“Pack up your bags!” her father announced in the dinner table. “We will leave the day after tomorrow.”
“Woolens too?” Tiasa asked eagerly.
“Yes! We are going to grandma’s” He smiled.
Tiasa pouted a bit, just a bit. she loved her grandma, this was her first visit to her home though… she always came to Kolkata because that was convenient for papa. He was too busy in his works.
“You wont cancel at the last minute, will you?” she looked at him deeply. she had a slight suspicion that he will cancel the trip at the last minute and she will have to spend her summer vacation at home.
“No darling.” he got up. “Now daddy will have to go to bed!”
“Will my cell phone work there?” she asked.
“Yes, in roaming so be a little easy on the old man’s wallet.” he shouted from his bedroom before closing the door.
she went to her bedroom and started texting everyone.
Her grandmother lived in a small town in the lap of Himalayas. Her ancestors belonged to that far away place. It was rewarded to them by a Mughal emperor when one of her ancestors fought bravely for him and helped him in winning a decisive war. So their family shifted from Bengal to Himachal Pradesh.
She was ten, and this was the first time she will be visiting her own kingdom! ha! The kingdom she will inherit because her father was the only son in a long line of “only sons” of his family.
she stopped texting somewhere near midnight and went to sleep.
On the fourth day they were sitting in her grandmother’s spacious drawing room. The huge windows looked down at green valley from a dizzying height. The balcony attached to the drawing room made you feel like you were sitting in a ropeway car, looking down at the valley. There was nothing between the valley below and the balcony floor. A straight fall!
Tiasa grabbed the railings hard as she peered down at the valley. Grandma and dad were talking in the drawing room.
It was the dream town of every resident. Surrounded by hills that the adults loved to trek in, a river, shallow, wide with sandy banks guarded by tall trees and bushes… it had water all through the year.
Morning came ringing with bird songs, in the nights fireflies came dancing down, as if their ethereal sisters, stars, equally dazzling were paying a secret visit to the earth below disguised as fireflies.
Then things went wrong…
The children started to vanish, one after the other. In one month ten children vanished without traces…
Alert parents, watchful neighbours or increased police patrol- nothing worked.
Within six months panic replaced fear, families started to send their children to hostels in other towns. The town started to look like a lifeless cluster of houses without children.
“It’s the worst time to leave her here Prashant!” Rudrani said.
“I know ma.” Prashant answered. “But you can’t shift to Kolkata… or live there for two years…I have already made arrangements with Rosebuds Academy that they will admit her in the same class. “
Rudrani knew it was not possible for her to shift to Kolkata for two years, at least… or come here every time she was expected here. She was not that sturdy, she has always been frail now age is settling score so…
“I wish you could take her with you… to USA.” She said.
“So do I mom…” he answered. “But I don’t want her to be influenced by Western Culture. I will rather leave her with you, under your training.” He chuckled.
“I will tell her whatever is necessary, apart from that; she will leave the palace with Sudamada (their driver) and return with him only…” Rudrani said. “No intruder will be able to beat the security here or at school. All schools are panic stricken. None of the kids have disappeared from schools…they mostly disappeared from home or from roads- going or returning from somewhere without any adult to accompany.”
“She is a smart girl.” Prashant comforted her. “I have given her thorough training about dangers that lurk everywhere. You know how tough it is to bring up a child without mother!”
Prashant left the next morning. His flight from USA was from Delhi, a week later, he had to had some final discussions with his superiors in Delhi office.
Tiasa started her new life without much fuss. She and Prashant were very close, she knew he did not had any other choice, or else he would have done that, he shifted her here with best intentions, let’s say the name of this kingdom is meghgarh- fort of clouds, consisting of a small fort on the top of the hill and the whole area surrounding it, including the valleys all around it. There were small villages scattered in the slopes of the hill and the valley below, the land was very fertile and the stone work of that area was legendary, inspiring a small town to grow outside the kingdom, a kilometer or a bit further, barely. The kingdom stopped its growth on this side, but the town was growing on other directions because Rosebud was quite popular among parents too busy to bring up their kids.
They even allow resident nursery kids, had a group of governesses to bring up four kids together till they were in class 4, of course they had to pay the wages of the governess but lot of parents accepted that extra baggage with smile because of fantastic output.
The school allowed both resident and non-resident kids. They had full confidence on their teaching staff. So there was no question of not accepting small town kids in the academy but the local kids had to get admitted from the nursery, they were spared from the charges of governess but had to attend special tuitions too brush up.
In short, everything about Rosebud was costly and they returned every dime that the parents paid.
Tiasa’s friends back in Kolkata were miserable, she was quite “the girl” in her school; her classmates looked up at her because of her intelligent and sharp mind.
She was four years old then. Her father was off in Mumbai, in a business trip. She was waiting outside the school for their driver to pick her up, when he arrived she noticed there was another man with him, there was no question of suspicion, he has been working for her father even before she was born. She started to feel something was amiss when he turned the car into an unfamiliar road.
Then like daddy has told her again and again the driver turned and smiled at her and handed her over a bottle of cold drink.
She accepted it and poured it in the flask she carried water, and started to pretend that she was sipping it.
She heard the companion of her driver whisper, “Why is she not asleep?”
The driver turned and again grinned foolishly, “Drink the whole before its hot, I have added Glucose in it. Sir told me…”
She did what they were expecting her to do. She laid herself down on the seat and pretended to be sleeping soundly.
Now they started to speak in normal tone, “It will be a big bootie. Her father will give anything we ask.” The driver said.
The car stopped, the driver muttered nervously, “Why is this traffic jam in this route… it is supposed to be deserted at this hour!”
She heard rapping of stick on her side of window, the sound of traffic police stick- have heard it thousand times and jumped up. There he was her messiah.
“Help me uncle!” she screamed. “They are kidnapping me!”
We all can assume the rest.
She was awarded a medal for that.
Last night her father held a detailed conversation with her, why he was leaving her with Rudrani, “I have made some bad enemies in my business Titas (he fondly called her Titas- a river), I will feel safe if you are with grandma, your study won’t be hampered a bit, all you will have to do is stay away from your friends for two years or may be a bit more….”
“But you have your laptop, your phones…and huge pocket money…right?”
“Be careful, about the things that are happening here and about other probable dangers too. Stay within the fort, and inside the school campus, don’t go to anyone’s home unless grandma or Sudamada is with you. You can trust Sudamada he is not like Asit, our driver in Kolkata. Sudamada will kill himself before harming any of us.”
A month passed away, without any incident, adjusting to the new place, making new friends, chatting with old friends… knowing Rudrani and trying to be the way she expected her granddaughter to be.
The fun part was exploring the fort.
It was on a huge area, there were two boundary walls, one outside the royal palace and the other acted as the fort boundary.
Both were well guarded because the fort garden was littered with priceless sculptures, some were so small that they could be easily stuffed in a backpack and smuggled away.
Visitors were allowed in the outer portion but the royal section opened only during occasions when the people of kingdom wanted to see the queen or king whoever was ruling then. Apart from that during Durgapuja- for five days because the palace held Durgapuja in a lavish way!
She has seen the Pujamandap (Altar) the structure that will be built into the goddess was there, the priest came every day to offer puja to it. It was made of hay, with a bamboo skeleton to hold the clay figures in right place. The old hay was replaced by fresh hay every Janmashtami and the clay model was given its first touch- on the birthday of Lord Srikrishna.
She planned to record it all in her digital camera and share with her friends, the coming home of goddess and the durgapuja.
There were months left for that, her summer vacation here was short… winter vacation was longer. A fifteen days of summer vacation was about to start next day, she planned to go wild… not in the city sense, in the literal sense- scout every little nook and cranny of the fort garden and if grandma allowed she will love to take some trips to the outer part of the fort too.
She reached school. Sudama stood watching her till she disappeared in the school compound and started the car to return to fort.
The teacher entered the class room with a dark countenance.
“Kids, quite a few of you knew Lekha of C section… her mother sent her to buy something from a shop just a few houses away from their home… she has not yet returned…fold your hands and pray with me that she makes home back… safe and sound!”
They prayed for a few minutes and the day started with a gloomy tone. A lot of girls knew Lekha, her father passed away last year… that incident brought her close to a lot of them.
The day ended in a jiffy and they bade goodbye to each other, happy for the break, worried for each other…praying that the whole class will unite after the break intact.
Sudama was waiting for her right outside the gate. “How was the day didimoni?” he asked.
“Another girl has disappeared…” she said, her face hanging a bit.
“Did you know her?” he asked, in a worried, sad tone.
His face brightened a bit when she told him that she did not knew the girl.
“It’s so sad didimoni… so very sad! If it continues like this they might close the school! The only thing that keeps it open is that the kids never disappear from inside the school!” he sighed, “Their parents are inconsolable…”
His eyes filled with pain, his eyes fixed on the hilly road moistened a bit. “Promise me didimoni you will always be cautious!”
“I will. I promise.” She placed her hand on his hand and pressed it.
She returned home and dumped her bag on the desk. There was no homework, the school believed in actual vacations.
It was late in the afternoon, she had a quick bath and went to Rudrani’s study, she knew grandma will be reading with a cup of coffee at this time.
Rudrani lifted her eyes and smiled at her.
She settled down beside her.
“Schools off for summer?” Rudrani asked, gently stroking her hair. She nodded silently.
She placed her head on Rudrani’s lap and stretched on the couch, closed her eyes and lost herself to gentle caress of grandma, a thing which was not very available in her life. Her father loved her but had very little time for her.
“Grandma…” she opened her eyes after a long, long time. “Can I explore the palace gardens and the gardens outside the palace but within the fort?”
Rudrani answered after a little while…”Palace garden is alright Titas but the outer garden…well… I will think about that darling! Will tell you tomorrow, okay?”
Her glass of milk and plate of snacks arrived on a tray.
“Eat it and join me in the garden.” Rudrani got up. They strolled together in the garden, every morning and evening for some time.
She went out after finishing the stuffs; Rudrani was waiting for her in the lawn.
“You can explore the outer garden honey, but you will have to take Tiger and Minu with you.” Rudrani said when she joined her. Tiger was Rudrani’s Doberman and Minu was one of the palace guards. It was not possible to allow men everywhere in the household so Rudrani has appointed a group of well trained women in the palace. They helped in chores and worked as guards.
She nodded happily. She knew Minu, she was a very cheerful, smart girl somewhere near her early twenties.
“I think I will ask Minu to start training you in self defense.” Rudrani smiled.
They took a long stroll in the garden, talking about everything in world, having a wonderful time together.
Minu was waiting for them in the lounge when they returned.
Rudrani explained everything to Minu and asked her to show Tiasa her bedroom.
“Every time you go out to the palace garden or garden outside take her with you!” Rudrani said, “if she is not in her room ask anyone to find her and wait for her… don’t go out on your own!”
She nodded in consent.
The night vanished in a jiffy she woke up with birds and brushed her teeth. Hoping that Minu is an early riser! She hated to think that she will wake that poor girl up for her fun.
She came out with her digital camera and headed for Minu’s room.
She was waiting for her, dressed to boots, “Have you had your tea and breakfast or will you come back for it?” Minu asked.
“Let’s pack something!” she said.
They headed for the kitchen and packed up the things Tiasa wanted. She was surprised to note that the whole household was up already, up and moving in full speed.
When you wake up late you think the whole world wakes up late.
The garden outside the palace was finished up by the second day evening.
“We will go to the outer garden tomorrow!” she said while parting from Minu on the second evening. Barely able to suppress her excitement!
Minu laughed softly at her excitement.
They started early, with a flask of tea and breakfast plus lunch. Rudrani was never preachy, she knew she could trust Minu so she gave her a gun and asked her to keep her cellphone fully charged and on. So they could track their movements from their control room.
One distress signal and the whole security will be there within five minutes.
“The outer garden is lot more cool Minudi!” Tiasa grinned. It truly was dotted with old temples, splendid sculptures, and small man made rivulets that had fantastic bridges on them, boats in them and sometimes lakes with boats.
Couple of hours later it will fill up with tourists, families, kids… friends… the whole place will come alive. Fortunately it was not opened to public before ten in the morning. Now it was absolutely deserted barring birds, animals and guard rooms with a pair of guards in each. There were quite a bunch of guard rooms in the garden to prevent theft and littering.
They settled down under a huge tree for lunch. After the lunch Minu went to relieve herself, Tiasa sat there watching the rivulet that was flowing a few meters away. It came floating towards her, she could barely believe her eyes, its true Kolkata had very few of them but she has never heard about such a mammoth size of a butterfly.
It was almost as big as a small sized book. Its colour was bright red!
It flew straight towards her and her jaw fell.
There was a small girl sitting on it, barely three or four inches tall, wearing a red dress and tiara; with a small wand in her hand but without a wing!
The butterfly perched on a branch of the tree after the girl alighted on the ground right in front of gaping Tiasa.
“Hello Tiasa!” the girl said in a sweet voice.
“You are a fairy?” she blurted out without answering her greeting.
“Yes!” she said.
“Where are your wings?” Tiasa asked. “I thought fairies have wings…”
“I was a prisoner of a wicked magician. I escaped with the help of this butterfly but my sisters are still his prisoner!” she said. “Will you help us?”
“How can I help you? If that magician can imprison you then he will stop me too…” Tiasa said.
“If you steal his wand then everything will be alright.” The fairy said. “I will distract him and you can steal the wand while he is away chasing me! He won’t suspect that I can get an ally because we fairies are not visible to anyone but those who have pure hearts!”
“I have been trying to set my sisters free for years… no one can see me… then you did!” the fairy folded her small hands. “Please save us!”
“Okay, let me tell Minudi!” she got up.
“No!” she shrieked. “If you tell anyone that you have seen me… well that person will not believe you and will never let you go! I will bring you back within an hour!”
She looked deeply at her face, the face of the beautiful, angelic looking fairy. What harm can she cause! Nothing! If she wanted to put a spell on her she could do that right now!
She got up. “Okay, let’s go!”
She swished her wand and a door formed a little distance away- in the middle of air, just a few inches above ground but nothing but the old, original things like the trees, grass, and air surrounding it.
“Come, let’s go!” the fairy said in her pipe sweet voice.
She opened the door and together they walked in. That is she flew in perching on the butterfly and Tiasa walked in with her.
It was an amazing world indeed! She has never seen flowers so colourful, fragrant and huge! Some were larger than her.
“His land was black and white before he captured us.” The fairy said. “We are color fairies; we color up the flowers of fairy land. You will see all colours here but red, that’s because I am not his prisoner.”
“But why will he have to keep you prisoner for that?” Tiasa asked.
“Otherwise we won’t color his world! He is rude, cruel and inconsiderate. No one likes him, not even the magicians but he is powerful than all of them, even fairies- he was given that wand by a very powerful being, some say it was devil himself, as long as he has that wand nothing can harm or defeat him. That want consumed every little bit of goodness that he had… turned him into a ghoul.”
There was a huge palace at distance, beautiful as it can be, surrounded by flower garden, fountains and small lakes.
“That’s his home.” The fairy said.
“Are you sure you will be able to distract him and he will leave the wand behind to chase you?” Tiasa asked. “What if he sees me? And what will I do after … if I can procure the wand?”
“I will turn you into a bird. I will try my best to distract him believe me! If you get the wand then just say back home… you will be out of magic world, right where I met you and I will follow you instantly!”
They have entered the garden. Suddenly Tiasa stopped. There was a small stone statue in front of her, small means small comparing to the surrounding flowers, and it was just a little smaller than her. It was the statue of a small girl, there was nothing odd with that, lot of gardens of statues of pixies, cherubs, fairies or small kids- the odd thing was her expression- it seemed like she could see thunder about to crash on her and was terrified – grimacing with fear!
Next it was a little boy- in the pose of fleeing from something terrible.
She turned and faced the fairy.
“You lied to me!” Tiasa said.
The fairy started to change, in a minute she transformed into a huge red snake, each of its head were as big as her and there were too many to count in a jiffy because before Tiasa could react, a hand pulled her into one of the bushes and she heard the voice of a young boy, “Run!”
They ran together because he was holding her hand, he continued talking as they ran from one bush to the other, “Don’t look into her eyes- you will turn into a statue like rest of the kids. She was right about the magician, only lied about the true identity and gender, she is the magician and she hates kids.”
“She was banished from the world of wizards and witches because of her malicious nature, she came over here and liked the spot and made her lair here- she calls it her castle of course, but we kids got on her nerve….we make too much noise so she decided that she will get rid of us.”
“How did you escaped her and knew so much about her?” she asked the boy.
“My name is Jishnu.” He smiled, “Get in here; you will have to crawl for a while.”
It was a small hole through which only kids could crawl in. They crawled for a few minutes and entered a small chamber.
“We are inside a room of normal world right now but there is no exit to the real world without … without waiting for her to open the portal, go out to get the next kid… for that we will have to watch her, and that’s impossible I think.” Jishnu said.
“When she is in snake form she can sense everything and is all powerful. But when she comes in touch of real world she possesses only one power- treachery, and you too will vow she is really good at that.”
“How did you save yourself?” Tiasa repeated her question, not trusting him fully yet.
“Sheer dumb luck I guess!” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “I was never the good boy you know… my teachers were scared of me… it was my dumb luck that the day she fooled me I was out on a mission, to throw a smoke bomb in Principal’s home.”
“I had that bomb in my pocket when she showed her true beauty and without thinking I threw it to her, the smoke helped me to evade her, I ran like insane- I am damn good at that. I could out run all the guards of school!”
“With that colossal body of her she is not very fast! I crawled into this hole that was second piece of luck. Later as I spied on her I realized that these portions of real world, that stayed intact in her unreal world were the places where she could not come in as the snake, and as the fairy we can kill her, she is vulnerable.”
“I cracked her powers and my only key to escape too but she is really evasive, it’s hard to save myself and guess when she is going out for her next hunt. She is quite whimsical.”
“How did you know that our only way out is through her portals? Have you seen someone else escape?” Tiasa asked.
“Uh huh… it’s only guess. I once saw a dog following one of the kids run out before the portal was closed. I saw it run away unharmed so I hoped that same will happen to me… now us.” Jishnu answered.
He handed her over some fruits… “That’s all we have here as food, they are really tasty!”
“Its noon, now we can sneak out for a couple of hours, the snake rests when the sun is burning too bright.” Jishnu woke her up. “I will teach you tricks of survival here, in case…”
They came out of the hole, into the dazzling colorful world of Red Witch.
“There are certain things which she can’t avoid, even with her level of sorcery.” Jishnu said, pointing at the distance, “Like that fleet of crows, that follows her everywhere when she is in snake form and a stink when she is near, I can smell her odor from quite some distance, enough to give me a life saving head-start.”
They started to pick up fruits, Jishnu showed her the safest ones, “Some will make you sick, some will make you sleep, have not bitten one that has killed me yet…” he grinned widely. “I always took my food back to my fortress before taking a single bite.
“Now is the problem part, there is only one pool in this place and Red is mostly prowling around it, she is always looking for me, now the number has increased.”
“That pool is right where those crows are.” He said. “How good are you at finding your way back at the hole?”
“Try me!” she said.
“Remember one thing, don’t leave any trail. I will take you near the pool and then distract her, she will chase me, you fill up this bag with water and go straight into the hole, I will be following you after getting rid of her. In case I don’t, well, best of luck. Once we fill up this bag it will last for at-least three or four days.” He giggled, “Hope you are not obsessed with bathing. Don’t take dip into the pool, the water trail may lead her to you. We will try bathing when she is asleep, that way we will dry up before she is awake, dried up and safely tucked in our hole.”
He took her to a spot and then pointed it out to her, there was no mistaking that stink; she has inhaled that odor before, the smell of ripe Mahua fruits, only this was hundred times heavier, so heavy that it made breathing an unpleasant affair.
“You can almost choke on it when she is too near.” Jishnu said. “Now we won’t speak any more and walk as noiselessly as possible, her hearing is real sharp. You will hear me shouting and should run for the pool noiselessly. This trail will directly lead you to it.”
“Be cautious…” he waved as he entered the undergrowths.
She heard him shouting from far away, “Hey witch….” the crows started to caw raucously and move, as if trailing someone.
She quickly reached the pool, it was beautiful and huge, stretched till the horizon on all other directions, she filled the huge bag made out of tarpaulin and rushed back to the hole.
She has already noticed it, there was a container in it she poured the water in it and started to wait for Jishnu impatiently.
Half an hour later the leaves rustled, he came in with a big grin. “I am starving.”
They had their fill and a short nap.
“The witch is snoozing, let’s get out!” Jishnu gently poked her out of sleep. “I will show you her castle.”
“Here… wear them!” he gave her a dress made of huge leaves and a pair of really long strips of tree bark, soft.
“What for?” she asked curiously.
“Wrap those strips in your feet, and wear the dress, their strong odor will hide our scent enough to not wake her up from her slumber.” Jishnu said.
They quickly crossed the distance to Red Witch’s castle. It was an amazing piece of sculpture, littered with toys and beautiful playthings.
“Don’t touch a single thing here…they are booby traps.” Jishnu has already warned her.
They tiptoed down to the basement. The air was heavy with musky odor of the serpent as she lay there, slumbering.
They tried to look for clues near her, something on her, near her that may give them some hint about the doorway. Could find none!
They crept back upstairs.
They quickly made it to the pool for a quick splash. The water of the pool was delicious, cold and refreshing.
“What’s inside that cave?” Tiasa asked. They both looked at it, it was a small cave and something was glowing inside it.
“Never tried it…might be one of her booby traps…” Jishnu said.
“Let’s try today… one should stay outside the other should go in? Warn if something sounds wrong?” Tiasa asked and Jishnu nodded in agreement. They picked up a handful of pebbles each, in case something wrong happens they will be able to throw one or two to signal. Shouting won’t be a good idea, running back or forth may be futile but the pebble will make a natural sound inside the cave.
“I will stand watch… I know her symptoms…” Jishnu said.
Tiasa entered the cave, it was a tunnel like cave that went in deeper, and the light was coming from there.
She emerged after half an hour, all excited and grinning.
They entered the cave together this time. She did not confided him what she has seen, they walked a little, and the cave started to shrink in height, soon they were crawling like two toddlers, one after the other.
Jishnu rubbed his eyes when he saw mountains outside the tunnel- real mountains and a breath of fresh air brushed his face after years.
They emerged out of it, one after the other, in a valley that Jishnu could recognize.
“We are out, in the real world!!!” he shouted with joy.
They hugged each other tightly.
“Let’s go home.” They chorused and started walking, Jishnu showing the way.
TO BE CONTINUED….