Shiv felt the vibrations beneath his feet in the dark cavernous surroundings before the tiger moved. He couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the ground beneath him shift, and the rumbles echoed through the fort, the cacophony of the breeze adding to it. He barely managed to contain his balance.
What on Earth was happening?
The tiger shifted along with the idol of the Goddess, and he saw what looked like a trap door. He knew forts and palaces often had trap doors, but he hadn’t read anything about this one. Also, when he touched the handle, it didn’t appear rusted. So it meant…this was recent. Did the Queen build it, or was the Queen aware of this?
He tried to move the trap door and thought it would be difficult, but instead… it shook with a slight vibration and opened. He removed the lid and shone his torchlight into the cavity. It revealed a long bottomless cul-de-sac. He couldn’t see beyond that. There were stairs leading down into the darkness, and the cavity was huge enough for two well-built individuals to pass through. He touched the stair, and it looked sturdy, and like the lid, it wasn’t rusted.
He was now confident this was a recent make and wanted to learn more. But getting into uncharted territory would be dangerous. He had to come back prepared. He made a mental note to update his friend tomorrow.
As he was about to move and replace the lid, his eyes caught something shining on the stairs at a slightly lower level. A little climb down wouldn’t hurt, would it?
He got down, but immediately, the air pressure changed. The fetid air in the cavity made him gag. It was as if he was getting sucked inside. What kind of place was this? He tightened his grip on the railing and moved down; he heard something when his head was below the entrance. He thought it was some noise, like a broken or interrupted Radiofrequency. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him, and he moved a couple of steps lower, holding the torch in his mouth.
The walls seemed like he was in a dungeon, and they were overwhelming…
The dark walls close in on me….
And right then, as he thought of his father’s poetry, he heard the distinct noise… it wasn’t any radiofrequency. It was water… yes! He was sure it was water flowing with force. It couldn’t be the sea, because of the altitude…
The heavy gush pulls me
There was only one option, and Shiv was sure of it. The noise was from the waterfall…
He took a look at what had caught his eye. Then, holding the railing, he balanced himself while he picked the object. It was an anklet… not a regular one. He had seen this somewhere…
He put it in his pocket and climbed out, gasping for fresh air. He quickly replaced the lid and pressed the other eye of the tiger on impulse. He was right, though. The tiger and the massive idol moved back in place.
He hoped the loud rumblings hadn’t called for attention as he stealthily made his way out of the fort.
The following day he met up with Maanav. The guy was already into the element and disguised for the role.
“What’s up, Bullet, all OK? Though I am not complaining, why the long sabbatical?” Shiv was curious.
Maanav ‘Bullet’ Deshmukh, a man with few words, only looked around and sighed. Tallest among all of them, Maanav was often called the pillar… He was the best sniper in their unit and an ace with firearms. There wasn’t a gun make he hadn’t laid his hands on. He was highly trained, and his observational powers were mind-blowing.
Shiv knew Maanav would open up whenever he was ready. The latter opened his bag and brought out a box.
“Here, Shadow, keep this one. Since you are going solo, you will need this. So consider it’s a retirement gift from all of us…” Maanav smiled for the first time in the past hour.
Shiv shook his head and opened the black box. It was filled with transmitters… in different forms. Earstuds, rings, tiny chips could be fitted into devises… etc. Each set had its recorder as well. A GPS signal dial transmitted inputs from all the transmitters in different windows for Shiv’s purpose.
“This is awesome, buddy..” Shiv exclaimed.
“And here is a message from Razor… he has the information you asked about that ring.” Maanav handed over a piece of paper on which information was scribbled in a unique script the friends had developed in Gurukul to communicate without the warden, Captain Rawat, or any other member knowing about it. The writing was part Morse code and part sketches. A few words had their spellings reversed. It wasn’t easy initially, but it was easy to decipher the letters once they knew each other well.
‘The ring was a gift to King Wamanrao Raje from the Turkish ambassador who had visited the province a few years ago. It was a customized product made by the best craftsman from Istanbul. The Turkish Prime Minister had commissioned it for King Wamanrao as a token of friendship. The words inscribed mean Trust the man who bears the ring.’
Shiv now understood why his father left the ring for him. It would be necessary to gain entry into the palace if needed. Shiv, however, hoped that he would never need it. He didn’t want to reveal his identity for as long as possible. At least not till he found out whatever sinister was happening.
He got back to Gurukul that night after he and Maanav separated with the promise of keeping in touch using the burners.
That night Shiv stared at the anklet. It was a unique pattern. It was silver make for sure but had blackened due to a long time in that godforsaken cavity from the looks of it. He didn’t know about jewelry… but something about this anklet felt familiar. He dozed off as the physical fatigue got the upper hand.
A couple of days later, Maanav informed him about the puja in the local Maa Bhavani Temple to be presided over by the princess and her ‘fiance.’ Though the news of the princess’s betrothal pierced his heart and pained him in a way that surprised him, Shiv recovered soon to note that the event was at night.
Though he was sure the King would arrange for protection, he wouldn’t take a chance. The part of the forest spread behind the temple made everyone in the temple vulnerable to attacks. Moreover, the King probably didn’t know about the princess’s rendezvous in the nightclub; else, he wouldn’t have allowed this outing at night.
As he made a hole in the wall of the temple perimeter from the forest side, he checked that the part was recently repaired. So it would make it easier to break.
The following night, he lay in wait, watching for unwanted elements. But it was tough, given the slopy terrain, and also everyone gathered had worn the royal uniform. And right then, he saw the princess walk around with her fiancé following her along with the bodyguards.
His heart skipped a beat watching her resplendent form in the beautiful saree… There was an air of supremacy in her looks. She seemed detached from her future husband, and that surprised him. How could that man just let her out of his sight, given the dangers she faced?
If she were his, Shiv would move mountains to protect her and engulf her in his cocoon… Freak… What was he thinking? He couldn’t… she didn’t deserve him.
A stray thought entered his mind. Princess Padma had kissed him barely a week ago… whom did she kiss since she was drugged? Was it the fiancé, or was it him?
The flicker of distraction cost him heavily, and he heard the click of the trigger before the bullet was fired. Instantly, he got down from the tree and ran towards the wall on red alert. There was a blackout, and he heard shots being fired. Oh No… the princess was in the line of fire, and any stray bullet could hit her.
He kicked the susceptible wall and rushed toward the princess, who had fallen to the ground. She looked scared, and Shiv’s heart went out to her. The sudden urge to protect her overcame everything else, and he didn’t think of anything else. He lifted her in a fireman’s carry and ran back towards the wall.
Crossing the thresholds, he ran into the forest like a man possessed. The princess initially protested but stopped flapping her hands and hitting him… as if she recognized him.
He stopped only when he was far away from the temple and was sure they weren’t being followed.
He had covered his head completely, and only his eyes were visible. His lungs were on fire given the intense run when covered, but it was also because his heart was beating hard.
She looked up at his face even as it began to pour heavily, as if heaven had decided to drench them together. What was it about the princess and the rain, he didn’t know…
Those beautiful eyes boring into his were free from fear, but he sensed recognition in them as she asked him if he was the one who had saved her the week earlier… She probably didn’t remember what had happened two years ago and that was a blessing in disguise. She had a lot on her plate as it is. Lightening pierced the canopy of the trees above and flashed on them, the staccato playing games with their visions.
The princess got closer, her wet lithe body causing his to go taught with arousal. He was on fire and hoped she didn’t sense it. But the moment was intense, and he thought he would kiss her when he heard footsteps. The pattern wasn’t threatening, and he knew it was the royal security who had come to look for her.
Thanking the stars for preventing him from almost making a mistake he would repent for; he left the place as swiftly as possible. He hadn’t spoken a word, so the princess would never know how he sounded.
That night he was sure the princess was in grave danger and hoped the King would now make sure her security was upped.
Almost a month later, Maanav got together with him and updated what he found from the locals.
The fort was a front for some sinister activities there, but no one had an inkling of it. Everyone was scared of checking it out. It happened on every full moon night and the innocent locals feared the wrath of the Goddess if they dared to check the fort. Maanav on deeper probing, found that many young girls from the ages of 16 to 25 went missing from Koini and the nearby provinces, but there were no records. A recruitment agency employed young women as housemaids or nannies in the city. The women who returned praised the agency and were cash-rich, luring other young girls and women to try their luck.
However, the agency was shut down in the last two years, and all the girls and women hired had mysteriously disappeared.
He found that the Queen had been diligently asking around and encouraging people to talk to the police, but there were no FIRs registered in the records.
Later that night, both Maanav and Shiv were called by their superiors to come together for a special mission for the government. Though Shiv had put in his papers, Captain Rawat requested so he couldn’t refuse. So he arranged for ‘eyes’ on the palace while he left for the mission to Kabul.
Almost a year into the mission, the princess was unharmed, mostly because she wasn’t venturing out of the palace. It was a relief for Shiv and a source of worry since the enemy was upping its ante.
Shiv was in Dhaka a month later when the pandemic struck, and the mission was aborted. He was relieved of duty, and he returned to the Gurukul.
The lockdown had caused a major uproar across the province, and Koini was no exception. Shiv spent his days tending to the groves and reviving them. He employed a supervisor and a few local lads. He didn’t personally meet them to prevent being exposed. He didn’t renovate the house, though… he couldn’t.
Three years passed since he had last seen the princess in the temple, and not a day went by when he hadn’t thought of her. As the situation limped back on track, he resolved to end it all this time and bring the culprits to justice. There was only one way to do it, use the princess as bait, and he had to be there by her side to protect her and catch the culprits.
Captain Rawat helped him. The King was looking for a personal bodyguard for the princess who had to venture out for her studies. This was the moment Shiv was waiting for. He had to enter the palace in an official capacity. The King met with him and given his high credentials, he was employed in the princess’s service right after the coronation.
The princess’s 21st birthday celebration was an occasion he would never forget. But, the huge pomp and splendor made him wonder what the King was thinking, putting his daughter in danger.
He hadn’t seen the princess yet. However, he met with the King a little before the ceremony.
“Your Highness, With due regards, it’s dangerous for the princess to be exposed to a crowd this big… it would be difficult to protect her.”
The King only stared at his hands.
“I know… I know it’s dangerous, but if we hide her, it would call for unwanted attention on an important day like this… Mr. Chouhan I trust your instincts, and I am sure you will be there for her…” the King had walked away, leaving Shiv flabbergasted.
He had been on high alert all evening, and when the princess made her entry, one look at her grandeur and all blood rushed south. He didn’t know how he would last next to her and control his raging libido…
The princess lifted her outfit to prevent tripping, and his eyes fell on her feet. Right then, realization struck.
That anklet he had found in the fort three years ago belonged to his mother…