence is imperative. Loud noises can cause an avalanche.”

Because of his seniority in rank, Coenus had naturally been regarded as their unspoken leader. Behind him, a silent and expectant crowd waited for his signal. He stood poised at the bottom of the pass. He could see that his newborn son was in Ninne’s good hands. He was still apprehensive about Cleo and Yazdin being behind him and he promised himself that after this crossing, he would place them in his group. It’s now or never, Coenus thought and raised his hand. The assault on the pass began.

For hours, the only noise was that of snow crunching underfoot. At times, someone stumbled. A foot sinking beyond the pressed snow - a missed step - a stifled grunt but the march continued. The air grew thinner as they gained altitude. The group of women and children lagged further and further behind. Just as dawn broke, Coenus reached the top and looked down catching a glimpse of amber shimmering softly on the horizon. He noted the high morass, a whole mountainside of gigantic boulders, mountains of rocks on the other side. Another world. He could see their animals grazing in the far distance. He sighed. At least the first group were safe. Once these two groups are over the Pass, the worst will be behind us, he thought. Encouraging his men to move faster, he kept his eyes on the emerging daylight.

The group of men with Ninne was already over the pass and tackling the moraines when Coenus saw a flicker of activity in the orderly line of women and children still trudging up the snow-side pass. They were nearly two thirds of the way up and from his experience Coenus knew that this was the most volatile spot. He silently willed them to move faster. His heart turned deathly cold as his eyes picked out the small figure running towards him, almost swimming through the waist high snows of the pass. He fought the urge to shout to her to slow down, but she was truly in her element, hyperactive as usual. Before he could decide what to do, he heard a familiar voice ringing through the chilly air.

“Cleo! Stop!”

The voice echoed through the pass, bouncing off the walls on either side...the little girl slipped and slid down the slopes screaming.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” it went on through the narrow chasm mixed with the shrill screams of a frightened child. The air, suffused with an electric silence a moment before, exploded violently. The hanging glaciers disintegrated. Dragged down by tonnes of loose snow, walls on either side of the pass cracked and crumbled under pressure. The avalanche boom drowned the terrified screams of women and children caught in the pandemonium.

Coenus’s last sight was that of his beloved Yazdin diving after Cleo. Both were instantly obliterated by the raging river of snow which ripped through the once-smooth landscape devouring everything in its unstoppable path. Trees and rocks were swept up as the avalanche gained momentum. A thick fog of white powder rose and cloaked the area like a shroud of death. The whole valley reverberated with the mayhem of destruction. When it finally stopped, the avalanche had deposited its awful load deep in the valley below.

He came to his senses, coughing and gasping for air only when someone slapped him repeatedly in the face. He realized that arms of iron were holding on to his. His men had prevented him from running into the melee in a futile attempt to save his family. Wild-eyed and frantic, he had fought them, but they had held on, willing him to live, to save him from the avalanche’s deadly sweep. Coenus tried to climb down the devastated slope but it was near impossible. All that was left of the way they came was a dark gash in the mountainside.

Like a swarm of ants, the survivors dug into the unstable debris, looking desperately for loved ones. As darkness descended over the valley, so too faded Coenus’s feverish hopes. His beloved Yazdin and Cleo were gone.

The campfire crackled and sparked as the priest chanted the prayers for the dead. Sprinkling his potions into the flames, the fire rose as if to meet the tossed powders and the gong, a sad morose, solitary sound echoed through the gorge. The river ran through a chasm here, its roar however, could not drown the wailing old women, cloaked in white peplos.

They had spent the whole day searching for survivors. Digging in the buried snows till their hands were bloodied and frostbitten, only twelve of the sixty were found unscathed. They couldn’t find the bodies of Yazdin or Cleo. Coenus would have gone on digging till his fingers were bloodied stumps but his men stopped him when it got too dark to see.

Coenus sat alone. Eyes staring blindly at the flames, reflecting the emptiness and numbness he felt inside. His hands, heavily bandaged, stretched out awkwardly in front of him. A baby’s thin and shrill cry reached his ears, pierced into his soul momentarily and he looked up, half expectant. No, it’s not Cleo - she’s not a baby anymore. So grown up...but not quite, no, not ever his thoughts drifted and his swollen red eyes, dried from continuous crying, welled up again. Hot tears brimmed over and rolled slowly down his crinkled face. In the dancing flames he saw her impish face, her blue eyes. How they used to light up at the sight of him. Eyes like her mother, the only woman he had ever loved. But she’s gone and with her, his reason to go on living. The tenderness they shared, yes, that is past. No more sweet words, no more soft touches, caring exchanges, deep discussions, warm embraces, feelings of being desired and desiring in return. No more anything, just emptiness inside, a vacuum forming in his guts, crushing him from the inside out.

The oldest woman of the survivors was chosen to do the funeral rites. She threw a crumpled talisman deep into the flames. For a moment, it remained unscathed, then browning at the edges, slowly crumpling unto itself, the talisman burst into flames and was instantly consumed. Taking a bronze dagger, she took a squawking chicken, bent its head backwards firmly and sliced its head off. The blood from its flapping headless corpse was sprinkled into the fire, making it sizzle and spit.

Coenus gazed at the frantic kicking of the dying bird. He laughed mirthlessly. That’s just like me. That headless chicken, it doesn’t know it is dead.

The old woman slit the dagger across the carcass of the chicken and drew out its innards. The little heart was still pumping as she threw the innards into the fire, chanting prayers to Hades, the god of the underworld.

“Grant safe passages to all who have been called to you today Lord Hades. With this sacrifice, send them on their way to Elysium for they were all innocents and died without sin.”

The wind howled and whined through the stark barren gorge.

Curling himself into a foetal position, Coenus’s body began to shake with heart rending sobs. The others left him alone.

Lucky are those who have perished. At least their pain had ended. But mine, my pain, it will never end....never. Someone has taken away the sunshine from my days, bleached the colours of my waking hours, turn the light into darkness. Death would not be more welcome if it were to come now. I have nothing, nothing left to live for. No one left to care. No more love to live by. Ares, my God of War, how cruel you are. Why did you leave me behind?’

These words, carved onto stone on the top of the pass, symbolised their collective grief.

5 – A village in Asia Minor, Spring 325 B.C.

Yasmin looked up and saw a blazing streak cross the star-studded skies. It left a long tail of fire and then disappeared. It was an omen. Fear gripped her heart and she clutched the pendant around her neck.

“No. Yazdin, no, you mustn’t die.” But she knew, as surely as she knew that day would turn to night, her beloved sister was dead. Such were the telepathic connections between twins.

Little Yazdin, her eight year old, named after her twin sister, looked up at her mother’s blue eyes and said, “Madar, don’t be sad. I won’t die.”

Yasmin smiled at her daughter’s innocence. “No, Yazdin my sweet. Madar wasn’t talking to you. Madar was talking to the star that had just passed away.” And tears stained her cheeks as she remembered the time her sister was taken by force from their village. Yasmin took the pendant from her own neck and placed it around the neck of her little daughter.

“Promise me, Yazdin. Promise me that you will pass this on to your daughter and she will in turn pass it on to hers. There is another one exactly the same. One day the two will reunite, just as madar and your amme Yazdin will also reunite in heaven.”

“I promise madar.” Little Yazdin took up the beautiful pendant and tenderly kissed it because she knew how much her mother treasured it.

6 – Valley of Lahaul, Autumn 325 B.C.

The midwife parted the tent folds gently. An old woman that had seen as many births as deaths, she shuffled into the dark and musty tent. A sliver of light penetrated into the gloom, enabling her to locate the bundle wrapped up in a corner. She wrinkled her wizened face in disgust at the smell. Undeterred, she moved closer and kicked the bundle with all her might. It stirred and a voice croaked from deep within, “Go away.”

“Coenus get up,” she commanded and kicked again.

The bundle didn’t move this time. Resigned to its fate, it laid in a heap, dead to the world.

“Coenus, I am doing this for Yazdin. Get up I say. Do you not remember that you have a son? This baby needs his Atta now that his poor Mamma has gone. Aye, gone so young that even I am shocked, I who’ve seen every cruel thing that life can dish out.”

At that moment, a wail came from a sack tied to the back of the old woman - a pathetic and piercing whine, like a kitten caught in a trap. The woman removed the baby from the sack and laid it next to the heap on the floor.

“If you choose to ignore him, he will die just like his Mamma and his sister. Only this time Coenus, it really will be your hand that kills him, not the gods who took away the lives of Yazdin and Cleo. Coenus, stop blaming yourself for their deaths. It was their time to die. But this little fellow here, he fights for his life and if you don’t help him, he will surely die.” With that, the midwife shuffled out, intentionally leaving a large gap in the tent folds.

The baby, now cold and hungry began to wail, his lungs heaving lustily as he did so. At first the bundle wrapped itself up even more tightly, trying to block out the noise. But the bawling did not stop. The heart-rending sound crept out from the heap of rags and drilled its way into the gloomy depths of Coenus’s mind. He cursed, pealed off the covers from his head and peered out. His eyes adjusted to the dim light and he made out a small shape wriggling slightly from where the disconcerting sounds came.

The baby was bathed in a shaft of sunlight, pouring through the gap in the tent folds. Coenus focussed his blurry eyes on the helpless infant that had managed to kick off the swaddling cloths.

“Helpless and hopeless,” Coenus mumbled. “Just like your old Atta. Lying here, waiting to die.” The baby heard his voice and stopped crying as suddenly as it had started. In the instant silence, Coenus panicked. He struggled to get up; the blankets he had wrapped around him to shut out life, now clung to him, refusing to release him. Finally managing to shrug off the shroud, he picked up the silent form. Perhaps shocked by the movement, the baby started crying again. Coenus sighed with relief. Just then he caught the silver glint of the pendant hanging around the baby’s neck and his mind went back to the past.

Her blue eyes gazed softly at him as he wiped a bead of sweat from the side of her face. She smiled at him and showed him the tiny pink body snuggled up close to her, suckling hungrily. He breathed in her warm scented body, feeling completely in love. The silver pendant tickled the baby’s nose making it sneeze, spitting milk across Yazdin’s breasts. They laughed as she took off her pendant, shortened the string and tied it around the baby’s neck. This is yours now. From my piça to me and from me to you. Remember your heritage always my son,’ she had whispered in her Persian tongue.

Coenus’s heart ached for her. He missed her voice and her touch. You scrawny, shrivelled olive. You must be suffering too. And you’re even more pathetic than me because you are completely and utterly dependent on her and have no way of expressing your loss, except in your wailing and fretting.

Coenus shook himself out of his lethargy. “Where is that old hag ninne?” he said to no-one. Staggering out of his tent, the tiny infant wrapped closely in the cradle of his arm, he swayed as the full force of the noon sun blazed upon his unshaven and unwashed face. He shut his eyes. The sun was too much after days in darkness and gloom.

The baby whined softly now, warm in his father’s arms, but still hungry. Returning to the tent, Coenus lifted a flap to let in more sunlight. It was then that he noticed the skin-filled flask hanging by a pole just within the entrance. He lifted the plug and smelled the richness of goats’ milk. Then fumbling with positions and spilling milk all over himself and the baby’s face, he finally managed to squeeze some feed into the hungry little mouth. It gurgled and suckled with delight, legs kicking in the air with joy as his fingers gripped the skin-flask. Coenus watched in amazement. Beady blue eyes twinkled at him. Blowing a milk-bubble, it popped and the sound made the infant chuckle happily.

“My son” Coenus held the baby to his chest; his black fuzzy head of hair nestled in the bull-like neck of his old father. At that moment, Coenus began another life.

7 – Malana village, India, Summer 317 B.C.

The summer sun warmed against his fair skin. Jana’s blue eyes picked out the figure that meant the world to him. That figure was climbing slowly, up from the valley below, a tiny brown speck in a beige hat. Impatient, he paced the path that led to his home and back again to the start of the track. His father’s figure was getting closer now. He hopped eagerly on one leg and then on the other. For an eight-year-old, he was a little dynamo. Deciding he couldn’t wait any longer, he ran down the track and almost collided with the wizened old man who had just negotiated the last one hundred and eighty degree turn to reach the top.

“Ho! Hold it right there, young fellow, where do you think you are going?” Coenus asked his son.

"Atta! You’re faster than I thought” shrieked Jana in delight.

“Let me catch my breath son. I am not as young as I used to be. These climbs are getting to me” he complained as he hacked and spat.

“What did you bring me from the valley? I caught an ibex today. Eronis helped of course but I was the one who shot the arrow. Come quick and see,” exclaimed Jana, pulling his aging father by his waist rope.

Spindly legs, his height, shrunk with age, Coenus hurried after his young son.

“Ah, there you are at last. Thought you’d decided to stay down below where it is more hospitable” Eronis mocked his long-time Companion.

“You must be nuttier than I thought if you think I would degrade myself and stay with those low-castes,” Coenus hacked and coughed again.

“Have a drink Atta,” said Jana bringing out some Chang, a fermented rice wine in a skin flask.

“This is a welcome more fitting I think,” Coenus exclaimed, grabbing the flask and quenching his thirst loudly. Wiping his white whiskers, which were carefully trimmed handlebar fashion, he sat on one of the flattened stones in the courtyard.

“So what news have you brought us from the Valley?” Eronis inquired.

“Many have found local wives. They are turning to the Indian gods, Indian customs and rituals.”

“What do you expect from those low castes?” Eronis spat out his distaste.

“They need to populate their village. They need hands for cultivation and weaving. Our women are not enough.”

“At least Malana will remain pure,” Eronis said with pride.

Coenus turned his eyes towards the fragile huts the villagers had built, nestled into the mountainside, “Yes, but for how long?”

Eronis slapped his old friend on the back. “For as long as you are our leader adelphos! And Jana after you. Eh Jana?” He nudged the little boy who grinned happily at his favourite friend. “Let’s go meet the young girl Ninne has lined up for you!”

“What young girl? Will that meddling old hag never leave me alone? Tell her to go drive someone else to death with her matchmaking attempts. Can she not see that my legs are bowed and buckling with age?!”

“Ah but adelphos, you need not stand to sow your seeds!”

The two old Companions laughed good-naturedly at the joke.

PART 3

THE VALLEY OF TRUTH

1 - Malana, India, October Year 3

2 – Manikaran Hot Springs, November Year 3

3 – Kulu, India, November Year 3

4 – Manali, India, November Year 3

5 – Malana, India, December Year 3

6 – Manali, India, December Year 4

7 – Malana, India, January Year 4

8 – Manali, India, March Year 4

9 – Kulu Valley, India, April Year 4

10 – Manali, India, May Year 4

11 – Malana, India, May Year 4

12 – Manali, India, June Year 4

1 – Malana, India, October Year 3

Musicians blew their long golden horns, clashed cymbals and beat on drums. People packed into the little courtyard in front of the temple. This was one of the rare times that outsiders were allowed to witness an event within Malana. An unblemished buffalo stood benignly in a corner, chewing cud, oblivious to the ancient chants and music. In another corner, palanquins of lesser gods rested. They had all come from surrounding villages in the valley to pay homage to the most powerful one. These palanquins, draped with rainbow coloured cloths, had an array of gold and silver masks arranged in multi-tiers. The shiny faces of these gods looked down upon the humble throng. Old men, keepers of the palanquins on which their gods travel, huddled nearby sucking deeply on short pipes cupped in leathered hands. Their heavy dark tunics and beige woollen pants contrasted starkly with the richness of the palanquins. Around the mid-waist, brownish ropes were wound as part of their ancient costumes. On their heads, black caps with dangling strings of wildflowers form the only colours allowed. The women contrasted with every imaginable colour intricately woven into their pattus. On their heads, they wore the traditional triangle scarves matching with the colours of their pattus.

It was the first day of Lord Jamlu’s celebration and the buffalo was being prepared for the sacrifice. Fed on marijuana leaves for the last two days, it did not react when the villagers painted it with blessings using a red dye made from henna. Its garlanded horns gleamed in the sun, polished to show that the animal was majestic and in its prime. The crowd became excited as the high priest stepped up to the bovine, wielding an ancient sword, whose metallic edge glinted with menace. Ropes were quickly bound around its hoof to bring the beast to its knees, as if in supplication towards Lord Jamlu.

Lea stood transfixed with a growing lump in her throat. She had never witnessed anything like this first hand and the killing of an animal seemed barbaric to her. The chants became louder drowning the pathetic lowing of the cattle. It rent her heart to watch and she walked away with nausea welling up inside.

From within a fog of consciousness, the buffalo began to feel uncomfortable. It smelt the excitement of the crowd and tried to move away from it. But it could not. Something had happened to its legs. It felt hands grabbing at its horns and pushing it down. Trying to shake the oppressive feeling, the heaviness became too much and its feet buckled underneath its huge frame. Overwhelmed with fear, it urinated. Blue eyeballs bulged out of its sockets. Panicked, it struggled to get up on its hooves. Its up-thrust was met with severe resistance and now its head was forced onto the ground, muddied from its own urine mixed with earth. It began to bellow, nostrils flared and snorting. A sharp pain sliced through its larynx. A shudder ripped through its bulk. Gripped with terror, it tried to thrash but kicking legs met no resistance. A metallic smell choked the air and left it gasping, its piteous cries muted by gurgling blood. Life ebbed from the gash in its neck. Its struggle for life ceased.

The high priest looked down at the fallen sacrifice and dipped a horse-hair brush into the curdling blood. He chanted and flicked the brush on the steps of the temple, painting the doorway red. He invited Lord Jamlu onto his palanquin, a huge chair bedecked with flowers and covered with colourful cloths. Nine pure golden faces of Jamlu were arranged on the chair. The whole contraption required eight healthy men to carry it. If Jamlu showed his pleasure and accepted the invitation, there would be great relief. This God of War had wreaked havoc in the past, reminding his worshippers of his violent nature. The worst incident happened to the villagers of Palchan in 1992. A tractor full of Palchan children going to school had overturned and tumbled into the swollen river. There were no survivors. When the oracles were consulted, they learnt that it was Lord Jamlu who was displeased with the village headman. In one fell swoop, a whole generation was wiped out from that village. From this and other incidents in the past, the people of the valley had begun to fear Lord Jamlu. A god out of control is a dangerous thing.

The Malanaan people built the temple as a sign of respect. The front door of the temple is sealed and has been for the last two thousand years. No one knows what is inside the building. Rumours are that the first villagers of Malana, the soldiers of Alexander pooled all their war pickings together and made this a kind of reserve bank. It was a brilliant idea if it were true. Who would dare tempt fate and rob a vengeful god? A pitched slate roof topped the building with a tiny window under the eave. In the event where entry is necessary, such as, in times of drought, avalanche, earthquake or mud slide, or, where money is needed to save the village from a disaster, the high priest is lowered blindfolded through this opening. He is supposed to grope in complete darkness and pick up the first thing that he stumbles upon before being pulled back up through the window with the object in hand. If it is gold, it is sold and the money used to rebuild the village or tide the hard times. If it is worthless, perhaps a rotting piece of leather-armour, Malanaans will have to find a way to get by without Jamlu’s help. The blood soaked brush was now used to sprinkle the ground from the temple to the palanquin. Lea sat quietly in a corner, waiting for the butchery to end. Raj had to be seated with the council and she could not see him through the crowd. She was beginning to feel somewhat lost when a commotion interrupted her thoughts. The crowd parted to allow the high priest to walk around the palanquin which began to shake as blood speckled it.

“Lord Jamlu is pleased with the sacrifice!” the high priest screamed in delight. The crowd roared a thankful response and a group of young men grabbed the poles of Jamlu’s palanquin, hoisting it up on their shoulders. They began to sway to the beat of the drums. Another group entered the centre courtyard. They were dressed in the same off-white woollen tunics Lea had noticed on the Malanaan men before, with their black caps boasting strings of swinging marigold on one side. Musicians followed with huge copper drums, flute-like pipes with blue ribbons tied around long thin necks and cymbals with pink strips of cloth tied to their handles.

The dancers started in a slow stroll, singing and whirling in a small circle. They then took out red kerchiefs and waved them gently to and fro as the music progressed. The drumming, the shrill bleats of the flutes and clashing cymbals aroused a sense of déjà vu in Lea. Isn’t this the Oro, the dance that little Akis had insisted she joined on her visit to Pindos during Kolede. Time stood still for Lea. It felt like she was in a time warp. The connection between the two cultures was uncanny. She shivered.

Just then a warm arm encircled her. Half-expecting Raj, she turned.

“Halloo madam. Such a lovely party no?” It was the Delhiite who dumped himself next to her.

Lea shifted uneasily but discreetly away from the stale smell of ammonia emitting from his underarm. He let the loosened arm trail down her back.

“Do you mind?” said Lea, shrugging his hand off her as though it were a loathsome cockroach.

“No, not atall, not atall,” the Delhiite grinned, his blood-red teeth protruding from his wide mouth from which, the noxious fumes of alcohol nauseated Lea. She reared backwards and prepared to make her exit from this undesirable situation.

“Lost your wife somewhere?” asked Lea trying hard not to focus on his revolting teeth.

“Oh, no. She velly good vife. Making an offer to the Lord Jamlu, you know. She yis asking the god for a son,” he replied proudly. “Yai told her, vhy ask him? He yis not the vun sleeping vit you. Yai yam. Yai vill give you plenty of sons, vun yevery yar.” He guffawed loudly at his own joke.

Unable to tolerate the intrusion any longer, Lea stood up just as a bevy of giggling dancing girls swirled near her. One of the girls pulled Lea by the arm and she found herself in the troop. The dancing ring opened to admit her. She faltered in the opening steps before losing herself to the rhythm of the music and the dance.

The tempo quickened and more villagers were pulled into the ring. In the mad whirl, Raj joined in, placing himself next to her.

“You’re a quick learner.” He winked.

“We have the same dance in Pindos.” Her eyes flashed with excitement by her discovery.

Raj raised his eyebrow in reply and squeezed her hand in his. His subtle flirtation thrilled her. Lea’s face flushed as the dance became more energetic. Hope began to flicker in her mind. Perhaps they will accept me now if they know that we may just be the same. But is this what I really want? To belong to a people dictated by a god who demands blood sacrifice?

The panorama of snow-capped mountains at twelve thousand feet created a surrealistic glow at twilight. Lea stood on the Chandrakhani Pass smelling the sweet rhododendron aroma as the mountain breeze played wildly with her hair. Raj, his arms wrapped tightly around her, gave her a squeeze and nuzzled her neck lovingly, breathing in her scent as he did so.

“Darling, stop. I can’t concentrate,” begged Lea.

“You’re irresistible.” Raj mumbled into her hair.

“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Just look at that horizon. It’s pink, crimson, orange, violet, a million shades of gold. Have you ever seen anything like it?” Lea marvelled as she attempted to distract her amorous lover.

“Of course, all my life,” continued Raj, undeterred.

“You take so much for granted.”

“Because there’s something much more breathtaking in front of me.”

Lea sighed, “You always had a way with words.”

“Only because you inspire me.”

“The lovers strolled back to the tents pitched just below the moon-shaped pass. As no outsider was allowed to camp within Malana, those wishing to witness the three-day festivities had to rely on such accommodation. Raj had ensured that their tent was pitched in the best spot. Other tents, pitched by local villagers, stood a little further down the pass.

It had been a hectic day in the village with the dancing and celebrations for Jamlu. Night fell on a dark moonless sky as Chandrakhani Pass loomed over Malana village like a natural fortress just as the first descendants of Malana had intended more than two thousand years ago.

Suddenly, a scream pierced the black of the night. A howl so terrifying in its intensity that Lea and Raj were jolted out of their slumber.

“What’s that?” cried Lea, her heart pounding heavily in her ears.

Another howl was followed by the shouting of local voices. Pulling on their jackets, Lea and Raj emerged from their sleeping tent to investigate.

“It may just be a jackal” Raj rationalised.

“But it sounded human,” answered Lea, as they stumbled down the path leading towards the other tents, from where the sound originated.

Chander, the ever-resourceful chauffeur, brought out a powerful torch and shone the way for Raj and Lea. Lea shivered in the cold mountain night air even though she was wearing a warm fleecy jacket.

"Nay! Jau! Jau! Nay!” Another howl emerged from the quivering lips of the Delhiite. Frothing at the mouth, he quivered violently and shrank into a corner of his tent, eyes wide with terror, screaming at something he alone could see. His wife, being comforted by other tourist women, cried pitifully as she watched her husband’s trauma. The crowd parted as the locals recognised their prince.

“What’s going on?” whispered Lea, feeling goose pimples on her arms.

“He’s possessed,” observed Raj, turning to Chander and issuing instructions. Chander bowed and left immediately. Lea heard mumbling between the locals and the word ‘Jamlu’ did not escape her ears.

The local tourist guide, whose tent was rented to the Delhiite, approached Raj. “He has been disrespectful, Sahib. I heard him earlier, babbling about his sexual prowess over Lord Jamlu’s. He was talking to Memsahib,” he sneered, staring with bulging eyes, straight at Lea.

“Then you have not done your duty properly in warning these people who come here, that the wrath of Jamlu is real,” retorted Raj angrily.

“I’m only a humble tourist guide, Sahib," the guide demurred.

“You are a money-faced jackass. I will bar you and anyone you bring to my village from now on. Our laws and customs are not a tourist attraction to be gaped and joked about. You should be glad that Jamlu did not seek you out to punish tonight.” Raj turned and walked away, his neck muscles bulged with the effort of keeping his anger under control.

Lea followed him quietly. She had not fully understood the heated exchange because it was spoken in the local dialect but she saw the tell-tale signs of her lover’s distress. She had never seen him so angry.

“It has always been a problem for us, since my father first allowed outsiders to come to our village. They don’t understand our culture, our traditions and taboos. We have become a tourist attraction, something to gossip about when they go home. They walk around our homes, taking photos of our women and children without permission, peering into our kitchens and bedrooms as though we are exhibits in some kind of circus freak show. Travel writers come and relate stories of our lifestyle and our beliefs without proper understanding of how it really is. They rob us of our dignity, telling lies about our ways and condemning our chief source of income as immoral. Instead of admiring us for our ideals, they laugh at us. How could my father have thought that opening us to the world would help us? How?”

“I’m beginning to understand you Raj. I suppose you are resentful of the fact that the outside treat you with suspicion and debase your ways without fully understanding your history.” Lea suggested quietly. Raj gripped Lea’s shoulders tightly. “Yes. That is exactly what it is. When I am king, I shall change all that. I shall ban every ogling tourist from Malana and lead our people back to the greatness that we once had. But I can’t do this as long as my people are on their suicidal path. Do you see why it was vital that I enlist your help?”

“You could have asked me outright Raj, instead of luring me here under the guise of doing research. Of course it is still research in a way, except of course it wasn’t what I had in mind.”

“Lea, I’m sorry. As I’ve told you before, I will settle things with the council. I promise that after everything is over, you have my full co-operation in doing your thesis on my people to complete your PhD.”

Looking up the path, they saw two silhouettes approaching. Lea recognised the form of Chander in the lead. The second image reminded her of a giant vulture hobbling awkwardly on the narrow path. She shuddered and crossed her arms about her.

"Sahib, he is here,” announced Chander handing the torch over to his prince.

“Waste no time, the man is delirious and if his heart is weak, he will not survive.” Raj hastened back to the Delhiite’s tent followed by Chander and the high priest. The Delhiite lay there still moaning in a crumpled heap. He cowered pitifully, his hands clutching shreds of blanket that he had tried to use to hide from whatever was attacking him.

The high priest, with eyes gleaming in the firelight, dug into his cloth-bag, took out a few grains of rice and threw them at the Delhiite. He mumbled a few incoherent words, turned his eyes upwards until only the whites could be seen, then blew on the Delhiite’s startled face.

Lea remembered the face of the high priest from the festival.

A scrawny, ancient face, it looked like a skull with skin stretched so tight across his vulture-like features, it seemed translucent. He was standing amongst the older villagers, his clothes no different from the rest. But his demeanour and countenance, the way his head angled from his neck, and his beady bird-like eyes unnerved her. When those eyes had looked into hers, she had felt them trying to penetrate into her soul and she had felt impelled to turn away and concentrate on the dancers.

She stood, transfixed like the others, watching the exorcism within the tent. The skeletal man looked even smaller contrasted with the quivering bulbous Delhiite. However, as the priest raised his arms in supplication to Lord Jamlu, he seemed to grow in size and the crowd gasped. The open fire blazed, throwing eerie shadows against the canvas to add to the gothic horror within the tent.

Suddenly, the Delhiite’s face relaxed and his eyes closed.

“Keep him warm. When he wakes, let him drink something sweet. He may not remember the terror of this night,” the high priest rasped instructions to the local guide. “Tomorrow, he must come to the temple and pay for a ram to be sacrificed to Lord Jamlu. Otherwise, the spirits will continue to visit him and even I cannot stop them.”

The crowd parted as the high priest turned to leave. As he passed Lea, his dark beady eyes focussed on hers. Lea braced herself and looked straight back. The strength she had seen in those dark eyes before had gone. He looked away, nodded an acknowledgement to Raj and stalked off into the night. In his wake, the crowd began an animated discussion of what they had just witnessed.

Meanwhile, Lea went over to the Delhiite’s wife to comfort her.

“He’s alright now. It’s all over.”

The helpless wife looked up uncomprehending, her kohl, running down her face in streaks. Someone translated Lea’s words and the young wife nodded in response.

Back in their tent, Lea sat in bed and felt the shock descend into her being. She shuddered.

“Are you alright darling?” comforted Raj holding her close to his chest.

“I can’t get the look of his face out of my mind. What was he seeing?”

“I don’t know....devils, spirits, whatever his imagination created.”

“Why?”

“He was disrespectful and Jamlu’s wrath is great.”

“He was joking. He’s such an obnoxious man and I don’t like him one bit. But such a thing to happen…and his poor wife.”

“Jamlu picks on weak-minded people. He plays with their imagination. So it’s not Jamlu who scares but what he allows the person he possesses to imagine and terrify himself with.”

“Will the sacrifice really help tomorrow?”

“It’s never failed before.”

“Does it happen often?”

“What do you mean? The possessions?”

“Yes.”

“As and when Jamlu thinks it’s needed.”

“Can he be controlled?”

“You’ve seen how the high priest works. It does help that he’s around.”

“Has anyone ever been killed?”

“Indirectly, yes. But never directly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the guy gets possessed, tries to flee and falls off the mountain.”

“Oh no. That’s terrible.”

“Let’s go to sleep, Lea. I don’t feel comfortable talking about Jamlu so close to Malana.”

“I can’t sleep after what I’ve seen tonight.”

“Jamlu is part of my heritage Lea. I don’t know how to control it and I’m not sure it’s such a good thing to control. After all, it is because of the fear of Jamlu that the other people are staying away. Our harassment comes from people who don’t know but once they become aware, they keep away and that helps us.”

Silence descended upon the tents once again as everyone drifted into uneasy sleep. The night sounds blended into the cold winds just as the new moon peeked out from the horizon, transforming the distant snow-capped peaks into shimmering cones. Tent-flaps, fluttering in the windswept pass, reflected the uneasiness of the fragile occupants inside.

2 – Manikaran Hot Springs, November Year 3

Lea submerged her ears beneath the hot waters of the sulphur springs. Closing her eyes, she listened to the drip, drip of the water droplets that had condensed on the damp ceiling of the cave and, being too heavy, had detached themselves one by one, to fall into the pool where she now lay. The heavy stench of rotten eggs had reached her long before the Ambassador entered the steamy town of Manikaran. Now more familiar with the sulphurous smell she relaxed. The cold autumn air mixed with the heat rising from the pool, producing a perpetual white cloud within the cave. I’m in hell but it feels like heaven, she thought, her body warm in the heat of the pool and her mind wandering to Raj. He should be here with me, enjoying nature’s providence of a heated pool. Ah, but this is a Sikh Temple. No sex, alcohol or drugs of any kind,’ Lea remembered with a twinge of guilt. Raj was stuck in the council Meeting once again. ‘Go rejuvenate yourself in the curative waters of Manikaran while I slug it out with the council,’ he’d said. ‘Accepting you into our society is a giant step for my people. But I will convince them soon and join you in Kulu for Dusshera.’ Lea mouthed the word; it felt sensual to her, like a soft-spoken term of endearment one would use on a lover, Dusshera, the Autumn Festival of Harvest and Dance. She crossed her legs in the pool and stroked her breasts. The mineral enriched waters of the hot spring softened her skin and heightened her sensuality.

A light shuffle distracted Lea from her thoughts. A bald Buddhist nun came into the cave and grinned at Lea. Wrapped in a thick woollen cloak, she reminded Lea of a little red dwarf.

Thank goodness I wasn’t in the throes of an orgasm, thought Lea as her thoughts of self stimulation were interrupted.

Untying a sash, the dark maroon robe fell to the floor. Despite trying not to stare, Lea’s eyes widened with amazement at the shrivelled pale body revealed by the nun. She doesn’t look that old. The nun started to chant as she shuffled to the hottest part of the pool, the very source of the hot water spring. Lea had been warned of the dangers of going too close to the source where the temperature was at least forty degrees. Rice could be cooked in it except that no one would have appreciated the smell!

Worried, Lea sat up and looked for her. Steam vents spewed vigorous puffs of vapour, obscuring Lea’s view. Then she heard intermittent splashing interspersed with louder mantras. Faith helps to prevent scalding I suppose, she mused and relaxed. She noticed that her fingertips were puckered and she knew it was time to dry off and get going. Chander was waiting for her to take her to Kulu. The nun emerged from the far end just as Lea put on her pants.

"Bahut garam?” Lea inquired if it was too hot, in halting Hindi.

Her shrunken frame now mottled pink and red, the nun smiled and nodded. “Hot water good for pain in bones,” she went on as she wrapped her heavy woollen robes around her.

Lea was surprised the nun spoke English. She kept reminding herself that in India, English is the main medium of education, a legacy from the colonial days.

“Too hot for me!” said Lea, shaking her head and pulling on her blouse at the same time. Lea noticed the old woman looking at her body and she blushed.

“Ahya, garam pani no good for baby,” the nun commented.

Lea knew ’garam pani’ meant hot water. But baby? What baby? She pinched and jiggled her stomach and sighed, “No, no baby, only motu.” She thought of all the rich food she had been feasting on with Raj. Three months and her figure had added a few pounds.

The old woman took Lea’s hand and turned it over gently pulling Lea to sit on the floor with her and using the other hand to trace a figure of eight on Lea’s open palm. Shaking her head, wet with perspiration, she looked at Lea with bright black eyes of concern. “Son of king…” three words in English followed by excited jabber in a strange language. When she realised Lea did not understand her, she shook her head sadly and drew circles on Lea’s palm. Then she became animated and using her hands, she made a bird with flapping wings, then her two palms came together and she clasped them firmly and the bird disappeared. She tried again, “You…” she said, making the sign of the bird. Then she closed her palms together and she pointed into a closed fist, “You.” Then she drew the circles in Lea’s hand.

“Circle? I’m flying in a circle?” Lea tried to humour the old woman. She was mildly amused.

“Danger, little sister!” the nun clasped her arm and looked deep into her eyes.

Lea felt goose pimples rising where the nun grasped her. How uncanny, to be sitting here in a cave of a hot spring with a nun telling my fortune. And not a good one at that! She smiled politely at the fortune telling nun and withdrew her arm.

“I think I’d better go. My driver is waiting.”

“Ah, little sister. Don’t worry. Have angel. Big white sadhu help you. No worry.” The old woman’s eyes brightened as she looked up at Lea.

“Yes. Uh, thank you.” Lea understood that Sadhu meant ‘Holy man’ and wondered why the old nun used the term. She wondered if Raj could be considered a sadhu. In any case, she was not taking the fortune telling seriously. Pregnant with a king’s son?! Never. Not yet anyway, she thought.

“Good man. Good man,” mumbled the nun, and instantly, as if Lea had already left, closed her eyes and began chanting again.

As she left the cave, Lea looked back and saw the old woman, bald, shrunken, yet baby-faced, sitting in the lotus position, her lips moving and resonating mantras amidst billowing clouds which cloaked her in an ethereal mist.

3 – Kulu, India, November Year 3

Chotu stood with a group of local boys, appraising every village girl who sauntered past them. The bolder ones made comments that drew out titters of laughter from the girls. Dusshera was a time for making liaisons. The hard work of summer harvest behind them, village boys and girls dressed in their best to parade around Kulu. It was carnival time!

Street hawkers with their colourful trinkets and wares attracted the happy villagers by the droves. Village maidens, emboldened in groups, ogling wide-eyed at the range of offers, everything from hair accessories to kitchenware, from carpets to shoes. Young men sauntered past, eyeing the attractive goods but distracted by the flirting ladies. Children chased each other down the narrow streets; hide-and-seek was easy here with a hundred different nooks and corners for concealment. Bumper cars and Ferris wheels with rusty spokes spun continuously in the village square. Old men, wearing their colourful kulu caps, sat in tight circles, with pipes cupped in their palms, smoking and chatting about the harvest.

Chotu bought a bag of jalebis, orange deep-fried flour pretzels dripping with syrup, and munched happily away. Together with his friends they walked towards the main stage where the dance competition was to take place.

The local music, piped through loudspeakers, stationed around the square, added to the noise and general din. Chotu’s eyes brightened as he recognised one of the dancers performing the Oro on stage. It was his classmate Hema whose father sold chickens at the bazaar. They walked to school together.

“Eh, Hema, shake a little more. You look like a dead log,” Motu, the son of an hotelier teased. Hema was his classmate too. Chotu tried to hide behind the others. He didn’t like Hema being teased but there was nothing he could do.

“She dances like a water buffalo,” shouted the fat boy, exaggerating a waddle to the amusement of the onlookers. Hema faltered a step and Chotu noticed the frozen smile on her face.

“St...Stop it. Sh...She’s ni...nice,” stuttered Chou nervously.

“What! Is this my little cat teaching me to miaw, miaw?” Motu shoved him. The crowd parted, recognising a drama unfolding.

Chotu looked down on the ground, suddenly realising the danger he has gotten himself in. He sucked in his breath and waited for the inevitable. His skinny legs began to tremble slightly and he hoped they would not give way.

“Son of an owl, you don’t like us talking about your girlfriend, huh?” Towering over Chotu both in height and size, he puffed up even more as he noticed the crowd’s hushed anticipation. Using his podgy hand, he slapped Chotu’s cheek lightly as he talked, glancing around to seek approval from the audience. The slaps became harder as he teased Chotu some more. Chotu’s cheeks reddened but he still didn’t dare move. He bit his lip to stop from crying but he soon felt the tears stinging his eyes.

“Stop it!” A firm voice cut through the tamasha. “You should be ashamed of yourself, bullying a little boy half your size.”

Chotu gasped as he recognised Lea standing over him protectively.

Motu glowered at Lea. “What’s he to you? He’s just a low-caste good for nothing!” he retorted spitting near Chotu’s foot.

“He’s my friend and if you touch him once more, I’ll call the police,” snarled Lea.

At this, the bully threw his head back and laughed merrily, his tummy trembling with mirth.

“My father owns half the police force, so please go ahead.”

“Oh is that right? I’ll like to meet your father and tell him you told me that.”

Motu now turned sullen and sneered “Who do you think you are? Coming here and telling us what to do. You think that just because you have white skin, you’re supreme? We are the highest caste in the world. Our Prince will marry Kamala, my cousin. She has been promised to him since they were children. He won’t marry anybody like you.”

“Sorry…what are you saying?” Lea thought she heard wrong, her grasp of Hindustani was still limited.

Encouraged by a gathering of Malanaan villagers sniggering in the crowd, Motu went on, “You heard me woman. Our prince will marry Kamala on the day he becomes king. You think you can destroy our traditions with your foreign theories? You are nothing but a foreign whore.”

Motu threw back his head and laughed and a few older women began to heckle Lea.

The air became stuffy and hot. Chotu noticed Lea’s face turn ashen. Looking around for help, he caught sight of Chander elbowing through the crowd. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The man who would have killed him a few months ago, had it not been for Lea’s intervention, had now reappeared just when Lea was in trouble again. This time I’m done for, thought Chotu as he felt hot urine trickling down his leg.

"Memsahib...tikka?” Chotu heard Chander voicing his concern. Then everything happened all at once as Lea’s legs buckled and she collapsed. Fortunately, Chander managed to catch her. She’s dead. I killed her, thought Chotu in panic and as the crowd surged forward to have a closer look at the commotion, he slipped silently away.

4 – Manali, India, November Year 3

When Chander sent word up to the village that the Memsahib had fainted, Raj raced down the mountain to find that the ever efficient Chander had taken her to the Mission Hospital in Kulu. Raj peeked into the room, noted that Lea was asleep and walked out to look for the doctor. He was worried. Could I have perhaps made the wrong choice? Should I have insisted that she go through a full medical before coming here? What a terrible waste of time if there’s something wrong with her now? He thought to himself.

The old physician looked up from his table as Raj entered the room. Raj sat without invitation, expecting the worse.

“Sir, go and rest, she is sleeping soundly and the baby is fine.”

“Baby?” Raj shot bolt upright.

“Didn’t you know? Oh, she’s very early still, but I’m an old man and I know too much. Yes, she’s in her first trimester, if my calculations are correct. And all the signs tell me that it’s a boy!”

“Does she know this?”

“Yes, yes, yes” the old man brushed away the question. “I told her when she revived. It was the heat you know. Kulu gets too crowded during Dusshera and she shouldn’t have gone to the hot springs! Tsk, young people these days! She needs rest. Plenty of it.”

“Is the baby alright?” Raj fretted.

“The baby is fine. But the mother is a little anaemic. I gave her some iron tablets, folic acid and a sleeping pill. Young people don’t rest enough, that’s the trouble. There was some fight or something she was involved in and she got upset. Not a good thing to be angry when you’re carrying a child. No, no, no, not a good thing at all.”

“How did she react when you told her about the baby?” Raj probed, trying to get the doctor to focus.

“Oh, the usual things you know. Young people these days, always too eager. That’s what it is. Too eager to taste the fruits of love.”

“Yes, but did she say anything?”

The doctor frowned at Raj and eyed him over the gold rim of his pince-nez.

“Of course, she denies it. Says it can’t be true. Says I was mistaken and asked me to test her again. I tell you the thought of it. Mistaken? Me? Doctor Ranjit Sanjeev Choudary of Kulu District Hospital. MBBS. Mmed. MSc...” Raj had already walked off before he could finish his string of degrees.

Raj stood in the hospital’s small apple orchard and contemplated. A baby boy! Throwing away those birth control pills of hers worked. Now everything is beginning to fall into place, and, as he thought further about it, his smile broadened. All I have to do now is to tell mother. She will influence the council to accept my son into our society! A grandson for mother. She’d like that. Now the council will be forced to decide. They cannot reject my child. Its mine, it has royal blood. And if it turns out to be perfect, then it proves that my theory is right. Our people must assimilate foreign blood. They must come to accept that our High Caste doctrine is destroying us genetically. His thoughts were interrupted as Chander appeared, dragging Chotu by the ear.

“I found the little dog hiding behind the rocks by the river Sahib.”

Chotu’s whimper turned to a devastating wail.

“Silence! Or I swear I’ll wring your skinny chicken neck and throw you into the river,” Chander growled at the boy.

Raj folded his arms and looked sternly at the little fellow.

“I’ve let you go once. Yet you create trouble again.”

“Please, Your Highness. I didn’t mean to fight. It’s just that Motu said something and Hema was going to cry and…and I couldn’t stop myself...please, Your Highness.”

“What, ten years old and already fighting over a woman?” Raj asked, raising an eyebrow for effect.

“Hema’s not a woman! She’s my friend!” Chotu replied in disgust at the very suggestion.

Raj threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Tell me what happened to the Memsahib and I’ll let you go this once.”

When Chotu finished telling Raj about Motu’s outburst, the humour was no longer on Raj’s lips. His frown deepened and he dismissed the little urchin with a wave.

The boy scampered away and Chander frowned, “You must not show these low castes too much face Your Highness.”

“I know Chander, but the world is changing. One day, kids like Chotu will grow up and they’ll demand equality. Where will we be then, if we have no friends? I will tell you. We will be among the lower castes. Our people are only few and our children, even less. The lower castes breed like rabbits. It is not good to encourage them but we are not their ultimate rulers.”

“How is the Memsahib?" Chander asked, discreetly changing the subject.

“She’s sleeping. The doctor says that an expectant mother needs plenty of rest.”

“The winter is coming Sahib. The tents will be too cold for her. We must find a place, somewhere comfortable for a woman who is carrying the future king of Malana.”

“Yes. I cannot afford to lose her now. If she leaves me and takes the baby with her, she will ruin all my plans. It looks like she’s found out the unpleasant truth about my engagement to Kamala.”

“Sahib, I am but a common man. But I believe I speak for a lot of people here. Throughout the history of Malana, we have always kept to ourselves. Even your father’s desire to open the village up did not include your experiment of actually bringing in foreigners who are outside the caste. It’s unheard of.”

“Chander, there’s one thing you don’t understand. It is vital we interbreed with these foreign women for the survival of our race. Now my problem is to convince the council to accept the child into our world. But I want you to make sure that the Memsahib does not leave us before the child is born. Let’s get the Whitfields to keep an eye on her. Those three women have nothing to do during winter anyway. In the meantime, I’ll try to convince the Memsahib that what she heard was rubbish. She has come this far for me, surely she won’t think of leaving now.”

“But Sahib, perhaps Kamala will bear you prefect children.”

“Chander, there’s actually more to this than having children. When my father sent me to London to be educated, I learned the foreign ways of love and I am quite happy to carry on. As for my theory about a stronger race, Lea is the perfect candidate to put my theory to the test.”

Chander cleared his throat “Your thinking is beyond me Sahib.”

Raj sighed and his shoulders drooped as if an invisible weight had descended and had become a gigantic yoke around his neck. “That’s the core of our problem Chander. My thinking is far beyond everyone here.”

She stood on the shore of a gigantic lake. Its waters so still, it reflected the surrounding mountain panorama to perfection. The snow-capped peaks glistened against the cobalt blue of the Himalayan skies. In her arms, she carried a cherubic baby whose eyes were as blue as the skies. What a wonderful day she thought. The warmth of the sun glowed around her and she felt good. A sudden gust of wind rippled the waters and the image of the mountains disintegrated. As if on cue, the snows crept slowly down the slopes like glacial serpents, chilling the air around her. Instead of running away, she began to run up the mountainside. Encumbered by the bundle she carried, she slid on the snows and sunk down to her knees several times. On and on she climbed, relentlessly as though pursued. She could see no one behind her. Her eyes focussed on the high peaks. Her hands, numbed with cold and turning blue, the bundle getting heavier but she would not let go. Suddenly, a head popped out from the deep snow in front of her and then another and yet another. In seconds, heads dotted the mountain slopes as far as her eyes could see. Heads of men, women and children - they were all dead. Frozen faces with staring blank eyes. Confused, she floundered and tripped. Screaming as she slid down the slope, she flayed her arms wildly and lost the baby. She was now alone. Her screams cut through the silence. Then she heard a sharp crack like a whip, followed by a resounding boom that echoed through the amphitheatre. Whole mountainsides began to collapse, with snows thundering down around her. One frozen head landed on a rock beside her. She turned to look at it and it looked back. It was the face of the High Priest. His eyes burned into her soul. Too terrified to scream, she backed away. Hot tears poured down her cheeks. Fear and a deep sense of loss overwhelmed her. She sobbed ‘My baby, where are you? Where are you?’

“Lea, darling, what’s the problem?” Raj’s urgent voice penetrated into her subconscious. She roused herself unsteadily. Her throat felt parched and her head felt as though she had borrowed it from someone else. Her eyes focussed on Raj’s and as her breathing steadied she realised that it was only a dream.

“Are you alright darling?” Raj voiced his concern once more.

She nodded, and as if reading her mind, he lifted a bottle of spring water to her lips and she sipped greedily. Refreshed, Lea tried to sit up.

“No, darling, the doctor says you’re to have complete bed-rest.”

“I’m feeling fine now.”

“Darling, don’t be stubborn. You fainted in the bazaar, and, you’re pregnant.”

“No!” Lea jolted upright.

“Darling, please. I’m worried about you…and our baby,” said Raj softly.

The words “our baby” brought tears to Lea’s eyes.

“No, Raj, it can’t be true. Please tell me it’s a joke.”

“Why darling? I’m overjoyed.” Raj exuberated.

“Raj, tell me the truth. Who is Kamala?” Lea braced herself.

“Darling, don’t over-react. And don’t start believing everything you hear at the local bazaar. That boy Motu is going to be in deep trouble by the time I get a hold on him. Little brat.”

“Raj all that is beside the point. I want to know who Kamala is and I want to know right now.”

Seeing Lea’s rising anger, Raj made a decision to be honest.

“She’s a girl who was betrothed to me since childhood.”

Lea froze. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” The air suddenly chilled around her.

“I didn’t want to upset you. I didn’t expect you to understand.”

“I guess it’s better for you that I found out from that arrogant brat in the market? It was humiliating. You know what they call me around here? The prince’s foreign whore. Did you know that?” Lea was livid with anger.

“Lea, calm down. I love you. I don’t love her. I want to marry you, not her. Will you marry me Lea?”

“What? You’re engaged to someone and you’ve just proposed to me? I get it - you hope to start a harem. Fucking hell Raj, this ancient culture of yours sucks.”

“Look Lea. Don’t twist it around like that. It’s really quite complicated.”

Lea shook her head in disbelief. Raj continued.

“You see, because you are …not one of us, I have to appease the villagers by marrying Kamala first. Then we can be together afterwards.”

Lea looked at Raj aghast! A turmoil of emotions welled up inside her.

“Hold on! Let me get this straight. You want to marry this village girl for the sake of the council and then keep me as your mistress? This is insane!”

“Darling, don’t worry. I’ll sort it all out. With this baby, I won’t have to marry Kamala. The council will have to accept that our baby is part of my people and you’ll be my consort.”

“This is awful. God, how did I get into such a mess? I need to get out of here.” Lea broke down in heartrending sobs.

“Now, now, now. Who’s been upsetting my patient!” the old doctor’s voice boomed into the room.

“My dear girl. In India, we believe that a happy mother gets a happy child. So, for your own sake, don’t get weepy about it. Otherwise, you’re going to have to deal with a cry-baby when he’s born.” The doctor’s attempt at a joke fell flat on his patient.

“Who’s upsetting the mother of my grandchild?” demanded a commanding voice - a voice that announced the arrival of the queen.

“Mother!” Raj started in surprise.

“Raj, have you been upsetting her?” The queen entered and looked reproachfully at her son.

“No mother, she’s had a bad dream.”

“Bad dreams, good dreams. It’s probably the effects of the sleeping pills I prescribed. Side effects you know. Never would recommend them unless it was direly necessary,” the doctor mumbled to himself.

“If you would be so kind as to excuse us Doc Sahib...” It was more a command than a request.

The old doctor left in a huff. He knew that he had the respect of the whole community as a doctor but he could not deny that in the eyes of Malanaans, he was still a low caste.

“How are you, my dear?” Her voice changed from ice to honey as she turned from Raj to Lea.

Lea wiped her tear-stained face and tried to get up.

“No, no, no” the queen glided swiftly to her side and placed a hand on Lea’s forehead, “you’re not well my dear, lie down.”

In the couple of months that Lea had been in the Valley, she had picked up enough bazaar Hindustani to understand most people but the queen spoke only the Malanaan dialect which Lea, although studying hard, was still unsure of. She merely understood the simple references and now she turned to Raj for his help in translating. She asked Raj to tell his mother, “I’m fine.”

“You look flushed and your skin is burning with fever. These modern doctors! What do they know of pregnancies? I’ve summoned the midwife to come,” announced the queen, puffing up like a cobra up in her self-importance.

“Mother, how did you know?”

“The women told me what happened at Dusshera and, of course, a woman always knows about these things,” said the queen, smiling mysteriously.

“I’m leaving Your Highness. I didn’t realise that I was imposing on your people’s traditions by being here. I was not aware of Kamala until today and I…I must leave right away.” Lea burst into tears again.

“Dear child. There is no need to go. You must stay here and we will look after you well. Don’t worry about a thing. All will be sorted out in due course. I know where my son’s heart lies. And it is not with the girl Kamala,” the queen looked over to her son and nodded.

“Mother, about Kamala. . .” Raj ventured.

The queen spoke decisively, “We will have to sort that out, won’t we?” She raised her eyebrow and gave her son a silent nod.

Raj heaved a sigh of relief, happy that his mother was now helping him to cover up.

5 – Malana, India, December Year 3

They strolled into the council square, taking the same places that their fathers and forefathers before them had been assigned. The stone slabs arranged in a semicircle, felt cold and comfortable to the old.

First to be seated were members of the Upper House whose positions were earned from years of service and experience. Younger men took up positions in the Lower House, on the floor. Unlike their elders, they sat on their haunches. But young or old, all had pipes cupped in their hands sucking in the hashish fumes with vigour, their lined faces relaxed under its influence.

Raj appeared out of breath as he took his place. By virtue of his royal position, he sat with the Upper House members. The other council members looked knowingly at him. He had been to see his woman again, the one from foreign lands. Some faces did not hide their disdain. The high priest strutted in last. His face, inscrutable as ever, his eyes darting from face to face, finally rested on the prince. He nodded an acknowledgement and seated himself next to the Chairman.

“Honorary members, please come to order.” Thakur, as chairman, known and respected among the villagers, stood up, clearing his throat to make his voice carry. The general commotion in the courtyard quietened. “We are gathered here today to make a decision. This decision, as you all well know, involves our village in a special way.”

Some mumbling started from the Lower House. Raj cast his eyes on the ground, his ears tuned to every word. Like the other younger men, he sat with one leg folded underneath him, the other bent and ready to push himself up if he needed to speak.

The chairman continued, “Our village has been in existence since Alexander of Macedonia came to these parts. Our forefathers have made this a safe place for us to stay. They have left strict rules for us to follow, and we have been faithful to this day. We have not strayed for we recognised it as a benefit that we remained aloof, detached from the outside world.” A few older men nodded vehemently and cries of ”Tik, Tik" could be heard throughout both Houses.

“Now, we’ve been asked to decide if we want to change this rule. We need to decide the future of our village based on this change. We are required to vote for or against. The repercussions our decision makes may affect the future of our children, our grandchildren, perhaps even the fate of our very existence.”

Thakur now had to raise his hands in the air to quell impromptu outbursts from some members and side discussions taking place amongst others. Eventually, he managed to restore order and the noise abated.

“The Royal household has requested a special reprieve - To accept Prince Raj’s offspring with an outsider as our own. Prince Raj has also requested that his marriage to Kamala be postponed until this child is born.” The noise returned with a vengeance and Thakur raised his voice to complete his speech.

“He will present his case today. Please let us abide by the Rules of our parliament and allow him to speak.”

Raj stood up and serenely walked to the middle of the square. The House was silent. “Honorary Chairman, Members of Parliament, I thank you for allowing this extraordinary meeting today. What I am about to say, is not new. Over the years, many discussions, even as heated as this one,” he looked around and smiled and the House relaxed good-humouredly, “have occurred, with my father and his father before him. This whole issue is not about me breaking taboo. The important thing to remember is that we’re here to vote for the continuation of our race!” Several hums and haws were heard from the Upper House.

“Tell us something we don’t already know,” cried a voice from the Upper House. Laughter broke out in good humour. They knew the speaker Moti Lal, to be an arrogant old man.

“Gentlemen, please, let the prince speak,” implored Thakur.

“No sir, I’m not trying to teach you about how we should survive. I am sure you all know what it is to live. But I want you to consider the standards under which we are living. Look at our children, many are born dead. And of those who live, many are deformed. Moti, isn’t your daughter cross-eyed? What about you, Thakur? How many miscarriages has your wife suffered? We are all affected. Other families have worse deformities. Brittle hair, discoloured skin, faces lined before their youth is spent and last but least, our children are born with low intelligence. Tell me gentlemen, when was the last time you saw a rosy-cheeked newborn with bright eyes and shiny hair?”

A hush descended upon the two Houses as some nodded to their neighbours and look downcast.

“We have a grave problem. We are a dying race. We have been interbreeding for such a long time that our genes are no longer strong. It is the scientific research of today that I’m telling you about, things I learned in the foreign land where my father sent me, so that I could learn everything and come back to help. Help my people, my village and my home. My decision to breed with a foreign woman is not for me alone. When I was sent away, my father told me to look for a cure. My research led me to believe that I needed to find someone with some links to our past. A Macedonian girl with blue eyes would ensure that our children will once again be born perfect.”

Someone heckled “But we heard that you intend to marry this girl. Since when do we need to marry the girls we impregnate?”

That earned a few chuckles.

Raj clenched his fists to control his temper. He then ploughed on. “My friend, let me ask you a question. If you went into the mountains and come across a golden cow, would you leave it or would you take it home? And should the cow demand golden hay everyday, would you not promise it anything to entice it to go home with you? The foreign girl expects a marriage because she is in the family way. I do not intend to give her golden hay. But if she believes me, I need only wait until after the baby is born and then I will bring the baby here. As the gods have decreed, I found out that not only is she Macedonian, she also owns a silver pendant which is identical to the one belonging to the queen. I strongly believe we have common ancestors.”

“A half-breed is not a pure breed. We have heard that she is half Persian,” one of the elders rasped and other voices quickly joined in agreement.

Before the objections had a chance to increase, Raj raised his voice once more “But what good is pure breeding when it weakens and dies before its time? What good is being pure, when we may be obliterated within the next ten years? After all our ancestors tried to do, to continue the race, do you think you ought to just sit back and let our lineage perish? We have to move on, gentlemen. We have to strengthen our blood again. Survival of any country depends on two important factors - a strong economy and a strong people. Our hope lies in opening up our village to outsiders - a select few who would help us to become strong. With the money from our marijuana crops, our economy will also remain strong. But I can tell you that the new governor is not as lenient as the last. He is being pressurized to act. He will be paying us a visit soon. And if he manages to stop us growing our crops, what then? We will end up with no more money and a weak people. Both will cripple us and Malana will be doomed.”

Moti Lal retorted with vigour, “Let them come, and our Lord Jamlu will take care of them one by one. Then they will know the power of our Lord. Like the last one that tried and failed,” he sneered. Again his followers cheered in support.

“Yes, that’s right. Call upon our Lord Jamlu. Live in denial forever!” exclaimed Raj, feeling the anger rising within him, “Make him our protector as always. But he need not worry about it for long gentlemen, because we are killing ourselves. By our act of isolation, he will soon have no one to protect!”

Another voice rose out of the crowd. Kamala’s father, his voice choked with anger, shouted, “Are you saying that my daughter will give you deformed children?” The old man, normally mild-mannered and subdued, stood among the old guard, shivering with rage.

At this harsh challenge, the men calmed down and Raj looked directly at his future father-in-law as he answered, “Sir, I did not intend to insult your daughter in any way. I know my duties. However, I am only asking that we wait until the baby is born before I proceed with the marriage.”

“Why? Why are you dishonouring us this way?” the elderly man was wavering in his dutch courage and bowing his head, he sat down dejectedly.

Before anyone could react to this, the high priest announced in a stentorian voice that belied his physical stature, “Lord Jamlu has appeared to me in a vision, holding up the head of a goat.”

Everyone turned to look at the hawk-like figure standing up to address the council. “As the house is divided and unable to come to a definite conclusion about whether the prince should be allowed to break from our traditions, I have already made preparations to let Lord Jamlu show us his decision. With regards to the baby, whether or not this is a positive step towards a future, we shall wait until the foreign son is born and then consult the Lord once more. Let us see if what the prince claims is really true, that with the merger of foreign blood, his son will be perfect like the gods before we make a decision.”

“I agree. We have spent too much time on this issue already.” Thakur acted quickly in case the council became disruptive again.

At the high priest’s command, two goats were led into their midst. One was decorated in the prince’s royal colours and the other had the emblem of the council. The stewards then took up their positions on opposite sides of the square, tied up their goats and began beating on their drums. The high priest recited a hymn and from a cloth bag, drew out a sheaf of herb and grass.

The congregation fell into an uneasy silence as the sheaf was dipped into a bowl of brown poison and divided. Drumbeats quickened as the high priest hobbled towards each goat and dropped the divided sheaf in front of each one.

“Wait!” Raj reared up from his position. “How do I know that my goat will be fed the same?”

The audience gasped at his audacity. The drumming stopped.

“Do you question the integrity of Lord Jamlu?” the high priest’s voice came out in a sinister whisper.

“No, I question the integrity of man. Anyone could have tampered with them.”

The high priest’s smile came out as a sneering grimace. “Would my prince be pleased if the sheaves were exchanged?”

The councillors rumbled their approval.

“We have no objection to that.” Thakur nodded.

The stewards were instructed to untie their goats and switch places.

The drumming rose to a crescendo as the goats were untied and immediately fell upon each of their delicious pile of herb and grass.

A plaintive bleat rose from the throat of one of the goats, as it fell to its side, shivering in agony, legs kicking in the air. In a moment, its eyes glazed over and its legs stiffened in death. Lord Jamlu has decided.

The Upper House members rose as one. No one looked in Raj’s direction. As the council’s goat, still alive, was slaughtered and shared among them, Raj’s steward dragged the dead goat away to be hurled into the river.

Raj sat alone, his mind seethed with anger. His carefully laid plans to convince the council had come to nought. His mother’s influence of the proceedings appeared to be waning. Still determined to have his way, he began to plot his next move. Like a game of chess, he refused to be check-mated. Damn these petty small minded people. If Lea gets word of my marriage to Kamala, she will certainly leave and with her, the child. Damn that old bastard who thinks his daughter is so pure. I will make her suffer for her father’s interference. In the meantime, I will make Lea believe that all is well, until she gives birth, he muttered to himself.

6 – Manali, India, December Year 3

The terraced fields had thrown off their rich green and golden cloaks. Crops had been harvested and leftover stalks unearthed and dried to make winter fodder. The animals were now sheltered in the ground floors of the houses, symbiotically providing central heating to the living quarters above. Hillsides stood naked and scrawny without their mellow autumn foliage. The river has also mellowed. From its summer wildness, it swelled into a giant impregnated serpent with the autumn monsoons, impetuously gorging out hillsides, trees and boulders in its path. Having satiated its gargantuan appetite, the brown snake had disappeared and the waters dwindled into a harmless happy brook, humming sweetly as it made its way to the plains. As the weather cooled, snow on the peaks crept down the slopes and turned the blue-hued mountains into enormous sugar-coated parfait. Winter had finally and totally embraced the Valley of the Gods.

Lea looked out the tiny window of the room into which she had been moved since leaving the hospital. It was in the little cottage of the Whitfields, a family of Anglo-Indians whose grandfather, an Englishman, had married a local woman and settled down in the Valley. The Whitfields ran a guest house and Raj had told her that it suited them to have an out-of-season guest. Lea found that living at the Whitfields’ was convenient. She had room service, she was treated well and as a bonus, the Whitfield women spoke English. Lea saw the changing landscape just as she felt the changes taking place in her own body. The baby had started moving. By spring, it would be born. She paced the room for the umpteenth time, and asked herself how she could have gotten into such a mess. Lea recalled the fight they had two weeks ago.

“Lea, darling, the council has decided that by spring, my Coronation will take place. I need to be in Malana for the preparations. But I will come down whenever I can.” He had sounded cold and abrupt.

Lea felt a sense of foreboding as she pressed him. “And what about our marriage?’ she had persisted.

“No, nothing decided on so far.” Raj had cast his eyes to the floor as he spoke.

“But you told me you could convince them soon. You promised me that they would agree.”

Raj’s face and lower jaw muscles twitched in their usual manner to show his agitation. “Look Lea, they have to be convinced that you are one of us. These things take time.”

Lea’s vision blurred with tears as she replayed the scene in her mind. Her breathing became laboured. Her arms and legs were cold. She locked her hands around her knees, hunching herself into a ball and began rocking silently. She’d never quite gotten over the pain of rejection. Naively she had thought that the people would come to accept her, after all, she was half Macedonian. Instead, they had rejected and insulted her, reminding her that she was not one of them and had no rights in their world. Then the queen had stepped in and reassured her that she would be cared for. Through sheer desperation to belong, she believed that all would be well. As the time trickled from week to week, Lea’s make-believe world began to collapse. Whereas she had expected comfort from Raj, she found only disappointment. The old Raj was re-emerging. The one she encountered back in London during their last weeks together. He had gone into his shell and she was left alone. She felt betrayed. Thoughts of returning to London were more frequent now. She thought of sending a letter to Dr. Janet Cooks. Her one year sabbatical would soon be up and she wanted to ensure that she could return to her old job. She started to pack and didn’t hear the heavy throbbing of the Ambassador turning up the driveway.

“Going somewhere?” Raj was at the door, his voice sounded tight.

“I’ve decided to go home.” She dared not look at him.

“Home? But you are home.” His voice was on edge and she knew without looking up that his jaw muscle was taut and trembling, a definitely dangerous sign.

Lea’s heart cringed in fear. Standing up to violence was not her forte. But she had always listened to her father and then when Raj came into her life, she had listened to Raj. Perhaps it is time she listened to herself.

“I don’t belong here Raj. My life is falling apart since I came here. I’m supposed to be doing my thesis but I end up being pregnant. I need to get away and think things through. How am I going to explain to the people at St. Mary’s about my present state? I mean, I’m going to be a single mum!”

“You’re over-reacting Lea. The child you are carrying is mine. I will be responsible for it.”

“But your responsibility doesn’t seem to stretch to include marriage. What with the need for your council’s approval and all. Raj, this whole thing scares me. I’ve had strange disturbing dreams lately and I feel that nothing is going right for us.” she said.

“Listen Lea, don’t let your imagination run away with you. The high priest has informed the council that Lord Jamlu will make a decision only after our baby is born.”

“If that is the case, then I shall return to England and have the baby there. If your council or Jamlu or whoever, decide that we could tie the knot, after the baby is born, I will come back and we’ll get married.”

“Lea, if you truly love me, please don’t leave. Wait till the baby is born and I am sure that everything will be alright. We must stick together to fight this. Besides, it is too late for you to go. All roads out of the valley are closed. It is also dangerous for a woman in your condition to travel. I am sure mother will not think it a good idea as well.”

“To hell with your mother, how about you Raj? What do you think? How do you feel?”

“I love you Lea.”

“Raj, love doesn’t come into the picture. I’m asking you whether you want to marry me.”

She saw the anger rising in his face. He raised his voice and shouted at her.

“Damn it Lea. Why are you so self-centred? Here I am trying to save a whole race from extinction and all you can think about is how to avoid becoming a single mum.”

Lea felt the sharp words tear into her heart but stood her ground. She had noticed a change in her way of thinking since her pregnancy. She now had a new mission; she had to think for her child. Lea forced out her words of pain in a voice full of sarcasm.

“Self-centred? That is an interesting word to use Raj. Are you saying that to ensure our son is born legitimate is a selfish act?”

Like a flash in the pan, Raj’s anger disappeared. He changed tactics.

“Lea, please understand. My place is with my people. I was brought up to believe that my destiny lies with them. I cannot forsake them. It is my calling.”

“But you could forsake me. The one you claim to love.”

“I am not forsaking you. Lea, I want you here with me. Let’s solve this problem together.”

“Raj, what you are asking is impossible. I was not brought up to accept this kind of arrangement. I was not conditioned as a child to share the man of my life with any other, let alone a complete village of people!”

“Lea, I find no other way to get out of this. So let’s play along.”

"Play?! This is not a plaything Raj. We’re not acting on stage. This is real and there are feelings involved. Not least of all mine. And I am hurt Raj, deeply hurt.”

Lea wept as she felt the hurt all over again. With her swollen eyes, tear stained face, her engorged breasts heaving and her tummy bulging through her clothes, Lea felt ugly and unwanted. She stood up and pulled on her parka. Zipping up the duffel bag from her bed, she marched out.

“Lea, don’t make a scene. There’s nowhere for you to go.” Raj called out but Lea kept walking.

When she finally reached the market place, she approached a row of taxis parked by the roadside.

Namaste. Can anyone take me to the airport?” Lea asked a group of men huddled around an open coal fire, warming their hands.

Memsahib, airport closed. Strong winds, no flight come for one week now.” One of the drivers spoke up.

“How about driving to Delhi?” Lea asked.

The group of men laughed and nudged one another. They poked the young one who spoke first and he nearly fell off his perch.

“I’ll pay three thousand rupees.” Lea coaxed.

The men sobered up at the mention of money and then began to speak among themselves in their own dialect. Lea could hardly follow their conversation. She heard the words Malana and Jamlu.

Then the young one turned and said, “Sorry, Memsahib. All roads closed.”

Lea felt a rising panic in her heart. “I’ll double the amount to six thousand rupees.”

The group of drivers began to shift uneasily and one by one, they walked away. As the young driver left, Lea caught hold of his jacket, “Why? What are you afraid of? Why can’t you take me?” she demanded to know.

He did not say a word, shrugged, looked past her and suddenly all the joie de vivre drained from his face. Lea turned and saw the Ambassador parked a little away. She finally understood.

Lea walked up to a nearby hotel. She asked for a room, reluctant to go back to the Whitfields.

“Sorry, no room,” came the reply and Lea began to suspect that Raj had put the word out. No one was to interfere in his affair and no one dared.

After trying for three hours, Lea was left standing alone in the market place. As sunset plunged the valley into darkness, Lea, numb with cold, walked back to the Whitfields in utter dejection. When she passed the Ambassador, Chander leapt out to open the back door for her. Summoning her last shreds of strength and will, she ignored the offer and struggled up the slope to where the Whitfields guesthouse glowed. She heard Raj shouting after her.

“I love you Lea. I will not let you leave because you will endanger yourself and our son.”

Lea ignored him and walked on. Christmas lights twinkled on the pine trees outside the Whitfields’ cottage. Snow lay on the eaves dripping with icicles. Under other circumstances, Lea would have loved the magical ambience of a white Christmas but now, as if waking up from a dream, she finally accepted that she was trapped, trapped in the Valley of the Gods.

7 – Malana, India, January Year 4

Thick white smoke swirled in the tiny room as the high priest mumbled strange sounds and threw pieces of straw and powder into the fire burning in the middle of the room. Heavily spiced with the scent of sandalwood, the cloud enveloped all three occupants in their conspiracy. Seated in the centre, the queen fidgeted with the silver pendant hanging around her neck. Kamala sat quietly next to her future mother-in-law. They had come to discuss the marriage preparations.

“Hmm. . .” casting a gleaming eye on the queen, the vulture-like man raised his head slowly from the fire and continued,” the Lord has demanded a sacrifice.”

“That is the normal protocol for all coronations and royal weddings,” said the queen.

“It is best that your highness sends someone to inform the butcher of our needs right away,” replied the priest casting a piercing eye at Kamala.

“Child, go and inform the old butcher to prepare an unblemished lamb straight away,” commanded the queen taking the priest’s hint.

“Yes, your highness.” Kamala stood up swiftly and left, glad to be released from the gagging smoke.

She slammed the creaky wooden door behind her. A pregnant pause enveloped the room. The high priest cleared his throat before speaking further.

“There is another matter that the Lord has raised.”

The queen waited for further explanations. She knew that rushing the old man would not help.

“Your highness knows that there is talk that the foreign girl is unhappy about the arrangement,” rasped the wizened old man.

“My son is confident that she can be made to accept the rules of our kingdom eventually.”

“Ah, yes, innocent people can afford to be brave, but I have seen the girl. I sense that she is much stronger than anyone of us realise. She certainly does not respect Lord Jamlu. And this has made Lord Jamlu angry. It will not be easy to take the child from her when the time comes, she. . .” A spate of coughing interrupted what more he wanted to say.

“I thought you told the council that Lord Jamlu will wait until the birth?” said the queen deftly covering her nose with a perfumed handkerchief.

“You should know the Lord’s nature. He is an impatient god. He struck me down this morning in a deep trance and told me that the time has come when we should go back to our old ways.”

Achchar-ji. I expected this. The queen thought to herself and sighed.

“Remember the old ways. We had no trouble with our children and disease. Now the prince has come back from the foreign devils’ land to tell us that our children are sick and dying because we keep to ourselves. If that is the truth, then why did it not happen sooner? I’ll tell you why! It’s all this consorting with foreigners that has brought our people down to the level we are at. They walk among us as they please, coming from all over the world and spreading their alien germs. Ever since the Indian government dared to consider us as their own, we have reduced the price of our sacrifices to animals to appease modern society and look what has happened to our people. Lord Jamlu is angry with us and he has cursed our future generations. Then the king, your husband, and now his son, has taken up this outrageous idea of mixing foreign blood with our purity. It is a wonder that the Lord has not struck us all down in his wrath!” cried the priest in dark commanding tones that almost shook the tiny room.

“Well, if Lord Jamlu has so ordered this sacrifice, who am I to object? Has he suggested who he has in mind?” the queen asked in a faltering voice, her cool exterior shaken by the guilt of knowing that she had played a part in the whole business of mixing foreign blood. ‘I was not strong enough to stop my husband and now I’ve not been firm enough with Raj and his half Persian whore.’

“The Lord has declared that the one who has defiled the purity of Malana should be sacrificed.”

“My grandchild?” The queen stiffened, her eyes wide in terror.

“It is not a true son of Malana! The Indian police will not worry about it. The bastard child and its mother are foreigners and of no consequence to anyone here. Besides, you will have many other grandchildren. Kamala is still young.” The high priest resumed his coughing again.

“My son will never allow it. His dream of creating a perfect people starts with the baby that is in the foreign woman’s womb.”

“Then it is better we erase them so he can concentrate on fulfilling his duty as King. The sacrifice will ensure the blessings of the Lord Jamlu and our women will once again bear healthy children for all future generations.”

The queen thought deeply about this and finally nodded.

“When?”

“After the baby is born to her, we will celebrate its birth and perhaps its death.” The old man smiled hideously, firelight dancing wildly in his beady eyes. “And if the mother objects, we will sacrifice her also.”

8 – Manali, India, March Year 4

A soft knock on the door announced Heather Whitfield. Lea turned away from the window and smiled through misty eyes to greet her.

“Like some company?” Heather’s face was fair with fine lines showing a handsome woman in her early sixties. However, her rosy cheeks and gentle brown eyes made her look years younger. It was a face that was at once open and warm. She read the anguish in Lea’s eyes and didn’t wait for a reply. Approaching Lea, she held her at arm’s length for a moment before embracing her.

Lea’s rigid body softened with the gentle stroking she felt on her back.

“Tell me what’s wrong Lea.” Heather urged. “You mustn’t fret so much or it’ll affect your baby. He will feel your unhappiness in the womb.”

Lea sighed. Although the initial transition into Heather’s guesthouse was not of her choosing, she had come to accept that Heather was merely following orders from Raj. Could it be the Stockholm syndrome where the captive comes to believe that the captors are the good guys? Lea often wondered about that. There was hardly anyone else to talk to. Raj had stayed away after the last outburst and Lea knew without any spoken words, that he was merely waiting for the baby to be born. Heather and her sisters were the only people she had seen for the last couple of months. It was a prison without walls and Lea felt strange to be on such friendly terms with the Whitfields. Would they help her if she wanted to flee?

“I’m so confused Heather. When I first came to this valley, I thought it was paradise. Everything was so perfect. But now…I don’t know…I feel so…trapped. I need to get out of here. Heather will you help me?”

“Lea dear, you know the valley is sealed with snow. There is no way out until spring. Besides, you are heavy with child. We promise Raj we’ll look after you.”

Just then, a servant entered with the evening dinner.

Khaana, memsahib.”

Muna laid out a dish of Saag Panneer and some chapattis.

“Take it away Muna, I’m not hungry.” Lea pushed the plate away.

“Lea, my child, you mustn’t stop eating. It’s bad for the child. Besides, you love spinach and cheese. The queen made this herself and sends it down everyday.”

“I’m sick of eating it all the time. Please take it away.”

Heather waved the servant out discreetly. She picked up a chapatti and rolled it around a spoonful of rich creamy spinach.

“Look, spring roll.” She jested.

Lea took a perfunctory bite and chewed slowly. She remembered that it was Raj’s favourite dish and nostalgia almost overwhelmed her. She stopped chewing. Heather offered her a glass of salted lassi. The yoghurt drink tasted good.

“There, see? It’s good isn’t it? Eating always calms me.” Heather encouraged.

Lea reflected and found it to be true. She had been feeling stressed but somehow, around mealtimes, the feelings would go away. She shook her head.

“Maybe it’s part of being pregnant. I feel so restless and I can’t wait for him to be born. It seems he too can’t wait because he kicks and punches inside like a mule.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Don’t say such things child. The gods will hear you and may even grant your wish. That will be disaster if a child is born before his time. Now come out of your little dungeon of a room and come sit with us in the kitchen,” she said, taking Lea by the hand and helping her up.

Lea marvelled at Heather Whitfield’s management skills. Her command of English had helped to make the guest house that she and her husband ran, popular with foreigners. She ruled her staff with a firm hand and her doting husband left everything to her. The children had been sent to school in England. Life for Heather, was comfortable and within her own control. She mentioned that she missed the Mumbai galas and high society gatherings but living in Manali had its advantages. She was regarded with a lot of respect, being married to an Anglo-Indian who owned land and property. Her Mumbai friends who visited always declared their envy of her lifestyle. There was no shortage of creature comforts and she took a twice yearly holiday to visit her friends in Mumbai and overseas.

The other Whitfield women, all in their early fifties, and married to the various Whitfield brothers, were equally well educated. The three women, Heather, Shanti and Retu lived in an extended family structure, all having their own guest houses and apple orchards within walking distances of one another. Coming together in Heather’s home for their regular chats to while away their time was their favourite winter pastime.

“Lea, come join us my love,” implored Retu, breaking into a warm sunny smile. She was fondling a fat puppy.

“Have a cup of tea dear. The water’s just boiled.” Shanti got up with the blanket still wrapped around her and shuffled to the stove to get the kettle. The pup followed her and tugged at a corner of the blanket.

“No, it’s OK. I’m not really thirsty,” smiled Lea wanly.

“Darling you must store up energy for your baby. Eat, drink and be merry as they say. For everything good you do will benefit the little beta inside,” insisted Retu, as she took the glass of hot milky tea and handed it to Lea.

“And have some biscuits with that. Or would you like some pakoras?” Shanti offered Lea the oily, deep-fried fritters made from chickpea flour. The pup whimpered and shook its tail eagerly.

“No, she doesn’t like oily foods Shanti. She’s already had her dinner.” Heather looked at her sisters-in-law and they nodded.

Lea noted the unspoken gesture and wondered what it meant. Were they jealous about the queen sending food down to her?

“Let’s get some steamed momos from the market. How about it?” Heather looked at Lea.

“No, I’m not hungry Heather. I just had that full chapatti remember. I’m full.”

“But we’d like some. I’ll send Muna for them.” Heather called out to Muna who was walking past the kitchen window, on the way to Lea’s room to clear out the dishes. She spoke to him in dialect.

Lea noticed Muna talking and pointing to her room but Heather brushed his argument aside and ordered him to head for the market instead.

Whipping out a basket of five-pronged leaves, the women sat around the pot-bellied stove and began making hash.

Lea watched their hands rubbing the leaves in gentle rolling actions. As they bantered cheerfully, their hands worked on. In a while, the leaves had been rubbed to a dark green pulp that stained their hands, the right hand being more stained as the pressure from the left is exerted that way. Then scrapping off the oily pulp from the right with a blunt knife, they rolled the residue into a ball and put it carefully into a clay bowl. The rest of the crushed leaves were thrown into another basket and the whole process repeated once again with new leaves. Lea tried her hand at it but could not get the rub and roll action correct. All the leaves in her hand fell out in bits and the women laughed. Heather then took her hands and demonstrated the pressure that must be exerted and when it should be exerted. In due course, the clay bowl held an ample amount of hash which was rolled into a ball and stashed away.

By the end of winter, the women would have made enough hash to be sold to Raj who then used his network to smuggle it into Europe to be sold. The quality of the hash depended on the plants, the altitude grown and the weather. Though marijuana plants grew like weeds everywhere, the quality was best from plants grown around Malana.

“Have you tried this before?” Lea asked.

“We use them for medicinal purposes.” Heather replied.

“It’s good to chew some when you are delivering. It helps ease the pain.” Shanti smiled, remembering her child-birth.

“But too much makes the mother sleepy and contented…good for mother, bad for baby.” Retu added.

“Don’t you worry that your son might become an addict and ruin his life?”

“Our children have all been taught the dangers of drug abuse Lea. But we have to survive and that is one of our trades. Of course the tourist dollars are good too. But no one comes in winter and this is the most lucrative thing to do.”

“What about morals? Social conscience?”

“Lea dear, we are in the Greater Himalayas. The most remote place on earth I’d imagine, with the exception of the North and South poles. Why would it bother us to think of the rest of the world?”

“But what are your belief systems? Don’t you think there should be some social responsibilities to build up a better world?”

“Lea, do you see any homeless people dying on the streets or freezing to their deaths here?”

Lea shook her head.

“Our world is here and it is good. If there is demand, there will always be supply. It’s economics.” Heather smiled. “What happens outside our valley…well…it’s really not our problem.” She shrugged.

“But what if one of your children gets hooked on drugs? Would that make a difference to your thinking?”

“Of course. I would think I’ve failed as a parent. Not because I traded in the wrong commodity.”

Lea compared the people in Pindos to Manali. They were in a way, so similar – happy in their culture and ignorant of the rest of the world. It made her sad.

“Heather is right. That’s why we all call her big sister. She’s smart,” Shanti said with pride.

“No, I’m not smart but I have been exposed to a lot of things in the world and that’s how I know,” demurred Heather, her face crimsoning.

“Why do you depend on Raj to help you with the sales? Couldn’t you do it yourselves?” asked Lea, tactfully changing the subject.

“Well, we used to. But the middlemen used hippies and they were always caught. When Raj went to London, he worked on setting up a network of buyers and traffickers. They are a closed community and so far no one has been caught. Besides, I trust Raj. He went to university in England.”

“Do you think he is addicted to marijuana?”

“Of course not. Raj is a very nice boy and you’re lucky to be the one he has chosen to be his wife, Lea.”

“Uh, I think you mean second wife,” remarked Retu, and immediately received dirty looks from Heather and Shanti.

“I...I’m sorry Lea. I shouldn’t have said that,” stammered Retu. “Anyway, marijuana is not addictive didi, you should know.”

Shanti’s hands flew to her mouth and her eyes widened in fear. Heather tried to cover the slip and hastily added, “Now, how should Lea know? She’s never tried it, have you dear?”

Lea sat up, stricken and pale. Everything suddenly made sense. Tears welled up in her eyes as she fought to control her emotions. They had fooled me completely. I trusted them but to them, I am just an outsider. I’m Raj’s breeding stock. The marriage to Kamala had not been called off like he told me.

Heather took Lea’s hands in hers. “Lea, don’t listen to Retu. You know that Raj loves you and he has asked us to take good care of you.”

“Just think, your child will have a chance of being brought up as a future king of Malana,” Shanti gushed.

“Oh I think the queen will make a good job of bringing him up – look at Raj.” For that remark, Retu received another dirty look from her sisters-in-law.

“What do you mean?” Lea could no longer keep her silence. Her eyes burned into Retu demanding an explanation.

“He’ll be taken away to Malana to be trained” Shanti replied quietly.

“Take him away? What are you talking about?” Lea erupted from her seat.

The younger two ladies looked in alarm at Heather, signalling for help.

“Sit down Lea. This is pure gossip and may not be true. Don’t believe a word they say.”

Lea gripped the hand Heather extended and sat.

“Heather, tell me what you know. Please don’t keep things from me. I trust you like an older sister. I must know the truth.”

“We’ve heard that the queen will employ a wet nurse and train Kamala to look after the newborn.” Heather replied.

Lea felt her heart sinking.

“She’s the first wife and queen. Raj’s sons from whichever marriage will be regarded as hers. That is their custom.” Retu continued.

“But he is my flesh and blood,” retorted Lea angrily.

“Yes, but he also has Raj’s blood and will be regarded as royal. He will be trained from birth. Lea, darling, I’m sorry you have to hear this from us. But we’ve grown to like you since the day you’ve come to stay with us and we don’t want to see you hurt any more than necessary,” said Heather, trying to soften the harsh facts.

“Raj has not told me of this arrangement before. He promised me we will be together, all three of us,” cried Lea, her mind now whirling in turmoil. Something is going badly wrong here. What games are they playing and why hasn’t he told me the truth?

“Lea, Lea,” Heather touched her gently to rouse her from the depths of her thoughts. Lea shook her head and tears started to roll down her cheeks.

“I’m sure they’ll let you visit,” attempted Shanti with a feeble consolatory remark.

Heather looked sharply at her and told her in sign language to leave. Retu took the hint and quickly led Shanti out, awkwardly suggesting that the pair of them had to check on their hotel guests.

“Lea, don’t worry. I know it’s difficult for you. You’re not born and brought up like our women here. We have been told since being young that we have to listen to our fathers, then our brothers, and finally our husbands. We never question why we are always treated as second class citizens. Our lives are lived for men. I mean, think of it – the practice Sati started here in India. In the olden days, there was no greater show of subservience than the act of throwing oneself into a burning funeral pyre of a dead husband. Things are changing of course. But not fast enough and certainly not in Malana. Nothing changes there. Not in the last two thousand years.”

“I thought he loved me Heather,” sobbed Lea, “How could he do this?”

“Maybe for him, love is different,” suggested Heather. “People say overseas studies will help our children become better. Sanu came back wearing clothes with chains and studs. His hair was coloured pink and orange. He even started speaking like a foreigner with a strange accent. But underneath his clothes, he’s still Indian. He still loves his Indian food. His way of eating may have changed, I mean, he hardly uses his hands anymore. When he came back from England, he asked for a knife and fork! He told me that eating with hands was barbaric. But he still prefers the curries I make to the fast foods he gets from Mumbai.”

“But Raj is not Sanu,” insisted Lea.

“No, my dear, Raj is in a worse position than Sanu. Raj is a king of his people and for a king to take on a foreign bride - that is really going against the grain. I’ll tell you a secret Lea. Sanu once told me that he loved Western women. But he would never marry one.”

“But…I’m having his child. Surely that counts for something,” faltered Lea, now unsure of her convictions.

“Think about it my child. Could it be that he loves you because he loves Malana? Could he be doing this for his kingdom Lea?”

“You mean to say that he’s been deceiving me all along?” Lea looked at Heather pleadingly, hoping for an affirmation of Raj’s love; as she understood love to be.

“Perhaps you’ve been deceiving each other Lea.”

“But how can you say that? I love him.”

“If you love him, you should be willing to sacrifice all for him. Isn’t that what love is?” challenged Heather.

“I’m tired. I need to rest.” Lea could no longer hold up the pretence. She needed to be alone to think.

Just then, Muna came back with the momos and Heather insisted that Lea take a few to her room.

Lea stepped into her room and noticed that the dinner dishes were still there. A whimper behind her made Lea turn. She found the little pup at her feet. The smell of the momos must have lured him.

She dipped a momo into the Saag Panneer and gave it to the frisky canine. It gobbled the momo up instantly. Encouraged, Lea dipped the rest of the momo into the creamed Spinach and offered the whole dish to the pup. Slurping it at great speed, Lea noted that its body was beginning to slump sideways and suddenly, its head lurched straight into the dish. It was out cold, not dead but DRUGGED!

Lea felt numb as the implications of this last act of deceit sunk into her. Is there no one I can trust? The Whitfields are in on it, the Queen sent the food, and Raj? It must be his doing! She fell on her bed and wept in despair, the sense of betrayal crushed her heart like a stone. Everything made sense now, even her drug-induced docility.

A creak at the door and a wet nose poked in. It was the pup’s mother. Lea looked up and saw the bitch inching slowly into her room, sniffing out the pup and licking it all over when she found it. Lea could see that the bitch was afraid, its tail tucked between its legs. Maternal instincts made her eager to take the pup away from its present danger. It whined, pushed the pup up with her nose but the pup was still heavily drugged. Feeling sorry, Lea approached the bitch to help. She was surprised by the sudden snarl the bitch gave her. Then picking up the pup by the scuff of its neck, the mother dog struggled out, barely able to manage.

The words of Uncle Yorgos came back to her then, “Promise me Lea, always choose to live.” If a bitch had enough courage to protect its own, Lea resolved then that she could do better.

9 – Malana, India, April Year 4

She looked into the mirror at her youthful face. Her high cheek bones, equine nose and kohl-lined grey eyes were signs of her links to her ancestors from Macedonia. On her ears, starting from the top to the lobes, the gleam from ten golden rings reflected back at her. Her long black hair was being combed with a centre parting according to custom. Later during the ceremony, Raj would apply a streak of red tilak to the centre of her forehead. She thought about it and blushed. It would be the sign sealing their marriage. After today, she would be the Princess and the future queen. She thought of him now, his handsome face smiling at her, his kindness, always a nice word, and his cosmopolitan ways.

The girls hovered around her twittering their envy at her wedding clothes and her jewellery. What a catch, they all said. They took her hands and started the application of henna in intricate lacy designs. They were rough hands as befitted a true Malanaan girl trained from an early age to work in the fields in summer, making hashish in winter and looking after the family by the time she had reached puberty. Being a future queen did not entitle her to a life of comfort. She knew the queen well and what was expected of her.

She’d known Raj for as long as she could remember. They had been betrothed since she was six years old. In their younger days, they were playmates. Then he had gone away for a long time. Since his return, she found herself overcome by shyness. After all, she was now fourteen years old and had reached the marrying age. Her mother repeatedly drummed it into her that she would be the queen one day. It was written in the stars and that was why she was chosen. She believed in love, the Indian movies had taught her about romance. She firmly believed that all will be well. The stars were never wrong.

The pattu she wore today had been made by her own hand. The even pattern and fine lines revealed her weaving skills. Her mother had trained her well and she had learnt to cook all the prince’s favourite dishes. The old women who specialised in such things had taught her the art of love and she had kept her virginity for this moment. There could be no greater honour than to be chosen as the bride of the prince.

Even though there was this talk about the foreign woman, she had been made aware that all men sow wild oats from time to time. It’s in their blood. Pay no heed and it would pass. Looking once again into the mirror, she sighed and smiled. The girls giggled at her happiness, the happiness promised to her since she was a child.

The moon emerged from the dark thunder head, illuminating the hectic scene. It seemed so out of place at three in the morning but the astrologer had foretold that a union of the highest order would be fruitful at exactly that time. So amidst the musicians blowing bugles and stroking drums, the dancers pranced and home brew sloshed generously in tumblers.

Raj sat stiffly under the open silk pavilion outlined by multicoloured lights. He looked resplendent in a pure white tunic and gold sash, his head surrounded by strings of golden flowers hanging from a white kulu cap trimmed with gold. His heart was almost bursting with pride but he had to maintain an impassive countenance as was expected by his people.

Someone offered him a cup. He accepted without thanking the giver, threw the clear arak to the back of his throat and felt the raw liquor burning into his guts. This is the moment I have been waiting for. From here on, power is mine. He basked in his moment of glory. ‘Her labour has begun.’ Those words rang continuously in his mind. He shook his head, as if trying to throw them out. But they would not leave. Another glass of arak was passed into his hands. He gulped it gratefully, the anxiety rising within his chest as he felt the urge to throw up. I mustn’t make a fool of myself. Raj swallowed hard and breathed in the cold night air, heavy with the scent of the holy fire of sandalwood. This will pass. I will get away as soon as the ceremony is over and smoke a joint. He had been kept clear of marijuana for the ceremony and he regretted agreeing to this. Raj started to feel panic again and his hands became clammy. He wiped them on the pure wool of his white pants and laced them tightly on his lap, as though by that action, he could control the shivering. Observers will no doubt believe that his withdrawal symptoms were merely the tumultuous emotions of a new king, a new husband and a new father.

Lea held her breath and pushed with all her might. She screamed in agony as she felt the cramps like giant claws grabbing within her. Somehow they had gone inside and were trying to pull the baby out.

“Not yet!” she screamed. “He is mine! Don’t take my baby from me,” she begged, her hands, tied to the side of the bed clenched into fists, straining the cloth ropes to their limits.

Doctor Sharma tottered around the bed, everything in place waiting for the royal child to be born and then the mother had become uncooperative! He had never encountered that problem before. “Now my dear, calm down. Raj is coming. It takes a while for him to get here. Please push.”

“Go to hell!” she yelled and screamed again as the giant claws moved inside her, tearing to get the baby out.

Sweat poured down her face and dripped into her eyes, mixing with her tears. She blinked and tried to free her hands again.

“Let me go! Don’t let them take my baby!!” she yelled once more.

The midwife and doctor locked eyes in confusion. What should we do? Their eyes met in a mutual question. They knew there was no way to get Raj. No one can interrupt the decree of the coronation and wedding ceremony. The show must go on. So it did and by the time the moon faded into the light, a new king was named and a new prince was born.

Kamala heard drunken men jostling outside the bridal chamber and the next moment Raj was pushed through the door, stumbling over the wooden threshold as he made his unceremonious entry. The gales of laughter and vulgar suggestions finally receded as Raj lay on the floor, snoring loudly.

Kamala decided to perform her first wifely duty. She removed her clothes and took the bedding onto the floor next to her new husband. Then lying beside him she loosened his clothing and tried to sleep. Sometime before the sunrise Raj stirred and wrapped an arm around her body. Kamala stiffened realising that this could be it - the moment her flower would be opened. She remembered the older village women giggling about it as they prepared her for the first night of marriage. It didn’t make sense to her then and it still didn’t. Raj murmured softly and nuzzled his face against her neck. Her mounting excitement made her heart thump so loud that she was afraid he would be awakened by the noise. She felt his hand slowly moving down her body, stroking gently. His fingers brushed across her nipples, now erect on her budding breasts. Kamala tried not to gasp in case he stopped what he was doing to her. She shivered, her arousal overwhelming her while the fear of the unknown paralysed her. Raj moved his body on top of her.

“Rigid as a fucking plank.” He muttered.

He spoke in a language she did not understand but it sounded harsh. His face, usually youthful and handsome, looked angry. She was terrified. She stiffened as his hand slid down to the place where even she had never ventured, stroked her naked mount of Venus. It was dry.

“Hmmm…need some help here, don’t we?” he mumbled, as he lifted his finger to his mouth and sucked it. Then, placing his wet finger back to her clitoris, he prepared her vagina for his entry. Her breath now left her in gasps as he pried her legs apart and thrust his hard member into her.

“Relax and enjoy the new experience,” he growled and rammed harder, remembering her father’s insolence at the last council meeting.

She cried out in pain and tried pushing him away.

Raj’s eyes flew open and focussed on her face.

“Shut up!” he shouted savagely. His face tensed, he climaxed and instantly withdrew from her. What a lousy screw he thought, turning his back to her and promptly fell asleep.

Kamala grabbed at the quilt to cover her nakedness. Shivering from the raw pain between her legs, the young queen stifled her tears. What did I do wrong?

On the first night of her married life, Kamala felt a deep sense of loneliness descending upon her. She could no longer seek refuge from her parents and couldn’t even hide behind her virgin innocence. In the eyes of the village, she was now Raj’s wife and no longer their responsibility.

10 – Manali, India, May Year 4

The queen sat alone in her cold dark room. The fire was unlit.

“Why are you sitting in the dark mother?”

When the queen remained silent, Raj went to the fireplace and started placing twigs and a handful of dried leaves in the fire carefully. He struck a match and placed it beneath the pile. A thin plume of smoke rose out of the pile. Crackling and fuming, the fire caught and a finger of flame licked out of the dried leaves, shrivelled them and turned them to ash. Raj blew on the flames, fanning them with his breath, the flames grew. He then turned to his mother.

“Speak to me mother. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Why are you treating Kamala like this?”

Now it was Raj’s turn to be silent. He rose to his feet, walked over to the fireplace and stoked the fire.

“Son, she has been crying all day and has refused to eat.” The queen sighed, looking at her son’s silent back, now hunched and fiercely attacking the flames with a stick. “Raj, she is your wife now. You have to fulfil your duties.”

“I GAVE HER MY SEEDS ON THE FIRST NIGHT. WHAT MORE DOES SHE WANT?”

“She is not yet with child. Be gentle with her. I am sure you know how.”

“I don’t feel like it mother. She doesn’t turn me on.”

“Raj, you agreed to the marriage. What you have done cannot be undone now. She is your rightful wife. Try giving her a chance. Perhaps you will be blessed with another, more perfect…”

“Mother, I…”

“No, son. You have done a great injustice to this poor girl and her family. Now she cannot go back to her parents’ home. She is one of us and she will remain so until she dies.”

“But Lea...”

“Yes, the foreign girl has borne you a son. That I have heard and we are all eager to see the child. But before you do, you will fulfil your duty to Kamala. Take her into your heart as your wife Raj. She has been chosen by the gods and she will not let you down.”

“I can’t mother. You should know that if a man is not aroused, he cannot perform.”

“The whole village is watching you Raj. The way you have treated Kamala will not go unnoticed and if you don’t fulfil your duties as her husband, the whole village will turn against you.”

“How could I, mother?”

“Take this son. It will help you as it has helped many before you.” The queen handed Raj a phial of clear liquid. It was marijuana oil in its purest form - extracted from the pollen of the marijuana flowers. “If you do your duty as king, no one will have cause to complain. It happens often enough that a future wife was not chosen with pure compatibility in mind.”

“And the baby?”

“Son, the Lord Jamlu has asked for human sacrifice and he has said that he wants the baby.”

The blood instantly drained from Raj’s face. “As king I will overrule that. No one will touch the baby while I am alive.” Raj struggled to maintain composure.

“Son, the people are not yet ready for your new ideas. If you fight this, you will lose your kingdom,” the queen threatened.

“Lord Jamlu can have any other child but mine.”

“What has come over you? Do you honestly wish to see weevils destroying all our marijuana crops? Can you stop the rains from washing away our mountains? I have seen snow in summer because of his wrath. All the villages in the Valley will curse us. Our own people will starve and our babies will be born dead. The High Priest has said that should we give up the child, Lord Jamlu will reward us with future generations of perfect children. Do you really want the curse of our people against you?” the queen implored.

“Mother….”

“No. Listen to me. You are a king now. You are looked upon as the leader of our people. Don’t let them down. For the sake of one child, it’s not worth losing the whole kingdom.”

Raj sank to his knees in anguish. “All I ever wanted was to be a good king and save my people. How shall I be able to do this if they want to kill my son?”

“At the next full moon, the baby is to be brought to Malana for the ceremonial offering. I will hear no more of your arguments Raj.”

It was then that he began to plot against Jamlu, his mother and the high priest. The Indian Governor would have to help - he was a good friend and a wily old bird that would be willing to play along. Of that, Raj was certain and, they were both good actors.

At the appropriate time, Chander drove Raj down to the Whitfields. Raj peeped into the room. A plethora of baby smells and sounds met him. He saw Lea holding a bundle to her breast, and listened to the plaintive sucking noises and Lea’s soothing voice urging to take the milk. His eyes lingered on her breast and he wondered how the milk would taste. He knew he must not act in haste when entering the den of an angry tiger. He was very sure she would be bitterly angry. Nevertheless, it was time to pretend once more. Taking a deep breath, he entered and prepared for a confrontation.

The creaking door announced his entry and Lea looked up at him. He observed immediately that her face, soft but a moment ago, was now tense. The baby whimpered and Lea turned her attention immediately towards it and passed it over to the other breast to continue its feed. Raj could not take his eyes away from the perfect scene - Lea patting the baby, tickling his pink pouted lips to open them and inserting her swollen nipple into his hungry expectant mouth. The baby attached himself once more and settled down to a quiet rhythm.

Raj cleared his throat, trying to act nonchalant. With a lopsided smile that he knew Lea went for, he quipped, “He’s a hungry little fellow isn’t he?”

Lea ignored him but Raj persisted.

“He looks so tiny. It reminds me of the new born kittens my cat used to have, all red and … ” Somehow the joke fell flat as Lea continued to behave as if there was no one else in the room except herself and the baby. Raj could take the wall of silence no longer.

“Lea, please, don’t shut me out like this. I….I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you...but…”

“NO BUTS Raj!” Lea exploded, “You were not here, PERIOD.”

The baby started to cry, opening his mouth wide, no sound came out at first but very soon, a shrill wail could be heard.

Lea tried to pacify the frightened child by rocking it in her arms.

“I...I’m sorry...Lea…may I help? Please…may I hold him?”

“Raj, do us both a favour and just leave. Go back to your wife.” She kept her voice low to avoid alarming the child.

However Raj did not miss the venom in that low tone. He stepped closer and tried again.

“Lea, don’t do this to us. I’ve waited so long to see him. You don’t know what’s it been like for me these past month – I was beside myself with worry about how you were coping. Didn’t you get my gifts? I sent Chander down to make sure everything was OK for you.” Raj pleaded convincingly.

The baby’s agitation dissolved and it slumbered against his mother’s warmth.

Lea placed him carefully in a rocking crib. This was one of Raj’s gifts.

“Lea darling, I know it’s hard for you to believe me but the marriage to Kamala is just a sham. I had no choice in the matter.” He whispered.

“Raj, please don’t take me for a fool. Yes, I admit that I was naïve when I thought you loved me and wanted me to come to you. But now the truth is out. I have been used by you, drugged by your mother and kept as a prisoner here. I know why you’ve come. You want to take my baby away from me.” Lea tried hard but could no longer keep her emotions in check. She wept hard.

The baby woke at the sounds his mother’s distress. He whimpered and Raj immediately picked him up from the crib.

Recalling how the old ladies of the village looked after babies, Raj began walking in circles, rocking and crooning an old Malana song to his son. The baby ceased crying as suddenly as he started. Raj relaxed and made his first blunder by standing still to admire his son. He saw the tiny face crumpling into another wail and quickly resumed his pacing and singing. The baby looked up and broke into a chortle causing Raj to feel a pang of tenderness welling inside him. Raj suddenly caught his breath - he had noticed baby’s blue eyes.

“My son, my first born son...you are so perfect!” he exclaimed and his spirits soared. The blue eyes were a legacy of his lineage and he knew that now the council would not be able to dispel his ideas so wantonly. Here was proof that his theories held true. No longer would his people need to fear annihilation.

Staying away for the last few months was intentional. He had hoped that isolation would make Lea more amicable and when the time came, she would accept his demands. However, when he knew that the baby was born, his desire to see the result of his “work” was strong but protocol demanded that a new king and his bride should be confined for a month to acquaint themselves and hopefully conceive an heir. There was nothing he could have done to change it. Although Chandra acted as messenger bringing news of the mother and baby’s progress on a daily basis, Raj was impatient to see the results for himself.

The baby grabbed Raj’s index finger with its fine pudgy fingers. Raj counted the fingers quietly. Five perfect digits on each hand and five perfect toes on each foot.

“Ooh...you’re such a strong little guy, eh,” Raj cooed.

The baby chuckled and Raj felt his heart melt inside. I love it, thought Raj as he felt his heart squeeze with delight. He breathed in his baby’s smells and kissed him on his tiny forehead.

“Lea, thank you, it is beautiful beyond my wildest dreams.”

She did not miss the reference to their son as an “it”. Lea closed her eyes thinking, this man doesn’t love anyone but himself. “Yes, I would think you’d be pleased that he is not deformed and your theory is now proven,” Lea’s lashed out sarcastically.

“You know I had to do what I did. I had no choice. Let’s put it behind us and enjoy our son together.”

“Easy for you to say, isn’t it Raj? The fact that you now have a son who has no defects, has perfectly clear blue eyes, is a triumph for you isn’t it? Now you can bring him to your council meeting and shove him under all those doubting noses. You can now say to them ‘See! I told you it works. Mixing our blood with Macedonians will produce healthy children once more. Look at mine!’ - Isn’t that what this is all about Raj?”

Tears streamed down her face and Raj looked at her, feeling disgust. Emotional outbursts were to him, a sign of weakness. The baby began to fret in his arms.

“Lea, you’re upsetting our son.”

"Don’t you dare say that to me - You, of all people! You’ve gone and married some juvenile and upset my life forever. Does that mean anything to you Raj? Do we mean anything to you other than being your guinea pigs?!”

The baby began another wail, his face scrunching up and reddening. Impatience flushed across Raj’s face and for a moment, it seemed as if he would fling the child across the room. Just then, the door opened and Heather bustled in.

“Oh you poor dear. Papa frightened you, did he? Bad papa...let Auntie Heather take you for a walk,” she cooed as she whisked the baby expertly from Raj’s arms. “Let’s go out and see the apple blossoms. Some fresh air will be nice eh?” She strolled casually out of the room, rocking the baby gently as she left.

Changing tactics, Raj approached the bed and sat on it. Taking Lea’s hand, he kissed it tenderly and massaged it. “I love you Lea, I will always love you.”

Snatching her hand away, Lea screamed, ”You’re a bloody liar! You just wanted me so that you could have the perfect child you need for your own diabolical ends, and now you’re going to take him away.”

Raj tried to enfold her sobbing body in his arms but she pushed him away. He kept his distance while she wept.

I can’t lose control like this. I must remain cool otherwise, all will be lost, Lea thought desperately.

“Lea, don’t torture yourself. Please, look at me darling. I have good news. Lord Jamlu has demanded that the baby be blessed and a name has been given to him. He is to be called Shamshir, the brave lion. Do you see the significance Lea? This means that Jamlu has accepted him. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Raj tried to hug her again. Fighting her revulsion, she calmly pushed him away, shaking her head and said, “Please don’t.”

However, Raj found her rejection arousing. He looked at her partially unbuttoned blouse and grabbed one of her breasts.

Filled with loathing, Lea rejected his advances. But she was no match for him. Stumbling back, she fell onto the bed. Raj saw his chance. She will finally comply and all will be well. All women want it; his arousal was at a fevered pitch now as he mounted her and tore off her clothes. Lea screamed and kicked out in frustration.

Outside, Heather carried the baby towards the kitchen away from the noise, cooing, “Ooh, daddy and mummy are having fun aren’t they?” Poor girl. I hope Raj won’t hurt her too badly; she thought, somewhat ashamed of her part in the whole deception.

Lea looked up at Raj’s contorted face of lust and tried to scratch his eyes out. Straddling her body, it was easy for him to restrain her. He laughed as her resistance made him feel superior.

Realising this, Lea stopped fighting. She forced herself to remain as rigid as a plank. Tears streamed unabated down her cheeks.

Raj closed his eyes and moaned, “C’mon fight back...don’t give up,” he taunted, bucking his groin furiously.

Her face twisted with hate, she glared silently at Raj and wished her vagina had a scythe. One swipe and all his dreams will be destroyed.

As he climaxed, Raj felt disgust at the way Lea gave up. She reminded him of Kamala. Frigid, the lot of them! He cursed, pulled up his pants and walked out in a huff.

When he left, Lea dragged herself to the bathroom and tried in vain to wash away the shame and guilt of her dishonour by a man she had finally begun to despise. It was now perfectly clear that she had to escape from her living hell and the worse part was that she had no one to help her.

In the backroom of a dingy village butcher shop the foul aroma of rotting meat was nauseating. However Chotu, born into a family of butchers, had nasal passages that had become immune to such foul odours. Lying in the wooden loft above, he listened as he did every night, to the soothing tone of his parents’ voices, discussing the day’s business before he fell asleep. His two tiny brothers slept peacefully next to him, like newborn pups, snuggled together for warmth. Just as sleep would have taken him, he heard mention of a name that made him bolt up and almost knock his head against the rafters.

“Does the Memsahib know?” His mother’s voice sounded concerned.

“Who knows what those people are up to? All I care about is that they reserved an unblemished lamb and now they don’t want it.”

Chotu could tell from his father’s voice that he was agitated. An unblemished lamb for a religious ceremonial sacrifice is compulsory for all villages in the valleys. However for the Malanaans, there was a time, when other animals were used, even two-legged ones, especially if the occasion was an important one.

“Are they thinking of sacrificing the new baby? But I’ve heard he has the blue eyes of the royal family? Surely the prince will not allow this,” his mother mused.

“Woman, go to sleep. Let’s not speculate. Gossip like this could ruin us. We depend on them for most of our business. Perhaps I can sell the lamb to the baker. His daughter is getting married at the end of the month.”

“Five hundred rupees tied up with the lamb. I doubt if that tight fisted old codger would give us half of that amount,” Chotu’s mother yawned loudly and turned to sleep on her side of the bed.

“Those hoity-toity people…who do they think they are? Not even a paise in compensation. I will not be so eager next time if they ever want another lamb,” said his father, turning away from his wife’s back and almost instantly lapsing into a sonorous bout of snoring.

Chotu was wide awake now. He had to warn the Memsahib. She is my friend. Tomorrow, first thing. He waited impatiently for dawn to break.

“Where is he?” Lea had woken up when she heard here baby crying. The crib was empty. She screamed in terror and rushed out just in time to find Chander loading a basket into the Ambassador.

“Raj emerged from Heather’s kitchen and Lea flew at him. He caught her flailing hands deftly.

“I’d rather die than let you take my son away from me.” Lea spat in his face.

“Look, I’ve explained to you. Every child born to our people has to be blessed by Lord Jamlu when it is one month old. So I’m just taking him up to the temple for two days.” Raj maintained his cool.

“Then I’ll go with you.” She countered.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not even strong enough to make it to the bottom of the hill!” he scoffed. “The high priest said in a trance that the Lord Jamlu wishes to bless this special child. The day has already been decided, the last day of May. We cannot go against his wishes otherwise the whole village will suffer. You don’t want every disaster hereon to be blamed on our son do you? Besides, without the Lord’s blessings, our son can never be accepted as one of us.”

“He’s not going to be one of you. I’m taking him back to the UK with me.” Lea struggled free and lunged for the car.

Chander slammed the door shut and stood in her way.

“The Lord has already made known his pleasure of the newborn heir. He will bless our child and name him. All will be well. Trust me.” Raj decided it best not to make a scene. He was a king after all. He must show his subjects how well he handled difficult situations.

“Trust you! Trust you! You can’t be serious Raj. On what grounds can I trust you? Give me an example of how you can be trusted unless it is for your own purposes. Should I trust a sinister bastard who has deceived, imprisoned, drugged and raped me? What else have you got in store for me I wonder, or is it all commanded by Lord fucking Jamlu or that conniving witch you refer to as your mother? You really are a pathetic excuse for a man – every molecule of oxygen you consume is wasted like piss in a gutter.” With no recourse to physical strength, Lea used words of spite.

“There is no need to defile the name of Jamlu. You will live to regret that Lea.” Raj spoke in a sinister softness as he moved closer to her.

Lea massaged her sore arms. She was at her wits’ end to find a way to stop Raj from separating her and her child. She stammered “N…no...I still...”

Snarling with sudden anger, Raj clutched her face in his hand and seethed, “This is the most important day of our son’s life - to be blessed by Lord Jamlu makes the difference between life and death. Don’t you realise that nothing here happens without Jamlu’s desire?”

“You’re hurting me!” She struggled to pry his hand from her face. Instinct told her to back down. He was within an inch of using violence in his fury.

Raj released his grip when he saw that Lea was subdued. The anger disappeared, “Remember that, above all, he is my son too Lea. And some day, he will be king. Don’t deprive him of his heritage.”

How did I miss his schizophrenia? Play his game. Act! Lea thought in desperation. “Raj, I am his mother. I will never deprive him of anything that is good for him. But all your customs are so alien to me. Please let me go with you. He still needs to be nursed.” Lea made herself sound submissive.

“Mother has made arrangements for a wet nurse. Woman, you are no longer needed.” Raj pushed her aside and got into his car. He’d had enough of play-acting. Since she already knew so much, there was no point in hiding the fact that he was taking away his son for good. Lea would never see the baby again.

Lea flung herself at the window of the car but Chander had locked all the doors from the inside and the windows were all rolled up. The engine revved and the car lumbered down the path with Lea chasing after it. As it sped up, Lea lost sight of it when it disappeared around a corner. A hollow feeling grew in the pit of Lea’s stomach. A thought came into her mind. Go to the police.

Standing in front of the pot-bellied police sergeant, Lea related her story. Her heart sank as she saw the welcoming smile on the man’s face turn into a frown. Her breasts started to secrete milk in her emotional turmoil and the sergeant and his colleagues exchanged leers at her predicament.

“Come now madam, I hardly think you can go around making wild accusations like this against the Malanaan royal family. We have heard that you came here to sell your baby as part of some experiment that his highness King Raj is conducting. I think it is best for you to go back to your country.” The policeman’s voice was hostile and Lea realised that Raj had prepared for all eventualities. Her desolation plunged her into despair and she staggered out of the station in a daze.

Lea finally found herself in front of the momo shop. This was the only place where there was a semblance of friendliness. The momo seller recognised her as a regular and always gave her a warm smile. The greasy little dumplings looked pathetic today. The plump Tibetan woman, who usually fried the momos, was absent. In her place, a shrivelled Tibetan man with gnarled and bony hands, tottered around, spilling most of the soup as he scooped it into the bowl. Lea hardly noticed. Her mind was far away, missing her son. Is he crying now? She wondered. Tears welled in her eyes.

“Are the momos really that bad?” boomed a deep voice rousing her from her reverie.

“Huh?”

Lea looked up to see a six foot blond, bearded man looking down at her plate of uneaten momos.

“Oh...no, no...I just lost my appetite.”

“Ah so...in that case, may I eat them? I hate seeing good food go to waste.”

The stranger sat on the wooden bench, facing her and smiled. His blue eyes looked into hers and a pang of sorrow plunged into her heart. The eyes reminded her of her baby and she started sobbing.

“I’m sorry…I was just joking...Look you can have the momos back...I didn’t touch them,” said the blonde giant pushing the plate back to Lea with a look of concern.

“No...No...” said Lea shaking her head while trying to control her tears as she blurted “I don’t want momos. All I want is my baby back in my arms.” Before the man could react to this strange outburst, Chotu came bursting into the shop.

"Memsahib, I…I have…something very important to tell you!” he stammered.

“What’s wrong Chotu? What’s the matter?” queried Lea, her brows deepening into a furrow as she prepared herself for even more bad news.

Chotu looked around the shop nervously. He eyed the foreign man but assumed that being foreign, he would not grasp the local dialect in which Lea was now quite fluent.

“My father, the butcher, he was told there was a change of plans this morning.”

“Plans for what?” Lea asked, puzzled.

“They said they won’t need the unblemished lamb anymore.”

“What unblemished lamb Chotu? I don’t understand.”

“The unblemished lamb for sacrifice to Lord Jamlu! They said they don’t need it anymore!” Chotu was almost jumping up on the table in his anguish to make her understand.

“Oh, I understand now. You mean the ceremony is postponed for a day and they will want it tomorrow?” suggested Lea trying to fathom out her little friend’s excitement. Perhaps it was a loss of business for the butcher and now he wants to sell off some spare lamb?

“NO! Please you hurry. They will sacrifice the baby!”

“What baby? What…oh no…no…this is crazy…Chotu, this is a sick joke!”

Lea began to feel a sense of panic.

“No Memsahib. This is no joke. I have heard the people whispering about it. They say that Lord Jamlu wants a human sacrifice so that in future, Malana will have perfect children.”

Lea stood up suddenly. “I must go to him,” cried Lea, her face stricken with fear and anguish.

“Hey lady, think it over first. Barging into Malana isn’t a good idea. I think you watch too many American movies. You’re not Harrison Ford in The Temple of Doom,” he said gently.

“You understand Hindi!” Chotu was shocked and dashed out of the shop as fast as his legs could carry him.

“Chotu wait!” exclaimed Lea, trying to grab his hand but he was too quick and was gone.

“Lady, it’s none of my business but I wouldn’t be too quick to jump to conclusions if I were you,” said the stranger.

“Please help me. I have no one!” Lea seized his muscular arm in desperation.

Lea never knew what made her trust the stranger or why she felt compelled to beg him...but he looked like an angel, looming in front of her, huge and friendly.

The stranger shook his head sadly. “I am just one man, not an army. I can’t march in there and ask them to give the baby back to you.”

The truth of the statement sank into Lea and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I have no hope if you won’t help me,” Lea pleaded.

“These people don’t give anything to anybody unless it suits them. I’ve been dealing with them for years. I know them.”

“Are you a drug dealer?”

“Hmmm…I prefer to call myself a commodities trader.”

“So you know Raj? Were you there yesterday...did you hear anything about my baby?”

“I left the day before. I don’t like parties. Low profile helps in this trade.”

“If I have to, I will go up to Malana alone to find him.”

“Ha! They won’t let you near the child...if what you told me is true. They’ve probably got him hidden somewhere already. And besides, what the boy heard is just rumour. You can’t go around believing in hearsay. For example, I heard that you were paid £100,000 to come here for the sole purpose of procreation. Now that I hear your side of the story, I don’t know which one to believe.”

“That’s a blatant lie! Everything has been twisted around to make me look like a whore. The money was offered to my employers to gain my release from UK so that I could accept Raj’s invitation to do my PhD thesis.” Everything suddenly fell into place and Lea saw Raj’s grand scheme for the first time.

“Anyway, the practice of human sacrifice died thirty years ago. I doubt if he’d sacrifice the baby. If what you say is true, the new king is a formidable schemer. I have spoken with some of the elders whose marijuana I buy. They tell me that he’s been after some fresh blood to mix with their own, to make a perfect tribe or whatever. So why would he allow anyone to kill the child? It doesn’t make much sense if you think about it.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I feel like I’m living a nightmare and Raj seems like a complete stranger. And yet he’s been so proud of the baby. This is his dream fulfilled. He wanted a blue-eyed, healthy baby. I know my baby is in the palace. And I must go get him.”

“It’s not so easy to do that. They’d probably use Jamlu or some voodoo to hurt you. Egal, I must be going. I need to finalise some travel plans.”

“Please, please could you help me? I’ll give you anything...” The words blurted out of her lips before she even had time to think.

Lea looked at the stranger with desperation in her eyes. No one in the whole valley would help her go against the royal family. And here was a stranger, one who knows the workings of the Malanaans. He was her last straw.

“I’m sorry. This is not of my business. I deal in drugs, not babies.”

“I...I’ll reward you…” said Lea probing for a weakness.

“Ah so . . . and what would you have that I want?”

Lea showed him the Lapis Lazuli pendant. He hesitated and his eyes narrowed as he squinted at the pendant and studied it with mounting interest.

“Hmm…a good artist made this...and it looks familiar somehow - where have I seen it before?”

“On the queen?”

He gasped and then said mockingly, “The same? She gave it to you?”

“No, I have mine and she hers. They are a pair.”

“Really? Interessant!” The stranger sat back, lost in thought.

“I don’t know the connection. All I know is, the queen was pretty excited when she saw my pendant. She knows something I don’t” explained Lea.

“Ah…that old woman knows a lot more than we all do and I guess if it’s that important to her, it must be worth a lot.”

“I’m willing to give this to you in exchange for my baby.”

“Ah but...the problem is, I don’t have the baby.”

“But you can find a way to get into Malana unseen and take the baby before anyone knows.”

“Well, I have been invited to the blessing ceremony and I wasn’t even planning to go. However...”

“Please I beg you.”

"Moment mal bitte. I don’t know what it is like up there. Let me play it…how you say in England, by ear, OK? Meet me in the cedar forests next to Hadimba’s Temple. Tonight at 11 pm. Until then, try to act as if you know nothing, even the stones have ears in this place!” As he strode off with a confident air he called back over his shoulder, “And be prepared for anything.”

“Thank you!” was all she managed to say. As she turned to leave she suddenly remembered the words of the prophetic old nun. A white Sadhu will help you. Some of her gloom lifted. As she made her way back to the guest house, she realised that she didn’t even know his name!

11 – Malana, India, May Year 4

The temple courtyard of Lord Jamlu bustled with excitement. The Malanaans were dressed in their best pattus of beautiful colours, men with freshly cut flowers on their kulu caps, smoking their pipes. Today, the pipes were filled with marijuana and the smokers were becoming stoned.

In the middle of the courtyard, the queen sat in her immaculate white pattu. Her face glowed as she cradled her first grandson with pride. The little prince gurgled happily, wrapped in his softest grey pashmina shawl. His blue eyes gazed around him inquisitively as he blew bubbles from the milk he had just been fed. Raj, looking pleased at the reaction of his people, sat beside his young wife, Kamala who seemed small and insignificant next to the queen.

Gongs and cymbals clashed, long bronze pipes bleated their morose tune as the high priest entered the crowded courtyard. He was resplendent today, in his cloak of wool, sewn with emblems of golden elephants and Macedonian soldiers. The palanquin followed, swaying wildly on the shoulders of four bearers, one at each corner. Young men eagerly waited their turn to take over from the bearers for it was a great honour to carry the heavy float. The strain of holding the palanquin steady usually meant that a bearer could last no longer than five minutes. At long last the palanquin containing the golden masks of Jamlu was set down and the musicians lowered their instruments to the ground. The crowd pressed in, everyone eager to catch a glimpse of the new prince.

At that moment, a group of Indian soldiers climbed over the crest and entered the village. They were closely followed by the newly elected Indian governor and his entourage. The portly man was perspiring profusely while trying to catch his breath. Chander went over to Raj and whispered news of their arrival. Raj roused himself up reluctantly to welcome them, conscious of the eyes of the council watching his first encounter with the new officer of the Indian government.

“We are honoured by your presence on this humble occasion sir.” Raj laced his speech with sarcasm and his jaw muscles almost quivered with the undesirable task of welcoming the unwanted visitor.

The Indian governor having been forewarned by his predecessor that the Malanaans were notoriously defiant in their attitudes towards outsiders, was prepared for the tone of the greeting.

“Ah, we do apologise for making this unannounced visit Your Highness. But my men tell me that you are celebrating the birth of your son and we merely came to congratulate you,” said the governor with the type of humility expected of the battle tested politician that he was.

“You should have at least informed us of your intentions so that we could have prepared something special for your spectacle,” Raj protested.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t dream of putting you out in any way Your Highness. Please let us merge in with the crowd. I have heard so much about the sacrificial lamb and such. As yet, I have not seen a real slaughter myself.”

“Ah, I see. You have a bit of the blood thirst dare I say?”

“Well, blood sport isn’t my speciality. But in politics, many times, I have been involved in backstabs that left trails of blood no less gory,” replied the governor smiling slyly.

“Come, the ceremony is about to start. Please come this way. I will make places for you and your entourage on the floor. I must apologise that our gods do not favour outsiders sitting on our stone seats and I am in no position to overthrow that tradition.” Raj looked around at the council members as he said this and noted their nodded approval of his candour.

“Fear not kind sir. My men have brought some folding chairs. I must admit I found it most amusing when they told me but now I fully comprehend the need,” beamed the Governor.

Raj returned to his seat and the crowd noted that the king was visibly upset by the uninvited guests. The high priest had, in the meantime, approached the queen and they were talking in hurried whispers.

“This is a bad twist of events. We cannot go on as planned with the human sacrifice, not in front of these Indian officials,” the queen informed the old priest.

“But the Lord Jamlu has decreed,” the high priest insisted.

“Then we will do it at a later time. I will not have my son indicted for murder. It was fortunate that I decided to buy the unblemished lamb from that meddlesome butcher. I am sure his wife was the one who spread the rumours about us going back to the old ways.”

“Yes, it was a mistake to cancel the lamb and incur the wrath of the butcher,” said the old priest shaking his head pendulum fashion on his long scrawny neck.

“It’s too late now. Even my buying the lamb to cover up has made no difference. The commoners’ morbid curiosity has been aroused. Look how many have turned up for the show,” the queen remarked bitterly.

“Fear not your highness. Lord Jamlu has the guile and cunning of a snake. He will be patient and strike only when no one is looking. I will bring out the sacrificial lamb instead.”

The high priest approached the ceremonial fire in the centre of the courtyard. He swept his cloak back and raised his arms. The crowd hushed as a bleating lamb was led to the centre of the yard. Anticipating the moment of sacrifice, the Malanaans began to chant the ancient war cry ”Alailailailai."

In a shrill voice, with his neck strutting out, the high priest faced the golden masks and chanted a prayer.

By the favour of Lord Jamlu, Protector of Malana, God of all Gods, I hold this office.

Today a new prince of Malana will be offered to our Lord.

Through the sacrifice of this new lamb, the Royal House, and all our people will be blessed with courage and everlasting health

Lord Jamlu, come to our aid.

Protect us once again with your ancient promise.

The same promise you made to our father, Alexander.

Wherever he ventured, you were with him.

You gave him victory among strangers so that all ever after will call him ‘Great’.

In return, we vow devotion.

Bless our sons and heirs with immortality.

Never abandon Malana, Lord,

For we are the true sons of Alexander and we will always remain true to you.

As he finished, he lowered his arms in a swift motion. Sparks flew as the fire burst back to life. He took a knife from the folds of his robes and deftly grabbed the lamb by its muzzle. The terrified lamb, its eyes bulging with fear, bleated one last mournful cry before its head was jerked up and its throat sliced neatly from ear to ear. Two of the priest’s helpers held on to the lamb as it struggled to take its last breath. Blood bubbles foamed out of the slit throat and the priest caught the fresh blood gurgling out with a horsehair whip and shook it over the stones.

The crowd hailed the blood splattered stones and raised their war-cry even louder.

"Alailailailai!"

The musicians took up their instruments and started playing. The high priest shuffled over to take the little prince from the queen. She handed him over with pride. For a moment, Raj caught a look of disappointment in his mother’s eyes as she faced the high priest. He felt a twinge of guilt, remembering that this past year had not been easy for her - His father’s sudden death; his insistence in bringing Lea to Malana; the fight with the council for acceptance of the baby and then Kamala. After the wedding night it had been difficult for Raj to look his young wife in the eye. Like the child that she was, Kamala had been unable to hide her sadness in front of the queen. Pathetic wimp, he thought bitterly.

The baby’s shrieks brought his mind back to the ceremony.

The high priest, not used to handling children, handled the baby roughly. Dipping his hand into the blood of the lamb, he smeared it on the head of the baby. The baby kicked and squealed unhappily. Undeterred by the child’s non cooperation, he proceeded to shave off the blood smeared hair. The fire hissed as locks of curly bloodied hair fell among the embers. The baby gave another shriek of protest and the villagers roared their approval. Then the priest held the child up to the people and announced, “Behold, Shamshir, the brave lion of Malana. Through him our people will be blessed.”

The queen took the newly blessed child and taking out her Lapis Lazuli pendant, hung it around his neck as a sign of an approved heir. She then handed him over to Kamala. The crowd noted the gesture and nods of approval could be seen among the elders.

The feasting began as the whole village sat in rows on thick wool carpets, laid on the ground. Shiny stainless steel plates were handed out to each seated villager. The village girls then carried out large pots steaming with dhal, vegetables and meat, slopping ladlefuls into plates. Using their right hands, the villagers happily tucked into the delicious food, washing it down with arak, local liquor made from distilled hops. The Indian governor sat happily among the commoners, tucking into the delicious food.

It was the custom on such an occasion for the royal family to dine with the commoners. A small feast was laid out on a thick carpet for the royal family but Raj did not eat. The baby suckled milk from a nursemaid and Kamala served food to the queen and then to Raj. He ignored her, stood up and began making his way back to the palace.

“Congratulations prince,” a familiar voice greeted him as he passed a crowd of men. Raj looked up to see Karl, the German drug dealer who used to handle a huge percentage of the marijuana exports from the village. Raj forced himself to smile as he found himself cornered by the taller man.

“I am sorry to talk business but time is short and I have to leave soon.” Karl started amicably.

“What is the problem exactly?” asked Raj feigning ignorance.

Raj knew that Karl had been a ruthless dealer in the past, offering below market prices to buy over Malanaans entire stocks and squeezing the local people dry. This year, Raj had managed to contact other international dealers and his plan to cut out Karl as their main distributor had been successful. His new contacts were real drug lords who had taken time to check out the purity of the village’s product. Now that his goods were accepted, Raj could throw open the whole valley’s stocks to the highest bidder. Karl had therefore lost his foothold.

“I’m having problems getting confirmation from your men for next season.”

“How so?”

“Well, you know I have been trading with your kingdom for a long time. It was I who first introduced your high quality products to the West. I even taught your people how to harvest the pollen of the plant to make the purest quality oils. I helped to develop your industry. Is it fair to cut me out now?”

“My friend, you know that in trade, there is no such thing as fair. You pay the highest price, we sell it to you. That’s what my people know. And to imply that we are indebted to you for all you have done, I can only say that I am sorry.”

"Anshuldigung I would never dare imply that your people owe me anything. I only ask that you remember the past and hope that I would continue to enjoy some hospitality whenever I am here.”

“You are welcome to our village whenever you are in the valley. I have no quarrel with you. However, please excuse me. I am tired and need to rest.”

Ignoring the persistence of the drug dealer, Raj moved away from the crowd and sought refuge in his chambers. Alone, the complex situation weighed on his conscience. ‘I have managed to avert the sacrifice of my son today. But they will try again tomorrow or the next. How will I be able to protect my son?’ His anguish overwhelmed him and in a highly agitated mood, he took out a pipe, poured a whole phial of marijuana oil into its cup and began to smoke.

Soon the worries faded. The music from the courtyard invaded his room. It became louder and magically changed into a symphony. He giggled, lying down and looking at the whirls of smoke drift towards the ceiling. The smoke turned into voluptuous female forms, dancing to the music, which had now changed into the haunting sensual strings of the Santoor. Sunlight from the window filtered through leaves of trees outside, and he saw colours of the rainbow in the rays. What a beautiful world I live in.

In his drug induced haze, he saw a woman enter the room. She offered him a plate of food. It smelled of spices, aromatic herbs and lamb. But the woman smelled of flowers and alluring perfume. I want her. Savagely sweeping the plate aside, he pulled her down and mounted her. In his mind, one of the dancing smoke ladies had taken on human form to give him carnal pleasure. He was her saviour and he needed to pump her full of semen to enable her to keep her human form. He kissed her passionately. He heard the wail of the baby far off but it transformed into another symphony and he thrust deeper to perform his duty, a duty to save his world.

Kamala breathed in the odour of hash as Raj smothered her with kisses, his eyes tightly closed. In the past month he had been like this, his sexual need, heightened by the drug. As he plunged into her, she suppressed her urge to groan. She remembered that fateful first night and she would not whimper now, even though as he climaxed, he called out, “Take it, take it, take it,” as if he was punishing her for something she had done wrong. This way, at least, she was receiving his seed and she hoped that she would soon bear him a son, a better son to replace the bastard that woman had given him. Perhaps then he would love her as was her right.

Karl sauntered away from the crowd. He was agitated but displayed nothing in his face. Experience had taught him to lay in wait. The enemy would falter and then he could strike. Before he left Manali he was in half a mind to ignore the woman’s plight. Rescue her baby! She must be mad, he had thought to himself. Yet now, rebuffed by the villagers, he saw a way to recover what he would lose in trade. He had seen the pendant that the queen had placed around the baby’s neck. Together, the pendants would be worth millions. The child…well, if things went awry perhaps it could be used as bargaining power to get out of a tight corner. As he passed some of the diners, he noticed that they were already slumped on the ground, fast asleep. Even the Governor and his entourage were now emitting a concerto of snores. The ‘special masala spices’ he presented to the cook before the feast had helped to make all the difference. He smiled to himself as he moved unchallenged towards the royal dining area. Karl, an experienced campaigner, used to playing both sides of the fence, had made preparations ‘just in case’ he felt like helping the ‘frau in distress’.

The nanny was fast asleep at one of the side tables. The little prince kicked his feet in the air as he continued to suckle. Karl plucked him up and Shamshir began to wail. No one stirred. The special spice has done a good job and the dhal was enjoyed by all.

12 – Manali, India, June Year 4

The temple of Hadimba was built in the centre of a cedar forest. Over the years, the thirty feet tall cone shaped pagoda-like structure had gradually been dwarfed by the growing trees that had eventually covered the ground with a soft carpet of pine needles. In the silence of the night, an owl hooted, echoing its spooky cry through the pillared trees. Tiny field mice scrounged for roots to nibble. Lea stepped gingerly towards the dark temple dedicated to the demon goddess, careful not to step on the mice. She was dressed in a warm jumper and woollen pants. Although it was spring, the nights were still cold. Her breath came out in condensed puffs of vapour. She was nervous. What if he doesn’t come? What if he has changed his mind and refused to help?

She had stolen out when everyone in the Whitfields’ household was asleep. Her door was locked from the inside; her window had been carefully pried loose over the last couple of months. It was her escape route. She removed the frame, climbed out and reattached the frame once more. Nothing would look amiss. Acting as if she was glad to be rid of her baby so she could get a good night’s rest, she fooled them and told them not to wake her with the usual morning bed-tea. She needed the extra sleep.

One a.m. Please God, please. She refused to give up hope. There was nothing to do but wait. She hugged herself and started to cry.

The whine of an engine caught her ears and the sounds of the night ceased with the introduction of the man-made sound. Her heart thumped in her mouth. Dear God, let it be him. Please not the Ambassador. Please don’t let him betray me to Raj.

The headlights from the jeep cut a path through to the forest to where she stood in the shadows of the temple. Hearing the cry of her baby Lea rushed out abandoning all caution. Wordlessly, Karl handed the tiny bundle over to his desperate mother. Lea wept silently with joy and relief, burying her head into his little warm body and smelling the familiar baby scents.

“We must leave now. You are ready? Or I leave without you and take what is mine.”

“I’m ready. I have all I need in my arms.”

They climbed into the jeep and Karl turned it around as quietly as possible and drove back down the narrow path. Silence returned to the temple and the creatures of the night resumed their foraging.

Dusk has a surreal quality in the high mountains. The sun displays streaks of gold and red, casting long shadows of skeletal cedars across the pristine whiteness of the snow. Struggling to remain above the horizon, before it is engulfed by the earth, the waning rays cling to the land, turning everything to gold, as if in its dying, a ransom is offered so that time may be bribed into standing still. Eventually darkness falls but the skies are still blue, dark blue. When the moon ascends and takes the sun’s place, the stars become visible and in the thin Himalayan air, the skies are ablaze with twinkling lights. The familiar Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, move across the horizons throughout the night. As dawn breaks, the air tingles, bitingly cold. Snows of old now encrusted anew with the frost of the night. As the skies lighten, blue on blue, the only sounds to be heard are the cawing of the crows, amazing creatures that seem unaffected by the cold and altitude.

The crunching of old hardened snow accompanied her heavy breathing. She saw her breath condense in the cold thin air, like a snorting dragon. Lea looked back at the abandoned jeep, now lying partially hidden in the deep ravine. Karl had faked the accident, hoping that their pursuers would think that the three of them had perished trying to escape. The road through the Rohtang Pass had not been opened for the season. There were still at least three kilometres to go. Perhaps another three to four days of work left. Snow walls fifteen feet high on either side where the snowplough had stopped created a landmark of their progress. Without the help of the Indian army, the road would have been nonexistent. However, the proximity to the Indo-Tibetan border warranted constant vigilance and patrol. For this reason, the highest road in the world had been built to provide inhabitants on either side a thoroughfare for at least three months of each year.

She marched steadily, climbing uphill. In front of her, Karl moved like a silent snow leopard. They were heading in the direction of Ladakh. From there, away from the domain of Malana’s realm, she would board a plane and return to the world she knew. Although a difficult two month trek lay ahead of them, there was no question of turning back.

PART 4

THE VALLEY OF DEATH

1 - Lahaul, India, June Year 4

2 – Zanskar, India, July Year 4

3 – Malana, India, July Year 4

4 – Phugtal Gompa, India, August Year 4

5 – Ladakhi Valley, India, September Year 4

6 – Leh, India, September Year 4

7 – Malana, India, October Year 4

8 – Leh, India, October Year 4

9 – Delhi, India, October Year 4

EPILOGUE – London, UK, December Year 4

1 - Lahaul, India, June Year 4

“Caw, caw, caw.” The sound of the crow woke her with a start. Instinctively she reached out to reassure herself that Shamshir was still beside her. She sighed with relief, blinked out the sleep from her eyes and remembered where she was.

The nomad’s tent outside Khoksar was smoky. A fire burned in the crude iron stove, fuelled by dried yak dung and peat. Lea was grateful for the warmth. Beside her, Karl stirred, grunted and shifted in his sleep. She eyed his sleeping form with a mixture of gratitude and fear, unsure whether to trust him as she remembered how he goaded her on at the pass.

“Take my son and leave me.” She had begged him when all her strength had gone.

“I’m not an adoption agency. I leave you both to freeze if I have to. Here I’ll unwrap your son so he can die faster with less pain.”

“No!” Lea had snatched her son back from him and struggled to stand up.

“Ah so, you do have some energy left. Come on. Let’s move on before we all freeze to death.”

Lea remembered the time Raj had promised to take her on a tour of the Lahaul Valley. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Now, here she was, seeking refuge with a nomadic after the Rohtang Pass. It was a temporary huddle of four tents. Karl had wisely avoided Khoksar, the first village in Lahaul, to keep a low profile.

The matriarch welcomed them. She was the mother of three sons all of whom were married to one woman. Theirs was a polyandrous society where men share wives due to the shortage of resources. In this way they practised family planning before pills and condoms were available. Children born to the women were sons of the whole family and no distinction was made between brothers and husbands.

Karl spoke a smattering of Lahauli and bartered with the matriarch for food and a place to sleep that night. They were served butter tea, a mixture of tea, salt and yak butter churned in a large tube of hollowed wood till it became a soup-like liquid. Lea drank it with relish, the tea warming her insides. The smoky tent made her eyes sting and water but she dozed off nevertheless exhausted form the strenuous trek.

Stepping out of the darkened tent now, it took her some time to adjust to the bright blue skies of Lahaul. Here, at a height of ten thousand feet, the ultraviolet rays are strong and the winds have no trees to hold them at bay. The young Lahauli girl smiled at Lea as she emptied her basket of hay for the small herd of grazing yaks. She beckoned Lea to follow her into the largest tent. Inside, the matriarch was chattering away to her sons and dishing out piping hot dhal and rice. Lea was given a tin plate and a place to sit among the brothers. They all sat on thick carpets of wool that covered the earthen floor. Unable to sit cross-legged like the Lahaulis, Lea stuck her sore legs under the low serving table in front of her. The heat from the stove warmed her toes and, despite the smoke dulled interiors and smell of unwashed bodies, there was a feeling of cosiness.

Shamshir whined in her back pouch, so she released him placing him on the burgundy carpet beside her. The young girl cooed at him and talked to him in Lahauli then chattered excitedly when she saw the colour of his eyes. The whole family crowded round to admire the child’s luminous blue eyes.

Karl entered the tent and the matriarch turned to him, speaking in Hindustani. “Eyes of this colour belong only to the Royal Malana family, is it not true?”

Karl, aware of the dangers of telling too much, smiled and said “Woman, you insult me. Do you mean to say that my son was sired by someone else?” The smile on his face was gone.

The matriarch laughed nervously, aware in this land of cross-cultures, an insinuation may cost a life.

“No Sahib, we wouldn’t dare insult you!”

“In your country it is common for a woman to have many men but for us, it is one woman for one man,” Karl tempered his tone.

“Perhaps your country is rich and has no need to care about your descendants. For a family with three sons, it is unwise to allow each son his own woman. It means more mouths to feed and good land gets smaller with each passing season in our world,” said the old woman refusing to back down.

“And how is the situation in Malana? We have heard that the queen is now a grandmother,” the eldest son chipped in to ease the tension between his mother and Karl.

Lea, who had been following the conversation quietly, tensed when she heard the name of Malana. Her mouth dry, she reached out for Shamshir and quickly brought him to his feed. She tucked him under her Kulu shawl for decency.

“Ah yes, the old dowager...I hear she is pleased. As would you old woman, if you know that your daughter-in-law is expecting, except of course, one wouldn’t know who the father is.” Karl tried to lure the Lahaulis into an argument by his insinuation.

Lea’s eyes widen with the knowledge that the young girl was the wife of all three sons.

Incredibly, the old woman instead of feeling insulted, started laughing. “We are family. It doesn’t matter who the father is as long as it is one of the three. Life is hard in the mountains. We do not complain when one more pair of hands is born to help with the chores. This is our way.”

Lea, curious to know how the daughter-in-law coped with the domestic situation, studied her. She was now pouring out a milky white liquid from an earthen flask into tiny silver cups. Karl explained that this was fermented barley moonshine called chang.

“It’s potent. Drink at your own risk.” He warned and promptly gulped down cup after cup.

Lea declined. She was still breastfeeding and didn’t want Shamshir to sample alcoholic milk. She watched the girl instead. Does she ever get a chance to rest? Lea wondered. What a life it must be for young Lahauli women. Shared by men, working from dawn to dusk, and when the children came, being mother to them as well. Lea noticed the dark rings under the young girl’s eyes and sympathised.

Much later, when all the others had retired to bed, Lea stayed back to help wash the dishes. Shamshir had fallen asleep under the shawl, full from being nursed by his mum.

“What is your name little sister?” asked Lea, speaking to her in Hindustani.

“Ganga.”

“So you speak Hindustani.”

“Only what I learned in school, big sister.”

“Oh, there are schools in the mountains?”

“Yes. When I was young, I went to school,” she answered bristling with pride.

“Where are your parents from?”

“My parents belong to the village of Kyelang. We had a huge family.”

“How did you come to live with this mataji?”

“The lama of Kye Gompa, who controls the lands in Kyelang, was not pleased with my family. My parents had a small li of land and five sons. The lama ruled that only one wife was permitted for our family because the land we owned was too small to be divided into five. My brothers were educated and each one in turn defied the rule. In the end, the lama banned my parents from marrying me to only one man. I had to marry my present husbands.”

“Do they treat you well?”

“I get regular food and a warm tent. But…” the girl hesitated and looked around to check if her family were within earshot.

“It’s not what you wanted then?” Lea encouraged her to go on.

“No…a life of constant motion is not easy big sister. Tomorrow we go into Tibet. We trade the yaks for Chinese goods and come back again. Ever since I have been with them, I have not been allowed to sleep soundly for even one night.”

“Ah, perhaps the old woman wants grandchildren,” Lea tried to console. She recognised a situation for which she could not help.

“You are very lucky big sister. You have only one man to serve.”

“We are not all that different little sister,” Lea sighed and said good night. She walked towards the tent that Karl had procured for the night. Her mind turned over the words ‘one man to serve’ and the implications they meant. Was that her problem then? Despite being brought up on the other side of the world, where civilisation had progressed and women’s liberation had come and gone, the meaning of her life was still imbedded with the motto, ‘one man to serve’.

He watched her as she entered the tent. Such an enigma, he thought. Naïve and vulnerable, yet underneath the fragility, laid a tenacious fighting spirit. The trek across the Rohtang was a test for any man. He half expected to have to carry her across it near the end. Yet, she had persisted, her concern for the safety of the child strengthening her physical resolve, a mother’s love he had underestimated. Sehr interessant! I could easily settle down with someone like you, thought Karl.

“This is new for me.” Lea settled into a corner of the tent and lowered Shamshir onto the carpeted floor.

“Never camped out before?” Karl handed her a green sleeping bag. It was an old US army down-filled bag.

“Yes, but…it wasn’t quite like this.” She remembered the Royal tents by the riverside.

Karl saw her puzzled look as she turned the bag around examining the zippers and wondering what to do.

“Hmmm…never used a sleeping bag before?”

“Er…no.” she offered it back to him. “Perhaps you’d better have it back. I’ll ask mataji for some blankets.”

“Believe me - you’ll be happier if you avoid their flea-infested blankets. See, it’s quite simple. You place your feet in here, then we sleep together and use the open bag as a duvet. Once we reach Kyelang, I’ll get another one for you.” He worked the sleeping bag around her as he spoke, placing Shamshir next to her.

Lea breast-fed Shamshir his last feed before sleep. She noticed Karl’s name written on the sleeping bag and realised that he was sharing his own sleeping bag with her.

“Will you be warm enough?” She was filled with guilt.

He shrugged with nonchalance. “Why do you think I drank so much of that old woman’s chang? If you put a match to my breath, I’d probably go ‘BOOM’.” He laughed at his own joke and settled down to sleep. “Blow out the candle after you finish.”

Laying back to back, their minds on anything but sleep, Karl spoke to fill the silence, “Comfortable?”

“Sure. Thank you.” Lea wanted to add, ’I’m nothing but trouble, aren’t I?’ but her self esteem was still shaky and she didn’t trust herself not to cry if she started.

“When are we leaving here?” she said instead.

“I took a little walk while you were busy chatting in the tent. Met up with some Indian Army guys working on the road. They said that Rohtang will open in two days time. That means, if anyone is pursuing us, they would be coming over pretty quickly. We need to get into the mountains, off the beaten track. I’ve managed to hitch us a ride on a supply truck tomorrow as far as Kyelang.”

“Kyelang. That’s where Ganga’s family lives. She will be pleased to know that we’re going there.”

“Hey, wait a minute lady.” He sat up and looked down at her. “What do you think this is? A holiday? There are people out there trying to kill us and you want to go visiting. Hast du ein vogel in den kopf?” Karl pointed to his head and whirled his finger around.

“I didn’t say anything about visiting,” she snapped back.

“Try keeping your mouth shut, alright. From tomorrow, you’ll travel like a Lahauli woman. Buy some clothes from your new friend. Your accent is foreign and that will give you away. Stop talking to people so much.” Karl blew out the candle light and wrapped himself into the folds of the sleeping bag as best he could.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that everything is happening so fast. I keep thinking maybe that I will wake up from this nightmare and …,” Tears welled up in her eyes and she was glad he couldn’t see them in the darkness.

“I was born into a life of danger, intrigue and escapades.” His tone softened. “In my trade, we watch our backs.”

Lea felt him turning away from her in an act of dismissal. Properly chastised, she hugged Shamshir by her side. Is this a case of out of the frying pan into the fire? Her mind whirled in confusion and it was a long time before she succumbed to sleep.

Something in the unspoken silence between them piqued him. Women are a load of trouble and this one will be no exception.

They left the road at Kyelang, after stocking up with provisions. To ease the load carrying, Karl bought an old mule. He warned Lea that the trek would be hard and she soon found that he was not exaggerating.

Unlike the Valley of the Gods, with its deep soil constantly fertilised by an abundant supply of mineral-enriched river water, the landscape of Lahaul reminded one of the moon. It was bleak and dry. Not a blade of grass or a tree grew of its own accord. Whatever was grown was put there by painstaking labour. Situated just below the Changtang Plateau, at high altitudes, the planting season was short. Flat lands where irrigation could be implemented were filled with fast-growing crops such as peas, potatoes and wheat. Lahaulis spoke a language related to Tibetan. They also shared the same beliefs and were Tantric Buddhists.

Lea had Shamshir on her back, wrapped in a Lahauli sheepskin pouch, a much needed purchase from Kyelang. He slumbered peacefully as his mother plodded through the stony paths. Karl led ahead with the brown mule, its dainty feet, picking sure-footedly over the rough terrain. More often than not, Karl found himself tugging the mule along. Obviously used to a more leisurely pace, the mule stopped along the route to nibble at whatever bits of shrub it could find. When the path began to ascend away from the river, they left the tiny pockets of green fields behind them.

Scheiße! Arschloch!” Karl cursed in German. He was beginning to regret buying the mule. “We’d be quicker if I carried the mule!” he said, utterly disgusted.

“May I suggest something?” Lea tried to help. She took out a carrot from the pack on the mule, tied it to a woollen string pulled from her shawl. Then tying the string to the back of Karl’s pants, she asked him to walk ahead. The mule saw the treat and followed without a moment’s hesitation.

“Just make sure you walk faster so it doesn’t nip you in the butt!” Lea called out and smiled.

“Ya, ya, ya!” Karl tried to act angry but he was silently thinking - this woman is not exactly dumb.

When they stopped to rest, Karl unfolded and frowned over a map. Lea noticed it was an old one, with lots of red scribbles written throughout the page. She found it hard to make light conversation with him. She felt intimidated by his experience. Then there was so much for which she had to thank him, she didn’t know where to begin. Some people encounter angels without knowing it - Lea contemplated in silence.

“What are you writing?” Karl asked, as they stopped to set up camp on the first night. It was only four p.m. but in this deep valley, nights came early.

Lea looked up guiltily from her pen and paper. “Just a letter.”

Karl laughed. “There is no postman here.” He eyed her.

“I’m not sending it, just need to do a closure I guess.” Lea sighed.

“Ah so, a goodbye letter? I hope you were not stupid enough to have left one for him back in Manali.” Karl’s tone revealed an edge of irritation.

“No. Look it’s none of your business.” Lea snapped, suddenly wishing she had not revealed herself.

“Lady, you are totally screwed up in your head. You know that? This man used you for an experiment, then takes away your son for a sacrifice and you still have feelings for him?” Karl shook his head and walked off in a huff.

Their campsite was in a grove of poplar trees. Young green shoots were beginning to sprout on the deciduous saplings. Nearby, a brook flowed through and gurgled musically. Karl pitched the Chinese tent he had bought in Kyelang. It was a flimsy brown dome, one of many products smuggled in by the nomads from China. The mule was left tied to a sturdy poplar, nibbling the carrot it had followed all day.

“I’ve been thinking…” Lea began awkwardly, realising that Karl had touched on the truth.

“Oh-oh…always trouble when a woman starts to think…” Karl mumbled.

“I want to thank you…” Lea tried again.

“Listen, do me a favour. Get some water from the stream and start a fire. I don’t know about you but I’m hungry,” Karl said brusquely.

Lea sighed. He wasn’t making it easy for her. She left Shamshir in the cosy tent and went to scoop a pot of water from the brook. Clear sparkling spring water. She washed her face and limbs. The water was ice cold and refreshing. She wet a hanky to clean Shamshir and remembered Raj. He used to have nice smelling hankies. Sighing again, she returned to the tent.

Karl watched from the door of the tent. Nice legs, great body. How did such a nice young girl get so mixed up? He wished he could talk to her about life but he was just not the type. He sniffed his shirt. Need a wash myself, his nose crinkled in distaste. Fishing his towel out, he went down to the stream to wash.

She watched as he began to prepare the evening meal. It was a windless night and he decided to cook outdoors. From his pack, he brought out a tiny little stove, filled it with kerosene and lit the wick. Then he pumped it until the yellow flame turned jet blue. Placing the pot of water on the stove, he blocked the breeze with his pack and the mule pack. Taking out some cabbage, potatoes and carrots, he handed her a Swiss knife and instructed her to start cutting them up.

“Throw them in the water as you cut.”

Glad to help, Lea started immediately, after making sure that Shamshir was nursed and wiped.

He took a pack of rice and poured a cupful into the boiling water and began to talk. “Water boils at a higher temperature in high altitude, you know?”

“No.” Lea continued doing the vegetables.

“But in the open air, everything tastes better.”

“You spend a lot of time in the outdoors?” Lea ventured.

“Ya. Can’t take closed places. Reminds me too much of my childhood…schools, institutions, jails. Nothing like living under the stars,” Karl smiled, looking up at the night sky.

“Oops, it’s boiling over.” Lea cautioned, lifted the pot and instantly regretted it. The handle, made from steel, burnt her. She dropped the pot and it nearly toppled over the tiny stove.

“Hey, watch it!” Karl was ready with his towel and managed to save the pot from scalding Lea’s feet.

“I’m sorry.” Lea was close to tears. She felt so inept.

“Calm down. Don’t go to pieces, OK? I can’t stand namby pamby women. Go to the stream and put your hand in the water. That’ll help the pain. I’ll finish cooking.” Karl sounded annoyed.

“I’m not namby pamby. Look, I know I’m no Daniel Boone, OK? I’ve never needed to be. I’m just a regular city-bred woman trying to survive. You don’t have to be so harsh with me.” Lea’s heart was thumping wildly in her chest. She didn’t wait to hear his reply and fled to the stream to nurse her hand.

Karl looked at her retreating back and gave a low whistle. A tigress in sheep’s clothing. And who the hell is Daniel Boone? He thought and he laughed silently to himself.

By the time they retired into the tent, their bellies filled with food, the awkwardness blew past. Karl fished out his medical kit from his pack and bandaged her blistered hand. Then he handed her his sleeping bag and pulled out a Chinese one he bought in Kyelang. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable, being made with synthetic polyfil.

Lea guessed it was his way of apologising.

“Where did you learn to cook?” Lea asked in the darkness of the tent. Shamshir was lying beside her, sucking gently on his thumb.

“I left home as soon as I could work I guess I’ve always had to look after myself. Anyway, I don’t call that cooking. Just throw everything in, no problem.”

Lea laughed. “It’s the best vegetarian pulao I’ve ever tasted. I never learnt to cook. I blame my mum. She used to cook the most wonderful Persian cuisine. It’s a pity I never thought to learn.”

The Chinese tent was tiny and despite the fact that they were sleeping in separate bags, the proximity of their bodies unnerved Karl. He’d always had sex with every woman he slept with. This situation was entirely new for him – and his little brother in his pants was typically up to form. To avoid embarrassment, he slept on his belly.

A cicada sang in their little grove and it was soon joined by cacophonic snoring from the brown dome tent. Lea felt the reverberating rhythm against her back. She sensed Karl’s restlessness. Is he feeling awkward about our enforced proximity too? She replayed how he touched her hand earlier, while bandaging it. Her heartbeat had quickened. The little things he did for her, even the latest offer of his better sleeping bag. Lea was beginning to realise that underneath that hard exterior, Karl was a very nice man, a good man just as the old nun in Manikaran had predicted. More of a man in all ways than Raj could ever be. She stirred uneasily, realising that this was the first time in months she had felt genuinely aroused. It was a long time before she could fall asleep.

The next morning, Karl woke her up before it was light and began to pack. He displayed a sense of urgency that startled her.

“What’s wrong, what’s happening?” Lea whispered.

“It’s time to go. We’ve to go off the track today and get into territory I have not ventured into before. Let’s move, if they are looking for us, they’ll come soon.”

The route became more treacherous as they left the beaten track behind them. The mule brayed in defiance, refusing the carrot enticement. Karl improvised by lashing it with a poplar branch. Lea winced but said nothing. They had to walk through land, more rock than soil. A wrong move could mean a broken ankle and that would be disastrous. For the next few nights, they kept moving higher where the air became thinner. Around them, the vista became windswept and empty. Mountains of coloured sands, tinged with green copper sulphates and red ferrous oxides dwarfed them. Some nights, the winds blew hard and they ended up cooking within the tent. Lea soon learnt the finer touches of cooking on a camp stove while Karl played with Shamshir. Their initial awkwardness had been replaced by subtle contact and meaningful glances.

Unknown to Lea, Karl watched the baby for signs of high altitude sickness. He’s too young to tell us but his state of alertness will warn me that something is wrong.

Then it happened. It was the tenth day and they were heading towards the Phirtse-La, a massive fifteen thousand feet high pass that would lead them into the Zanskar Valley. The morning had started well. Two hours into their trek, Lea felt a lunge behind her and puke rained down her neck. Before she could untie the Lahauli pouch and swing the baby around, Karl had rushed to her side, picked the baby up, and raced him downhill.

“Follow me! Bring the mule!” He shouted urgently as he threw her the reins. As he ran, he pried the baby’s mouth open, clearing his choked throat of vomit and giving mouth to mouth before it turned blue.

Lea, struck with panic, stumbled blindly after them. She must have slipped down the scree and fallen a dozen times but she wasn’t even aware of the cuts and pain. Her mind was centred only on her baby. What happened? What’s going on? Numbed with shock, she couldn’t remember how she ended up at the bottom of the mountain, cradling her son, who was now crying with gusto. Lea herself cried with relief.

Karl sat on a rock, breathless and shaken. It was a near thing. The baby could have suffocated in its own vomit and died. The speed at which he brought the child down a thousand feet had saved its life.

“Where’s the mule?” Karl finally caught his breath and looked up the trail.

“I…I don’t know…” Lea bit her lower lip nervously. She knew that once again, she had blundered. “I’m sorry… I’ll go back up to get it.” She volunteered.

Karl sighed, shaking his head. Women are nothing but trouble. I should have listened to my instincts. “You’d better stay down here with the baby. He needs you right now. Calm down. I’ll go up for the mule. It won’t have moved far. It’s a lazy animal anyway. Do something useful and look for a good camp ground,” saying this, he headed off.

Lea looked up the steep path and noted the sweat-drenched retreating back of Karl. It occurred to her then that she could never hope to repay this man for all he had done. Determined to do the best she could, she set to work, looking around for a flat place for the tent. A water source would be wonderful and she hoped to find something like that to make him proud of her for a change. But it was a moraine, full of gigantic rocks and hardly any green. Descending a little way, she saw a buttercup peeking out from a rock. She looked for another one and followed the trial. Clambering up a rocky slope, she found herself moving further and further into a valley. Then as she rounded a rock face, a massive amphitheatre opened up before her. A thin pencil of water fell from a great height and made a pool at the base. A sand bank surrounded the pool and tuffs of grass sprung from the moist alluvial soil. Lea could see no stream but where the waters flowed a short way, it disappeared under a profusion of buttercups and flowed underground. The sounds of the fall echoed in the confined space. Lea hurried to the water’s edge and found it clear and freezing cold. Washing Shamshir’s face and her neck, she turned back to where she came to wait for Karl’s return. It was a long wait.

By the time Karl came hauling the reluctant mule, the sun had already set and the unrelenting wind had begun to pick up.

“I found an amphitheatre!” Lea shouted into the darkness.

“Water?” Karl’s voice sounded exhausted.

“Yes, a waterfall and a nice flat bank for the tent.

In the darkness, Karl could not assess the camp site. But at this point, he was too tired to care. When they reached the place, all he could hear was the waterfall, echoing in the night. The wind had begun to howl. He smelled the air. It was fresh. The baby would need at least a week here to acclimatise before attempting the pass with its rarefied atmosphere again. Lea set up the tent and made sure that the mule was watered and fed, tying it to a huge rock a little way from the water. She patted it on its head, it may be stubborn but it had helped them carry an otherwise unmanageable load.

In the tent, she lit the stove, made a cup of tea and handed it to Karl, who was already half asleep. She helped him into his sleeping bag and boiled water to warm the tent up. Then taking the warm water, she cleaned Karl’s face and beard, which still had traces of Shamshir’s dried vomit. It was a face that spoke of suffering; there were deep furrows between his brows. He had permanent dark rings around his eyes, a sign of prolonged lack of sleep. His cheeks were hollowed out, rough and creased to where his unkempt beard started. Lea felt her heart stir. Don’t be silly! This man is twice your age and definitely not your type! She heard her old friend Sarah’s voice in her head.

With an inbred instinct for danger at any given moment, Karl’s hand leapt up and gripped her wrist. Lea gasped from the shock. He opened his eyes and focused. Then he saw the wet cloth and her face, hovering only inches away. The other hand came up, grabbed her from behind her head and pulled her towards him. His mouth on hers, they kissed with unbridled passion. The ferocity of their union matched the howling winds outside.

With dawn, the winds abated and an eerie calmness transformed the amphitheatre into a perfect haven. The sun rays hit the waterfall and threw a spectrum onto the surrounding cliff-walls.

Lea woke up and started a meal of potatoes, peas and soy nutri-nuggets, the ‘meat’ of the poor. This was their daily diet. As she stared into a pot of green peas bubbling in diced potatoes and brown soy soup, her thoughts went back to Raj and the good days; the feasts they used to have and especially the momos; then the bad days and then there was last night.

“Penny for your thoughts,” said Karl, emerging from the tent.

“I miss momos,” she lied.

“Hmmm, that can be fixed. Next destination, I promise you the best momos this side of China,” grinned Karl, laughter lines crinkled around his eyes.

“China? I thought we were in Lahaul,” Lea noticed how the lines softened his face.

“Not if the Chinese had anything to say about it,” laughed Karl, imitating a staccato chink accent.

Their tryst from the night before changed their relationship. The sexual tension disappeared and Karl began to talk. As the little stove hissed its blue flames against the tin of food, she listened to his tales of the many places he had been, the people he had met and the friends he’d made. His life had been so much more colourful than hers, so much more lived. Lea found herself laughing more and reminiscing less.

“So, what were you before you came to the valley?” Karl asked one night.

“I …” Lea gave a nervous laugh, it seemed so long ago. “I did research on miscarriages. I am actually on a sabbatical from St. Mary’s Hospital in London.”

Karl’s eyes widened in disbelief, “You’re a doctor?”

“No. I’m not a doctor. I was supposed to do my PhD research on this trip but the tables turned and I became researched instead.” Lea couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice.

“Hey, don’t worry. You can be my doctor any time.” He smiled and squeezed her hand.

Travelling through a timeless land, their amity increased.

By night, Karl showed Lea the stars and their positions in the night sky, how to look for familiar constellations and which stars they could use to guide them on their journey. By day, he explained the geology of the moonscape through which they were passing, showing her the wave walls of ancient rivers etched in the cliffs, carved by the fierce winds.

“You are a walking encyclopaedia Karl.”

“I’m sorry. Am I that boring?” said Karl as he imitated the mechanical voice of a robot.

“Did you enjoy school?”

“Yes,” as he adopted the squeaky voice of a six-year-old.

“For how long?”

“Hmmm, for exactly forty-five minutes and seventeen seconds,” Karl blinked as an innocent six years old would blink.

“Karl, be serious.”

“I am. I went to school when I was six years old. On my first day, our teacher, who had a constipated face and who was aptly named Fraulein Zwiebel, which means ‘Onion’, greeted us with a warning that she would give us all a good thrashing if we were naughty. After forty-five minutes of being bored out of our skulls from learning how to write our own names, I stood up to go out and play. She called me to her desk, leaned over me with a threatening finger and said, mimicking the voice of an old woman, he continued, ’Karl Fieser, I have been watching you. I know your type and I won’t take any nonsense from you. Go back to your desk and sit down this minute.’ Then she did the stupidest thing. She twisted my ear. Ouch, that hurt and it nearly made me cry. But I was a tough little kid and didn’t like to cry in front of girls. So I got angry and the next seventeen seconds, I took hold of her ear and twisted it back.”

“No, you didn’t!” shrieked Lea, in amusement.

“Ya, I did. And after that, I was never asked to go back to school again.”

“Then where did you learn to speak such perfect English?” Lea probed.

“Ah…I had many English girlfriends…you learn faster when you sleep with the teacher you know.” Karl joked.

“I see…maybe you should have started with your Fraulein Zweibel.” Lea teased.

Schrecklich! Please don’t remind me of that stinky onion woman!” Karl exaggerated his disgust.

They ended up laughing about education and life’s screw-ups.

By the end of a week, Karl felt that it was time to cross the Phirtse-La. Shamshir was his active happy self once more. Even the complaining mule was happy as it munched sedately on buttercups all day.

That evening, they cooked a large meal of PPS, ate quickly and began to pack up in the tent. Suddenly, the mule started braying like it was insane. Lea’s heart stopped. We’ve been found! Raj is here. Without hesitation, Karl shot out of the tent and ran towards the mule with his knife. Lea tied Shamshir to her back and followed.

She froze at the sight of a big Himalayan Brown Bear, a cousin of the American Grizzly. The bear covered the bloodied body of the mule, which was twitching in a death throe. A lightning swipe of its paw had done the job. Tethered to a rock, the mule had no chance. Without a weapon of substance or even a huge stick, Karl realised very quickly that he was at a disadvantage. He picked up rocks and began to hurl them at the bear, hoping to scare it away. But the rocks merely bounced off its silver tipped tawny coat. Food being scarce in the higher reaches, above the tree-line without roots and berries, the bear refused to retreat. Angered at the interruption to its feed and territory, the bear turned and charged.

Karl ran up the slopes, trying to lead the beast away from Lea and the child. But it would not follow. It was hungry and there was mule to eat.

Lea rushed back to the tent, picked up her shawl and soaked it in kerosene. Then running back to the scene of carnage, she was just in time to see Karl stumbling over a rock and falling hard. The bear was hot on his heels and as it rose on its hind legs, its roar reverberated through the amphitheatre like thunder.

Lea lighted one end of the woollen shawl which burst into flames and she whirled it at the bear. Seeing the fire, the giant carnivore retreated at last. Karl sat up amazed.

“Now, why didn’t I think of that?” he brushed the dust from pants and stamped out the fire from the burning shawl which Lea had dropped on the ground.

She slumped on the grass, her knees suddenly turned to jelly. Karl examined the mule carcass and shook his head.

Scheiße! What a way for life to end.” He realised that Lea was not listening. She was still in shock.

Kneeling next to Lea, he hugged her.

“It’s OK, it’s over.” He reassured her, feeling her trembling subside. “You did a very brave thing.”

Pulling her up to her feet, he led her back to the tent and continued to pack.

“Let’s go before it comes back.” He urged as he hauled a heavy pack on his back.

The reality of the danger electrified Lea into action. She understood then, that in the wild, there is seldom time to grief. Life moved on, regardless.

They were now forced to carry the load between them. Although much lighter, the initial provisions greatly diminished, the real burden laid in their hearts. They had lost a friend, albeit a stubborn and sometimes irritating animal, but it had endeared itself to them even within the short time that they had spent together.

2 – Zanskar, India, July Year 4

They crossed the treacherous Phirtse-La with difficulty. At fifteen thousand feet, snow never melts. Lea paused at the top gasping for air. Karl was right behind her, carrying Shamshir. The view she saw was unmatched by anything she had seen before. They were so high that clouds shrouded the mountainsides below them. A ferocious wind swept through the chasm, choking her and she felt as if it was pushing her back.

Like most high passes in the Greater Himalayas, loose scree, interspersed with gigantic boulders mark the desolate landscape. No vegetation can exist. Mountain passes provide vital routes of entry and exits between valleys. They act like fortress doorways within mountain ranges. Unlike normal doorways, passes are notoriously dangerous. Weather conditions at such high altitudes are at best erratic and countless lives have been lost while attempting the crossing of a pass. Travellers over the centuries have come to regard high passes as mystical, a place where evil lurked. Ancient pilgrims therefore, dedicated ‘temples’ on every pass to Buddha or a god of that region. These simple stone structures serve to protect travellers from evil spirits.

Lea struggled towards a row of white-washed chortens half buried in snow. It was the first sign of civilisation that they had encountered since leaving Kyelang. Karl was now back in familiar territory.

“These crude clay structures with a square base, topped with a domed stupa contain relics of revered monks.” He explained to Lea.

“Is this a sort of pilgrim route then?” Lea asked.

“Ya. Last winter, three pilgrims were caught in a blizzard here and their bodies were found frozen stiff around these chortens.”

She followed Karl with trepidation. Is he going to show me their bodies? She held her breath not knowing what to expect.

They walked around the chortens in a clockwise direction. There were no dead bodies in sight. Lea imagined that they could be underneath the snow. It was certainly deep enough.

“Walking around a chorten gives us blessings towards our onward journey.” He chortled as he looked at her face and knew what she was thinking.

Further on, they came upon a rough stone temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali. Tantric Buddhism encompassed Hindu deities and finding temples dedicated to Hindu gods was not uncommon. Karl led Lea over to it, showing her the two black stones of Kali. Flat, oval and about the size of a ten-inch frying pan, they were both painted with two blue faces of the Goddess. The stone faces, placed upright, had red menacing eyes. Coin offerings were stuck to the faces, as though held by glue, while some had fallen at the base.

“The Buddhists say that these stones have a kind of magnetic power to hold the coin offerings in place,” Karl explained.

“But coins are made of nickel which magnets don’t attract.”

"Ya, that’s the magic of the Kali stones, no one knows what they are made of. I’ve been tempted to get them analysed. Here, see for yourself. Try placing a coin on the face,” Karl suggested.

Lea tried it and the coin stuck. She smiled and exclaimed “Ah, Kali has accepted my offering and the rest of my journey is blessed. Now you try,” she challenged Karl.

"Nay, I don’t believe in black magic,” Karl quipped and walked off.

Lea bristled. What’s wrong with this guy? She remembered a quip of a group of Germans chanting ‘We are Germans. We have humour, Ha, ha, ha.’ Maybe that’s Karl, she thought.

The valley after Phirtse-La was a flat land without trees. They made camp in the prairie grass watched by a group of inquisitive marmots. Lea held Shamshir up to watch the playful rodents sitting out of their holes on their hind legs, giving warning whistles to one another. She hugged her baby and sang to him amidst the Zanskarian mountains which towered over them. Their massive cloaks of grey, purple and brownish hues, created an air of awesome mystery as twilight filled the valley.

“How much longer Karl?” asked Lea, her voice betraying her exhaustion as she stroked Shamshir, sound asleep in the corner of the tiny tent.

“Not much.”

“That’s what you said the last time. But exactly how long Karl?”

Just then, Lea felt something move under her. She jumped up and collided with Karl in the cramped tent.

“Hey, is it something in the PPS?” whispered Karl, catching her in his strong reliable arms and holding on to her.

When he saw the round bump under the thin fabric of the tent, he started laughing and, picking up his boot, reached over and whacked the bump which let a shrill squeal.

“It’s ‘Hit the mole’ Zanskari style,” he joked.

“We’ve trapped a marmot under our tent.” Lea gasped again as another lump appeared.

“Good eating if you can catch them. The nomads stuff their insides with hot stones, pour a bit of wine into the hole before sewing it up. They get smoked inside out. Then they burn off the reddish brown fur and the meat is sehr lecker.” Karl smacked his lips.

“We must have placed our tent right over its tunnel. We have to move.” Lea was aghast.

"Nay, egal. They have other escape routes. Umm...are you going to sit on me all night?” Karl spoke sensually into her ear.

Realising where she was, Lea became flustered, apologised and crawled out of the tent to hide her embarrassment of being so squeamish.

A million stars sparkled in the dark Zanskari skies. It was breathtaking.

“Can you remember the stars I showed you?” Karl had emerged so silently from the tent that his voice made her jump nervously.

“Um...not really. It’s not easy but I can see the Plough.” Lea was glad that the darkness hid her blushing face. Now that they were back near civilisation, the familiarity of the wilderness appeared to have vanished.

“Well, at this time of night, hmmm...let’s see...you can see Jupiter and Saturn over there. Planets don’t sparkle, only stars and these two are the brightest planets. The constellation of Scorpio is over there and if you look at that dense mass right across the sky, that’s the Milky Way. ”

“I can’t see where you’re looking at. Is that Jupiter over there?” asked Lea pointing with her outstretched hand at a star with a blue-green tinge.

Karl took Lea’s hand, stood behind her and moved it slowly in the direction of Jupiter. Then he traced out Scorpio with her fingers.

There is a moment when a man and woman both recognise that their souls have connected. In that instant of intimacy, their relationship inexplicably changes them from being strangers to being lovers. That moment came for Lea and Karl as he held his head close to hers, guiding her expertly through the Galaxy as he knew it. Karl was thinking of other galaxies he would love to show her but reminded himself that to explore the possibilities now would be immature. First he needed to get them out of India. Then perhaps, when the dangers are over, they would relive this moment together. He broke the spell and abruptly changed the tone of his voice.

“It has been too good to be true so far. The gods must favour you.”

“I have been feeling as if we’re not escaping anybody. It’s as if we’ve entered a world of peace and we should perhaps just stay here forever like this.”

“Search parties must be checking every nook and cranny for you and that child. We move out early in the morning and pick up the pace to finish the last lap. Let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow will be another hard day.”

They stopped briefly at a spot where crystal clear water spurted out of a hole in the rocks. After filling up their water bottles with spring water, Lea took off her pendent and handed it over to Karl.

“Here, I owe you this, and a lot more besides,”

Smiling broadly, Karl opened up his Zanskari cloak, and revealed the matching pendant he had taken from Shamshir. Placing them side by side, he whistled softly.

“They are identical. So perfect. Sie sind fantastish!”

Lea smiled ruefully “No jewel on earth is worth the life of my son. You have earned them both as far as I am concerned.”

Carefully, he tied them on one leather strap and tucked them away into his cloak. He looked at her and smiled.

“You look like a real mountain woman, caked with dirt.”

“And you look like a mountain man,” Lea retorted.

“Anyway, we have to get you the Zanskari clothes now. I see you have grown used to that long gown.”

Lea smiled. “I had plenty of experience. Malana women wore pattus and I used them. However, Lahauli weave is not as refined and can tickle the skin. I notice they seem to prefer just red dyes here.”

“Ah! Lahaul is a Buddhist County and ruled by the monks. They have a dress code for their people - reds for commoners and yellow for monks of high ranks.”

“You seem to know a lot of the culture here.”

"Ya... I have wintered in these valleys before. Nine months, cut off from the rest of the world due to high snows, one can be lost forever.”

“Must have been boring for you.”

"Nay. I had the best time of my life. Everyday drinking and dancing. Every night, a party at someone’s house. Imagine being locked up for nine months in a place with women, wine and song,” enthused Karl, his eyes gleaming with the memories.

“So you have good friends here.”

“Ya and we will meet them soon.”

They reached a rope bridge, a crude construction of planks tied at intervals with thick ropes. There were ropes on each side for hand holds but nothing to prevent someone from hurtling down to the churning river one hundred and fifty feet below should they lose their balance.

“Only one man at a time on this one. The bridge is old and long overdue for replacement,” Karl explained.

Lea stepped onto the bridge with great trepidation. The bridge bounced up and down following the momentum of her gait. All went well until she reached the middle. Shamshir suddenly started to struggle.

“No baby. Stop.” The fear in her voice came out in a whisper.

Karl saw her plight and shouted instructions.

“Get down on your knees. Don’t look down - just keep looking ahead,” he shouted.

Lea stooped. Shamshir lurched forward. She untied him from her back and held him to her bosom. She froze to the spot in fear as the bridge creaked incessantly, swaying in the wind.

Just then a monk in red robes arrived on the opposite side of the bridge. Reading the situation instantly, he darted out onto the bridge, not even bothering to hold the side ropes. With one hand, he deftly scooped up the baby, turned and walked swiftly back. Shamshir let out a bawl for his mother as they reached the opposite side.

Lea stood unsteadily, and half stooping, half standing, began to walk across the rest of the bridge. Her eyes focussed on Shamshir, her heart thumping. At one point she noticed a rotten plank. Panic seized her again and she stooped.

"Ganz schnell, we don’t have all day! ” Karl goaded her from behind as he waited his turn to cross the bridge.

"Om mani padme hom, she needs to walk before she can run,” shouted the young monk to Karl at the other side.

“Dorje my friend, you are as always full of Scheiße.”

“Hey, I need help here,” Lea cried in vain.

The two men ignored her as they bantered to one another across the bridge.

“Bastards,” she muttered under her breath. Feeling the anger rising in her, she summoned the courage to stand straight up and without faltering cross the rest of the way.

Karl followed her across and two men hugged and slapped each other’s backs.

“Which wind blow you here Hashie?”

“The winds of fortune of course.”

“Haha still same same. This woman? New wife? Baby yours?”

“No, my sister actually.”

“Sister? If she your sister, then I be your wife!” the monk retaliated.

“I’d no sooner marry you than cut off my own head!” Karl retorted. “How is the old chief?”

Dorje took the change in topic in stride. He knew his friend would be into something lucrative and probably highly dangerous, as usual.

“Lama-ji is well. Knees crooked, no move all over. But head still straight.”

“Is Dolma still cooking for all of you?”

“Yes. She have nice helper girl now.”

“Hey, you guys are supposed to be ‘no touch girl’ ya?” Karl lapsed into the local English of his friend.

“We no touch but no harm look.”

“Well, if she cooks as well as Dolma, I wouldn’t mind trying her out.”

“Tsk. Hashie you no change hah. Dolma happy see you. She say everybody you big bear. Eat all winter stock in one day.”

Karl laughed heartily remembering his previous winter sojourn. In his heart, he was relieved that they had made it half-way without seeing any sign of the Malanaan pursuers.

3 – Malana, India, July Year 4

“SHE MUST BE FOUND!” thundered Raj to the gathered council.

“Your highness, may I say that we have sent our people to all exits in the Valley and none have seen or heard anything - either of the little prince or his birth mother,” Thakur, the chairman, offered.

“The Whitfields have been questioned over and over again. They stick to the same story. She told them she was tired and went to bed. Her door was locked and they had no reason to believe that she had escaped,” another council member spoke.

“If the butcher’s boy is to be believed, then she has teamed up with the German,” someone else added.

“Then for all we know, they may be all dead. His rented jeep was found in the gorge after all.” Moti Lal scoffed.

“There was no sign of blood or bodies. We have even checked the river all the way to Kulu, Your Highness. Under every boulder and rock, we have not found any bodies. But it still doesn’t mean they are alive. The river does not give up her dead easily sometimes.”

“SHE IS NOT DEAD!” Raj’s anger rose to his eyes and the last speaker froze in terror.

“Raj, you knew her best. What would she have done?” The calm and rational voice of the queen brought Raj to his senses. He closed his eyes and massaged his temples.

“She would have not have gone far by herself. She has no will of her own. She would hide in the mountains until it is safe to come out,” Raj clenched his fists to control his fury.

“Hiding in the mountains? With no knowledge of living in the wild?” asked the queen in disbelief.

“If she is with that German bastard…Maybe I didn’t know her till now. Maybe we’ve pushed her too far.” Raj slumped in his seat.

“The prince is ours. We must send out some men to get him back,” the queen addressed the council.

“We have no pact with people over the Rohtang. But we have searched all the main routes, offered rewards to people in Spiti, Lahaul, Zanskar and Leh for any information. Perhaps she had already reached the capital somehow and flown out of the country.” Thakur shook his head.

“But there are a hundreds of valleys they could be hiding in. Or they could even have teamed up with nomads and gone over to Tibet.” Moti Lal sneered.

Just then, the village children started hailing Chander who hurried straight into the council meeting. His clothes were dirt stained and his face clearly showed extreme exhaustion.

“Your Highness, Gentlemen, I have found a nomadic family who housed them for one night.” He began his narrative with the Lahauli woman who had three sons and a daughter-on-law. “They had only returned to Kyelang for provisions two nights ago, so did not hear about our search. A month ago, on the way out to the Tibetan border to trade, they gave refuge to a big yellow-haired man with a beard with his woman and a blue-eyed baby.”

“Did they say where the man and woman were heading?” Raj stood up in his excitement.

“No. Only that they hitched a ride with an army jeep going to Kyelang the next day.” Chander resumed. “I asked in Kyelang and an old man said he sold a mule to a yellow-haired man but he would say nothing more. I got the feeling that the mule was a bad bargain.”

A few chuckles broke out among the council. They all knew what trouble a bad mule could be.

“They must have gone over the mountains towards Leh or towards Tibet.”

“I have divined that Lord Jamlu wants us to leave the child and his mother alone. He will destroy them by using the forces of the mountains. They will never escape,” The high priest urged, his voice cracking with impatience.

“Have you consulted Lord Jamlu about where the prince might be?” the queen frowned in thought.

“His anger overwhelms everything. I cannot fathom the answers. I keep seeing mountains, nothing but mountains,” tension tightened the priest’s face so much that he looked more vulture than man. White spittle lined the sides of his mouth.

He is lying! Raj realised that the High Priest was using Jamlu to ensure that the blood of Malana remained untainted. They are all working against me on this. It’s time to show who’s the boss. It’s no wonder we’re not getting anywhere with locating them.

“The shepherds lead their flocks to these high pasture lands. They will know the ways. Perhaps some can even help with information,” Thakur suggested.

“Pardon me...but it is already late in the season. The shepherds have all returned from the mountains,” Moti Lal informed them.

“Pay them. They will go back as guides if the price is right,” the queen insisted.

“And the men? Who shall go?” old Moti Lal, grossly overweight, knew that there was no danger of him being asked to lead a group.

“We’ll recruit people from our village. Pay them well or threaten them with fear of Jamlu. Then Chander goes with one group to Delhi to head them off and I will head towards Zanskar.” Raj decided to play along with the charade.

“Do you think it’s wise for a king to go hunting down his lover?” Thakur demurred.

“She was only an experiment. There was no love in it.” Raj defended himself.

“An experiment gone wrong, I might add.” Moti Lal could not resist gloating.

“Perhaps it is better if you lead them then, Thakur sahib.” The queen’s cunning turned the tables on Thakur.

He found himself wishing he had not opened his mouth as he left with Chander to make immediate travel arrangements.

Raj sat alone in the council square. His gamble had failed and his loss of face in the council weighed heavily in his mind. I am losing control of my power as king. That old vulture uses Jamlu to get the upper hand every time. He is turning everyone against me. I will have to deal with him first. If Lea escapes to England, she could expose everything and then the Governor would be forced to terminate our marijuana trade. I should have killed her when I had the chance. Now, it may be too late. DAMN YOU LEA!

Kamala walked quietly into the square. The queen had sent her to persuade Raj to return home for the midday meal. She saw the look of hatred on her husband’s face and felt queasy instantly. She feared him. He acted kindly towards her in front of everyone but behind closed doors, he humiliated her. The only times she had peace was when he smoked his marijuana pipe. She suddenly felt nauseous. She bent over and threw up.

Raj looked at her in disgust. He knew she was pregnant but he had no sympathy for her. He walked away and left her alone in the square. Kamala looked up and saw him leave. If I give him a perfect baby as well, he will not treat me like this, she thought in quiet desperation.

4 – Phugtal Gompa, India, August Year 4

At first sight, Phugtal Gompa appears to be an optical illusion. Its looks like a gigantic anthill, blending naturally into the surrounding landscape of rocks and scree. Upon closer inspection however, holes emerge out of the crumbling wall of rising crust and form themselves into windows built into a series of buildings clustered into a hive. It is the colour of yellow brown dust, a perfect camouflage against the barren mountainside. The gargantuan structure lures travellers towards it from afar and upon reaching it; all are astounded by its height. How does one enter such a place? Lea wondered to herself. On all sides, sheer cliff faces, windows high up the walls, no doors in sight.

Dorje led them through a massive cavern, where a maze of tunnels wormed out. Taking one, they wound their way through narrow passages, lit by smoky kerosene lamps. Lea felt the path ascending as she followed Karl and Dorje into the hive. Suddenly, they emerged into an open courtyard and bright sunlight. They had arrived into the inner sanctum of the Gompa.

“Eeyie, Hashie!” an old woman in a red nun outfit came bustling out of a doorway, her toothless grin breaking her face almost into two parts. Karl flung his arms wide and embraced her warmly.

“Dolma-ji. You must tell me how you make your elixir of life. What do you eat to make you live so long!”

The old nun shrieked with laughter.

“Ay, Hashie. You no here, we have food. Now you here, everybody go hungry.”

“Woman, look at me. Do I look like a greedy pig?”

It was only then that the old nun turned to look at Lea. She gasped, “Ah you! Little sister in Manikaran. Om mani padme hom.”

Lea smiled as she remembered the old nun from her bath in the hot springs.

“A lifetime ago,” Lea replied and bowed to the nun in return.

“Ahya! Son of king!” she shrieked in delight. Taking Shamshir from Lea’s back pouch, she peered at the baby’s face and exclaimed, “Lapis lazuli eyes!”

“Hashie, if that true, you are what you say, over your head?” said Dorje, his forehead creasing with worry as he said this.

“You know me my friend. I love living on the edge.”

“Ya and one day, you fall off.”

“That day has yet to come. Hey, Dolma-ji. Stop playing nursemaid and give your starving guests some food!” Karl was clearly at home there.

“Food, food, food. What I tell you? All you men same same.” As she shuffled off to the kitchen, urging Lea to follow.

Somewhere in the Gompa, a gong resounded.

“Ah so, the call for afternoon prayers. I’ll go with you Dorje. Better say Namaste to Lama-ji and thank him for his hospitality,” said Karl winking at Lea and following the young monk out.

“Make momos, Dolma-ji. Save some for me!” Dorje yelled his request in Zanskari as Karl grabbed him by his shoulders and pushed him off to join the rest of his brethren.

A melodious humming and chanting reverberated through the Gompa. Mesmerised, Lea laid on a hard bed, alone in a small bare room that Dolma had offered for her use. A little window next to her bed, opened out to the landscape. The brown hues of the undulating cliffs reminded her of the sides of a layered cake. Far below, the Lingti River flowed, strands of copper green through a grey slated river bed. She could see the rope-bridge over which she had struggled earlier, a slither of jute, joining one bank to another. At high altitude, strong rays of the sun shimmered from the bright blue skies, piercing through puffs of drifting cloud, cast moving shadows which mottled the valley floor. Nothing else moved. The Zanskari world felt at peace. She closed her eyes to rest.

A lone vulture flew across the valley, flapping its wings languidly. Lea tried to hide but it was too late. Its black beady eyes spied her from afar and it came in to land, talons outstretched, its razor sharp beak open, ready to strike. She found herself naked, out in the open, as it sped towards her, diving for the kill. She screamed.

Lea woke with a start. She shook her head to clear the nightmare from her mind. A quiet knock on the door heralded Dolma’s entry with a food tray. Shamshir, snugly tied to her back, was sound asleep.

“Little sister, momo you like? Eat. Eat and sleep.”

“Thank you Dolma-ji. You are very kind. And I can see that my son is happy with you too.”

“No worry. Good karma for me.”

“I am grateful to your karma then.”

“You strong little sister. No worry. Lord Buddha protect you.”

“Can Buddha protect me from Jamlu?” Lea wondered aloud.

“Jamlu? Ah, Malana god. Om mani padme hom. Buddha protect you. Other gods no worry Buddha.” Dolma smiled confidently.

“How strange to be a god in this country with only designated areas of control set by humans.” Lea was amused.

Unable to understand what Lea said, Dolma repeated her belief, “Think only of Buddha. All OK.”

Lea tucked into the momos.

“Hmmm...best I have ever eaten Dolma-ji.”

“Ah no...make quick, quick, for Hashie. Good momo need long time. I make some more later. Then you see good momo. When you go little sister, you fat. Baby fat. Hashie fat sure.”

“Thank you Dolma-ji. I doubt if we will be staying here for long.”

“No worry. Here safe. Lama-ji good man. All help Hashie. He like here. Stay long time.” The old nun insisted.

Later, Karl came by when she was alone. Shamshir was fast asleep, well fed and happy.

“I see Dolma-ji has given you my old room.” He smiled.

“You stayed here for nine months?” Lea was surprised.

“If I could have my whole life back, I’d probably make a good monk.” Karl replied wistfully.

“Somehow I doubt that. You love your wine, women and song, remember?” Lea teased and patted the bed for him to sit. There was no other furniture in the spartan room.

“Hmmm…that is true. OK, I’ll start a new sect where monks can have wine, women and song and do nothing else but chant all day and eat Dolma-ji’s momos.” He winked.

Lea laughed, then became serious and said, “How long are we staying Karl? Is there word about the Malanaans?”

“They have come through once before, offering money for information. I guess they expect us to make a dash for Leh and get out of India.” Karl sobered and the lines between his brows deepened.

“Will we be safe here?” Lea picked up his unspoken signs of worry.

“We have nothing to fear. Lama-ji has instructed all his disciples to keep our being here a secret. As an added precaution, he has cancelled all travel arrangements for everyone. For the moment, we are safe.”

“How long shall we stay?” Lea wanted to know what to expect.

“Perhaps till the next summer?” Karl smiled and rested his head on the bed.

“But won’t it be risky? Shouldn’t we try to leave India as soon as we can?” Lea chewed her lip nervously.

Karl sat up and took her hand, “Listen, we mustn’t play into their hands. Hide and seek is a game where the loser is the one who cannot take the strain and runs out of hiding before he is found.” Then he yawned and stood up. “I’ll go find my cave sleeping quarters now. I need to catch up on my sleep.” Squeezing her hand, he left.

Lea smiled ruefully. She half wished they were still in the mountains and sharing the tent. She had become used to him and it seemed odd that they would sleep separately after spending the last month together. I wonder if he feels the same.

The Great Hall of Phugtal Gompa was a magnificent three-tiered pagoda. Each eave was carved with emblems and carefully painted in vivid red, green, yellow and shiny black. Deep yellow tapestries reached from the top of the ceilings down to the floors, swaying gently in the breeze. Two rows of saffron-robed monks, sat cross-legged facing each other, with thick booklets of ancient prayers, yellowed with age, placed on low tables in front of them. They resembled Confucian school boys with eyes closed as they memorised passages by chanting a haunting melody. In front of the hall, a ten-foot golden statue of Buddha smiled benignly down on the worshippers amidst tiny oil lamps flickering at his lotus adorned feet.

Karl sat in one of the empty slots next to Dorje and let the soothing sounds he knew so well, sink in. His heartbeat calmed to the ageless buzz, echoing through the pagoda. Glancing around at the familiar decor, he noted the new Thanka paintings on the walls with their rich blood-red colours, glazed with egg shells. These were vivid depictions of devils, half-animal, and half-man, engaged in the eternal struggle with good. The earlier words of Dorje come back to him. You are over your head. He thought of Lea and remembered that first time he saw her in the dingy momo shop in Manali and how she looked so lost and alone. What made me do it? Why stick my neck out for a total stranger? Sure, the Malanaans are a bunch of bastards. They cut me out and it is payback time. But taking the whole village on! Umglaublich! A crazy, stupid thing to do. And where will all this lead to? Is she still in love with her King? Will she ever be able to love another, especially a ne’er-do-well like me? All she cares about is that son of hers. What chance for a drug-dealer with a doubtful history and a doubtful future? Why did I feel so good when the nomads called her my wife? This crazy feeling I get that she’s mine and the kid is mine. Then the nights we talked in the tent and last night with the stars does she feel the same? Those eyes, that sensuous mouth, I can’t stop kissing…

“So my son, you have returned to us but your mind seems far away.”

Karl shook himself out of his reminisce. The head Lama stood in front of him, smiling benevolently.

“Lama-ji, this is my second home, how can I keep away? ”

“What brings you back then?”

“It is a long story sir.”

“Ah, I am old but never tired of hearing your long stories. Come into my private chambers and tell me all,” said the old Lama, hobbling gracefully out followed by the young monks moving silently behind him.

They stayed in Phugtal for a week. Each day, Karl joined Dorje in his rituals. Lea joined Dolma in her ancient kitchen. It was actually a huge cave, its walls black with years of cooking soot. A wood-fired stone stove with holes for giant clay pots was the central piece of kitchen equipment. With nearly a hundred monks to feed, Dolma’s job was endless. In her old age, she could hardly lift the pots of dhal or rice she cooked for them. Lea learnt that when she last met Dolma in Manikaran, the old nun was actually on her way to procure help from her niece. Sonam turned out to be Buddha-sent. She was always singing as she kneaded dough or stirred the dhal. Lea could see that many of the younger monks were taken by her. Her moon-shaped face and nice complexion made a pleasant change in the monastery. Karl flirted openly with her.

“Sing us a song while we eat, Sonam.” Karl teased.

“Your sweet voice makes the bad food go down faster.” Dorje followed Karl’s lead.

“Oi! Who’s talking about my food?” Dolma would shout from the back of the cave.

Sonam tittered happily, her eyes lingered on Dorje a little longer than they should.

“Boys, stop teasing my niece or else I’ll send her back to her mother. Remember your vows.” Dolma would join them on the floor, rubbing her back and her legs.

“Don’t be jealous Dolma. You’re still my top girl.” Karl hugged the old woman who flashed a toothless grin and slapped his arm away.

Lea watched the camaraderie unable to follow the Zanskari language. Studying Karl, she realised that he was a different man from the one she first knew in Manali. He caught her looking at him and smiled.

“Ah ya Hashie, I see you happy first time.” Old Dolma nudged him and let out a loud heckle, pointing to Lea. Everyone started laughing as Karl protested vehemently.

Lea blushed. Perhaps it’s true. Thrown together in adversity, we’ve grown closer.

“Cold?” he startled her later as she stood in her little room, looking out the window at the silver thread of the Lingti River far below.

“No.” but she shivered involuntarily.

As he wrapped a blanket around her, his hands remained on her shoulders.

“I’ve been thinking…” he started.

“Oh no, always trouble when a man starts to think…” Lea got her own back and they laughed.

He pulled her back towards him and hugged her from behind. His arms stretched across her and Lea realised that this was what she had been looking for all her life, this feeling of being cared for and loved. She kissed his hand and rubbed her cheek against it.

“I never thought I would see the day when I care more for someone else.” His voice was gruff. It wasn’t easy for him to say such things.

“I never thought I’d care for anyone ever again.” She confessed.

“You’ve changed me Lea. My past had never bothered me before but now, things look different. Isn’t it strange?” he spoke into her hair.

“Maybe it’s karma. I’ve been talking to Dolma and she said a lot of good things happen because of one’s good karma. It makes sense. You have done more for me than …” Karl stopped Lea from going on by turning her around and kissing her. She realised then that Karl was a man who preferred to let his actions speak for him instead of words.

The sounds of pots and drums clanged and boomed across the valleys, resonating against mountainsides. In the Gompa, cymbals clashed and gongs exploded in a fury of noise. It was as if the world of Phugtal had gone mad. Shamshir startled out of his sleep, started wailing with fright and Lea picked him up immediately to comfort him.

“What’s going on?” Lea could hardly hear herself speak.

Without answering, Karl led her out to the courtyard and pointed to the sky. Lea could see the glowing sun, just touching the tip of the mountain range.

“It’s beginning,” Karl shouted to make his voice heard above the din.

With stars dancing in her eyes from the glowing sun, Lea stared and saw a dark shadow slowly easing over the giant globe of the sun. A tiny bite, nibbling away, as the Moon’s penumbral shadow rushed across the Earth at a velocity more than two thousand kilometres per hour.

“It’s a solar eclipse,” Lea grasped the reason for the commotion.

“Ya. Zanskari people believe that the Sky Dog eats the sun. So they bang their pots and pans to scare the Sky Dog into spitting it out again,” Karl explained.

“Oi, Hashie, bad luck stand in shadow!” screamed the old nun.

“Come out and see, old woman. This is the last total solar eclipse of the Millennium!” Karl pointed excitedly to the blackened sun.

"Ah ya, Hashie. No good stand out. Come little sister, hide baby from bad luck!” fussed Dolma from the protection of the kitchen doorway.

Laughing at the old woman’s fears, Lea entered the kitchen and Sonam immediately relieved Lea of Shamshir.

Karl remained standing outside. The sun had hardly come out of the shadow of the eclipse when it disappeared behind the lofty mountains. He smiled as he heard the old lady grumbling in the kitchen. Superstitions and fear he thought to himself and wondered why in this modern world, people here still regard an eclipse as a bad omen.

5 – Ladakhi Valley, India, September Year 4

“Hashie! Bad news!” the urgency in Dorje’s voice roused Karl from his sleep instantly.

“What’s wrong?” Karl was alert and had already started pulling on his clothes.

“My cousin brother from Manali - He say Malana people, they come soon.” Dorje helped Karl to stuff his backpack as they spoke.

“Who told them we were here?” Karl finished packing and they both rushed out to get Lea and the child.

“Lahauli mataji come back from Tibet. Malana people, they give money for her. She help. They search mountains. Find dead mule. Lama-ji, he say, you go now.” Dorje lugged Karl’s pack out as he spoke.

“Damned woman! They say money talks and they are right.”

Karl met Lea in the kitchen. Dolma was helping her stuff food into a sack. Her face, drained pale by fear, a hunted look already replaced the happiness in Lea’s eyes.

“No time for long goodbyes,” Karl hugged Dolma as the old nun cried into her sleeve.

“Don’t worry Hashie, Lama-ji tell them long story.” Dolma whispered after them.

Dorje led the trio through a seldom used passage full of cobwebs. They walked in complete darkness. Rough voices came through the walls and Lea realised that their pursuers were only a cavern away. She heard her heart thumping in the black void as the voices approached and then veered away behind their wall. Shamshir whimpered and everyone froze.

One voice on the other side turned back and she heard a voice say, “What’s that?”

“Bats!” someone else replied.

After what seemed like an eternity, the searchers resumed their journey into the labyrinth again.

Dorje led his group out into bright sunshine and skirted the track in the shadows of the mountains. He would guide them to safety while his Buddhist brothers stalled the Malanaans for time, plying them with tea and perhaps even sending them on a wild goose chase.

“Karl, I need a rest,” Lea gasped as the air became thinner.

They had walked all night and the path so far had been torturous. Dorje had long since returned to Phugtal. Karl insisted on staying clear of the beaten track to avoid being seen. Lea understood his decision. But the terrain here was even more desolate and rugged. To make matters worse, night temperatures were getting lower. Above the tree line, without obstruction, the winds picked up speed and howled through the chasm. They were heading for the last pass before crossing into the Ladakhi valley.

The rising moon cast long shadows up the slopes as the two fugitives clambered on.

Lea’s foot slipped on shale and debris cascaded down the steep incline. She sat watching them on their long journey down, feeling her face pitted by flecks of sand.

“No more rests. The rest of the way will be worse if we don’t cross the pass tonight. Snow crust get wet and slippery, snow underneath gets mushy. Then we will be swimming in snow up to our armpits.”

“Please Karl, just a few minutes.”

Karl knew that to get her moving he needed to rouse her up. Hardening his voice, he didn’t mince his words and said, “If I knew I had to baby-sit you, I would never become involved. But I’m in deep shit now. If they catch me, it’s my head hanging from Jamlu’s temple, not yours. So either you move or I leave you behind.”

Clenching her teeth in anger, Lea pushed on confused by Karl’s attitude. He was a real Jekyll and Hyde. What drove the man? Originally, she was sure he had merely been after the twin pendants, but he could have abandoned her after crossing the Rohtang. There was no need for him to continue the same route with her, no need to look after her the way he had during the trek. She thought they had grown closer in the last few weeks but under pressure, he was back to his mean old self.

Karl seethed silently inside. Come on, grit your teeth and move Lea. Damn those Malanaan bastards.

When they reached the snowline, Karl climbed swiftly ahead. The Prinkiti La loomed above them – 12,000 feet of icy hell with a wind-chill factor of minus ten. It conveyed a morbid sense of doom. Her feet blistered; her lips wind-burnt and cracked, Lea sank into the snow and tears froze her eye-lids shut. Leg muscles cramped and she buckled.

Karl looked back, saw her collapse and retraced his steps.

Wordlessly, he untied the baby pouch from her back.

Lea grabbed his arm and screamed, “No, give me back my baby.” She thought he was carrying out his threat about leaving the baby out to die.

Throwing off his backpack, Karl tied Shamshir onto his own back. Without a word, he picked Lea up and carried her in his arms. Slowly and painfully, he climbed towards the pass once more. With each step, he panted and gasped for air. Lea with her face almost buried in his chest, heard his heart pounding with the effort. Deeply ashamed that she hadn’t trust him, she realised that her experience with Raj had warped her perception of people. She was greatly humbled.

When they finally reached the top, Karl placed Lea on a rock and lifted her Zanskari gown up to her thighs. He massaged her legs to bring the circulation back. If only I could have been your first… he thought. As she revived he gave her a drink from his flask.

“Thank you,” Lea managed to croak the words out of her parched lips.

Karl towered over her, the wind playing with his cloak, whipping it around him and tousling his blonde hair. Lea looked up and said “Dolma was right. You are a good man, a Sadhu.”

Karl laughed despite his exhaustion. “Lady, I am no holy man.” Embarrassed, he scanned the horizon behind them and suddenly tensed.

A long thin line of fire-torches weaved snakelike on the trail they’d left behind.

“They’re coming. Let’s go,” Karl’s voice thickened with urgency. Before Lea could utter a reply, he hoisted her up on his shoulders, picked up Shamshir and began marching down the other side.

“Put me down. I can walk,” Lea urged.

“No time for heroics,” Karl carried on without hesitation. “And for god’s sake, stop screaming. Your booming voice is loud enough to start an avalanche.”

Slipping and sliding, they descended into a gorge. Near the tree-line, Karl finally set Lea on her feet and returning Shamshir to her he climbed onto a large boulder to look back up the slope. Over the crest, brown heads begin to pop up. They were heading down the normal route, away from them. His heart lifted; perhaps he had managed to give them the slip. Lea, finding the baby dozing, left him at the foot of the boulder and scrambled up to join Karl.

Up in the trees, a raven saw its chance. An unattended baby could be a food source and it swooped down on Shamshir, ready to peck. The baby, startled awake by a painful nip, screamed in fright at the thick black beak and fluttering wings. The raven flew off in alarm. The commotion echoed through the gorge and stopped the search party in its tracks. Heads turned towards the gorge and enmasse, a long line of bodies cut across the snows, howling like a pack of wolves running towards their quarry. They had found their prince!

Karl and Lea leapt down from the boulder. In panic, Lea picked up Shamshir and fled downhill with Karl leading the way. High on the pass, unknown to the pursuers, in their bloodthirsty rush to get to their target, they had created a deep cleft in the snow. A crack of muffled thunder rent the air as the layer of heavy snow on top descended to close the gap. With unstoppable momentum, the whole mountainside started to disintegrate, tumbling mercilessly towards the gorge. The thin line of searchers had no time to react and nowhere to run.

“AVALANCHE!” Karl shouted and hurled himself among the trees, pushing Lea ahead of him. Lea strung the pouch around her neck, shielding Shamshir in her bosom and ran in blind terror. Behind them they heard terrified shrieks of dying men as they were engulfed by tonnes of wet and crushing snow.

In front, a huge four feet diameter tree trunk lay across their paths. For a moment, Lea thought to hide behind it but Karl pulled her aside and pushed her up the gorge wall instead.

“What are you doing?” Lea called in a voice drowned by the roar of the deluge.

“SWIM!” shouted Karl as the snows rained down on them both.

Swept off her feet, Lea’s world became a washing machine with her inside it. After churning for an eternity, blood shot through her head and she emerged, choked with snow, scratched and bleeding. Reaching down to check for Shamshir, she heaved a sigh of relief to find him secure in the pouch, whimpering but otherwise unscathed. The thick padding on her baby backpack had protected him as mother and son were swept downhill with the avalanche.

Karl was nowhere in sight. The Malanaan men had disappeared entombed in a white sarcophagus.

“Karl!” Lea’s voice wavered on desperation as it echoed through the vast emptiness. There was no reply. She clambered out of the snow and checked her bearings. The deluge had crumbled a whole mountain side. A dark groove had been carved out from the top of the pass down to where she stood. Trees snapped like toothpicks in the tidal wave of snow lay around, sticking out at odd angles from the mountain of muddy snow. Lea recognised the huge tree trunk that she had contemplated earlier as a safe haven. It had been swept down by the impact of snow. If she had not been pulled away by Karl, she would have ended up beneath that trunk.

“Karl!” cried Lea once more. Suddenly she stiffened as she heard a low moan, coming from under the trunk. Lea got down on her knees and began to dig. The soft snow gave way and revealed a deep gash in the earth, a crevasse, hidden under the snow. She backed up slowly when she realised that she was inches away from falling in.

“Ah…” a feeble voice rose from the depths of the crevasse.

“Karl!” Lea’s anguished call reverberated down the narrow chasm walls.

“Can’t get my hands out. Stuck.”

Lea peered into the darkness. It was a transverse crevasse and a nasty one. Its opening was at least eight feet wide, stretching across the width of the gorge. Its depth, beyond the first ten feet, tapered at an acute angle, cutting deep into the earth. The tree trunk had lodged itself partially in the cavity.

“Karl!” Lea screamed in panic.

“Can you see me?” his voice sounded muffled and far away.

“No. Tell me what to do,” Lea, helpless, began to look around for rescue.

“Tree above me. No way to move.”

“I’ll go and get Dorje.”

“Not even Buddha can help me now. I’m a dead man.”

“Don’t say that Karl. Please. I’m going to get help.”

“No, don’t leave. Just talk to me for a while. Please, don’t leave Lea. I don’t want to die alone.”

Lea lashed out in anger, “NO! You’re not going to die. I’m going to get help now.” She owed so much to this man. “DON”T YOU DARE GIVE UP!” she screamed into the crack in desperation.

“Lea?” his voice wavered.

“I’m here Karl. I’m here.” She wanted to be strong for him but she could hear his fear. She stifled her sobs.

“Get Dorje…arrange flight and the kid’s passport. He knows who to see.”

“Don’t talk like that. I’m not going anywhere without you.” She shouted back. “Maybe I can get a rope, something, to pull you up.”

“No Lea, it’s useless,” sighed Karl, sounding rational for a moment before starting to laugh pathetically. “What a way to go huh? Dorje will say it’s my karma. I’ve done some bad things in my life Lea and I’m not proud of them.”

“Don’t talk like that. If I go back for Dorje, I’m sure he’ll think of something.”

“No, by nightfall I’ll be dead Lea. I can’t feel my legs and arms anymore. Frozen dead.” Karl laughed, delirious again.

A sudden screech filled the air and, looking up Lea saw a flock of vultures riding the thermals.

“Go away,” she yelled in fury and waved her arms frantically.

The vultures ignored her. Looking down, they saw black spots in the snow and instinct told them there was food waiting to be devoured.

“I wish I could,” Karl laughed again.

“I’m going to look for help. I don’t care what you say!” Lea inched slowly away from the gaping hole and trudged out of the snow pile.

She moved with difficulty, wading through the snow debris. There was a huge mound of snow which stood in her way. She clambered up and, reaching the top, saw a half buried head. An eye had popped out and the face was frozen in grotesque agony like a Halloween mask. Horror washed over her. She screamed and threw herself back down to where Karl was trapped.

She was crying now, her self-composure totally wrecked by the sight of the dead man.

Alone in the darkness of the crevasse, Karl heard Lea scream and he tried to move. It was impossible. With his body wedged in the narrowed slit, upside down, he could hear blood throbbing through his head.

“Lea, what’s wrong?” he gasped for air. He began to feel dizzy.

“Nothing Karl. It’s nothing.” Lea lied. Being strong for someone else was a new experience. She subdued her sobs. Taking deep breaths, she slowly began to clear her mind. She weighed her options – going forward alone was impossible, she didn’t know the way to Leh; going backwards was dangerous, there may be another search party from Malana right behind the first. However, if she could find her way back to Phugtal, she could summon help for Karl. Surely they’d know what to do, how to rescue someone stuck in a crevasse. But she was torn – how could she abandon Karl? Night was falling swiftly. She began to dig a snow cave to ward off the cold of the night – a valuable lesson she once learnt from Karl. “I won’t leave you Karl, I’m staying here.” She shouted down the crevasse. She heard him giggling and even though it was not an appropriate response, it would do. He was still alive and she would find some way to help him. She talked to him, telling him of the stars in the sky as night fell. It didn’t matter that he did not respond. She just wanted to assure him that she was still there, she would not abandon him.

The final countdown, Karl thought to himself and giggled. He felt no pain. Having lived on the edge all his life, he knew that this time, there was no way out. He was only thankful that she was safe.

Three hours later, he no longer felt his limbs. His mind was shutting down too. He saw a movie of his life unfold before his eyes. Mutter, plump and protective, ladling dumpf knödel onto his plate; vater, angrily lashing him with a leather belt, while the naked body of his father’s lover cowers on the young boy’s bed; growing up in a tough neighbourhood in Berlin; his first drug deal; money; women. Then the Himalayas; discovering Phugtal; meeting Lea and finally but too late, discovering himself and what might have been. He remembered old Dolma. She would probably blame him for pointing a finger at the eclipsed sun and telling all that he was doomed from that fateful day. He wanted to laugh at the absurdity but he couldn’t.

The reflected light in the crevasse dimmed. The sun had set and the temperature plunged. His breathing became more laboured as he closed his eyes. The feeling in his hands and feet had gone from pins and needles to being completely numbed. He drifted in and out of consciousness. Then he heard Lea again - her sensuous voice speaking to him. In his delirium, he went to her and kissed her passionately. Sometime in the night, a sigh escaped from his lips, Karl’s body shuddered as he slipped into a coma, peacefully awaiting his spirit to be freed.

Dorje stood on the top of Prinkiti-La, surveying the destruction caused by the avalanche. His heart sank. Who could have survived this? He had been returning to Phugtal when he encountered the Malana retinue. Hiding behind a huge rock, he spied that they were led by a Lahauli nomad, no doubt one of the sons of that mercenary woman. He cursed. Karl had no chance of escape. These nomads knew the country and would catch up with them in no time. On reaching Phugtal, lama-ji had summoned him immediately.

“Did you see them off safely?” the old man inquired in Zanskari.

“Yes, master. But I also met the party from Malana on my way back.” Dorje knelt in front of his teacher in respect.

“They have no peace within them. I sense that no good will come of this Dorje.”

More often than not, his Master’s keen perception and insightfulness had led them through the hardest of times. Dorje waited to hear Lama-ji’s advice.

“Their presence and their thirst for blood have aroused the mountain spirits. There will be a confrontation.” The aged monk shook his head sadly.

“Then let me go back to Hashie. He will need my help. He is like a brother to me.” Dorje pleaded with Lama-ji.

The old man rasped and closed his eyes in prayer, “Om mani padme hom. May our Lord Buddha go with you, my son.”

Now faced with the deluge, he realised that the confrontation was not one he had imagined. When it comes to Nature vs. Man, Nature always wins.

The sun was just rising from the Eastern horizon, when Dorje spotted a familiar backpack half hidden in snow. Karl’s pack! He must have left his pack to help the woman. Picking it up, Dorje began the slow descent to look for his friend.

Lea had awoken when she heard the crunch of footsteps on the snow. She froze. Is this friend or foe?

“Hashie!” Dorje had reached the mound of snow debris and confronted the eyeless man. Digging furiously around the area, he hoped he wasn’t too late.

When she heard the familiar voice, shouting, Lea crawled out of the cave and cried in relief, “Dorje, we’re here.”

“Karl, Dorje is here!” Lea was delirious.

Dorje peered into the gap, “Eh, Hashie. What you do in hole?” Dorje tried to sound light-hearted but the smile froze on his lips.

Only silence greeted his hail.

Lea picked up a loose pebble and flung it into the cavern. It ricocheted off the narrow walls and clattered into the darkness, followed by silence once again.

“Karl, wake up. Say something!” Lea cried out desperately.

“Hashie my friend, don’t play games with us.” Dorje implored in Zanskari. In his grief, he could no longer speak in English.

“Karl, please say something. Dorje is here to help. Karl!” Lea began to weep, heaping more loose pebbles and snow into the gap in a futile attempt to get a response.

Dorje turned to her and held her hand. He looked at her and shook his head.

"Mar gaya ji.” He is dead, he declared, in Hindi, his own eyes brimming with tears.

“NO, he is there. He can’t be gone. I heard him down there. I spoke to him all night. KARL, please don’t leave me!” wailed Lea, becoming hysterical.

"OM MANI PADME HOM" Dorje took out his prayer beads, closed his eyes and as the tears rolled down his rugged face, began the calming ancient rites of death. He hoped they would assist Karl’s spirit in finding its way to the thirteen Gates of Hell, where all spirits report in death, and meet their fate. With his prayers, perhaps his friend would eventually work out his rebirth in the Wheel of Life and perhaps his new life would be better than his last one.

“My life is cursed, Dorje. Either that or a good God doesn’t exist. Karl was a good man; there was no reason to take him away.” Lea was inconsolable.

Dorje let her cry until she was exhausted. He opened Karl’s pack and took out his stove.

When Lea saw it, she started crying again, “I don’t understand why he had to die. We had just begun…” She couldn’t go on.

The young monk cooked a meal and made her eat to regain strength. Sitting around the campfire, he took a stick and drew a squiggly path in the snow. At some points, he placed stones and twigs, punched a hole at one place, made a tiny mound in another. Then in a mixture of broken English and Hindi, he began to talk.

“When I small, mataji mar gayi.” He crooked his finger to show that his mother died. “Papa-ji take me to lama-ji. I cry many days.” He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I say lama-ji, ‘I good, no bad. I go home to papa-ji?’ Lama-ji, he say nothing.” He placed a finger on his lips. “One day, lama-ji say ‘Come here’. He draw patho.” Dorje indicated the snow diagram he had drawn. “He say, ‘Dorje, before you born, Buddha show you this life. You say OK. Some day, you meet good,” he pointed to the stones, ’”Some day, you meet bad”, he pointed to the twigs across the path. “Some day, you fall in hole. Need other man help you,” he dipped his stick into the hole and continued, “Other day, you stand on mountain and help another. Karma complete, your life, khatam.” He folded his hands to show a closing door. “It is story, there before you live first day. I have my story. You have your story.” Dorje paused for breath. He had never spoken so long before but he felt that somehow it was his time on a mountain, his turn to help.

Lea contemplated the snow path and looked at the hole. The words calmed her. It made sense.

“Hashie mar gaya - his karma is khatam. No worry little sister, next story you meet again.”

When they finally set out towards Leh, she had fashioned a cross at the mouth of the crevasse, and Dorje had tied a prayer flag to it. For Lea, Dorje’s words that Karl will meet her again in another life had strangely helped her to accept his passing on. If life is a continuum of lives, then this is just another chapter.

6 – Leh, India, September Year 4

Covered in dust, two forlorn figures wandered into the little town of Leh. Ladakhi women with tall chimney hats and black cloaks, sitting by the wayside selling vegetables, watched them pass. They caught sight of the baby strapped behind the foreign woman’s back, and pursed their lips in disapproval at the sight of her being accompanied by a young Buddhist monk.

“I go see my cousin brother. He is travel agent. Get passport for baby and ticket for plane.”

“Thank you Dorje. I really would like to clean up first.”

They walked into a narrow alley with Dorje leading the way. A wooden gate opened onto a back garden and a little courtyard where a sign bore the legend; Rooms for rent. Cheap. Clean. Good food.

“I no go in. I go see my cousin brother now.”

Alone in the room, Lea placed Shamshir on the bed and ordered two buckets of hot water. The steaming buckets arrived accompanied by a rosy cheeked smiling little Ladakhi girl. Having mixed the waters to ensure that one was lukewarm, Lea immersed Shamshir into it. The little baby gurgled gleefully, holding on to the sides of the bucket while Lea murmured on.

“You like it don’t you. Nice to feel clean again huh. Tomorrow we go on a huge plane.” And she straightened her palm and zoomed it over Shamshir’s head, making him chuckle with delight. “It’s going to be alright now.”

Once she’s washed herself, Lea picked up the sheepskin pouch that had been used to carry Shamshir throughout the whole journey. It was dirty and smelly but it had a load of memories which Lea was reluctant to let go. If I get it cleaned up, I could keep it as a souvenir, she thought. Rummaging through the folds, she heard a tinkle and as she plunged her hand in to check, she found both the lapis lazuli pendants tucked in an inner pocket.

Tears brimmed in her eyes as the realisation of Karl’s ultimate sacrifice dawned on her. You gave them back. You didn’t do it for money after all. Who will goad me on now when I feel like giving up? She wept till exhaustion overtook her. Placing Shamshir in a clean warm blanket, they both fell into a deep sleep.

Lea awoke just before noon the next day. Only half awake, she turned to check if Karl was there. Then it struck her that she was no longer in the tiny Chinese tent. Loneliness overwhelmed her. She checked on Shamshir and hugged him gently. At least all is not lost. I still have you. You know what? You should have a new name. She thought for a while, then jumped to her feet, “I’ve got it! Xerxes – Macedonian for leaving and Persian for Prince. You are the leaving prince.” Then she poured some water over his head and christened him.

Feeling hungry, she carried little Xerxes out to the kitchen of the Guest House. The innkeeper was an elderly woman with oriental features. She made a gesture to indicate that Lea sit by the stove.

"Chai ji?” the elderly lady asked if Lea wanted tea.

“Yes. Please,” Lea replied gratefully, reverting to Hindustani.

“What are you making?” She watched the innkeeper rolling out dough.

“Ladakhi bread,” the lady replied as she shaped a small ball of dough into a large oval patty and threw it over glowing dung briquettes in a home-made oven. The dough puffed up immediately from the intense heat. Using a pair of tongs, she flipped the bread expertly to brown both sides.

“Doesn’t the cow dung make the bread smell bad?” Lea asked.

The elderly woman laughed. She wore a simple black cloak, tied at the waist with a red sash. Her long grey hair was neatly plaited. Typical of women who live at high altitudes, her face was heavily lined from prolonged exposure to strong ultraviolet light Her hands, large and chaffed, rolled the dough rhythmically and the circle shape was perfect from years of experience. Around her neck, as a sign of wealth, she wore a chunky necklace of huge green turquoise and orange coral stones and matching earrings made from odd-shaped fresh water pearls.

“Sister, cows eat grass and they pass out grass. We dry them, make them into round patties, stick them on the outside of our house walls and dry them in the strong sun. Dry dung doesn’t smell. Here, take a sniff,” she offered, handing a black lump of dried dung over to Lea.

Lea obliged and was surprised. “Hmmm, you’re right.”

The old woman used a poker and fished out a nicely puffed piece of bread for Lea, “Here, try the bread, there’s no dung on it.”

Lea gingerly took the offered loaf and began spreading home-made apricot jam on it. Xerxes grasped at the bread and she placed a little jam on his lips.

“Yum. You like it? Yummy jam and bread. Oh, you’re hungry huh, ok, ok...here,” said Lea, lifting up her jumper and tucking the baby under it for his feed. Lea felt more relaxed now. The kitchen had a homely ambience and she felt safer than she had in a long time.

In the Himalayas, communication between hamlets remains archaic. Satellite TV has reached individual hamlets with electricity and people there know more about what is happening in America than about their neighbouring villages. Lea was confident that their escape from Malana, more than two hundred kilometres away, would not be known here.

She had already noticed that Ladakhi men wore long, grey, woolen gowns fringed with sheep-skin and tied at the waist with girdles of blue, multi-coloured velvet caps, fringed with black fur earlaps. Their women wore colourful clothes. The richer women also donned special turquoise-studded headgear called Perak, made of red cloth and hung from their forehead, tapering down to the waist at the back. Brooches of turquoise and other semi-precious stones embellished their headgear, bangles and ear ornaments. Lea realised that in her plain Zanskari clothes, she would no longer blend in. Wanting to remain inconspicuous, Lea changed into jeans and a woollen jumper. Connected by its own airport to the Indian capital of Delhi, Leh is a town where foreign tourists are a familiar sight. As she prepared to leave, a sluggish youth wandered into the kitchen.

The elderly lady launched into a tirade in Ladakhi. Lea didn’t like the look of the surly youth. Although she couldn’t understand the language, Lea could guess from the tone of the exchange that he was being chided and he wasn’t happy about it.

He yawned and eyed Lea and then the child under her jumper.

“This son of mine is so lazy. He missed meeting the early bus from Srinagar again. I work so hard to earn money so I could send him to English missionary school. But what’s the point? Now all he wants to do is be a Western hippie.” She turned from Lea and berated her son once more, raising her hands in exasperation.

Lea sensed the tension in the family and felt uncomfortable at being watched through the half closed sleazy eyes of the impudent youth. She stood up with Xerxes still suckling happily under her clothes.

“I think I will have a look around the shops in town,” announced Lea.

The old lady looked after her as she left and clucked, “So young and travelling alone. I wonder where her husband is.”

“Oh, you say she’s alone?” the youth cocked his head up to eye his mother.

“Yes, only she and her child. Such a beautiful child too. Did you see his eyes? Blue as lapis lazuli. And yet the hair is so black like Indian children.”

“Blue eyes, black hair. Hmmm…that is a strange thing. How did she come into Leh?”

“If you had woken up early enough you would know wouldn’t you?” the old lady berated her idle son once more.

Snuffling down some bread and tea, Tashi put on his reflective sunglasses and decided to follow their new guest into town. Dressed in tight blue jeans and a gaudy rodeo shirt, he epitomised a rural generation of American wannabes.

Lea had not gone far on her expedition when she met Dorje making his way to the guest house.

“Dorje, did you get the air tickets and passports?”

“No easy. Cousin brother say need money.”

“How much? Everything I had was lost in the avalanche. But I found something which could help.” Lea produced the two pendants she found.

“Ah…too beautiful. I take one – maybe enough for ticket and passport.”

“When does the plane leave for Delhi?”

“No worry. Plane everyday. But passport take time.”

“How long do we have to wait? I’m worried about the Malanaans catching up with us here.”

“No, Malana people no come back. Here no Jamlu kingdom. Here Buddha protect.” said Dorje with a dry chuckle.

“But they will know where we are heading, won’t they?”

“Many ways in mountain. Can go Lamayuru. Can go Srinagar. No worry. Now you go Delhi, then go home after I get passport.”

“I only wish that I was as calm as you.” Lea felt a sense of dread. Would this passport materialise? Is Dorje reliable? What would Karl have done? She remembered his last words to her – he had confidence in Dorje. Perhaps it would all work out. She sighed, missing Karl once more.

"Om mani padme hom. Buddha help.” He flashed a bright smile.

“Eh Monk. You give my house guest a hard time?” The slimy youth from the guest house sidled up to them. He spoke English in an American slang, picked up from watching too many Hollywood movies.

Dorje’s smile disappeared. ”Om mani padme hom. Hemis Monastery that way.” He bowed and walked away from Lea.

“Hey, I don’t recall asking you to be my chaperon,” Lea’s face flushed with anger as she confronted the rude Ladakhi.

“These monks aren’t holy, OK? They rob, gamble and take hash as much as…” Tashi stood his ground like a rock and roll star.

“As you, you mean?” Lea interjected. Covering up for Dorje, she continued, “Look what you did. You have insulted a monk who was kind enough to explain how to get to Hemis for me.”

“I can take you to Hemis if you want. I am free.” He sniggered.

“I’ll bet you are, you swine. Stop harassing me. If this goes on, I will tell your mother and I’ll check out!”

“Hey, hey, no need to get all upset. I will leave you in peace. Hey, that baby of yours sure is cute. What’s his name again?”

“Get lost!” With that Lea turned her back and hurried down the market street.

Afraid that she would be followed, she took the road to Hemis and decided to spend the afternoon sightseeing, especially the monastery made famous by Heinrich Harrer, author of ‘Seven Years in Tibet.’

Tashi looked at Lea’s retreating figure and leered. ‘Nice butt.’ Returning home, he cornered his sister and demanded, “Give me the key to that foreign lady’s room. I’ll change her bed-sheets for her.”

“I can’t. Mama will get angry with me. The last time you did that, you stole from one of our guests. It was fortunate that he had flown off that very day. Otherwise I am sure the police would have caught you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. She was telling me off this morning because I didn’t lift a finger to help you. Now I want to help and you won’t let me. This is ridiculous. Give me the keys now.” Tashi advanced on the little girl and she flung the bunch of keys out of her pocket quickly, running off, shouting for her mum.

Tashi entered the room and looked around. Strange, travelling without luggage, except a smelly baby’s pouch. Dirty Zanskari clothes lay crumpled in a pile. He searched through these and found nothing. Picking up the pouch with the tips of his fingers, he looked into the inner pockets and found a crisp piece of paper - a draft of a farewell letter intended for Raj but never sent. This was more than Tashi could hope for. There’s plenty of money to be made from this bitch, he smirked as he pocketed the letter.

7 – Malana, India, October Year 4

“We’ve found her,” announced Chander triumphantly.

“Is she in Leh as we suspected?” the queen asked.

“Yes, your majesty. She is there waiting for the plane to Delhi.”

“Is she alone?” Raj’s face twisted with jealousy.

“No, she has some contact with a Buddhist monk. I hear that he is a Zanskari but he has brothers in Leh.”

“Then it would not be wise to confront her there.” The queen thought out the options.

“What other destinations are there from Leh airport?” asked Raj, pacing the room.

“None, there is only one plane a week. It goes to Delhi and back,” confirmed Chander.

“Are your sources reliable Chander?” asked the queen lifting her eyebrow slightly in question.

“Yes Your Majesty. The man in question is a junkie and he needs the money for his drugs. He has asked for one lakh rupees for this information and he also maintains that she is staying in his guest house. He will stop her from leaving Leh if he has to. He wants to collect the money before he releases more information on her exact whereabouts.”

“This man, he is not one of ours?” asked Raj with a worried frown.

“No Sir, none of our men made it past the avalanche.” Chander’s face betrayed a look of pain as he answered.

“So many died for this one child. Is he worth it?” Kamala asked in wavering voice.

Raj glared at Kamala in disgust.

“Every son of Malana is worth it my girl,” interjected the queen, seeing the anger in Raj’s face. She sent Kamala away before Raj had time to react to his young wife’s gaff.

“So the man will let us know when she flies out of Leh?” Raj continued, ignoring Kamala’s departure.

“Yes Sir. It appears that they are waiting for some forged passports to enable them to leave. Let me go to Leh to take the child from her there.” Chander implored.

“No, the mountain route is closed now. It is too late to cross the high passes. I will go to Delhi to head her off,” said Raj, his jaws tightened.

“No, you can’t leave Malana. Kamala shows early signs of pregnancy and she will need you if anything happens,” stated the queen looking sternly at her headstrong son.

“I will not sit by while my first born is in danger of being whisked out of India. I don’t really care what happens to Kamala, mother. Is it not enough that I married her according to the wishes of the people? Now you expect me to play nursemaid as well! Let her sisters look after her, she has plenty of them.”

“Raj, you must stop this nonsense. If this leaks out, we will be the laughing stock of our people. How can a king go running after his mistress, like a dog to a bitch? No, you will not leave Malana.”

“Mother, what about your pendant? I’ll make sure I get it back from her.”

Just then, the high priest stormed in with a delegate of council members behind him.

“What’s this we hear that you are planning to send more men after that bastardised baby?” his eyes, like that of a predator, glared at Raj with defiance.

“So, the little kitten has gone and whispered in your ear has she?” Raj was enraged at the betrayal of confidence by his wife. I will deal with her later.

“Lord Jamlu has punished us for disobeying his orders. He wanted to show his glory by killing the woman and child with an avalanche. But you defied him and sent Thakur Sahib and others to their death. Enough is enough.” The old man shrieked and the elderly members behind him murmured their approval.

Raj stood up and declared, “You are lying! Lord Jamlu has appeared to me and told me of your diabolical schemes. The fact is: he no longer approves of you as his oracle. You twist his words and commands for your own needs.”

The high priest was so shocked by this unfair outburst that he choked. Coughing and spluttering, he attempted to speak.

Raj did not give him time to recover. “I will prove that I am speaking the truth. Lord Jamlu has decreed that you, old man, will die today.” As he said this, Raj spread his hand in a gesture of display. Unknown to the others, he had actually tossed a phial of fine white dust just inches from the old priest’s feet. It broke and the dust exploded into the ancient man’s face. The group of elders backed away in horror as the priest gagged and clutched his throat. Looking up at Raj, he crumpled to the ground, gasping for air, his claw-like fingers reaching out for imaginary straws.

Stepping out of his way, Raj bent down and made as if he was sweeping the dust up onto his palm. Then approaching the elders, he showed them his hand which now had a film of powder on it. He placed it under his nose and smelled it. He made the others do the same. Talcum – it was harmless talcum.

“Jamlu has spoken. You have seen for yourself. Now go and tell everyone that Jamlu will now speak through me.”

“Yes Your Highness.” The elders bowed and left immediately to inform the whole village of Jamlu’s anger and revenge on his unfaithful servant.

Raj stalked off without another word.

The queen looked after him, long after he had gone, and then turned her attention to the body of her dead ally on the floor. You underestimated the cunning of my son, old man. He was after all his mother’s boy.

8 – Leh, India, October Year 4

The airport thronged with passengers. Due to bad weather, flights from Delhi had been cancelled for the past week and many stranded passengers were now becoming desperate. A chink of blue sky had broken through the thunderous dark clouds that morning and there was a good chance that this might be the only flight for the week.

Dorje sat on a plastic tub seat, his leg swinging anxiously, tickets and black market passport nestled in the folds of his robes. He hid the tickets in case touts pick-pocketed them to sell on the black for three times their normal price. His cousin had done well and perhaps the extra prayers had helped too. He checked his watch and glanced at the huge airport wall clock. It was noon. Still no sign of her. What could be keeping her from being here? He distinctly remembered saying 11 o’clock. Perhaps something had happened to the baby. Dorje being a man of action, decided to go to the guesthouse to look for her. Making his way through the milling crowd, he ran as fast as he could down the narrow streets of Leh. The back alleys and little gardens soon appeared. He had hoped to meet her halfway but there was no sign of her. What could have gone wrong? She was so pleased yesterday when I told her everything was arranged. After only two weeks, we got the false passport! Thanks to Buddha and my brothers. His apprehension increased with each step. He had the feeling that something really bad had happened and he broke out in a cold sweat.

Entering the guest house gate, he heard pounding and muffled shouts. Rushing into the garden, he was confronted by Tashi.

“Where is she?” Dorje bellowed, no longer the meek and mild monk.

“Who are you looking for monk?” Tashi spat out the words with vile.

“You know who I am talking about - the foreign lady and her baby. What have you done to them?” demanded Dorje, his face flushed with anger.

“Ooh, that lady still sniffing after her are you? What do you want with her anyway? You’re a monk. No sex allowed for monks remember?” Tashi sneered.

No longer able to put up with the lout’s nonsense, Dorje whipped out his hands in fists and slammed Tashi to the wall. Quivering in fear, Tashi, not accustomed to rough handling, started to blabber.

“She’s in her room. The lock is jammed. I can’t open it.”

"LIAR! Give me the key!” Dorje jabbed another fist into Tashi’s solar plexus.

“OW! Monks are supposed to be peace loving. I am telling the truth. Here, take the keys.”

Tashi’s mother and sister emerged from the house looking scared.

“I told you not to do it brother. It is an evil thing. Selling her for one lakh,” moaned Tashi’s little sister in tears.

Seeing Dorje’s back turned, Tashi picked up a garden hoe to use as a weapon and followed Dorje up the stairs to Lea’s room. Dorje unlocked the padlock to Lea’s room and she rushed out just in time to see Tashi with the hoe poised, ready to strike the back of Dorje’s head.

“Look out!” warned Lea as the hoe came crashing down, narrowly missing its target.

“Tashi, no!” his elderly mother shouted hopelessly.

Dorje grappled the hoe from Tashi and for a moment, held it poised over Tashi’s head.

“Spare my only son sir. He is young and foolish. I am just a poor old widow,” the old woman wailed.

Seeing the mother and little girl, Dorje threw the hoe as far as he could into the shrubs. Cowering in fear, Tashi whimpered and cried shamelessly.

“Please, Om mani padme hom. Please forgive me. She is worth a lot of money. Let’s share it half half,” pleaded the wastrel.

The old woman had heard enough and promptly gave her son a hard slap across his face.

“Shut up you scoundrel. Don’t you know a Buddha when you see one? How dare you try to bribe a holy man!”

With no time to waste, Dorje and Lea silently left for the airport with Xerxes wrapped snugly in his cleaned sheep skin pouch.

The last passengers were already seated and the plane’s engines were revving up, ready to taxi. Dorje’s cousin, who was pacing anxiously at the airport security desk, saw them coming and ran onto the runway to stop airport staff from removing the stairs from the plane’s boarding entrance.

“Go little sister. Run,” urged Dorje, giving her hand a squeeze.

“The tickets and passport!” cried Lea.

“Ah! Here.” Dorje dug into his robes and fished them out. He also handed a small packet saying, “One of my brother meet you Delhi airport with London tickets. Give him this. Something inside also for you. May Buddha go with you!” the young monk waved passionately.

“Thank you Dorje. Thank you so much.” Lea’s eyes reddened with emotion as she ran towards the plane. So many helpers along the way, so much I owe to them all for the deliverance of my son. Will I ever have an opportunity to repay them? she wondered as the plane taxied out to the runway taking her one more step nearer to safety.

In the small package, Lea found money and a letter addressed to Dorje’s brother. She also found the lapis lazuli pendant she had given Dorje to sell. She was stunned. If he didn’t sell the pendant, where did he get the money to pay for the tickets, passport and extra cash? It would mystify her for a long time. For now at least, it seemed that the twin pendants were once again reunited.

As the plane soared above the mountains, Lea looked down one last time at the petrified terrain below her. Monuments of rock and ice, showcasing the majesty of raw Nature; untamed glacial power; raging rivers, they had all earned her deepest respect but she would never forgive them for taking away her white Sadhu.

9 – Delhi, India, October Year 4

Chander glanced at the arrival notice board for Indian Airlines. Flight IC7432 from Leh was due to arrive at 15:00 hours. His mouth was dry and his eyes smarted from the smog. What he really needed was somewhere to wash and sleep. Instead, he was standing outside the arrival hall of the domestic airport, waiting for Lea’s flight. He knew the gravity of the situation at hand and hardly dared think of the consequences should he fail in his task. He had to intercept Lea and the boy before they had a chance to go to the International airport for their flight to London. He had driven all the way from Manali, five hundred and seventy kilometres in eight hours non-stop. The first part of the journey down windy mountain roads with sharp zero visibility ‘S’ bends and edges that fall into deep gorges, then reaching Chandigarh, he had to dodge the corrupt policemen who waited by the roads, ready to pounce on passing non local vehicles to extract bribes for minor offences. A stress of a different kind faced him after Chandigarh as he entered the Great Trunk Road. On this so-called GT highway, he had to manoeuvre around tractors bulging with oversized haystacks, rickety bicycles coming out of the wayside villages, going the wrong way, kamikaze motor bikers jack-knifing into the main flow of traffic and mammoth trucks conveying loads of produce from North to South. Later, he also encountered cud-chewing camels plodding along the heated tarmac and the occasional elephant with its tiny mahout straddled across its back, not to mention an assortment of semi-starved horses, mules and cows wandering aimlessly all over the road. He hated it all. Being catapulted from the fresh mountain air and peaceful valley into the honking noisy, dusty and overcrowded city of Delhi had never been a welcome thought. However, this deed has to be done and he was the man who had been assigned to do it. He stood at the entrance peering in through thick glass windows, jostling with other welcoming parties, trying to see if the passengers from Leh had disembarked.

Chander remembered the last time he came. He had been sent to meet Raj who was returning from England after being away for four years. He was excited then, eager to catch a glimpse of his prince and yet afraid that he might not recognise Raj after such a long absence. Chander was surprised then that visitors were not allowed into the air-conditioned waiting halls of the airport terminals. The airport policeman had been patient and explained about constant bomb threats which required Delhi airports to be under heavy security surveillance. Those without air tickets for the exact day of flight were not allowed into the building. Why did he have to fall in love with that foreign woman? She has caused us so much! Chander missed his valley as he continued to scan the arriving passengers. Then he saw her. Her dark hair tied in a braid. She wore Western clothes, her face gaunt and pale and her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses looking so different from the days in Manali. She could have slipped by him but there was no mistaking the child who peeked out of the pouch, looking well fed and happy. Chander saw her glancing at the glass windows where he stood and swiftly hid behind a large Punjabi mother, anxiously looking out for her daughter, jabbering away excitedly and informing one and all that she was expecting to meet her grandchild for the first time. Chander knew he would have to wait until Lea stepped out of the main entrance before he could act.

Lea sensed danger as soon as she stepped out of the airport terminal. She remembered the price placed on her head, or rather, her son’s head - one Lakh rupees, the amount that Tashi received for giving information of her whereabouts. It was a lot of money for the average man in India. Closing her eyes she said a silent prayer. God had so far saved her and protected her. It was the final leg and she needed Him more than ever. Stepping out, she found herself face to face with a Buddhist monk.

Om mani padme hom. You must be Madam Lea.”

The older man resembled his brother Dorje and Lea took an instant liking to him.

“Here is the packet that Dorje asked me to hand to you.” Lea looked around to check if she was being observed.

“Thank you. And here are your tickets. Do you need any further assistance?” the monk bowed.

“No, I think I can find my own way to the International airport.” Lea was confident now. There were plenty of people here and no Malanaans in sight.

As soon as the monk left, Lea walked towards the Taxi stand.

"Memsahib, namaste,” Chander greeted her quietly appearing out of nowhere as if by magic.

Lea looked back at this huge man, and remembered his fierce loyalty to Raj. Her heart sank like a stone. A few taxi drivers surrounded them asking if they needed taxis. Chander glared at them and shouted a few derogatory remarks in Hindi.

“Wait. I need a taxi to the International airport,” Lea quickly responded, seeing a chance to try an avenue of escape. But the drivers seeing the giant angry man and the fare not being lucrative for the short journey to the International airport filtered away leaving them alone.

“Please, I need a taxi,” Lea shouted wildly.

"Memsahib, let us not make it difficult for everyone. You have caused us enough trouble and lives. Give me back our prince and I will leave you alone to go on your way. Alternatively, you may accompany us, but I must warn you that you have made many widows and orphans in Malana and many will no longer welcome you back,” Chander spoke in Hindi, his voice low and sinister.

Lea’s felt her body turn icy cold with fear.

“I am not afraid of you, Chander. Leave me and my baby alone. If you touch one hair on his head, I will scream for the police. They don’t know who you are here and they will put you in jail for attempted kidnap.”

"Memsahib, I have with me, a letter from the prince and the council. It gives evidence that this child is ours and whosoever steals one of ours, will be dealt with severely. The police will not be so keen to interfere when they read this official letter.”

“Bullshit Chander. There is no such thing as a Malana council in Delhi. They won’t know who the hell you guys are. So bug off,” Lea raised her voice, hoping to attract attention as she slowly backed out of Chander’s range.

Always game for a drama, a crowd of onlookers had already formed around them to see what all the fuss was about.

“Ey! Yai know you!” a voice from the past came out of the crowd.

It was the Delhiite cameraman whom Lea had encountered on her first flight from Delhi to Manali.

“Vat a small vorld, madam.” He beamed animatedly, a natural actor meeting a long lost friend.

Lea remembered how disgusted she used to be with him. But on this occasion Lea was overjoyed to see him. This could be her chance to escape.

“Hello!” Lea flashed a huge smile and moved towards him.

Chander took Lea by her arm to prevent her getting away.

“How are you? Vat is the problem madam?” the Delhiite grinned and Lea was reminded of his revolting teeth.

Trying to shrug Chander’s firm hand off, she spoke in her most helpless sounding voice “This man is trying to get me to sit in his taxi. I am refusing and I want to go with the other taxis but he is not letting me go.”

"Aray! Sir, kindly you leave this poor voman alone. She is my friend. I will take her where she vants to go.” The Delhiite, now acting as a hero of the downtrodden, confronted Chander and puffed up importantly as he spoke. The crowd began to murmur their approval.

“Look, people, this matter is of no concern to you. Stay out of it.” Chander raised his voice and spoke in Hindi to the gaping onlookers.

“Sir, in our country, ve do not treat vemen this vay. What kind of taxi are you anyvay? Vhere is your licence?”

The taxi drivers in the crowd all begin to speak up in anger, nodding their heads.

“Yes, we pay for a licence in Delhi to pick up tourists. What is this man thinking he can come here and steal our fares. Get him out of here,” they called in unison and began to advance on Chander en masse.

“Hey, get your filthy hands off me,” Chander yelled. He raised his arm to ward off someone’s fist and loosened his grip on Lea.

In the resulting melee Lea managed to slip away and the Delhiite quickly led her to his car.

“Yinternational yairport,” the pompous man told his driver and they sped off, leaving Chander surrounded by an angry mob.

“Hehe, that vas a brilliant escape madam, no? Just like in the Hindi movies,” the Delhiite giggled happily.

“You were wonderful. How can I ever thank you?” The moment she said it, she regretted her choice of words.

He eyed her lustfully and suggested “Yif you give me a chance, I will show you,” he said, leaning closer to her and breathing the words into her ear.

Lea shifted towards the window. She knew that she had to play the game until she reached the International airport.

“Erm, your driver is watching us. How is your wife?”

“Don’t vorry, my driver speak no Yinglish. My vife is at home. She is getting our second baby soon. She is getting fat like her mother, yah. Yai have no fun with her these days. But yai find fun with others, no. Many vemen still find me handsome.” He grinned at her as if to show how wonderful he looked.

Lea felt her stomach churn. The bastard hasn’t changed a bit, she thought to herself.

“So your first child, a son I presume?” said Lea trying to distract him.

“No, unfortunately yit vas a girl. Ah, problem is my vife. Now she yeats only vegetables yand prays yeveryday to get a son. Yif she gets one more girl, yai will find another vife yai think. Maybe someone like you madam. Then maybe my baby vill be like yours. Nice fat baby yar?” He leaned over and squeezed Xerxes’s chubby arm, at the same time allowing his arm to come uncomfortably near Lea’s breast.

“Well, there are plenty of women like me in London,” countered Lea trying to put some enthusiasm in her voice as she lifted Xerxes and placed him on the Delhiite’s lap.

“Ah, this baby you have, yit belongs to those bloody Malanaans no? Yai still have nightmares of that night madam. They are terrible those people, taking so much money from us.”

Lea remembered the exorcism and shuddered.

“What’s important is that you are well now.” Lea placated.

“Yai? But of course! Yai have never felt better. Yafter that trip, yai never vant to go to any Yindian places again. Now, I fly overseas. Maybe I come to London with you?”

Lea blanched at the thought.

“Yes, I’m sure your wife will love a holiday there.”

“My vife, my vife, ah madam, yai make the money, yai spend yit yany vay yai like. Yai give her gold yand money. She happy. I happy. Yai take them out to yeat yin good restaurants yevery Sunday. Yai take her mother and father along to yeat also. Yeverybody is happy. So vhy not yai make me happy too, no? Yai vill come to London alone to see you.” He leaned close and whispered the last words into her ear.

“I see.” Lea looked out the window relieved to see the airport tower come into view.

“Hehehe, madam, don’t vorry. Yai yam a good lover. All my girlfriends tell me so,” he boasted, reaching out for her thigh to stroke it.

Lea was glad she was wearing jeans. Trying to distract him, she spoke to the driver.

“How far is it still?”

The driver looks into his rear view mirror, embarrassed by his employer’s advances. He cleared his throat then replied, “Five minutes Memsahib.”

“Hurry up yah, Memsahib vill miss her flight,” the Delhiite rudely ordered his driver.

“Yes Sahib,” answered the driver throwing look of disgust at his employer and pressing the accelerator deeper.

As the car sped round a sharp corner, the Delhiite took the opportunity to lean further onto Lea, squashing her deeper into the seat. She pushed him gently away, took Xerxes back from him and placed the child between herself and the lust-filled man.

“Is there something wrong with your back? You don’t seem to be able to sit straight.” Lea decided to be firm.

The driver’s snigger did not escape his employer.

“Who is your boy’s father?” The Delhiite forced himself back to his side of the seat, seeing that his advances were rebuffed.

“You don’t know him. He died in an avalanche,” Lea lied.

“Oh, yai yam sooo sorry to hear that madam. Yai thought you and the prince of Malana.”

“No, we didn’t. You know as well as I do, those people are barbarians.”

“Yes, yes. Yai know velly vell. Hehe. They are velly strange those people. Strange men and strange gods.” For a while the Delhiite was distracted from harassing Lea, the trauma of his possession passed but not entirely forgotten.

When they finally arrived at the International Airport departure hall, he let Lea out and tried to give her a kiss on the mouth. Dodging out of his embrace, she thanked him hurriedly and rushed out towards the building without looking back. She was just within a hair’s breath of the airport’s front doors when she heard Chander shouting at her to stop.

Without looking back, she dived through the doors, showing her international tickets. Chander was stopped by the airport police from entering the building. He did not have a ticket. Lea heard him banging on the glass partitions and saw him being arrested by the airport police for creating a disturbance. Chander waved the council letter at the policeman who ripped the letter to shreds, not bothering to read the contents.

She was safe at last. The danger was over for now.

EPILOGUE – London, UK, December Year 4

Seven-month old Xerxes gurgled happily and kicked his chubby legs into the air. Blue eyes wide open and inquisitive, he stuck out his finger at a passing Labrador, touching its wet nose. His proud mum guided the pushchair along, smiling at the owner of the dog, who was laughing at the sight of his pet slurping the baby’s podgy finger.

“Nice day,” commented the dog owner, wrapped in a thick navy blue Burberry’s overcoat, his blond shoulder-length blowing in the breeze.

“Yes, isn’t it,” Lea replied, trying to control her own hair. She felt a twinge of sadness as the stranger passed. Blond men affected her like that, as do Germans with their staccato accents and even National Geographic films on the Himalayas. They all reminded her of Karl. She looked up at the weak sun filtering through the grey December clouds and sighed. It would be a long time before she could fill the emptiness inside. Having Xerxes helped, having her work back in St. Mary’s helped too. It was the weekends that were the most difficult and that made her attempt to fill them up with long walks. This was now their weekly stroll. After taking the tube to Camden Town, Lea would push Xerxes in his stroller along the towpath from Camden Lock, passing the outer perimeters of Regent’s Park Zoo and eventually ending at Baker Street for the tube home.

A tiny robin chirped on a naked birch branch. The cold north wind fluffed up the robin’s neck feathers and rustled the few remaining dried leaves from the surrounding trees along the path. The water in the canal looked green and murky and the flow, as usual, was sluggish. A few ducks swam half-heartedly alongside, looking at Lea and hoping for scraps of bread.

“Hungry then? Want a bit of bread?” Lea took out a bag and started to tear off bits of bread and throw them into the water. Quack, quack, quack, they wriggled their tail feathers as they swam hurriedly to catch the floating bread pieces. The commotion attracted more ducks and moor hens which all started to close in on the circle. Xerxes squealed in delight at their frenzied activity.

Lea laughed at the antics and acrobatic feats of some of the braver fowl, clambering over the others to get at the food first.

“Survival of the fittest can seem funny to some I suppose.”

It was a voice that haunted her nightmares - a voice that once held promises of heaven and instead delivered hell. A voice that chilled Lea to the very bone much quicker than the north wind never could.

Dressed immaculately in black, with a silk cravat around his neck, Raj should have looked dashing but he didn’t. Instead, he looked thin and drawn and, Lea noticed, slightly stooped. In fact it was Chander, standing next to his beloved master, who could have been mistaken as the nobler of the two. Raj’s air of command had gone and his bloodshot eyes stared out from a gaunt haggard face.

Lea turned to look straight into his eyes as she answered with equanimity, “And yet there are those who refuse to die.”

“Was that what you wished when you took my son away from me?” Raj laughed without mirth.

“I was not consulted for my consent to be a pawn in your game of creation Raj, so, I merely opted out.”

“And took the major player with you.”

“I consider it a duty as his mother to give him a choice. If I had allowed him to be taken from me he would have been sacrificed to some Pagan god.”

“I would not have allowed it Lea,” Raj lashed back.

“You? From what I saw, your power as king didn’t seem to matter one bit to the council. They just do what they bloody well pleased and, in any case, you would eventually have succumbed to the wishes of your mother and her cohort high priest via the ever dependable Lord Jamlu.”

“For your information, I did save him from sacrifice Lea. But you didn’t trust me enough to give our Shamshir a chance.”

“By taking him away from you, I have given our son a real chance Raj. A chance to live freely, without worrying about a village caught in some time-warp, clinging on to beliefs of castes and phoney gods long dead and forgotten. Oh, and by the way, his name is Xerxes.”

“Xerxes – a Greco Persian name is it? - I guess it was inevitable and I suppose you want him to grow up to be as self-centred as everyone else in the modern world? Where life holds no meaning except to provide for their personal comfort?” Raj clenched his jaws tight and his lower jaw muscles quivered discernibly in his drawn face as some of his old anger flashed.

“The alternative would have been worse. Even if his head didn’t end up stuck outside the temple of Jamlu, even if you had managed somehow to prevent those bloodthirsty minions of yours to leave him alone, I did not want him to waste his life away. I didn’t want him to become like his father, caught up in past glories of a people long dead. Why should he grow up calling someone else ‘mother’ when his own is still alive and well?”

Raj walked over to the canal’s edge and stooped to look into the murky waters. “The high priest defied Jamlu and has paid for it. Kamala is dead. She had a miscarriage and bled to death. I couldn’t help her. I was stoned with hash. I saw her groaning in pain. Then the sheets turned red with her blood. I kept trying to keep her quiet but she went on and on. And while the sheets got redder with her blood, her face was getting whiter, I thought it was funny and started laughing. I couldn’t stop. I laughed as she died. And the other little piece of news is,” he laughed mirthlessly, “I’m impotent. So really, Shamshir is my only heir.”

“So many people have given their lives because of your one stupid act. Sometimes, I even blame myself for many of the deaths. I was so naive. We’re all your pawns in this great scheme of yours, aren’t we?”

“Will you come back Lea? I won’t make the same mistake again.” For a moment, Raj looked like a lost little boy, staring hopefully up at her.

“No, I won’t make the same mistake again either Raj. All I will do is promise you that I will tell Xerxes of his heritage. One day, he may want to go back on his own…but not now, not while I am alive and while he is still a child.”

Raj looked devastated, as he stared at the water once more. However, when he lifted his head, his countenance had undergone a dramatic change. His face was contorted with loathing as he said, “Then you leave me no choice Lea,” and motioned towards the trees in a prearranged signal.

They were joined by what looked like a couple of hired thugs. The blood drained from Lea’s face. She looked down the towpath but it was empty. Useless to scream, she thought. Raj and his accomplices have chosen their time and place well.

“Hand the child over, sign these custodial papers and we will leave in peace. I’m sick of playing games.” Raj’s face was a mask of evil, reminding Lea of his schizophrenic tendencies and making her even more determined to fight back. She was well aware that the moment she signed Raj’s ridiculous papers, she would be handed over to the hooligans for disposal.

Suddenly, one of the thugs plucked the baby from his pushchair while the other pushed the rolling vehicle into the pond before moving behind Lea menacingly.

Lea screamed and lunged for her baby. She was no match for the muscled brute. He wrapped one hairy arm around her and sneered in a thick Eastern European accent, “You won’t be needing that anymore will you darling.” Using his free hand he gently lifted Lea’s hair with two fingers so that he could whisper in her ear, “I hope you are going to be just as lively when the time comes. It will be much more fun.”

“As you can see,” interjected Raj, “Patience is not one of my virtues. I have no desire to hurt you unnecessarily so it will be better all round if you just sign the documents giving me absolute custody. I can then pay off my friends who will keep you entertained until after my flight leaves at 8 tonight.”

A few months ago, Lea would have broken down and panicked. Now she felt an inner calm and, in some strange way, in control. She knew that the situation was desperate and her only hope was to play for time. Perhaps someone would chance along the way or some avenue of escape may present itself. Lea also realised that these thugs would enjoy themselves with her body before dumping it in the Thames.

“If I sign the papers will I be allowed to come and visit Xerxes,” whimpered Lea, reverting to her old self hoping to catch Raj off guard.

“Someday perhaps I will tell him of his heritage,” he echoed her words derisively, “and when he gets older, perhaps he will visit you. But I think not. Who knows how Lord Jamlu would react?”

Just then an old tramp shuffled his way through the trees and headed towards them along the towpath.

“Chase him away,” Raj ordered Chander. The faithful manservant approached the hobo with a threatening gesture. The villain holding her relaxed his grip and momentarily diverted his attention toward Chander and the hunched vagrant. Lea, seizing her chance, took one step forward and launched a well-aimed kick into the groin of the thug while simultaneously grabbing Xerxes as the crook doubled up in pain. Lea started to run as fast as her legs could carry her when she heard a sharp cry of agony followed by a tremendous splash. Turning quickly in mid-stride, she saw the giant Chander writhing in agony on the towpath while the assassin from whom she had broken free was now lying in the water with blood oozing from a gash in his neck. The other crook was legging it away as fast as his pained scrotum would allow. Raj was ignominiously on his knees begging for his worthless life as the tramp held him in a headlock with a very large knife poised a hairs breath away from his carotid artery.

“Well lady, what would you have me do with this Arschloch? Is it thumbs up or thumbs down?” the old tramp smiled.

Raj recoiled in terror at the sound of a voice he recognised only too well.

“Karl!” Lea blinked, unable to believe that he was not an apparition.

Xerxes showed two tiny little teeth as he chuckled and stretched his arms out to be carried by the man who’d saved his life, twice.

They were suddenly surrounded by Metropolitan Police officers.

“Don’t look so shocked Lea. Raj and his drug activities have been tracked for a long time by Interpol. They’ve only now managed to gather enough evidence to move in, with a little help from me.” Karl smiled as Xerxes pulled on his scruffy beard.

Lea, still shaking, slumped onto a wooden bench, the trauma of the past few minutes finally catching up with her.

Karl placed Xerxes back in his pushchair, went up to Lea and embraced her. Lea started to sob.

“It’s going to be OK now Lea. Calm down Schatzi.

“How did you? Who saved you?” Lea shook her head in total confusion.

“Remember those Lahauli nomads? Your friend Ganga with the three husbands?”

Lea nodded her head.

“Well, they came through the avalanche, herded by Dolma, to look for survivors. Being expert horsemen, they made lassos and pulled me out. That’s what Dolma told me anyway. She claims that I was already going through the third gate of hell, when she nursed me back to health with her fantastish herbs and poultices.” Karl laughed.

“Dear old Dolma, how can we ever thank her?” Lea sniffed.

“She asked me to tell you that there will always be momos waiting for you in Phugtal.”

Lea tightened her hold on Karl and squeezed as hard as she could, unable to believe that it was not all a dream.

“Hey, I think this belongs to you.” Lea took out her pendant.

“Argh! Keep that away from me. As Dolma would say, Aiyee! Bad luck, bad luck!” Karl made the sign of a cross with two fingers.

“So what do we do?” Lea laughed.

“They’re twins. They must stay together.” Their eyes met and Lea knew what he meant.

“Then we have no choice.” Lea leaned towards him and they kissed.

A sudden gust of wind blew a dried leaf off a branch. It landed on the water, making concentric circles before floating gently past a pair of swans swimming gracefully by.

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