It’s been awhile since I shared any of my fiction writing here on the blog, so it’s time to do so again. As this story features a werewolf of sorts, it fits here in the waning weeks of October. So grab your beverage of choice, snuggle under your blanket, and be transported back to India in the 1830s, where the British colonizers ruled supreme and there were perhaps worse things to be feared than the murderous thuggees…
A Delicious Irony
The palace loomed impressively over the landscape, studded with spires and towers, its windows flashing in the merciless sun. But if one walked down the long path that pointed like an arrow to the door and entered through it (the only door, take note), the interior would close around the unfortunate visitor, folding and shrinking in a shrieking, creaking cacophony.
What most did not know was that the palace was home to a raghosh, a magical shape-shifting being. And due to an enchantment the creature had placed upon it, the castle was smaller on the inside than it looked to be on the outside.
Harold MacCumber the Third, of Cumbria (not to be confused with his distant cousin, the famed Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia) found out about this peculiar quality of the shape-shifter’s lair the hard way.
He went in.
His motive was pure: to rescue the missing daughter of a local prince, the beautiful Nishta, she of the liquid eyes and graceful form. Gossip about the missing princess abounded, whispers of the evil raghosh who had stolen her.
Harold thought the superstitious bit a load of bosh, typical of the natives and their primitive mindset. She had likely gone off with a lover, or perhaps the raghosh was in reality one of the thuggees who were infamous in that part of India.
The fact that the thuggees were devotees of the goddess Kali, serving her through murder, not kidnapping, bothered Harold not a bit. Harold never thought too deeply about anything.
When an anonymous note arrived at his rooms, directing him to where the princess was being held and asking for his assistance, Harold was both flattered and delighted. He was bored with doing the same things and seeing the same sites as the rest of his peers who were serving the Empire in India. This mysterious note gave him an excuse for a bit of a lark.
It also gave him an opportunity that had long eluded him, that of finally making a name for himself outside of the long shadow cast by his cousin. Henry had all the advantages of being the heir, of visiting exotic places and doing wondrous things. Because of the similarity of their names, all of his life Harold had been mistaken for Henry, and this frequent misidentification chafed at him. He longed to wrest the spotlight from his more illustrious relative. He wanted nothing more than to never again see that faint dismissive pity cross another’s face once they realized who he was–or rather, wasn’t.
As he stared at the note, his imagination took flight. At last! The vaunted Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia, would have to explain that it was not he, but rather his cousin, Harold MacCumber the Third, of Cumbria, who rescued the beautiful Indian princess right out from under the slavering jaws of the evil beast (or from the kidnappers, as the case may be). Henry would finally get his comeuppance, and at the hands of the overlooked MacCumber, no less. A delicious irony Harold could not resist.
It was not to Harold’s credit that he didn’t think any further of this adventure than the glory to come once it was over.
He made no plan, and carried only his long sword. But he didn’t think he would need to use it. Its presence, along with his red uniform, would be enough to scare the kidnapper off, whomever or whatever he might be, indicating as they did that he was a representative of the British Empire. One glimpse and the vermin would go scuttling back into the hole from which he had come.
Such were the thoughts that occupied Harold’s mind as he strode down the path, and opened that singular door, and stepped inside. To say he was surprised when the whole place folded around him like an accordion would be an understatement.
Once the castle stopped its terrible re-arrangement, Harold lifted his head from his knees, for he had been crouching on the ground, arms up to protect himself. Although he was myopic and slightly stupid, Harold was, in fact, rather brave. Where a lesser man would have turned and bolted through that lone door which still stood open behind him, Harold paused for a moment as a soft sob reached his ears. Presuming it to be the Princess Nishta he stood up in the little space afforded him, straining to see in the darkness.
It really was imperative to see, for behind the sobbing he could hear a low throaty growl.
Carefully, Harold drew his sword and took a step forward.
The growl stopped, along with the sobs.
Harold gripped his sword, emboldened at this small success, oblivious to the dangerous silence that enveloped him. “Princess?”
But before he could say more he was knocked to the ground, his sword ripped from his hand. He barely had time to be surprised before he was trussed up and deposited in a bundled heap on top of another swaddled form, which emitted a startled squeak.
“Sirdar, be careful! He almost crushed me!” The voice, presumably belonging to the princess, was indignant.
The creature’s hot stinking breath fouled the air as it breathed harshly in ragged gasps above him. Harold wriggled off the princess, her musky perfume making his head whirl. He could not make sense of what had happened.
He squinted at the unblinking yellow eyes fixed on him in the gloom, seeing a suggestion of a huge hulking shadow behind them, and gathered his dwindling courage. “Now see here,” he began, his voice wavering. “This is not on, old chap.”
The beast emitted a pained howl, which cut off as the eyes blinked out and the shape twisted and writhed in the gloom, coalescing into a hunched form, which stood gracefully and stepped towards him.
A lamp flared, illuminating the chiseled features of a young man with blonde hair and golden eyes. He was naked, the light casting a yellow glow on his muscular body. “Who are you? Speak, now!”
There was no question of disobeying that imperious command. Harold lifted his chin. “Harold MacCumber, the Third, of Cumbria.”
The raghosh drew back, and snarled. “Cumbria? Then you are not the MacCumber of Snowdonia?” He drew closer, and Harold recoiled from that lambent scrutiny. “This one is worthless to us!” The creature’s voice was harsh as he whirled around, fixing his gaze on the princess.
She quivered under his regard. “But Sirdar, we could not know there were two of them!”
“Now see here,” Harold protested, stung. “I am here to rescue you, Madam, and I thank you for keeping my cousin out of it!”
The raghosh turned back to him, interest sparking in his eyes. “Your cousin?”
Beside Harold, the princess divested herself of her bonds, which, he now realized, were merely loosely tied around her. She stood beside the shape-shifter, both of them eyeing Harold with speculative interest.
“Hmmm….” The raghosh‘s voice was a low rumbly growl, his eyes narrowing to golden slits. He glanced at the princess. “Perhaps all is not lost, janu.”
Harold struggled against the ropes binding him, the terrible truth dawning upon him at last. “You mean to say this was all a trick? To lure my cousin here? You thought I was he?”
But the other two ignored him. The raghosh strode over to the corner of the room, the lamp he carried illuminating more details as he did so: a threadbare covering over a small bed, tattered tapestries hanging from the wall. As he put down the lamp on a rickety table a moth detached itself from a tapestry and fluttered over to the lamp, beating against the cover, causing the light to flicker.
The raghosh shrugged into a robe (which had a patch on the elbow), frowning. “News of this one’s disappearance will surely spread,” he said, slowly. His gaze sharpened on Harold. “Ah! We will put out word that you are held by the thuggees, and that they require payment to release you. The great MacCumber of Snowdonia will surely stoop at nothing to retrieve his cousin from certain death. He will come with his gold, and all will be as planned.” He peered more closely at Harold. “Unless you have gold to buy your life?”
“No,” Harold choked out, hating to admit his lack, especially in these dire circumstances. A familiar impotent fury seized him. Once again, his cousin Henry was the only MacCumber that mattered. And likely Henry would have as little care for Harold’s fate as he would for a grasshopper. They had never been close as children, and less so in adulthood. Henry would write off this ridiculous demand as a prank, or worse, ignore it. There would be no ransom coming from Snowdonia, of that Harold was sure.
What would become of him once these two grew tired of waiting? Harold quailed at the remembrance of the raghosh‘s other form, and thought rapidly for a moment.
The solution was obvious. There was a way to survive this predicament and supplant his cousin, once and for all. “Listen, old chap, I have a better idea,” he began, and with as much dignity as he could muster whilst being trussed up like a Christmas goose, he explained his plan.
Four months later the newspapers were full of the news of the terrible death of Henry MacCumber, Esq., of Snowdonia. They trumpeted the heroism of his cousin Harold, who tried to save Henry from the fearsome and mysterious creature they stumbled upon on the remote slopes of Yr Wyddfa, where they were training in preparation for an Everest expedition. Henry had been viciously mauled, it was reported. Harold stated that he could not see much of what happened in the blowing snow, although he was able to attempt a shot at the creature, who disappeared into the blizzard, leaving the dying Henry behind.
Stories followed detailing the generous provision which Harold received in Henry’s will (apparently they were very close, reporters speculated) and the reward given by the Queen herself in recognition of Harold’s bravery, thus allowing Harold to set up a modest but very comfortable estate in the Cumbrian hills. Two weeks later a feature story was published as a wrap-up to the whole affair. Harold had been given honorable discharge from the Army, for he had served his country well. During the summer months Harold would live in his Cumbrian estate with his exotic Indian manservant and the beautiful Indian princess he had taken to wife. In the winter he would retire to India, to the magnificent palace given to him in as dowry by his wife’s father.
On the whole Harold was pleased at how easily they had been able to pull off his plan. Once again he savored his triumph as he swept the courtyard of the raghosh’s palace, its fantastical spires shimmering in the heat behind him.
He paused for a moment, leaning on his broom, relishing the memory of Henry’s futile protests as he signed the newly revamped will, recalling the strident headlines which praised Harold’s bravery. He, Harold MacCumber of Cumbria (and India), was the one now spoken of in hushed terms of awe, his the name all men looked up to.
“Quickly now, you must finish! The sheik comes tonight, and all must be ready!” The raghosh‘s command broke through Harold’s reverie, and he bent his back to the work with a murmured “Yes, sahib“, ignoring the twinge of doubt that struck him, as it sometimes did in unguarded moments. His freedom was but a small price to pay, he reminded himself. The results had been worth it.
It wasn’t a bad life, after all. He lived in a marvelous palace, and on days like today he could even pretend, just for a short time, that he was the master of it. Once his work was done he would don the garb of a wealthy nobleman. Together with the princess Nashti he would greet their guest, who would take no notice of their golden-eyed servant.
No notice at all, until the palace folded itself around him and left him begging for mercy underneath the claws of the raghosh.
The beast would let the sheik live, for a small fee. If he refused, well, the raghosh would satisfy his baser nature in a most disagreeable way. If the man agreed to pay, he would be taken to the desert wastelands and released, with enough water to survive the trip back, although it was true there had been a few who had not.
Harold had no fear of discovery from those who survived. The threat of a return visit from the raghosh was enough to make them keep quiet about their ordeal.
All in all, a satisfactory arrangement. Slowly but surely the palace was being restored. Harold’s inheritance, plus the gold coin they were extorting, allowed the raghosh to make his lair as splendid in reality as it was in its magical enchantment.
As for Harold, he had achieved all he wanted, and so he was content. To ask for more would be greedy, and that would not suit Harold MacCumber, of Cumbria (and India), not at all.
Featured image by Himanshu Singh Gurjar, on unsplash