Copyright © 2015 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.
The monastery was a study in contradictions: Magnificently huge, and yet dwarfed by its surroundings. Immensely opulent and yet populated by monks who, evident from their appearance, owned nothing. Lavishly decorated to the point of being gaudy, and at the same time oddly tasteful.
The man was an experienced traveller in the remoter parts of the world. Dressed in hard wearing clothes of olive green and khaki, festooned with bulging pockets, he was middle aged with a sort of wiry leanness to him. His hair was untidy and reached just below his collar. His chin showed several days growth of grizzled grey beard. His easy, relaxed manner more than anything contributed to the overall impression of handsomeness.
He followed the orange robed monk through vast, colonnaded halls, decorated with fussily intricate designs in a riot of bold colours. Other monks went about their business, ignoring the western visitor.
Eventually they reached a large, barer, but still extravagant, room with an open balcony. Standing with her back to them, dressed in yellow robes with a long, braided pony tail reaching the length of her back, she stood, her hands on the balcony wall, her eyes lifted to the surrounding grandeur. There was grey in her hair; enough to show, but it was typical of the woman that she did nothing to hide the approaching years.
“Lady Croft,” the man said. “I came as soon as I received your invitation. May I say I’m honoured…?”
“No.” she cut him off, turning.
Her face was still beautiful behind the lines now etched across it. His eyes couldn’t help drifting southward to the twin peaks many said rivalled the surrounding Himalayan megaliths. Age and gravity had affected them too, but not enough to detract from the still stunning figure, slender and lithe as ever.
“Enjoying the view?” she asked.
“I’m sorry?” His eyes snapped back to her face. He found he was sweating despite the coolness of his surroundings. It should have been cold here, a distracted part of his mind told him. Halfway up some of the largest mountains in the world, but he felt little more the comfortably cool.
“I didn’t invite you here to flatter me with empty words, Mr Bannerman. Sycophancy is not a quality I find particularly attractive in a person.”
She stepped back into the room, towards a low table laid with plates of fruit, cups and an urn.
“Can I offer you some refreshments? Some sweet milk tea, perhaps? It’s a little unusual the first time, but quite palatable.”
“Thank you.” He settle onto the low, cushioned seat she indicated to him and took the offered cup. The tea was reddish in colour and lived up to all the expectations its name inferred. A little cloying at first, it did help to warm him and return to him some of the energy the thin air had sucked out of him.
“I’m not overly fond of reporters, Mr Bannerman…”
“David then, but amongst an otherwise generally bad lot, you’ve struck me as being not overly dreadful.
“There are certain aspects of my past which have been subject to some rather wide, and in some cases wild, speculation.” She sipped at her tea, a deep, knowing smile growing in her eyes, and touching, though barely, her lips. “I’ve decided it’s time to put the record straight, and I rather hope that you’re the man to do it for me.”
“I’d be honoured…”
“Stop! I’ve already told you how I feel about that sort of rubbish. What I want from you is honesty, Mr Ban… David. If you can’t be honest with me to my face, how can I trust you to be honest when you write your account?”
“You’re right, and I apologise. I’d be delighted to help put the record straight. It sounds intriguing.”
“You have no idea.” Her smile grew. Most of it remained hidden deep inside, but enough of it broached the surface to hint at the leviathan proportions of the story to come.
“Of the many tales that are told about my origin, the two most reliable both start with a plane crash in the Himalayas, but diverge quite significantly from there.
“In the one, I’m nine or ten years old and travelling with my mother. Following the crash, we are rescued and brought to a monastery,” with a casual flip of her elegant fingers she indicated the walls around them, “to recover, and there I witness my mother’s disappearance when she takes hold of a mystical sword.
“In the other, I’m considerably older and alone. I struggle across icy wastes with no food and little protection against the cold, and eventually find my way to a settlement where, apparently, I make a polite phone call through to my father, asking him to arrange for me to be brought home.
“Now, as is most commonly the case in such matters, neither story contains the whole truth, though both hold a part of it. What may seem unlikely, given the degree to which they appear to contradict one another, is that they are both entirely accurate accounts of part of the whole.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“Then let me enlighten you. Have you ever heard of Shambhala?”
“I’ve heard of Shangri-La.”
“Yes. Shangri-La is a fictional place in James Hilton’s Lost Horizons. Some people think he based his ideas for the place on Shambhala, which is a mythical kingdom, supposedly somewhere in inner Asia.”
“Mythical or fictional, it’s still made up.”
“Is it though? Fiction is the result purely of imagination, but many myths have their basis in reality.
“Of course the myth tends, in most cases, to be a somewhat altered view of the reality, as is the case here.”
“You’re telling me this Shambhala actually exists.”
“Oh yes. And I’ve been there. Despite all the hype, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“I’m assuming this is what your story is about?”
“It is. More tea before we start?”
The memory that sticks with me about that flight is how loud the plane was. The continuous roar of its twin engines reverberating around the bare cabin made it all but impossible to think. It was an old DC3 as I recall, kitted out for cargo haulage, and packed solid with goods, except for the two seats that had been bolted into place for Mother and me.
I flipped through my puzzle book, but it might have been printed in hieroglyphics for all I understood it; the continuous rattle and lurch of the old aircraft seemed to be dislodging every thought from my brain.
Actually, it might have been better if it had been printed in hieroglyphics. Father had been teaching me, and I was getting pretty good with them.
Mother sat beside me with her eyes closed, her book inverted in her lap. I didn’t understand how she could sleep with all the noise and the bone jarring bounces going on, but somehow she’d managed it.
I sighed and looked out the window. We were seated at the front of the wing, which gave me a good view of both the aircraft and the rugged landscape passing beneath us. It seemed very close, but then most of it was already a good deal above sea level.
A head appeared from behind a curtain at the front of the plane; checking up on us I think, because when I turned my weary eyes towards him, he offered me a sympathetic smile, then after a moment’s thought, twitched his head in the direction of the cockpit.
I didn’t need any further invitation. I eased gently past Mother, not wanting to disturb her because frankly, I didn’t want to give her the opportunity of vetoing the invitation. In moments I was at the front of the plane, staring out the windshield at the range of mountains ahead, and struggling to take in the plethora of dials and switches surrounding me. The co-pilot indicated that I should sit in his seat, and I accepted before he had a chance to change his mind.
The pilot pointed at a headset and indicated that I should put it on. It was more than a little large for my head, but I found I could hold it in place, and both hear and speak easily enough.
“Hi,” he said in the comparative quite. “My names Peter.”
“Lawrence,” I told him. “I was named after Lawrence of Arabia. Father’s idea.”
“So, Lawrence, have you ever flown before?”
“Several times, but not in a small plane like this one.”
“So why this time?”
“We’ve been visiting my father. He’s an archaeologist, and he’s working on a dig near Yushu in Qinghai province. This was the quickest way home.” I pointed out the window at the terrain climbing towards us. “Is this dangerous?”
“No. I’ve done this flight hundreds of times. As long as you know what you’re doing, it’s fine.”
“What if we have an engine failure?”
“We have two you know?”
I didn’t know any different so I accepted his reassurance.
“Would you like to have a go?” He asked. He could see the eager longing in my eyes.
It was a taste of heaven. I mean all I was doing was holding the control column steady while we flew straight and level towards the mountains, but to a nine year old boy it was magical.
<i>I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand. Who is or was Lawrence?
Patience, David, all will become clear.</i>
I’d been at the controls for about an hour when Mother woke up.
“Lawrence? Lawrence, where are you?”
“It’s alright Lady Croft, he’s up here with us.”
The co-pilot pulled the curtain to one side, and I turned to wave. The indulgent smile she gave me was ample evidence of the excitement I must have been radiating. I turned back to my task, which by now actually involved turning the plane from time to time as we were among peaks that were taller than us.
“Can’t we climb over them?” Mother asked from her seat.
“A lot of the Himalayas are higher than we can comfortably go in this plane, Lady Croft, but there’s a safe path through. We’re not in any danger.”
Famous last words, and somewhat ironically timed as one of the engines chose that instant to give a disconcerting cough.
The pilot took back control from me and started checking through his instruments. The co-pilot touched me on the shoulder.
“Maybe you’d better go back to your mother,” he said.
I did as suggested. The look on his face was far less reassuring than any of the words he’d spoken to that point.
Over the following minutes, the engine coughed a couple more times, then died completely. It was the left one – the same side as I was sitting on – so I had a great view of it as the propeller stuttered to a halt then feathered. There was black smoke reaching back from the cowling, which didn’t bode well for any hopes we might have of restarting it.
The plane leaned onto its good engine and started losing altitude, slowly but steadily.
“Shouldn’t we turn around?” Mother asked.
“We don’t have the option, Lady Croft. We’ve already crossed one or two high passes, and would lose too much altitude before we got back to them.”
“Then what are we going to do?”
“I’m working on it, and my apologies, but it would be a lot easier if you’d leave me to do so.”
We crossed a ridge so low I could see details in the exposed rock. We were deep in the mountains here. A knot of fear tied itself around my stomach and pulled tight.
“Over there,” the co-pilot said. “Just below the ridge. See it?”
The plane banked towards its good engine again, and made a long tight turn.
“Lady Croft, please would you and your son fasten your seat belts. We’re going to have to try for an emergency landing, and it will be rough. When I say ‘brace’, take hold of your knees and bend forward as far as you can.”
It happened alarmingly fast. There were whirrs and clunks as flaps and landing gear were deployed. Outside my window, snowy slopes were streaming past just in front of the wing; too steep to land on I thought, then they levelled out when we were not more than fifty feet above them. We were flying vary fast, I thought.
Following my mother’s lead, I reached forward and grasped my knees. I couldn’t help the tears that sprang to my eyes, or the terror that engulfed me.
We hit hard. It wasn’t so much a landing as a controlled crash. The first impact knocked all the wind out of me, then the whole fuselage skewed round wildly to the left. A few feet in front of us, metal twisted and tore, and the cockpit was gone. Snow and wind roared past the opening for a moment, then we were tumbling.
It seemed to go on for such a long time, but eventually it stopped. We were more or less upright, bent, bruised, but still breathing.
I unclipped my belt ant ran to the opening.
“Lawrence,” Mother called after me, but I knew we couldn’t be still.
Outside the wind was blowing hard enough to whip up the snow, and throw it into our limited shelter. I looked about me, but visibility was down to a hundred yards or so. I could see bits of wreckage strewn out to the left. I identified the right wing and engine cowling and parts of the tail, but I couldn’t see the cockpit anywhere. I dashed back to the cargo area behind our seats and started unfastening a tarpaulin.
Mother realised what I was doing and came to help. Within minutes we had a barrier of sorts between us and the bitter cold wind outside. The temperature was dropping fast though. We needed to do something if we were to survive.
Searching through the cargo, we found our suitcases, opened them, put on as many layers as we could manage. Further searching uncovered the remains of some wooden crates, which we began breaking into smaller pieces until we had a fireplace of sorts. The back of the fuselage had been torn off as well, but it was in the lee of the wind, so would serve as an adequate chimney.
There was nothing to light it with though. Mother had given up smoking some years before so she didn’t have lighter or matches on her. The cub scouts had talked about rubbing two pieces of wood together, but that didn’t do anything. We didn’t have any flints, but I remembered them saying something about hitting something made of iron against a stone.
There were bits of metal everywhere, though I’m not sure how much of it was iron. I braved the cold long enough to collect a stone, and started experimenting. I managed a few sparks, then with some torn pages from Mothers book, we eventually turned a spark into a flame, and a flame into a fire.
The wind outside picked up while we huddled for warmth waiting for the weather to clear. We might have died there had it not been for the monks.
I didn’t know where they came from, but one minute we were alone in a desperately hostile environment, the next they were there. Dozens of them, climbing into the fuselage with us, nodding greetings, offering cups of hot sweet tea, beckoning for us to follow them.
We did. Through the snow and the wind for what felt like hours until we reached the monastery. It must have been what the co-pilot saw, what they changed course to land near. We never had an opportunity to ask, as the cockpit and its occupants were never recovered.
A few days later, with the weather improved and Mother and me recovered from our ordeal, we were wandering about the temple. It was a magnificent place and went on for miles in all directions it seemed. The monks indicated they had sent word we’d survived the crash, and we expected an expedition to lead us away from their remote home within weeks. While we waited, we’d been given free rein to wander where we wanted
Mother’s never been quite as keen on archaeology as Father, but she’s keen none the less. The more we looked around, the more excited she became. She didn’t tell me anything, just insisted I follow, while she pursued the clues she was uncovering.
The monks didn’t seem to mind where we went. They would nod and bow politely as we passed, but otherwise they gave us free access to the temple. The fact that none of them spoke English and neither of us knew more than a few words in Tibetan limited what we could say to each other, and it seemed from their point of view that since we didn’t have the means of communicating, the simplest solution was not to try.
For several days now, Mother had been exploring the lower parts of the temple, reading the inscriptions on the walls, making notes in a notebook she’d had in her bag when we were rescued. She tried to explain what she was doing, but I hadn’t been studying Sanskrit long, and I couldn’t follow what she was saying.
I heard her mumble Shambhala a few times and asked what it was. She told me that it means ‘tranquillity certain’, and that it refers to a place where everyone lives in peace and harmony. She told me all sorts of legends associated with the place, that it was the place where the Chalachakra Tantra was preserved; which translates as the ‘wheel of time’.
I wanted to know more, but Mother was lost in her thoughts, and sparking with enthusiasm whenever she found another text that seemed to offer another piece of the puzzle.
The clues mounted and eventually led us into a deep cavern; disused and roughly hewn. In its centre was a giant upright circle made of stone with what appeared to be stone swords embedded in the ground in a circle around it. She walked around the structure muttering to herself for long enough that I became utterly bored, so I wasn’t paying much attention when she reached for one of the swords and pulled it from the ground.
There was a flash of blue light, and I turned in time to see her lifted into the air, and pulled, along with the stone blade, into the centre of the ring which was now glowing with an intense brilliance.
The light vanished as quickly as it had come, and there was no sign of Mother.
I didn’t even think. I ran for another stone blade and hauled at it with all my strength. It shifted, came free, and yet again there was a brilliant flash. Something lifted me off my feet and pulled me into the ring. Everything flared bright white before going dark.
“A boy? What use do I have for a boy?”
The voice wasn’t friendly, but it was something. I rolled over and sat up on a cold stone floor.
“Where’s my mother?” I asked.
“That rather attractive woman who came in ahead of you? She’s here somewhere. You look a lot like her, you know? In fact… yes… maybe we can find a place for you after all. Come with me.”
“I want to see my mother.”
“I’m sure you do, and you will. In fact I’m going to take you to her right now.”
“Where are we, and how come you speak English?”
“We are in Shambhala, and whatever you think you’re speaking, it’s not this, er, English. The portal gives all who pass through it the gift of language. Come with me.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“That doesn’t matter to me. Now come along.”
“You can’t teach people to speak different languages just by bringing them through a stone ring.”
“Can’t you? Is it any more remarkable than having you travel somewhere else entirely by passing through a stone ring? Or were you under the impression that this was the same cavern as the one you were in a moment ago?”
“But… this is impossible.”
“More like improbable. You’ve heard of the Tower of Babel, yes?”
“Yes, another myth.”
“And yet the portal was formed, in part, from the tower’s foundation stones, with the effect that it reverses the confusion of languages that came through the tower. Now will you please come with me, or do I have to carry you?”
I didn’t much care for the indignity, so I followed him.
The portal was in a stone room at the top of a giant pyramid. We emerged into brilliant sunlight that illuminated a jaw dropping panoramic view. The valley extended for miles in all directions, bounded at its limits by tall mountains, faded to blue with distance. Immediately around the pyramid, a city of stone extended, with the tiny figures of men and women moving along its streets. Beyond, the valley was awash with a patchwork of coloured fields where crops of every kind grew, extending into the distance.
The man allowed me a moment to take it in, then grabbed my arm and pulled me down a descending path that took us back and forth across one of the pyramid’s faces. We reached the base, then followed a few broad streets before coming to a small building.
The window and doorway were just openings in the stone. No glass, no wood, not even curtains. He led me in to a richly decorated interior. The floors were covered in intricately woven carpets, and the walls hung with patterned tapestries. There were chairs, tables, mirrors, and a group of women of varying ages. My mother was one of them.
“Mother!” I cried, and tried to run to her, but my guide held onto my shoulder.
She didn’t move. She looked different – both younger and less animated. Her hair shone with a lustre that I’d only seen in old photographs of her, and her skin was so much smoother. But she stood still and quiet with the other women. I thought I saw her eyes flicker in my direction, but that was the extent of her reaction.
The man waved over two of the older women and pushed me towards them.
“Transform this,” he said.
Eyebrows went up on both faces. Not an exceptional reaction, but unusual enough to put me on my guard.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s like I said, I have no use for a boy, but someone with your face definitely has potential.”
I turned to look at my mother, but her expression remained impassive, and her attention was elsewhere, back on whatever task she’d been performing before we arrived.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You will,” he replied, then turning to the women he added, “Bring her to me when you’re done.”
“No!” I shouted, and tried to pull out of his grasp, but he had a grip like a vice. “No, let me go! I’m a boy. I don’t want to be a girl.”
Everyone in the room turned towards me, their expressions unnaturally calm. Even the look my mother directed toward me was empty. Surely, if anyone would fight for me, it should be her, but she just stood there and watched.
One of the older women crouched down in front of me and put her hand against my cheek.
The fight left me like water draining out of a bath. All the anger and panic, all the fear and longing, every emotion that ever drove me was sucked out of me in that instant, and all I could do was stand and stare.
The man let go of my shoulder. I should have run then, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care that my mother was in the room and ignoring me, I didn’t care that they had plans to turn me into a girl, or something like that, I didn’t care about anything.
The two older women took a shoulder each and guided me towards the back of the room. I went without struggling.
Somewhere deep inside my mind, a part of me was screaming.
Time blurred. Minutes drifted in hours, hours into days, days into weeks. I spent much of my time in baths of creamy white liquid, or lying on a bed while gentle hands caressed me. Creams were rubbed into my skin, my hair was washed and combed.
Weeks turned into months, and moths into years. My hair grew long, eventually long enough for them to braid it into a long single plait that reached the small of my back. I grew, tall and slender, but not in the way I should have. Deep inside I knew I should have grown broad shoulders, muscular, bearded, but the changes that took place were not like that.
My skin remained smooth and hairless, my waist stayed narrow as my hips grew wide. The part of my anatomy that had once marked me out as male shrank in size until it disappeared inside me. Other changes took place down there, and on my chest, two globes of flesh grew. And grew.
The inner part of me raged then mourned my lost manhood, but could do nothing to reach the surface, where I accepted the changes, accepted the words spoken softly in my ear by the women who tended me. They taught me elegance, poise and grace. They taught me everything a woman should be, and it washed through me and changed me utterly.
They taught me other things as well: How to read and write in Sanskrit, Demotic, Egyptian hieroglyphics, a dozen other ancient languages from around the world, how to differentiate between the many languages I could now apparently speak, and they taught me a history of the ancient world that is far more detailed, and quite considerably different than anything we know.
Occasionally I would be tended by a woman who looked a lot like me, though older. The small knot of self that endured within me would kick whenever she came to me. Feelings of warmth, of love towards her suffused me, but barely. They never reached the surface, but deep inside I knew she was special.
There was a word. A word, the meaning of which I had forgotten.
She spoke of different things when she was with me. She called me Lawrence, although I knew my name to be Lara. She spoke to me of a world outside this one, of a father waiting for me, longing for me to return, surely mourning our loss.
When she had nothing else to say, she spoke of her life, of her passions, of falling in love with her husband, my father, of all the good things that existed in the world outside. Yes there was pain, but pain lets you know you’re alive. This wasn’t living. What we were doing was merely existing.
I didn’t know how she spoke those words. So many times I wanted to tell her I remembered her, I loved her, but the words would never rise high enough in me to reach the surface. At times I would look at her and pour all my love and gratitude into my eyes.
At such times, she would smile, ever so slightly.
Her words strengthened the inner me, returned to me something more than the blandness of every day. Like the fire on the plane, I nurtured the kindling flame, cared for it, fed it, watched it grow, kept it hidden.
The day came when the man returned. I was directed to stand before him, to let my robe slide to the floor. He examined me as man would examine a racehorse he’s just acquired. His fleshy lips curved into a smile but there was no kindness in it. Rough hands caressed my arms, and I stood firm inside myself, permitting his indulgence, flinching only on the inside. I endured his attentions, directed them and my response to them as a blast of fresh air onto the flames inside me until they roared like a furnace.
“You have surpassed yourself,” he said to the older lady whose touch had first robbed me of my will. “How soon will she be ready?”
“Perhaps another year, lord.”
“And all the better for the anticipation. What of the other?”
“She is as prepared as we can make her, lord.”
“Then I will take her. We could do with some new blood up at the palace.”
The older woman turned towards my mother and indicated she should approach. She did so and stood to one side where we could see each other clearly. I tried to remain impassive, but the thought of losing her filled me with dread.
I turned my eyes towards hers and caught the warning in them. One thing about all the sameness in our lives, it sensitised us to the subtlest of nuances. I doubt the man could have noticed what passed between us, and the old woman had her back to Mother. I forced my eyes forward again. I wanted to cry, even to close my eyes and allow something of the anguish I was feeling to the surface, but I held firm.
The man turned and left with Mother following in his wake. I stooped to pick up my robe and returned to where I had been sitting, receiving the attentions of one of the other women.
I never saw my mother again.
Time slipped by once more. Inside the room I had no more knowledge of the passing hours than the daily cycle of light and dark. There were no seasons in this place; it seemed locked in perpetual summer. A clear sky that never rained, comfortable temperature, neither too hot nor too cold. Yet another reminder of the sameness of this existence.
I tried counting days for a while, but the numbers became meaningless. Without Mother, life seemed meaningless. Just one day after another with the same baths to soften my skin and do who knew what else, the same massages, the same creams rubbed in, the same brushing and braiding of my hair.
I slept alone that last year. For most of the time since my arrival, I had shared a dormitory with the other girls, but now I was being given my final preparation, I was permitted a room to myself. I made good use of the time, learning to overcome my body’s tendency to remain still, then exercising, building strength in my arms, my legs, my torso. I already had poise and balance, in that year, I added strength, pushing myself to the very limit of my capacity to endure.
Whether or not the older women noticed the change, I can’t be sure, but they didn’t react to it. I continued my lessons in grace, and listened to my memories of everything Mother had said to me.
The day came when the man returned for a second time.
“You really are magnificent,” he told me, stroking my arm in a proprietary manner.
It took all my will not to react. I wanted to tear out his throat, this man who had taken so much from me, but I doubted I had the strength – neither in my muscles nor in my compromised will. I bided my time and told myself there would be a reckoning one day.
“There is such a fire in you,” he said – evidently I could not fully hide my rage. “And such elegance. A grace such as I have never seen. No-one would suspect you had once been a boy. Do you remember that? Does it vex you that I took that from you? You may speak.”
There was only one response I could give. The programmed part of me chose the words, and I didn’t fight them as they rose, unbidden, to my lips.
“I am content to be as you made me, lord.”
“Yes,” he said, in part to himself, in part to the older women under whose direction I had received my indoctrination. “You have done exceptionally well with this one. She will make an excellent gift for the king. She is complete in every way?”
“She is as complete as our craft can make her. She will never be a mother, but no-one would suspect she was anything other than a complete woman.”
“And how is she known?”
“Lara is her name.”
“Unusual. How did she come by it?”
“She chose it herself, lord.”
“Did she now? There is a will there, then?”
“There was, lord. It seemed well at the time to permit her the choice, and she has since succumbed to our ministrations.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Lord, our work speaks for itself. Have you ever been dissatisfied?”
The man considered a moment, then nodded his head.
“Lara, come,” he said, turned on his heels and left.
I had to lengthen my stride to keep to his pace, but since my legs were longer than his, I managed to do so without losing poise.
It felt strange to be outside again after such a long time. The sun’s rays on my skin awoke memories of being younger, being different. The sensation stoked the fires of my inward rebellion, and I directed them against the programmed nature that had been imposed on me. I separated my hands, until now held demurely in front of me. It was a small victory, but a victory none the less. It would take time, but I would defeat this thing that had been done to me.
As he had done all those years ago, he led me down broad streets between richly decorated stone buildings. At each turn the roads became wider, until we arrived at the main approach to the palace, and there I faltered.
He turned to me and smiled.
“You know, you really shouldn’t be able to do that,” he said. “React, I mean. But I suppose it’s good that they left you some of your character. It makes you seem more human, less doll-like.
“And it is magnificent, isn’t it? Wide enough for forty horsemen to ride abreast, with steps on either side to accommodate ten thousand spectators. And then the palace at the end. Did you ever see such a magnificent structure?”
“No lord.” The question might have been intended rhetorically, but I chose to answer it.
He looked at me a little oddly, then shrugged.
“Come,” he said. “Your new master awaits, and I am eager to see how he reacts to you.”
We walked the length of the palace approach. I felt tiny and insignificant surrounded by such space and grandeur. The palace, when we reached it, was no less overwhelming. Immense columns, five feet across and perhaps thirty tall stood at the top of a flight of broad marble steps. I hesitate to estimate the width of the building, but I counted thirty two columns, evenly spaced, and a pair of guards standing erect and immobile between each.
“You might have ended up like one of them,” the man said, “but that would have been such a waste. Fine delicate features such as yours should be enjoyed, not strapped into leather armour and left standing in the sun for the rest of eternity.”
I can’t say I felt much gratitude, but for the first time I acknowledged things could have been worse. As we passed, the soldiers remained as still as statues, their eyes devoid of anything resembling thought.
I had so many questions, but to ask them would be to reveal the full extent of my control – something I realised was unusual in this place, and unwanted. I relaxed control within myself, and my hands, of their own volition, returned to grasping one another.
We passed a number of other people as we made our way through the immensity of the palace’s interior. Almost all of them were women, all walking with ramrod straightness, their hands clasped in front of them, their heads, even their eyes, fixed straight ahead as they passed us. Only a very few were men, and they walked with the same relaxed, swaggering gait of the man in front of me. He acknowledged the men as they passed, but ignored the women.
Eventually we came to a vast colonnaded room, empty but for a thin ribbon of orange carpet and the immense throne at its end. The man took to the carpet, while I sensed my place was on the stone floor to one side.
As we approached the throne, I noticed a figure sitting hunched and hidden beneath cowled robes.
“Brother,” the man said, “I bring you a gift.”
The figure on the throne stirred, and I took that as my cue to settle onto my knees, my head bowed.
“Another?” The voice from the throne was tired and dry as desert air. “And what makes this one any different from the rest?”
“Your majesty must feed his appetites.”
“I have found the diet a little bland of late, brother.”
“I have hopes you will find this one a little more… piquant, shall we say?”
“And why is that?”
I heard the sound of feet shuffling across the stone floor. The hem of a grubby robe slid into my field of vision. Bone fingers clasped my chin and tilted my face upwards until I saw…
He was human, but barely. Emaciated to the point where you could count his bones through his thin and translucent skin. His eyes were sunken with a hungry look to them, like those of a starving wolf. His lips were incongruously full and sensuous.
I couldn’t help it, despite all my programming and training in self-control, I flinched. It was only the slightest flicker in my eye, I’m sure, but it was there, and he saw it.
The hunger in his eyes deepened, and his fleshy mouth turned upwards in a lascivious grin.
“I think I see what you mean, brother. Have her brought to my chambers.”
“As you wish, majesty, but I thought…”
“Something like this has to be savoured brother, and that starts with anticipation.” He turned to me. “Keep yourself beautiful, girl, I shall be with you soon enough.”
With that the audience was over. He turned his back to me and shuffled his way back to the throne, while the man – his brother? – turned his back on the same and strode off down the length of carpet.
I rose to my feet and followed, once more grateful for the length of my legs enabling me to catch him up before he reached the doorway.
The king’s command sat heavy with me. Having been shown to a sumptuously appointed suite, I searched only long enough to find a bathing room, the bath sunken into the floor and filled with the same milky white liquid I’d become accustomed to for all these years. I slipped out of my clothes and, pinning my long ponytail on the top of my head with one of the golden hairpins on a nearby table, I settled into the pool.
Once immersed to my neck, there was little else to do but wait. The programming inside of me went dormant and I turned the part of my mind that was still my own to rebellion. I fought to move about within the bath, and succeeded. Slowly at first, but with increasing control, I moved from one end to the other. I tried lifting limbs above the surface of the liquid, but found it to be an impenetrable barrier.
Here was my next battle, and I threw myself at it with a will. For hours it seemed, I tried to lift an arm or a leg out of the liquid, but my programming fought back and I barely managed to bring a ripple to the surface of the bath.
Eventually, with the light fading, a gong sounded quietly somewhere nearby, and I rose, climbing up the steps at one end of the bath. The liquid was unusual. It clung to itself more strongly than to anything else, so while it had seemed entirely fluid while I was in the bath, it peeled off me like a skin as I climbed out. During my training or indoctrination or whatever you wish to call it, the baths had left my skin feeling exquisitely soft and smooth, but none so much as this. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction that was no entirely my own.
My hands reached up of their own volition and unpinned my braid. I fought for control and stopped myself from replacing the pin on the table. It was four inches long, blunt and made of soft metal, so not an ideal weapon, but it was something. I slid it into the braid until it was hidden. I doubted I’d be able to wield it in my present state, but father had always taught me fortune always favours the prepared mind, and I would prepare it as much as I could.
My robe was gone from where I’d dropped it on the floor. I hadn’t heard or even sensed anyone coming in to take it, but it was gone nonetheless. I wandered through the apartment, luxuriating in my new skin. A part of me hated the changes, but a growing part was learning to accept them and even enjoy them. In the bed chamber, I found a large mirror of polished metal and stood in front of it. The man had been right, I was quite stunningly beautiful. I could still see something of my boyish features in my face, but as I’d grown older, they’d been directed towards elegance and beauty. Even if I did ever manage to escape this place, there would be no way of reversing the changes done to me.
Especially not those. My gaze had drifted south from my large eyes and full lips to something else that was both large and full. I reached up to weigh them in my hands and gasped. They were remarkably sensitive, even to my own touch, and I felt sensations stirring inside me that I wasn’t yet ready to explore.
I dropped my hands back to my side. The rest of my figure was stunning. No, there was no way I’d ever be the man I’d expected to become, and the sooner I got used to the idea, the better. One last thing remained before moving on. In a way it was a sort of self-inflicted torture, but since the first moment I’d been given time alone, I hadn’t been able to stop myself exploring between my legs.
There was almost no evidence of what had once been there. Nothing more than a very small, very sensitive spot that was slightly harder than the softness around it. Behind that everything became so different from the way it had been, I couldn’t bear to explore further. I pulled my hand away and turned from the mirror.
There were clothes on the bed. They didn’t cover much skin, but they did cover the important bits, so I made use of them. Not that I had much choice. The part of me that I couldn’t yet control had decided I should dress and preen myself. I fought of course, succeeding in at least changing the order in which I put on the clothes, and ruining the first two attempts at makeup by dragging steaks of the stuff down my cheeks.
Small victories, but victories even so. When I had finished making myself beautiful, all compulsion left me and I was free to move entirely as I pleased. There was food – fruit and vegetables only, but nourishing enough – and afterwards there was a balcony, higher above the main part of the palace with an immense view of the surroundings. The great pyramid, where I had arrived, stood nearby to the left, and seemed to climb as high as the distant peaks. Elsewhere the city glowed in the last light of day.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” The dry voice came from close behind me. “No don’t be afraid.”
The terror left me almost before I felt it welling up inside. I was suffused with an all-consuming calm, and managed to control my first instinct to reach for my hair and the weapon hidden there.
“I must confess,” the voice continued, “to being incapable of appreciating it as fully as you. Too many passions indulged over far too many years; you become immune to sensation.”
I remained still, looking out over the city and the fields beyond.
“You have questions,” the voice said. “You shouldn’t have, but be that as it may, you may ask them.”
A reluctance to speak I hadn’t been aware of left me. One question overrode all others.
“Where’s my mother?”
“Ah yes. The one who looks like you. She’s gone. Don’t concern yourself with her. Forget her.”
It was a command, and I couldn’t fight it. All worry left me. He’d spoken of her in the present tense, so at least she was alive. But who was alive? Who had I been asking about? It didn’t seem to matter; there were questions enough.
“I thought this place was supposed to be one of tranquillity.”
“And is it not? Listen. You can you hear the entire city from here, and is there a single voice raised in anger, or fear?”
“But there is no free will.”
“Not for most, no, but how else would you achieve such serenity otherwise? It is in man’s nature to fight.”
“How is it achieved?”
“We have a plant here, not greatly unlike opium. It imposes a sense of calm and suppresses all ambition. Those given it become entirely docile and susceptible to command.”
“How is it administered?”
“Through the skin.”
“Contains an extract of the plant, among other things. We have many plants here. Some of them develop strength and an immunity to pain, others develop softness of skin and other… attributes.”
A finger brushed my shoulder, and I squirmed with revulsion.
“I would prefer for you not to react so to my touch.”
Only a request. I could refuse it if I chose, but I knew if he instructed me, I would be helpless. But then, perhaps it would be better that way. If he commanded me, I wouldn’t be able to refuse him, and it would be easier to live with that if he had commanded me to find pleasure in him first.
Still, that was a last resort. I’d try fighting first. He touched me again, and somehow I found the will to allow it.
“So, the soldiers and other women I’ve met have all been treated with this plant of yours. What of the others in the palace? The man who brought me and the others like him I saw earlier?”
“They were among the first to come through after me.”
“The one who brought me to you, he’s really your brother?”
“Yes. I look quite a lot older than him, don’t I? It’s the Wheel of Time. I have never found it in all of the years I’ve spent here, but I’m sure of it. Years here are hours in the world outside. It took some months for my brother to raise funds and mount an expedition in search of me after I disappeared, but for me, that was hundreds of years.”
“How is that possible?”
“I said there were many plants here. There is another that extends life and slows the appearance of aging – I didn’t find that until I had aged somewhat though.”
“Where did all the people come from?”
“They were already here, most of them.”
“But not as they are now?”
“No. I was a botanist before I came here. I was experienced in extracting the essence of plants. The people here grew the opiate everywhere. Just brushing against its leaves brings a calm, but I managed to refine it, and discovered that contact with just a little of it robs those touched of all their will. It didn’t take me long to subdue all the people here.”
“So they had their tranquillity before you came along? A better kind.”
“I wanted to know their secrets. They weren’t prepared to tell me.”
“And that’s an excuse for robbing them of their humanity?”
“Be silent!” I found myself unable to make a sound. “You tire me. I will return tomorrow. Don’t fail to do all you can to be beautiful until then.”
He said nothing more. Silence reigned for some minutes before I could bring myself to turn. I was alone again.
All I could do. That meant a maximum of time immersed in the milky liquid. Unable to resist the command, my body took me back to the bathing room, undressed me, chose a different pin – I managed to influence it enough to pick the longest, though still gold and still blunt – and pinned my hair up again before descending into the pool.
I was tired, but there was nowhere to sit in the pool, so falling asleep would mean my head would sink beneath the surface. It was doubtful I’d drown, but each dunking would be unpleasant to say the least, and would happen within seconds of my losing consciousness. My best answer was to fight.
As before, I struggled for control and began moving about the pool with little difficulty. As before, lifting any part of my body out of the fluid was impossible.
I fought with a renewed rage. At his instruction, I had forgotten something or someone of importance to me. I remembered his command, but not what it related to. He was stripping me of my humanity by small degrees, and I refused to go down without a fight.
It was a long night though. The pool was just too deep to kneel in, even with my long legs, and too shallow to straighten up in any way. All I could do was move from one end of the pool to the other. When my nose itched, I scratched it against the side of the pool. When tiredness all but robbed me of my senses, I banged my head gently against the pool’s wall.
The night grew cold, and the liquid in the bath with it. The chill seeped into my limbs and into my bones, and before long it wasn’t so much my rage that kept me moving, as a desperate need to survive. I was fighting a long, losing battle as the plant extract in the liquid leached away more and more of my will.
Dawn found me still struggling but barely. My strength was all but gone and my will had almost entirely dissipated into the milky poison that surrounded me. Somehow I still held on though, and as the day passed, less of me remained. Meal times slipped by all but unnoticed – I barely even felt the hunger pangs – but I knew then that wasn’t going to make it. Mid-afternoon came and I had nothing left. If I couldn’t beat his conditioning, I thought, at least I could deny him his prize.
I let go, committed to sinking beneath the surface and accepting whatever pain came with drowning. I didn’t care anymore.
My body had other ideas though. It fought to stabilise me, to keep me upright, and then I was nothing more than a spectator in my own flesh. Was this how everyone felt in this place? Alive and aware, but unable to do anything?
The rest of the day passed in agony as my muscles screamed at the way they were being abused. My body continued to hold out stoically despite its fatigue, despite the aches and cramps that filled it. Having given up control, I found I could not take it back. All I could do was wait and endure the pain. Eventually the gong sounded and my body climbed out of the pool.
It went to the bedchamber and dressed in what had been left on the bed, then went directly to the balcony to wait, ignoring the food that had been laid out.
In time he came. I felt him this time before hearing his voice.
“You look ravishing,” he said.
Unusually, I didn’t feel revolted by the attention, but oddly gratified that someone should call me such. My body didn’t respond.
“You may speak,” The voice sounded like autumn’s leaves on concrete.
“Thank you lord,” my mouth said.
“I was harsh with you yesterday, forgive me.”
“I forgive you lord.”
He walked into my field of vision and stared into my eyes. “Ask me a question,” he said.
“What would you have me ask?”
“I went too far,” he said with a frown. “I have destroyed you. It’s a waste, but the fields can always use more workers.”
He turned to leave. If I didn’t stop him now, this would be my life until I went mad from it. With a surge of will, I tried to take control of something, anything. Reach out a hand to grasp him, step forward anything.
My body took a small shuddering lurch forward, and would probably have gone over the balustrade had he not noticed and grabbed me. Pulling me upright, he stared into my eyes again. I poured all my will and fury into my eyes, and it was enough.
His fleshy lips parted in a smile. “You are still in there then. Good. No more bathing in the salve for a week then. Let’s see what we can bring back. You may eat, sleep and bathe – in water. Wash your hair if you like. Remain in the chamber, but otherwise what you do with your time is your own. I suggest some food and then sleep first.”
Suggestion or otherwise, I had lost too much control. My body took it as instruction and headed for the table with its array of vegetarian dishes and fruits. I could barely taste them where I was, back in the recesses of my mind, but I could feel the life flowing back into my limbs.
Next came sleep. My body found enough strength to remove the clothes I was wearing and to climb into the large and luxurious bed, then it closed my eyes and all went black.
I woke late in the morning of the next day, at least I assume it was the next day. My entire being was suffused with a relaxed sense of peace, and I didn’t want to move. Which was just as well as I found I still had no control over my limbs. Given the instructions I’d been left with, the automaton part of me would remain still in the bed until it became hungry enough to eat, or began to smell and needed a bath. If I were going to get anywhere with it, I would have to fight.
For the next few hours I put every ounce of concentration I could muster into moving parts of my body. I could just about twitch fingers and toes, but none of my larger limbs would move in response to my will. Bodily needs were becoming more urgent, and I wondered if the extreme simplicity of what was controlling me would ignore them, having been given no instruction to do anything about it.
I raged inside my head, and yelled at myself to go to the toilet, and my body moved.
I still wasn’t in control. It walked naked across the apartment to the facilities and made use of them, then stood and remained still.
I tried telling myself to take a bath and wash my hair. My body twitched, but remained still, so I increased the will of my command. It took several attempts with a gradually increasing level of forcefulness from my mind until I reached a level it was prepared to respond to. It was control of a sort. In some ways it was better because my body would get on with the minutiae of what was needed and leave my mind free to think.
Feeling clean for the first time in a while, I commanded myself to dress comfortably and to eat. It did. I still didn’t taste much of the food, but I could work on that. I planned out an exercise regime in my head, including a few moves I wouldn’t have had the courage to attempt if it had been left to me.
Hunger sated, I directed my body to a large, empty room within the apartment, and set about commanding myself into the exercises. Cautiously at first, but with increasing confidence. My body, trained in poise and grace as it was, had near perfect balance, so was able to perform the some quite extreme, if gentle, acrobatic moves. Handstands and cartwheels were simplicity itself, executed with precision and elegance every time.
I grew adventurous, and directed myself to the bedroom, where I instructed myself into the bedroom where I attempted a backflip onto the bed. I was more than half expecting to land awkwardly, but the manoeuvre was perfect.
I needed strength, so instructed my body into a harsh physical routine, which it did without complaint, continuing long after the point I would have given up because of the growing ache in my muscles.
The day reached its end and I ate again, bathed again, soothing the aches in my body, and commanded myself back to bed.
Tired as I was, sleep took a while in coming. While I was waiting, I experimented a little further. I commanded my inner robot to relinquish control of my facial muscles and larynx, and succeeded only to the smallest degree. I found I could alter, if only very subtly, the features on my face, and I could grunt, but I was a way from speaking freely. I tried telling myself to say things. They came out a little wooden at first, but by exercising the small amount of control I had, I was able to put some small amount of emotion and inflection into my words.
Eventually I slept; deep and dreamless.
The next day was much the same. Wake up, bathe, dress and eat, then exercise. I became more ambitious and more courageous in the acrobatics I commanded myself to perform, and each time my body managed them flawlessly and without difficulty. In the afternoon, I exercised to increase my strength and stamina, and again, my body endured beyond the point I would have given up.
The next day was the same again, but then as I was lying in bed at the end of the day, I had an idea. I hadn’t gained any further direct control over my body, but I was getting faster at commanding myself to speak. On a whim I commanded myself to speak like the king. It put some strain on my larynx, but the sound that came out wasn’t half bad.
The next day, after my morning ablutions, I went to the entrance to the apartment. There were two guards at the door, and I found I had the same compulsion preventing me from crossing the threshold as I’d had the first days when I’d been unable to break the surface of the milky pool.
In the king’s voice, I commanded myself to tell me that I could leave the apartment. The compulsion wavered and broke and I stepped outside, turning to one of the guards. Again in the king’s voice, I commanded him to come into the apartment with me.
He hesitated for a brief moment, but then did as instructed.
I told him to teach me his unarmed combat routines, and spent the day following the forms. Seen once, I was able to reproduce them flawlessly. Once I had them in my mind, I commanded him to return to his post and from there, I told both guards not to tell anyone that they had seen me or done anything with me.
I spent the rest of the day working on the combat forms. The basic ones were quite a lot like Tai Chi, and as mastered them, building up some muscles in unaccustomed places as I did so, I moved onto the intermediate forms, which were very similar, only faster.
I spent the next few days working almost exclusively on those techniques, and commanding myself to modify some of them so they were better suited to my female form. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that went a long way to saving my life.
As the week drew to its close, I found myself getting close to mastering the combat techniques, and spent some more time working on acrobatics, discovering where the limitations of my body lay.
The seven days were over. The bath was filled with that hated milky white liquid, and my body disrobed, ready to climb in.
I was certain that if I managed to avoid climbing in, there would be some sign of it, so I told myself in the king’s voice that I needed only to spend an hour in the bath. I fought the will sapping effects of the liquid for all of that hour, and was relieved when my body climbed out in the middle of the afternoon rather than waiting for the evening and the bell.
I spent the afternoon working through the fighting techniques I’d learnt, then bathed off the sweat – if women tell you they don’t sweat, don’t believe them – and dressed in the sort of finery the king would expect.
I was standing on the balcony enjoying the last light of day when he arrived.
“Glorious,” he said, his voice, as ever, as dry as a tomb.
“Me or the sunset, majesty?”
It was a tricky balance, this. He expected me to have some sort of control or he’d likely banish me to the fields, perhaps as he’d done with… someone… someone I’d cared about but forgotten. Never mind, it couldn’t have been that import. If I showed too much control though, he’d most likely order me back into the pool, or perhaps return me to the school where I’d spent so many years.
His laughter was like autumn trees whispering in the wind, but the humour was genuine.
“You are quite the fighter. I’m glad you’re back.”
He was standing some distance from me, evidently wary of how much control I had regained. I remained still and didn’t respond.
“So what have you done with yourself this past seven days?”
“I have done as you suggested, majesty. I have slept and eaten and bathed in water.”
“I have exercised, majesty. Indolence is the swiftest way to lose beauty.”
“And I can understand why you would want to hold on to yours.” The voice sounded nearer. “You did nothing else? Tell the truth.”
“I enjoyed the view from this balcony, majesty, and awaited your return.” Technically true. I had enjoyed the view this evening, and I had awaited his return this evening – both a part of the seven days.
“And how exactly did you regain control over yourself? I never thought that was possible.”
“And yet you gave me seven days to try, majesty.”
“Because I thought if anyone could achieve such a feat, it would be you. Tell me how you managed it.”
It was a command this time, not a question, and auto-me took over with the answer.
“I do not have full control, majesty, but rather I tell myself what to do and say.”
“So if I were to command you to ignore your inner self, you would go back to being just another doll in this rather immense playground? Which would you rather, that you give yourself to me willingly and retain what control you have, or that I strip you of that and take you anyway?”
There was menace in his voice. This was what he wanted, someone with free will who he could still control.
I would have like more time to hone my skills, but this was my one and only chance. He was close enough now, within arm’s reach. I told myself to attack, and spun on my heels, aiming the blade of my hand at his throat. It made contact, felling him and leaving him with neither breath nor voice.
I wasn’t taking any chances though. I removed two sashes from my clothing, balled one up and stuffed it into his mouth, the other went around his head and held the gag in place. Further parts of my costume came off, leaving me all but naked, but providing the means to tie his hands and feet.
With him safely bound, I headed back to the bedroom and dressed in the comfortable clothing I had enjoyed during the week. Back on the balcony, the king had regained his breath and was worming his way towards the entrance and the guards. I grabbed him by the bonds holding his ankles and dragged him through to the room where the food was normally laid out. There was a small rug on the floor there of just about the right size.
He was surprisingly light, either that or my week’s workouts had made a significant difference to my strength.
With him rolled in the carpet, and the carpet over my shoulder, I went to the apartment entrance. In the king’s voice I commanded the guards to take me to the king’s brother. They obeyed.
He lived in another part of the palace. Lower down, but not much, and some distance away. We arrived at the entrance and the guards took up station on either side, next to the guards who were already there. I headed inside.
“Yes, what is it?” The querulous voice of the first man I’d encountered met me as I walked into his sumptuous apartment.
I dropped the rug and let it unroll.
“What in all heaven..?”
I had a hairpin in my hand and at the king’s throat before he could complete the sentence. I’d made it a habit to keep one hidden in my hair since the first time I’d secreted one there.
“Say another word and he dies.”
I stabbed the pin upwards, enough to draw blood, but not enough to cause real harm. The man shut his mouth and held out his hands, waving them frantically.
“You will answer my questions, and only my questions. If you raise your voice high enough for the guards to hear, or if you say anything else, this pin goes in all the way. You’ve had your chance; don’t expect another one.”
My voice sounded strange making threats without betraying any emotion, but probably all the more ominous for that. The man nodded his head in understanding.
“Tell me who you are, who he is, who else here has free will.”
“My name is Ambrose Huxley, and that is my older brother, Gervais, or at least what’s left of him. As far as I know, he came here alone. I had eight companions when I came after him. Of those, five are still alive.”
“When and how did you come here?”
“We’ve both done our share of exploring the world. Ambrose was a botanist, and always looking for something new. He used to chase myths and legends in the hope that one day one of them would lead him to something new and remarkable that would bring him fame and fortune. For some reason he thought that the legend of Shambhala was worth pursuing, and he headed out to Tibet in search of clues. He disappeared in August of 1959.
“It took me about six months to raise funds and put together a team to come looking for him. We followed clues from his letters, and from people who remembered meeting him, and eventually found a cave high in the Himalayas. He’d left a marker at the entrance, and deep in its interior, we found a stone circle, surrounded by what looked like stone swords, and one empty slot which looked like they had once held one.
“I imagine you know what I’m talking about though; you had a blade like it in your hand when you came through. The thing is, there were only nine blades around the circle in the cave. I took one, and eight of the people in my team had the guts to pull the others, so we really weren’t expecting anyone else to come here.”
“How did you know they were coming? How I was coming?”
“The pyramid sends a column of sparks up into the sky. That’s how my brother knew to come and meet me. That’s how I knew to go meet my colleagues, and you and your mother.”
“Yes, she came through a week or so before you.”
“My mother’s here?”
“You know she is… unless he told you to forget about her, in which case I don’t suppose you’ll remember that we were talking about her for long.”
“Talking about who?”
Again I was left with a sense of having lost something vital. It faded fast though, and I had other questions to ask.
“Tell me about him.” I nodded at the bound and shrivelled form in arms.
“I didn’t recognise him when I arrived. I might have attacked and killed him, had he been alone, but he had the presence of mind to come up to the stone circle with a bodyguard.
“After the other eight came through, we did some rough calculations. They’d debated what to do for a couple of minutes, they said, but from my perspective that was nearly two weeks. We did some maths, and it worked out that one year here is about one hour in the world outside.”
“But that means…”
“Yeah, my brother had lost track of time, but we figured he’d been here over four thousand years by the time we came along.
“Long enough to find most of the secrets of the plants in this place, including the one that extends life. He had refined the one that saps peoples will, and pretty much enslaved the whole population, then when he was perhaps a hundred and fifty or two hundred year’s old, he discovered and refined the plant that can give you eternal life.
“The locals here were aware of it, but they only allowed it to prolong their lives. It took Gervais to identify the plant and distil its essence into the elixir of life that we’ve been enjoying. I can’t imagine how many thousands of years we’ve been living here, but life has been good.”
“For you perhaps, but what about the others who live here?”
He shrugged. “To the victor goes the spoils.”
“You said there were only five of your companions left. What happened to the other three?”
“They were against the idea of enslaving the people here. They wanted to free them, but if we’d done that, if we’d found a way of reversing the effects of the drug that makes them so susceptible to command, do you think they’d just forgive and forget? They had to be dealt with, so we dealt with them.”
“And where are the other five?”
“Two of them live in the palace, three of them took homes out in the country. It’s a bit of a hassle getting their potion of life to them, but with several thousand slaves at your command, not too big a hassle.”
“They don’t know how to make it?”
“No, my brother guards the secret. As long as we keep him happy, he keeps us supplied.”
“What of the people who live here?”
“There’s enough of the spores from the plant get into their food that they live a three or four hundred years. We instruct them to breed to keep the workforce up, and treat the children with the slave juice.”
“How do you get back to the outside world?”
“Why would you want to? I mean none of us do. We have everything we need right here. I mean who doesn’t want to live forever?””
“Unless you haven’t noticed, I don’t exactly enjoy the same privileges as you. What’s more, none of you have lived forever yet, and I doubt you’d manage it if you didn’t have him, would you?”
“That’s true, but we could make you a partner with the rest of us. I mean who doesn’t want to live forever?”
“You haven’t yet, and you won’t if I kill him, will you?”
“We could make you a partner. There’s enough space for an extra person around here, and it’ll be nice having a pretty face around the place.”
“You forget I used to be a boy.”
The figure underneath me squirmed and looked alarmed.
“And it looks like you didn’t tell your brother that piece of information.
“No, I have no intention of living among you. I don’t like you, and I don’t trust you. If I’m going to live any sort of life at all, I’ll do it on my own terms, and not among people like you. Where are the stone swords?”
“The stone swords that brought you all here; that brought me and… and… that brought me here.”
“In a room by the stone circle. I mean who needs them?”
“Take me to them.”
The guards came with us. I had King Gervais wrapped up in the rug again. Hardly dignified for him, but I didn’t want to risk bumping into one of the other five, and have him order a group of guards against me. It was a long walk through winding roads, and by the time we reached the steps up the side of the pyramid, I was struggling under the weight of the king.
There was no-one else around, so I dropped and unrolled my burden, untied his ankles and hauled him to his feet. The guards didn’t question that their king was tied and gagged, which is possibly the biggest downside of controlling your army with drugs.
It was a long haul to the top of the pyramid, and I was glad of the time I’d spent working out. The king and his brother were both wheezing from the effort, Gervais in particular as he was having to breathe past a gag, but both I and the soldiers were fresh. Ambrose led us into the structure and down a labyrinth of corridors. He had been glancing my way every few minutes since we’d left the palace, but I always had my hairpin at the king’s throat.
We reached a room with a jumble of stone in its middle. Identical stone swords, or at least they had been. At least two of them were broken and several of those that remained were damaged. As I searched through them for one in good condition, I counted them.
“There are twelve,” I said.
“What?” Ambrose was concentrating on something else.
“Twelve swords,” I repeated.
“What of it?”
“One for your brother, one for you, eight more for the others who came through, one for me. Who was the twelfth?”
“Your mother,” Ambrose said.
“What?” I dropped my guard a little. “My mother’s here?”
“Kill her!” Ambrose yelled.
The guards sprang at me. I should have jammed my weapon home then, but I’d never killed anyone then, and I found I was reluctant to start. I jumped back from the king and he ran towards his brother and safety.
Four guards attacking me. The unarmed combat moves I’d learned kept me moving and clear of their weapons for a minute, but then that pattern changed. They weren’t stabbing for where I was, but for where they thought I’d be. If I’d been following their routine exactly, I’d have had four swords in me. As it was, with the slight variations I’d added to the manoeuvres, I managed to avoid them and dive out of their reach.
Ambrose was loosening his brother’s bonds. In a moment he’d have the gag off, and his voice would be back. I’d be ordered to stand still while they ran me through.
Me or him. I reached for my best king’s voice.
“Kill the king,” I rasped, “and his brother.”
The soldiers turned towards their new targets. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed there was a little more enthusiasm behind the action.
I couldn’t afford to wait for the outcome. I hunted through the pile of swords and grabbed what looked like the best. One in six chance of it taking me back to the monastery where I’d started. One in six, two in twelve. Something nagged. Something to do with how he’d distracted me. No time to think now. I ran through to the room with the stone circle. There were slots. I chose one directly in front of the circle and slid the sword into place.
“Stop attacking me!” Ambrose yelled.
I spun round to see what was happening. The king was on the ground, lying very still and with blood pumping from several wounds. One guard stood over him, his weapon poised. The other three had Ambrose surrounded, but they were holding back. He was bleeding too, and breathing hard. He stared at me with hate-filled eyes.
“What have you done?” He growled at me.
“Put things right, I hope.”
“You’ve done nothing of the sort.”
“Oh? How long do you think you’ll last without your brother to make your precious elixir of life? Do any of the rest of you have the talent to figure out what he used? You’ll all die soon enough.”
“And what of them? Without someone to tell them what to do, they’ll die; all of them”
I reached for my king’s voice again. “Fight your conditioning. Regain your free will. Teach others to do the same. Guard your children, and don’t let them suffer your fates.
“There, that should help.”
“Attack her!” he screamed.
The guards turned my way, reluctantly. They took faltering steps in my direction. I couldn’t afford to wait and find out how effective their battle of will might be. I grabbed the stone sword and pulled it from its place.
When I came to, I wasn’t sure I had. I could feel rough stone beneath me, and I could hear a wind moaning nearby. I was cold, but most important, I couldn’t see a thing.
I climbed gingerly to my feet and started feeling about me in the dark. I stumbled on something which proved to be the stone sword I’d just used. I left it where it was and continued groping, heading for what I hoped was the direction of the wind.
I found a wall, then an opening in it which led down a narrow, rough passage until there was a glimmer of light. At least I wasn’t’ blind. The glimmer grew as I moved towards it. The cave opened out onto the side of a mountain. From the look of it, the wind was blowing downhill and increasing in strength, and it was cold out there. The snow looked deep, and I was wearing a thin diaphanous costume intended for far warmer climate. There was no way I’d survive out there.
Just outside the cave sat a climber’s rucksack with a scarf tied to it. I dragged it inside with me and rummaged through. Either this was Gervais’s, or one of the group that hadn’t gone through the portal had left it here for anyone else who needed it.
Well I needed it.
I hunted through it. There were a few useful items. An ice pick, a pocket knife, some rope, pitons and carabinas, a few ration bars, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit, a water bottle, a couple of flares, now somewhat out of date, but beggars can’t be choosers, map with some notations on it, and a compass.
I wasn’t going anywhere immediately. My first step was to keep warm, which meant the sleeping bag. I could crawl into it and wait to die, or…
The pocket knife cut a slit down half its length. Needle and thread from the first aid kit allowed me to sew them together again. They fit surprisingly well, covering my legs and my feet. A little more cutting and sewing and I had a couple of sleeves at the top as well. It wasn’t the height of fashion, but it was functional.
I climbed into it, and used parts of the rest of my clothing, I managed to secure it. Some age old geography lesson raised a flag and reminded me of downhill winds. Kata-something or other. They happened when cool air high up pushes down past warmer valley air. It usually happened in the evening if I remembered correctly, which meant I had a night to wait out. I headed deeper into the cave, lay down in a sheltered spot and nibbled my way through an energy bar. It was a little stale, but as I think I already mentioned, beggars can’t be choosers.
I dozed a little, but something in the back of my mind kept nagging. Twelve swords… twelve swords…
Light returned and I made my way to the cave entrance. Outside the air was clear and calm, with a pale blue sky overhead. The cave was still in shadow, which would mean it would still be cold outside, but if I was going to survive, I’d have to move.
The map showed two locations, about thirty miles apart as the crow flies, but an estimated two to three times that as the weary survivor staggers, and that over rough terrain as well. This wasn’t going to be an easy trek.
Fortunately the weather held over the four days the journey took, which is more than my footwear did. Inside the sleeping bag, I was wearing lightweight, soft-soled slippers, and I felt every sharp rock I stood on. So did the sleeping bag, and by the end of the first day, both my feet had emerged from tears in the sleeping bag.
I used the sewing kit to repair it as best I could, but again, by halfway through the second day my feet were out and unprotected. By the end of it, they were bloody and freezing. I tore strips from my sleeves and wrapped them round my feet, which helped protect them during the night, but again by the end of the third day, they were reduced to tatters. What’s more my arms had only survived the cold by staying inside the body of the sleeping bag, which meant, even with my enhanced balance, I’d fallen painfully a couple of times.
I cut strips from the middle part of the sleeping bag and used them to wrap my feet. The last of the thread closed the tear I’d made in the bag, and the bloody tatters from the previous day provided some protection for my arms. I was lower down now, so temperatures were less painfully cold, but this would be my last day. Do or die, so to speak.
I slept hungry and breakfasted on my one remaining energy bar. I’d been filling my water bottle with snow each evening and using my body heat to melt it overnight, and I had red welts on my skin where I’d kept the bottle in different places each night. The matches might have provided me with a fire had there been any wood to burn.
Day four. Each step felt like I was standing on knives. I commanded my body to go on, and so it did, even when my own will was used up. The sun made its sedentary way across the sky all too quickly, and as it approached the mountain peaks on the right side of the valley, I crested a ridge and caught sight of a village. Still some miles in the distance.
I reached in my pack for the two flares and lit them both. They sputtered and fizzed and died. A warning to anyone who lets their emergency kit go out of date. If I was going to make it, it would be under my own steam.
My lip bled from where I’d bitten it to distract myself from the pain in my feet, but my body soldiered on. Even so, it was faltering badly with the village still a mile below me, down a steep snowy slope.
One last, desperate hope. I found a gulley that didn’t look to rocky, sat on the canvas rucksack and set myself to sliding.
It was a mad, headlong rush. I felt adrenaline flowing through my veins for the first time in some years, and it heightened my perception. There were a few rocky outcrops that I missed by inches, having seen them in the gathering gloom with less than a second to react.
Two thirds of the way down, I lost the rucksack, torn to shreds as it was. I rolled in the sleeping bag, trying to make it last as long as possible, and slowed to a stop just hundreds of yards outside the village.
I stood up, wearing nothing more than the skimpy clothes from the palace, and a few bloody rags wrapped around my arms and feet. The wind was building again, pushing me into a headlong run into the narrow village streets.
I heard noise – the babble of voices – and followed my ears, bursting into the warmth and light, and sudden silence of a tavern. Every eye turned my way, and every mouth dropped open in amazement, I looked down at myself, bruised, bloody and blue from the cold, and next best thing to naked. I suppose under the circumstance, I couldn’t’ blame them for their reaction.
I did the only thing I could think of. I staggered up to the bar and asked if they had a phone I could use.
Mother had made me memorise a number and a certain phrase. It was supposed to guarantee me a reverse charge call to my father’s satellite phone; only to be used in emergencies. I figured this counted. Even after so many years and so many changes, the number sprang to mind. I dialled it.
There was an answer, and following my giving the phrase, a few clicks and a voice I hadn’t heard in ten years.
“Father, it’s Lara… Lawrence I mean. I’m in a village in Tibet.” I gave him the latitude and longitude of the village on the map. “Please come and get me.”
“Lawrence, what’s happened? I just received a message from your mother that you were in a monastery. Can you put her on please?”
Twelve swords. Mother!
“Father, a lot has changed. Mother isn’t with me. Please come. I can’t explain now.”
I dropped the phone and collapsed onto a rather disgusting floor. To be honest, I didn’t care. I was warm, I was safe, I was with people.
The tavern keeper and his wife took care of me. Unspoken law of the mountain, you find someone in need, you help them. One day it might be you. The villagers all contributed, bringing clothes, food, medicines. They had salves that rescued my toes and fingers from frostbite, and poultices that closed my cuts and reduced the swelling of my bruises.
A fever took me, which again the local medicines helped bring me through. I was in and out of consciousness for seven days, then lying weakly in the crude cot the tavern keeper had given me for another three before father arrived.
He refused to believe it was me at first, but I persevered with him, telling him about things only I could have known about. Our home in England, Croft Manor with all its secret tunnels, mother, all the intricate details of her life that only a child would know, and myself of course, again details that only father and I had shared. It took him most of a day to persuade him to even consider that I had once – just over a fortnight ago from his perspective – been his ten year old son. He agreed to rescue me from the village, because there was no way he thought I’d be able to escape from Tibet by myself, but he did insist on taking a DNA sample to test against his own.
He asked about mother, and again I remembered the twelve swords and what had happened to her. I remembered the instruction to forget about her. I’m not sure if it was two weeks absence from the milky white fluid, but it was becoming easier to defy the conditioning that had been put on me.
I told my father the entire story from beginning to end. I told him how mother and I had been drawn into the portals and captured, how they had transformed me, how they had controlled both mother and me. I told him about Shambhala and the Wheel of Time, how I didn’t know what it was, but that time there flowed much faster than in this world. How the eight years that had passed in my timeframe had been only eight hours from his perspective. I told him how mother had been put under their control, although she’s managed to fight it hard enough to give me the will to fight, which had in turn given me my way of escape. I told him how she’d been consigned to work in the fields around the city, that in the two weeks that had passed since I had escaped, she’d probably lived four hundred years in that place, that she probably was no longer alive.
He had to see for himself, so I gave him the map to the cave; it was closer than the monastery where mother and I had entered. He paid the tavern keeper and village elders for the aid they’d given me so far, and more still to continue to look after me while he trekked into the mountain. Several of the villagers agreed to go with him as guides, and I waited a long ten days while he made his way there and back again.
He said he’d found the cave, and the stone sword. He’d used it as I instructed, but it hadn’t worked the same as it had for me. The stone ring had shone as I’d described, but he hadn’t been drawn into it. When the light had lessened he’d found himself looking into a room, much as I’d described the portal room, except that there were swords in each of the slots he could see. He’d caught glimpses of what seemed like people moving about the place, short lived blurs, sometimes staying still just long enough to give a hint of a human form.
He’d take the watch mother had given him, opened it and held up the picture of my mother that he always kept in there, and it seemed almost immediately afterwards, an old woman had appeared in front of him. It had been hard to say for certain because she couldn’t stay still long enough to make her features clear, but he’d had a sense that it was mother. An instant later, a tapestry had been hung in front of the opening with words in English that read, “I shall love you always. Take care of Lara.”
There was more, but I didn’t see it till much later. Father hadn’t understood most of what the message said so had only told me the two phrases he did. I don’t know if he felt it was too personal, or if he planned to use it in some way to continue his interrogation, but if the latter, by the time we returned home, there was no point. The results from the DNA I’d given were back. Not only did they clearly show that I was his child, but that I had XY chromosomes as well.
Father didn’t quite know how to deal with my transformation. Despite the male DNA, there was no way I could make it in the world as a man, so he sent me to a girl’s boarding school in Scotland, then to finishing school in Switzerland to complete my education. There wasn’t much they could teach me about comportment or elocutions, so they provided tutors to fill my interests. I continued with the gymnastics, even though I was far too old to compete in any form of sporting events, I learned to ride horses, to shoot guns, and I delved deep into the knowledge of the ancient world.
I retained my knowledge of languages, both written and spoken, and often taught my tutors a thing or two. I also retained all I had learned of ancient history that I had been taught in Shambhala, although I kept my own knowledge secret from what I learned at school.
I saw father often enough during those early years, visiting him at his various digs, and giving him clues that helped him enormously from my hidden knowledge. It took time, but we did draw closer to one another than we’d ever been when I was his son.
Then he died.
But I suspect you already know that story, and how I then inherited the family fortune.
There was just one thing that you won’t be aware of that relates to this story. After the funeral, when I was rummaging through his desk, I came across a set of photographs. He’d taken them in Tibet, of the stone circle with the tapestry behind. Each was blurred in a different place, but working with them all, I was able to able to piece together all of my mother’s message.
“I’m sorry Richard, you cannot come,” it read. “The gateway is closed. The decision was made after the uprising, once we had regained control of our lives from the outsiders who enslaved us. There are enough stone swards here now, and as long as there are ten placed around the portal on this side, no-one can come here.
“They count me as one of them, since I was enslaved along with the rest of them, and I am now too old to return to the world outside in any case. There are spores from one of the plants here that fill the air. Without them I would wither and die within days, so I have made a home for myself here in Shambhala, and though I miss you, I am content.
“Your son had no choice in the transformation that was placed on him, and as much as I am convinced he would have been a son to make you proud, so I am certain she will be a daughter the whole world will remember. Richard, she saved us all. Thousands of people here in Shambhala enslaved to some greedy and unscrupulous individuals who found a way to exploit all the unusual plants here. Somehow she gave a small group of guards a command to fight the conditioning that had been placed upon them, and she destroyed the monster who enslaved us all in the first place. To do this, she would have had to overcome the same conditioning that no-one else here has been able to resist. She is truly a remarkable person.
“I wish you well, Richard. It is possible that by the time you finish reading this, I will had died of old age, so I beg you not to try and find a way here. I will certainly be long gone by the time you succeed, if indeed you ever do. Be happy for me; I have lived a long and contented life, and I have thought often of you both and the future that lies before you.
“I shall love you always. Take care of Lara.”
She stood and walked back to the balcony, her head raised to take in the sun’s rays.
“Is this the monastery…”
“The interview is over Mr Bannerman. I trust you have enough there for an interesting story. Feel free to enjoy the hospitality of the monastery for a few days before you leave.”
With that dismissal, he clicked off his recorder and headed for the door. He was too much of a reporter, though, not to realise there was still more to the story. He found a shadowy alcove and waited.
It was several hours before she left eh room, but she was hard to miss. He followed her, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, until they were deep beneath the monastery. As he had suspected, here was the cave with the portal.
“You couldn’t leave it be could you Mr Bannerman. Well you might as well come out here and get a good view.”
He came out of the shadows, having the good grace to look a little shamefaced.
“Please stay back. I doubt you would receive a welcome over there.”
“But why are you going? Surely you have a life here.”
“You know the reason why I could never have children. It was inevitable that the Croft line would end with me. I have no-one to mourn my passing, and nothing here to look forward to except creeping decrepitude. In Shambhala I have the promise of a much longer and healthier life.”
“But you don’t know anyone there.”
“No, but they will know of me, and I’m sure I shall make friends soon enough. Besides, there’s still the mystery of the Wheel of Time to resolve.”
“Didn’t you say that way was blocked?”
“Yes, as long as there are ten swords in place at the other end. Shall we see if they’ll make an exception for me?”
She pulled a sword from the ground. The stone ring flashed brilliantly for an instant, then showed the inside of a room, stone swords in a half circle in front of it, and ghostly forms dashing back and forth.
It lasted a matter of seconds, then a sword disappeared on the other side, and instant later, Lara was drawn into the light.
Unable to resist, he stepped forward and drew a sword of his own. The light flared and again there was the room. A tapestry stood in clear view. The words on it were clear.
“The way to Shambhala is closed.”