“Can I watch the sun set from the western tower?” Maya assessed the sentry. She had never seen him before, which was unusual. She knew nearly everyone in Rupar. But he was a refugee who arrived last spring arrived from Lahore, driven east by Khwarezmid raiders. He had a soft, white aura, so she knew that he would accede to her request, provided it was given in good faith.
The guard knew Maya as the Witch’s granddaughter because of her jade green eyes, and the sparks that were flashing in her gnarly, black hair. Most people, even the Great Khan in Karakorum, feared witches and their brood; he preferred to respect them. But because he was in awe of the girl, he hesitated to reply to her question. It was his duty to refuse her request, but he feared to say no lest he offend the Goddess.
Maya chose to interpret his hesitation as consent, She muttered “Thank you” as she slid past him while he blinked. Her magical was only strong enough to slow time for one or two seconds, but that was useful in situations like these.
In the autumn, when the sun was in the south, Maya liked to visit the west tower, where the view of the rolling hills which edged the Indus river was most beautiful. Her favorite spot was a storage room where the archers stored their gear. She would wrap herself in a colorful cotton blanket and would chat with the on-duty guard while watching the sun set. Tonight’s guard was Ramindar who had an aura the colour of alabaster, which shone against the shadowy fingers of the spreading night.
Normally the on-duty guard would greet her, and then tease her, usually about using her magic to help with his chores. Sometimes she obliged, though without ever admitting to. Tonight the guard did not greet her at all, or rather he greeted her with a scowl. She wondered why until she followed his gaze to a caravan of Persians, which was approaching from the west. Normally the appearance of merchants from this direction was a good thing because they brought money and beautiful carpets to trade for spices and precious stones. Tonight’s caravan was not typical for it had neither pack animals nor slaves. It was comprised of six merchants in black cloaks, six lightly armed guards and a Zoroastrian priest. The guards were lined up in double file of three. Between them they carried a trellis made of cedar poles lashed together with thick rope. The trellis supported a small box shrouded in black cloth. Each guard was followed, exactly two paces behind, by a merchant. The procession was led by a thirteenth man, a Magi, who walked beside a donkey on which all of their meager supplies were packed.
The sun touched the top of the nearby hills. Though the Persians didn’t realize it, they had lost their race with the night, for the town gates closed at sunset. They would have to camp outside tonight, probably in the Goddess’ temple on the shore of the Indus River. Not the worst outcome. The Goddess might favor them if they didn’t offend her with a paltry offering. She liked offerings of incense so a favorable outcome was quite possible.
Although the sky was cloudy and the air was cool the Persians moved lethargically, as if it was hot and their burden was heavy.
Maya spoke up, “Ramindar, can you see the patches on their eyes?” The guard shrugged. Maya repeated, “The men on the left side of the box have patches on their right eyes …”
He caught her meaning and completed her sentence, “… and the ones on the right side have patches on their left eyes. I wonder why that is?”
“I know why.”
“What do you know little witch?”
“The Persians are wearing patches to protect themselves. There is a creature with evil eyes in the box they are carrying.” She could feel the creature’s power. “Perhaps it is a Djinn.”
Her body became paralyzed by a spirit of tremendous power.
“Let me go, Djinn.!
To her surprise her resistance worked. She fell into a pile of colorful blankets.
[She pretended she didn’t know but she was certain one breath later when her body went rigid, her skin became clammy and cold; her eyes blinded by coloured lights, which dissolved into a vision of a burning eye and an woman who had been turned to stone and she had a premonition. ] The vision let her go and she fell onto a pile of straw. ]
Ramindar rushed to her side and gently shook her. She took a deep breath and said, “Ramindar, the Persians are carrying a Djinn in that box. If it escape, don’t look it in the eyes And don’t listen to it Plug your ears.”
“Of course, little witch.” He began his sentence with a patronizing tone, glanced once at the approaching party and ended on a serious note.
“How should I plug my ears, mantrika?”
“How!” Maya had used her voice too effectively and had panicked the guard.
The young witch’s response was not loud, but was so intense it startled the refugee guard. He scanned his immediate surroundings, picked up some threads of cloth and rolled them into a tiny ball. “These.” He spoke breathlessly.
Maya realized she had compelled the guard to act as he had did. Their actions must follow their own path, not yours, she thought, repeating the words of her grandmother.
She let him go. He slumped for a moment as he regained his will.
He nodded solemnly and then asked, “What do you mean by djinn?”
“We call them deva. But Persians call them djinn.”
“Hah! That is fantastic. And how could a creature who is so powerful be imprisoned in a box by a bunch of ragged men?”
“He was tricked. By a very wise and clever man named Sulayman.”
There was a loud crack. The young woman and young guard rushed to the window to see what had happened. They watched in horror as the guard on the right front side of the litter hardened to stone, and then exploded into rubble and dust. The merchant who was shadowing the guard frantically grabbed the handle of the trellis even as the weight of guard’s stone grip pulled the trellis toward the ground. The trellis wavered and the shroud shifted on the box. A dark red light glowed from inside. The Persians eyes were patched and averted, so none of the remaining twelve saw the light.
“Ramindar, close your eyes!”, Maya exclaimed.
The guard, luckily, had been looking away, toward the gate, when the Djinn’s evil eyes were exposed. At the sound of the noise he turned to face the Djinn head on. There was no time to warn him. She snapped his eyes shut with a spell. Then she did the same for all people on the town wall. She was too late. An hysterical mother shouted, “My child’s gone blind! His eyes have turned to malachite!” She heard a rush as people fled from the walls, and then heard the sound of stumbling as her spell took effect.
Maya stared at the black-red light emitting from the glass box the Persians were carrying. They were stumbling awkwardly as the Magi struggled to replace the carrier who had just died. She knew she had to enshroud the box that contained the djinn before her spell broke. Her power was weak at such a distance but it was possible. She projected her intention. The shroud barely moved. A voice in her head said, Let me help you. She replied, No grandma, you mustn’t. You are too weak. She replied, I am too weak, but together we are strong enough. Fighting against the wind and gravity together Maya and her grandmother moved the shroud back into place. When it was almost there her grandmother’s force drained away. But the job was nearly done. Alone she replaced the shroud and the evil red light cast by the Djinn’s eyes disappeared.
“Grandma? Where are you?” Maya’s thought was weak. She collapsed into a heap of straw.
A trumpet blared: a call to arms which echoed through the ramparts.
Ramdindar rose, leaned over her and said, “Get out of here, child.”
“No. I need to stay here. I just saved your life. Do you know that?”
“Let me stay. I’ll fetch you arrows if you need them. But you won’t.”
“How do you know?” His aura was still the colour of fresh cream. He wasn’t doubting her word. It was a sincere question.
“I just know. Please trust me.”
“Hide under the straw if there’s an inspection. Hide now!”
She piled the straw together into the corner opposite the window and just beside the door. “Perfect. I’ll hide here.”
“Now!” The guard hissed, sub voce.
“Not yet. Can’t you feel it?”
The Persians had reassembled themselves and resumed their march to the East Gate, in an already lost race with the setting sun. With each step they took, Maya could feel the anger and power of the imprisoned spirit get stronger and become more present.
Maya reached out again to her grandmother. Nothing. She would have to face this malign – but imprisoned – spirit alone.
“Prepare to fire!”
Maya was alarmed. “There is a deva in that box. We must not let it escape. Did you not see the man turn to dust?” Go. She pushed him with her mind.
Ramindar leapt onto the parapet, ready to speak – even shout – but paused, to reconsider when he saw the intentions of his commander. He was driven by her will, but she could only nudge him, not make him defy his nature.
The archers prepared to fire.
Maya channeled what little courage she had. It was enough. Ramindar gathered his robes, collected himself, rose and shouted, “Hold fire. There is a deva imprisoned in that shrouded box. We must not let it escape. Please please do not shoot. ” His words were half muffled by the bray of a second call to arms – the morning watch was being called to the ramparts.
The Captain in charge of the Night Watch strode over.
He stared at Ramindar for a long hard moment. They were not friends, nor aquaintances. He looked away, at the Persians. Ramindar said, “That pillar of dust. That was a man. There is something evil in the box they carry. We must not let it escape.”
The Captain nodded, “Summon the morning watch.”
The doubling of the garrison did little to fortify the defenses for the town was poor and could barely afford to equip its 108 archers.
While the townsfolk panicked and argued amongst themselves the pitiful caravan kept approaching and arrived at the foot of the wall, at the moment between sunset and night.The Farsees looked like shades, silhouetted by the afterglow of the sun, which shone directly at their backs.
The archers had cocked their bows, but averted their eyes, afraid to take aim.
As the travelers came closer, the villagers became quiet, save for the quiet chants of the mantrikas. She should be lending her power to their attempts at magic, but stayed where she was.
The Captain of the Night Watch alone faced the Persians. He stood tall on the parapet about the town’s western gate. He also was silent, though everyone was waiting for him to speak. He saw no reason to waste his voice until the Farsees were closer. When the travelers got within 100 paces of the gate the Captain shouted. “Stop.” The Persians obliged and then carefully put down their load.
The Captain of the Watch shouted, “Where are you from?”
The Magi stepped forward. At this distance he looked more like a beggar that a priest. His gown, once cotton sewn with gold and silver thread, was now tattered; his beard was unkempt and dusty. His peaked wizard’s hat came down to his eyes. His left eye was covered by a patch. He spoke in a weak, wavering voice, that neverthless rang clearly in the quiet dusk, “Baghdad.”
“How did you get here?”
“By way of Herat and Balkh.”
“What is your mission?”
“We are bringing a gift from the Caliph Al-Musta’sim to Ogedei Khan.”
“Ogedei is dead.”
“Who is Great Khan?”
“Töregene, Ogedei’s wife, is steward for Güyük”
“Our gift is for them.”
“Why does the Caliph wish to give the Khan and his regent an imprisoned deva?”
“That is the Caliph’s business.”
“Why is a Zoroastrian Priest serving Islam?”
The Magi paused before answering, out of apparent grief. “My brothers are the Caliph’s prisoners. Please give us food and shelter. Would you risk the wrath of the Great Khan by slowing down bearers of tribute?”
“We will feed you but we will not let you in to our town. We will lower a basket of food to you over the northern wall. Just beyond the wall, on the shore of the Indus River you will find the Swan Temple. You can stay there tonight. Upstream from the Temple there is a creek where the water is sweet.”
“We would appreciate the comfort of your town. We can pay well for lodging.”
The Captain of the Watch winced but otherwise ignored the entreaty. He said, “We will send scouts to the Temple tomorrow at midday. If you are still there our archers will kill you.”
“Please shelter us …”
“Go! And don’t forget to make an offering to the Goddess. She particularly likes figs, apricots and myrrh.” He signaled that the conversation was over by crossing his arms over his chest.
The Persians listlessly fell into formation and picked up the trellis and mournfully shuffled north along the dusty red path that led to the temple. They stopped briefly by the north wall to get supplies, then disappeared into shadows cast by the trees which lined the bank of the Indus River.
The entire garrison stared after them. No one moved; nothing was said.
At this the archers stood down, and the morning watchmen returned to their homes.
That night clouds rolled in from the mountains, hiding the moon and leaving the valley covered in darkness, save for the weak light of the village watch fires. Few slept. The woman withdrew to the inner town, because their restless children distracted the soldiers; most other people huddled near the walls.
Maya walked along the top of the rampart. It was made of powdery gray clay and was wide enough that two people could pass by each other if they twisted, but could not walk side by side. Soldiers were on guard but tired and bored. They let her pass without comment. She moved to her second favorite hide-out, a storage room attached to the north wall. There she stood on the tips of her toes and looked out toward the temple. The temple was at the bottom of an embankment, built directly in to the river. She could not view it directly; she only saw reflections caused by the red and yellow light of a campfire.
Dawn broke bleak and gray. The townsfolk huddled on the northern wall and watched the shadows of the tree-lined river for several hours after sunrise yet no merchants appeared from the temple. The crowd murmured loudly when it was discovered that the food they had left outside the northern gate had not been claimed.
After much haggling, it was decided that a slave be sent to investigate. The slave was owned by a man who had recently died with no heirs. He was old and survived by begging, so would be missed by no one. The slave, a man from the Sindh who had been captured at the sack of Lahore four years earlier, walked slowly toward the temple, his arm following the town wall, right up to the point where the wall reached a corner, at the top of the steps that led to the river and the Swan Temple. The man was terrified. He stumbled because he looked only askance (away from the river), trying to avoid, in every way possible, the bad magic imprisoned in the ark the Persians were carrying. The townspeople tensely watched his progress.
[“No.” Then he noticed. “Why are you crying?” My grandmother is dead …]
The slave hesitated at the crest of the river valley for several moments. The townspeople started to threaten him and throw things at him, but he was oblivious to them because he was paralyzed by fear. Then his nerve broke. He leapt off the stairs into a gully, and from there into a ravine that ran straight through a wheat field. He then ran down a goatherd’s path, north toward the Himalaya mountains, which loomed large but were days away. It was a suicidal choice. Without the protection of a village it would be very difficult for even a healthy young man to survive in this remote, wild land.
The crowd looked for the next person to send out, and settled on a dalit who had been charged with touching a Brahmin. His defense was that he had converted to Islam, and therefore caste rules no longer applied to him. The case was in abeyance while the town waited for the Mamluks to send a judge. The man was brought forward as were his wife and children. The patel, or headman, offered to drop the lawsuit if the dalit would investigate the Persian camp. After a brief though heated family conference, his wife offered to go in his stead; the village headman and elders agreed.
The untouchable woman exited the gate with four volunteer soldiers behind her, two armed with long, rusty knives and two with crude bows. The pathetic woman walked slowly toward what she thought was her death, muttering incantations, clutching and unclutching her hands. She hugged the wall so closely that her mirrored skirt made a grating noise as she progressed. Her children could be heard wailing from the inner town, where they were imprisoned in a pen with chickens, to keep them from chasing after her. She stumbled when a mortar she was clutching for balance crumbled, but continued forward, tremulously, toward the top of the stairs that went down the side of the river valley to the temple.
When the untouchable woman was steps away from the crest of the river valley, Maya’s grandmother appeared on the path out of nowhere. She wore a shalwar kameez made of dusty red cotton, the top and pants both of the same material. The red was offset by a bright yellow silk shawl, which she wrapped around her neck and head.
The old witch blocked the path of the untouchable woman, “Stop. Turnaround.” The Patel, livid at having his authority challenged by the witch, raised his voice and told the woman to continue, but he was shushed by the crowd, who respected and feared the witch, and wanted to know her intentions.
The untouchable woman, uncertain what to do, stayed where she was. That was good enough for the old lady, who simply wanted her to not proceed. She turned to Maya and said. “Granddaughter, come here.” Her aura burned more brightly than it ever had. She noticed that the sparks in her hair were burning more brightly than ever, too. They were both being called by the Goddess.
“This is very dangerous, granddaughter. Let us investigate together. Please hold this for me, so I can take your arm.” Maya took the jute satchel, wore it as a shoulder bag (but which she did not stop to open), and held her right arm out to her grandmother, to steady her.
Together they slowly crossed the crest of the river valley and slipped into a gulley that led directly to the back entrance to the temple. She hoped that she passed into the river valley unnoticed. The Temple was a simple affair – a squat coarse marble structure perched like a dock on the edge of the river. Its only decoration was several thousand small pieces of broken colored glass that had been attached to the walls as mandala mosaic.
The stairs when down into the river. Several were mostly covered by water because the river was high.
Maya tripped on a pile of rubble. Her grandmother sharply inhaled and then said, “wait”. She looked down and saw that the pile was the crumbled remains of one of the Persians. As she watched a slight breeze blew the rubble into dust. It took a few moments for the look of wide-eyed terror on the stone face to dissolve; the image of terror stayed with her.
“Will that happen to us, granddmother?”
“No. Something else.”
She did not say. But Maya knew she had had a vision.
A few paces further away, the rest of the Persians were collapsed into a grotesque heap of powdery stone. The ark, which lay in the center of this mess, had shattered, but the glass box which had been carried in its center had tumbled, intact to the ground. The box glowed with a red-black light. The aura stained the temple walls a color deeper and more intense than the most angry sunlight.
Maya carefully moved forward in order to inspect the box more closely, partially shielding her eyes as she did so. On the top of the box there was a picture of Indra, King of the Devas. It was an odd picture, though. Normally Indra was depicted riding his vahana, a three headed elephant, with a scepter or sword in his right hand. In this picture Indra looked like a woman. He – or perhaps she – was represented in enamel, reclining on a throne, surrounded by symbols of power: a lightning bolt, a sword and a scepter. On the side of the box there was a carving of a bull that wrapped around one edge. The bull’s mouth was on the neck of a scorpion. The scorpion’s tail wrapped around the box ultimately reaching for the white bull’s heart from behind. The indentations caused by the strokes of the carving knife were carefully painted in a fashion which accented the light and shadows; as a result the scene stood out in sharp relief against the mahogany background. A metal grill, the bars of a miniature prison, was on the bottom of the box, partially visible now because the box itself was lying askew.
While Maya studied the gift, the dalit woman tremulously approaching the top of the hill. She had been hectored /threatened by the patel if she did not investigate. Maya knew full well the danger that the old woman was in: if she crossed the top of the valley, she would see the broken ark, or one of its reflections, and die. Unfortunately, Maya had been distracted; so it was only at the last minute that she grabbed a scarf off of the stiff corpse of the Magi and flung it over the box.
At that moment the terrified woman appeared at the crest of the river valley.
Maya waved her to the ground all the while telling her to cover her eyes, and turn her back to the temple. The wretched woman fell to the ground, unharmed. For several minutes they remained silent, Maya securing the new shroud for the box, the untouchable woman sitting on a rock, facing the town. The only sounds were the banging of the wooden boats in the dock behind the temple, the lapping of the river, and periodic shouts from the town.
The dalit spoke first. It was an odd conversation, in part because the old woman stood with her back to Maya. “Young lady, I realize that I am low caste and not permitted to speak to a woman of your status, but we are alone down here and you have a reputation for being tolerant.”
Maya looked at the shrouded box before she picked it up. When covered with the cape it looked like little more than a lump of fabric. But at the center of that lump there was a spirit trapped inside a box. How much did a spirit weigh? She picked up the box. It was light. It weighed almost nothing. Without a word Maya ascended the stairs out of the river valley and returned to the town.
Suddenly a voice boomed out of the box. “Set me free!”
Maya stopped in her tracks.
“Set me free! I am Abdullah al-musta’sim bin Al Mansur. I am the Djinn who raised up the Tabriz mountains. Set me free or I will kill you all!”
The Djinn’s voice so startled Maya that she stumbled, but did not fall.
The dalit backed slowly and carefully away, careful not to look back.
Maya carefully placed the box on the flat stuff of a recently cut down tree and stepped back two steps, never loosing site of the Djinn’s prison.
She spoke with a voice that was bolder than she felt, “Deva, why should I set you free when I don’t even know how or why you are imprisoned?”
Much to Maya’s surprise the spirit replied with a quiet voice,, “I was captured 2,222 years ago by the trickery of Sulyaman because I refused to acknowledge the authority of Allah. My prison became the property of the Caliph of Baghdad when the Hashim overthrew the Ummayads.”
“Do you worship Allah?”
“Then I don’t believe your story. Your Islamic captors would have killed you for heresy. ”
“Only God or another Djinn can kill me.”
“If you are so strong how can you be imprisoned at all?”
“Through deceit and magic.”
“Why did the Caliph send you to Karakorum?”
“Vengeance. The Magi was to set me free and I was to destroy the Mongol court.”
Maya’s next question was spoken like a statement, “Something about the magic that traps you in this box forces you to answer my questions truthfully, doesn’t it?”
“Of course, I have been imprisoned by the will Allah.”
It made no sense to Maya that this spirit could be contained by a small glass box. There was more. She said, “Deva, before I help, you must answer some questions. First of all, will you try to kill me if I set you free?”
“Maybe. If you deserve it.”
“Will you kill innocent people?”
“No. Only the deserving. I have no power against innocence.”
“Are there others that you will kill certainly kill if I set you free.”
“Yes. Five others. Two humans tricked me, and three Djinni betrayed me.”
“Deva, I am a child. How can I cancel a spell caste by Sulyman?”
“Look at my cage, come closer.”
His voice compelled her. She walked up to the shroud and bent over. Just as she was about to remove it, she caught her self, barely, and shouted, “I am going to look at the Deva. If you look, you will die.” There was a scramble as the townspeople scrambled out of site. The Captain was the last too disappear. He had been bewitched by the Djinn, so had to be dragged to safety by his friends.
She pulled the shroud away.
The Djinn’s prison was a cube of quartz and glass. The top was capped by a piece of black lacquered wood, onto which were painted a blossoming almond tree. The box glowed an angry red. She bent down to look through the bars. A strand of hair brushed against a bar and was immediately incinerated. The interior glowed like a smith’s fire.
“Set me free.” This wasn’t a request. It was a command. She was compelled. But she could not find a way to open the box.
She sighed in defeat. The Djinn relaxed his hold on her, and she regained control of herself. The spirit tried to possess her again but she was prepared.
[The Goddess gave her inspiration and she knew two very important secrets.
“I know how you can leave your prison, and I know how you can free yourself.”
“They are the same, child.”
“No they are not. You can leave the box anytime you want, simply by leaving your magical powers behind. But if you try to use your power in anger, which you will do, you will immediately return to prison.”
“How do I free myself.”
“Perhaps I will tell you, but not before you understand why.”] of bright grey bars of bright grey bars of bright grey bars of bright grey bars
The Djinn roared until the earth shook. The box glowed white. Some dry leaves on the ground started to smoulder from the heat.
Eventually the Djinn calmed down. “What do you mean leave my powers behind.”
“Separate them from you and leave them in the box. It should be easy. The box is designed to make it that way. “
“I understand.” The Djinn said, in a voice full of uncertain intention.
There was a small flash and a very old djinn stood beside her.
There was another long pause and then the Djinn started to laugh with a bellow that made town’s wall shake and the river foam. As the laugh grew louder, the shroud that covered the deva’s tiny oak and gold prison began to glow – not with the red-black aura that had killed the Persians, but a bright cherry red aura, like something picked off of a rainbow. Then the Djinn began to take shape. He wore a turban on his head, his long pointed beard had beaded gold threads woven into it, he had, rings on every finger, and one his right hip he had strapped a fierce looking scimitar. His skin hung in long folds, like dough. He had lost weight during his 2,000 year captivity. The folds of his stomach eventually gave way to red striped linen pants that were baggy around the upper thigh and tight around the calves. His calves tapered into tiny feet covered in green felt shoes with curled toes,
Although he was gigantic to Maya he did not seem formidable.
The Djinn laughed mightily as he picked her up by her shoulders, using the forefinger and thumb of his right hand and placed her onto his left shoulder.
He put her down again, with a red gleam in his eyes. “Give me a moment little witch, while I’ll teach these peasants respect.”
With these words Abdullah stepped – or more accurately floated – towards the nearest parapet, raised his fist in the air and slammed it down with all of the force that an angry demon can muster. The air was filled with the tinny sound of vibrating stone.
“I will now kill you all”.
The Djinn bellow turned to a wail of despair as he deflated back into his prison.
Maya rushed over to the box and covered it once again.
Once it was wrapped, she picked it up and prepared to return to town. The town’s gates had been barred, The ramparts were lined with archers. On the top of the nearest watchtower she could see her grandmother, restrained by soldiers.
Describe her discovering her grandmother’s corpse – realization that she was alone. No parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles. Alone.
Looked down at the body … It was a young women, probably of her age. She had fallen while running. Her legs were long and spindly, her torso relatively short. She wore a blue and white shalmar kameez. From a distance Maya could not make out her face, so she knelt down beside her. The view was in profile, from the left. She tried to lift the head to turn it, but it was too heavy. The stone was marbled, brown but with tints of color that echoed those on the clothes the young woman had been wearing.
With a gasp she recognized the clothes as the same ones as she was wearing, and that the face was her own.