Stiff with cold, Larra offered very little resistance to the hands gripping her body, and that was probably just as well, as a few seconds after they had picked her up she was set gently down on top of something quite soft. She stopped her pathetic struggling and assessed her situation. As she was lifted into the air she realized she was lying on a very comfortable litter. Not only that, but Rupali was lying beside her. As the brown-skinned men carrying the litter began to move down the canyon she began to realize that she was not being attacked, but rescued.
Sitting in a circle about the two of them were more than a dozen young girls. They appeared to be of a uniform age, Larra guessed that they were about ten or eleven years old. The girls immediately set about rubbing her chilled limbs, restoring the circulation. Larra gave a little murmur of pleasure as the gentle massage sent a wave of warmth flowing through her.
In spite of the attention she received, however, Larra remained alert enough to keep track of where she was being taken. The litter was carried rapidly down the canyon. It was like being carried through a temple dedicated to elephants. They were there in all shapes and sizes, many resembling the statue of Ganesh where she and Rupali had accidentally sheltered.
Each Ganesh was housed in an alcove and elevated above the flood level of the valley floor. Most of the other statues were sculpted into the sides of the cliff and in a few cases rock outcroppings had been chiseled into freestanding statues. Most of these were life sized, but in the case of a few they dwarfed any elephant that had ever lived.
Larra observed all of this as she was carried, wondering how long it had taken to create such a magnificent panoply of pachyderms. That brought to mind the notes she had made back at the Prahgan palace. She had taken them with her when she fled, wrapped in paper she had saturated with oil to keep them waterproof. The last time she could remember having them was just before she and Rupali had struggled to shelter in the flooding canyon. With a pang of regret she realized that the months of brief notes she had made were now gone.
Her thoughts returned to the present when the litter turned a corner in the canyon. Facing her head-on were two more gigantic elephants. Standing so close to one another that their sides touched, they acted as an enormous portal, the houdahs they carried serving as guard towers. Larra realized they had come to the city of what she thought of as the Elephant People.
Passing through the portal, the procession
passed down an avenue lined with smaller elephants, although each one was
fully life sized. It reminded
Larra very much of the avenue of sphinxes at Karnack in
She and Rupali had now entered the city proper, and as they exited the avenue of the elephants they passed through the city market, a place alive with vendors and stalls of every description. Here their senses were assailed with myriad smells of the numerous products on display from spices to exotic flowers, as well as the shouts and calls of the buyers and sellers.
As Larras litter passed by, however, the market suddenly quieted and a rippled phrase ran through it, passed from person to person. Larra could not make out what it was as it was spoken in a language she did not know. But it seemed to be spoken in a tone of reverence or even awe.
She saw that she was approaching a magnificent
building constructed in the Indian style and covered with incredibly detailed
carvings depicting scenes from Hindu
mythology. Dominant among them
were elephant motifs, especially those depicting
Ganesh. The building rose in
tiers, beginning with a massive circular lower
level. It reminded Larra very
much of photographs of the great Hindu temples in
Larra gazed awestruck, attempting to calculate the immense effort and the length of time it had taken to construct such a splendiferous building. And then she and Rupali were borne through one of its lower doorways.
Inside, the building was just as incredible as it was outside. Penetrated by many windows, its shimmering walls, which seemed to have been painted with gold leaf, glowed brilliantly in the light of the sun. Floors constructed of marble and granite and gleamed under the feet of the bearers and pillars of malachite reflected their green light.
Along either the walls stood ranks of armed guards stretching before them as they were carried deeper and deeper into the palace. Reaching a grand staircase the bearers mounted it, taking them up first one level and then another, and finally continuing down still another corridor after reaching the fifth level. Again, the walls were flanked by rows of armed warriors. Finally a pair of gigantic brass doors loomed before them.
With a ponderous groan the doors were pushed back. Larra saw to her surprise that behind the doors was a small corridor leading to another set of much smaller doors. Here the litter was set down and the bearers departed. The doors were swung closed behind them. The smaller doors opened and then Larra and Rupali, who had by this time regained consciousness, were helped from the litter by the bevy of young girls and escorted into the room beyond.
The first thing Larra noted other than the
fact that the rooms were luxurious beyond anything she had yet seen, was
that there was not a male in sight.
There were still guards in the room, but they were clearly female,
armed and armored in the style of ancient
Still somewhat weak from her ordeal, Larra was ushered across the room to a large cushion-covered divan. The bevy of young girls then surrounded her, stripping off what was left of her harem jewellery and washing down her body. Rupali was dealt with in the same way. At the same time food and drink was brought.
Larra was ravenous, but she was not allowed to help herself. The young girls conveyed each morsel of food to her lips and those of Rupali, using utensils of gold and ivory.
Larra had difficulty in adjusting to the situation. Only an hour or so earlier she had feared rape. Now she and Rupali were being treated like royalty. She couldnt help turning her eyes to the impassive faces of the female guards lining the room. Were they there to keep people out or to keep her and Rupali in?
There was no one to answer her questions. The young girls chattered to one another, but their language was completely incomprehensible, although Larra detected inflections and intonations that indicated that the language had originated somewhere in the Indian subcontinent.
Larra suddenly felt very tired. She was now warm and dry, and had been fed, washed and groomed. In spite of her best efforts and a definite feeling of unease, she had trouble keeping her eyes open. Rupali too was yawning. It had been a tortuous few days for the young girl and she was now feeling the full effects of her ordeal.
The young girls robed them in red silk robes trimmed with green and gold and then retreated as if realizing that their charges now needed rest. Larra was frustrated by her inability to communicate with her rescuers (if that was what they were). She appeared to be a captive in another harem, and her experience in these male-dominated female prisons left her far from happy. She was, however, too tired to think about her predicament any further. Rupalis heavy breathing indicated that she was already asleep. Closing her eyes, she curled up by the young Indian girl and slept.
Around the two sleeping women the female guards remained at their posts while the prepubescent serving girls waited attentively. One of the ornate grills in the wall of the room slid slowly open and a white-robed man stepped through. He was of medium height, and about forty years of age. On his head he wore a white turban, embroidered in gold and fasten with an emerald and gold pin. His salt and pepper beard was neatly trimmed close to his jaw. He moved with the grace of a dancer, and stepped quickly across the room to stand next to the divan upon which the two women slept. With him was another man, much older and simply dressed; nothing but a loincloth covering his sinewy frame. Both men stood beside the divan watching the slow breathing of the two sleeping women for several minutes before giving a slow nod and returning the way they had come. Completely oblivious of their strange visitors Larra and Rupali slept on.