The motors soon fell silent and the doors slid open, prompting the usual mad scamper to get off the bus. Nazia swore under her breath as she fought past a half a dozen of her classmates to reach fresh air.
Mrs Bari, their class coordinator, proceeded to deliver her usual monotone speech about the need to maintain order and discipline and not get into any kind of trouble while they did. Why did every school trip need to have a stereotypical scary grandma teacher hounding the kids?
Once this was out of the way, though, they could finally get on with their trip. Nazia had next to no desire for coming here. A boring old ruin was not her idea of a getaway. But now that she stood amidst the ramparts and battlements of Surjo Chakro, she found herself weirdly drawn in.
“This way!” Bari’s voice shook her free of her thoughts.
They walked along the twisting and winding tiled paths that fenestrated the otherwise open grounds.
The group was led straight to the tallest of the towers. The gate, or what was left of it, was held ajar as the group split inside. After crossing a couple of marble halls and a glass archway, they reached a domed chamber decorated with various statues and paintings. The largest and most beautiful among them was a man wielding an enormous sword.
“Sultan N’ail,” their tour guide explained.
“He may not have built this fortress, but he was certainly the most famous to have ruled it. Most notable for his leadership and courage during the Battle of Seven Nights…”
Right next to N’ail, there was another statue. It was a woman, crooked and eyeing the Sultan in a baleful manner. Oddest of all, her face had been blackened.
“Who is that?” The words left Nazia before she could stop herself.
“Oh, that, that is Anannya. She is known as Kalo Chitro.”
“Well, she had betrayed N’ail, her husband, and the rest of her people during the Battle of Seven Nights. On the seventh and final night of the battle, she snuck into the enemy camp and tried to lead them past the home defences through a secret path. She wanted to seize power from her husband. But her plan was discovered and the King rallied his troops to fight off the attackers. Afterwards, she had her face blackened with coal as a symbolic punishment. Alongside her main punishment, that is. She was killed.”
Nazia couldn’t take her eyes off Anannya. For some reason, she felt as if that blackened face was but a mask, hiding something underneath.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Amazingly enough, by the time the kids headed to their rooms to crash for the night, every single one of them was rather pleased with the decision to come here; even Nazia.
“Wasn’t bad, huh?” Asked Hina, her roommate, as the two sat upright on their respective beds.
“I wanna visit the castle tower again in the morning, I didn’t get a decent picture.”
All of a sudden, her feelings from earlier in the day came rushing back. The strange vibes, the foreboding, all of it.
Thankfully, Hina went to sleep soon afterwards, leaving Nazia with her thoughts. This feeling inside of her continued to intensify. Growing and growing until…
Nazia bolted to her feet. She knew where she had to go. Throwing on a jacket and taking care to not wake anyone, she walked out of the guest house and made her way to the tower from before. She walked past the door, crossed the first hall, then the second, before finally reaching the archway. Her jaw dropped.
The glass was blazing red. All logic suggested turning back now and never coming back. But Nazia was being guided by something else. And whatever it was lay behind that gateway. With a deep breath, she broke into a run, galloping straight into this wall of light.
For a moment, the glare overpowered sight. After running a few more steps, she stopped, before slowly opening her eyes. It was still the chamber she had seen earlier in the day. But many of the statues were gone and it no longer looked like a place uninhabited for centuries.
There were voices drifting in from outside, turning Nazia’s stomach to ice. The archway was no longer glowing, nor was its glass stained and worn.
“Who are you?”
With a dreaded look, Nazia turned around. There was a woman standing at the entrance. She stormed inside, making up the distance between herself and Nazia in next to no time.
“I said who are you?” She grabbed Nazia by the arm.
“Please, I…I don’t know how I got here. I beg you, please let me go,” Nazia desperately pleaded, tears appearing in the corners of her eyes. Her arm was turning purple from the interrupted blood flow.
Finally, her pleas seemed to find an ear. The woman released her grip.
“Come with me, quickly,” she said.
Confused, Nazia followed her. She led Nazia straight to the wall at the other end and began probing the surface. A few jabs later, the entire thing split in two, showing them the way into a secret passage.
“Um,” Nazia began tentatively, still trailing in her captor’s wake, “Where am I?”
“You are in the home of Sultan N’ail.”
“And you are…”
“Um, the Sultan’s wife?”
Anannya laughed. “Yes.”
They climbed a series of staircases before walking out into some kind of rooftop. There was nothing there other than a small table with a book on top. Nazia felt another gut punch when she glimpsed their surroundings. A sea of men, armoured and with steel in hand, occupied the land all around them.
“Is this…the Battle of Seven Nights?!”
“I have never heard that name. But this is the seventh night of the battle. And tonight, my dearest will root out our enemies, once and for all.”
“Get behind me,” Anannya unsheathed a dagger, pulling Nazia behind her.
A small cavity opened in the wall behind them. And from it, a man came stumbling out. He was clad in armour, and wore a red sigil on his arm.
Before Nazia could even make a sound, the Queen leapt forward. The man tried to draw his weapon but she was onto him like a lioness on her prey. The struggle was short and by the end of it, Annanya had slashed the man’s throat.
Anannya got up from the bloody mess and came over to Nazia.
“No! No, no…”
Anannya held her tight.
“I know witnessing death is never a moment we wish upon ourselves, but we best believe it is for a reason. I would normally kill any intruder in the Maya Ashon. That chamber is sacred and it is powerful. However, I can tell that you have been brought here for a purpose that I don’t know of, nor am I meant to.
“But right now, we are all in grave danger. That is an enemy spy, who now knows about the secret tunnels. These tunnels run underground and stretch for miles. Using these, they may have already bypassed our frontlines. By morning, they will probably launch their attack and wipe us all out. I–I have to do something.”
“Why don’t you send a message to your Sultan?”
“I will, but it may not reach the frontlines in time. But using the tunnels, I can perhaps find the enemy camp and then, somehow try to slow them down.”
“In a world built by men, there is one guaranteed way for a woman to grab one’s attention.”
“You will…with your enemy King?!”
“I will do whatever it takes to save my people, my love.”
“But what will your people do to you when they find out?”
“My Sultan is a just man. His love for me is strong and true.”
Anannya went over to the table and picked up the book.
“And if I can’t come back, then this will bear my testimony.”
It took her five minutes or so to add in a couple of lines, after which she opened yet another secret compartment, on the floor this time, and placed the book inside. She stood up, beaming at Nazia.
“What is your name?”
“Nazia, you must now get back to where you came from.”
Nazia nodded. Together, they returned to the chamber. Anannya bid her farewell, taking one of the secret tunnels and disappearing into the darkness. Nazia let a few more tears run down her face before turning around. The moment she did, her eyes were pricked by the same blaze that brought her here. The archway was aglow just like before, and Nazia knew it meant that her time here was up. She broke into another run, thundering across the chamber and into the light. When she opened her eyes, she was back at the abandoned ruin.
She remembered Anannya’s words. This chamber, it was special. And there was a reason it connected to her, a reason why it took her to the past. And that reason was a centuries-old testament hidden in a secret rooftop that the whole world needed to know about.
Whether it’s pop culture, fiction, or politics, writing is Saam’s ultimate passion and reprieve.