Padma shivered as the heavy draft of wind hit her through the open window in her room upstairs. She had been glued to the window sill from the time she had latched the front door and rushed upstairs, watching Shadow go away and finally disappear into the trees.
She didn’t know the time, and lad lost track of it ever since she had the ‘accident’. Her heart fluttered as she thought of Shadow rushing to save her. If not for his gusto, she would have met her maker that night. And here he was yet again, protecting her by taking her away.
Though she didn’t like the circumstances nor the fact that he kept stuff from her, she didn’t mind. She hated to be cooped up in the palace like a caged bird. She didn’t like belonging to the royal family, just like her mother. She felt suffocated especially post her engagement…
Padma smiled as she saw a couple of chirping birds squabbling over a piece of eatable. She missed her outlet in the woods behind the palace. The wall was tightly sealed these days. Her father must have found out. She missed being with nature. It gave her solitude.. Nature taught her patience and calmed her restlessness. Nature was home…
The still fighting birds also reminded her of how she would fight with Aarti and Keshav while growing up. Once in a while, Seema would join them, but she was a silent spectator. Padma wasn’t surprised Keshav was attracted to the composed girl who was matured beyond her age. She was happy for her best friend. Keshav deserved all the happiness in the world at least a partner who loved him back.
She wondered where Aarti was these days. Aarti always shared stuff with her, and she missed their camaraderie ever since Aarti was busy with her studies. But Padma was glad Aarti found her calling in biotechnology and studied in one of the good universities. She hoped Aarti too, would find her soulmate someday.
But had she found hers? She was sure she had. Padma felt the familiar flutter in her heart when she thought of Shadow. She only yearned to be closer to him, and this was ever since he had saved her in the nightclub on her eighteenth birthday.
She always felt his presence around her even when he wasn’t physically present. Like she felt the breeze touching her face was his caress as he consoled her, she just felt right being with him. As if the jigsaw puzzle of her life fit itself perfectly.
That was why she missed him even here in the woods when he wasn’t present. Her soul didn’t realize the separation was temporary.
Padma felt wetness on her cheeks as it felt chilled and realized she was crying… She wasn’t very emotional, but Shadow made her feel the roller coaster of emotions. Shadow knew about Keshav and Seema, it appeared. It meant he also knew about her sham of an engagement… Did he also know she was single? Did he realize she loved him for years?
Padma hugged herself. She was hungry and reached for the chocolate bars he had left for her. She had never lazed around in her life before, without a care in the world and though she was all alone in the wilderness, she loved it. She only wished Shadow was with her, enjoying the scenic beauty of nature, the vivid picturesque greenery with hues of psychedelic flora. And all the visuals superimposed by the gigantic roar of the falls. She wished there were no villains out there waiting to stake a claim on her life.
Padma shook her head and lay on the bed. Soon she fell asleep.
Chauhan kaka tied up and lying on the floor and he seemed… brutally injured and… dead. She could feel the wetness dripping on her, probably from the heavy downpour somewhere around her. Thunder and lightening played hide and seek, and in the flashes of the intense light, she saw the idol of Devi maa, the brilliant eyes of the Goddess watching in rage. The temple bells rang heavily as they moved in the strong winds, the loud sounds immersing in the cacophony of nature’s fury lashed outside… Padma stood glued to the floor and remained a mute spectator. The silhouette of a heavy man moved and struck someone else… she always had pixelled visuals but today, everything seemed clearer. But whom did the man hit, and why did her heart break into a million pieces…?
There was a scream, and Padma sat up on her bed, panting. Despite the chill, she was sweating profusely, and a strange fear gnawed on her. Why did she see kaka in the dream? Was it because she was near the falls, and it reminded her of him? Was it all from some memory? She knew she had blacked out on her sixteenth birthday night. After that, she didn’t remember anything, but that was the day Chauhan kaka and her mother were killed. She only had some broken images so far every time she had a nightmare, but today it was vivid… So who was the other person killed… It seemed like a woman. Was it… her mother?
Was she a witness to her mother’s murder?
Padma lay back on the mattress and curled up into a fetal position as tears flew unhindered as she sobbed into oblivion. How could she forget her mother’s last moments if she was present in the fort?
In all these years, she suddenly realized she had only missed her mother, but today was the first time she wondered how much her mother and Chauhan kaka must have suffered before their gruesome end. She hadn’t been shown the bodies… just informed about the deaths.
Padma wailed, her cries shielded by the roar of the falls and the heavy rain that had just begun. A loud flash of lightning struck, followed by the thunderclaps and Padma shivered. The subconscious memories from that fateful night in the fort sprang up, engulfing her in pain. She clutched at her locket and cried her heart out.
Her mother was murdered right before her eyes, and she didn’t remember it… guilt ate her insides. The perp hadn’t been found as yet. She could have told the police or informed her father if she remembered. Where was her father? Did he have any information related to the murders? Were the attacks on her life planned because she had witnessed it all?
Who was that man in the raincoat? She couldn’t see him clearly, but something about him was familiar. Padma grabbed her hair with her other hand and continued to cry… But, just like the downpour outside, her cries didn’t cease.
Did Shadow know all this? She remembered waking up twice on the same bench in the palace garden. She was sure Shadow had saved her in the club that night. Was he the one who had saved her that night of the murders? Which meant…. He had witnessed it all too…
Then why did he not tell her or tell the police? Why didn’t he tell the king?
She sat up startled by a blast of lightning that lit up the room for a brief moment and suddenly realised it was dark. How long had she slept? All that had transpired following her poisoning and the running away along with this hike had drained her out of her energy.
She had been comfortable enough to sleep through it all today and berated herself.
Where was Shadow? He was to be back after a few hours. But it was dark and pouring heavily. Was he alright?
Ignoring her pounding headache, she wiped her cheeks even as fresh tears took their place. She strutted towards the window sill. To her horror, she saw the pool of water gathered outside. The entire flowerbed was submerged, and due to cloudy night she couldn’t see anything except pitch darkness. The house was built on a stilt, so so far, she was safe. She mentally thanked the thoughtfulness of the person who had built it and also wondered how Shadow knew about this place. That man… would he ever tell her about himself or forever stay in the Shadows?
Despite everything she worried for him… he had gone a long way downhill. Was he alright? She could hear her heart racing as a strange kind of fear for Shadow’s safety churned its way up her throat.
She rushed downstairs and tumbled in the dark… but the shooting pain in her knee as it hit the floor didn’t deter her from finding the pen torch she knew she had seen on the table earlier in the day. She didn’t have an umbrella for protection from the rain. Yet she ran out. She had barely stepped out; she fell headlong into the water gathered. The cold blast hit her hard as the chilled water clung to her through her clothes. Padma gathered her wits and began to wade her way through the calf-deep waters.
Fortunately, the pen torch still worked and though the visibility wasn’t great, she felt better watching the thin, cracked stream of light that couldn’t go beyond the pool of water up to a couple of feet ahead.
She didn’t know how long she walked, but the water had crossed her hips, and suddenly the pen torch died. The pitch-black darkness caught her unawares, and she looked around to see the clutter of dark moving trees straight out of the ghost stories she had heard from the nannies in childhood, each making horrific patterns against the slightly less dark skies. There was no moon or the spread of stars, probably sheathed by the heavy hovering clouds.
She went blank for a moment before fear raged in and she realized she was lost. Was she going to her watery grave? She began to cry yet again… further aggravated when she thought if something untoward had happened to Shadow….
She felt something around her legs… was that a water snake? There could be anything in the wilderness. She screamed and flailed her limbs, splashing water as she began to run in circles. It went on for a while; she was tired and sapped off all energy.
She was about to faint and said a soft prayer when a pair of familiar strong hands held her. She didn’t have to open her eyes to know who it was. Not only was it a known touch but the vanilla essence which was synonymous with Shadow, instantly calmed her down.
She felt him lift her over his shoulders as he waded through the muddy waters and before she knew, they were back in the house. She had been out for so long but the distance covered was just 5 minutes away?
Shadow put her down in the drawing-room and since the power was out he lit the lantern even as she sat on the floor hugging her legs close to her body. Now that the adrenaline had subsided she began to feel the chills. In the soft glow of the lantern she saw Shadow running around placing some polythene bags in the makeshift pantry, and then he rushed upstairs to bring a towel. He sat on his hunches in front of her and held out the towel. She grabbed it and covered herself, but the shivering continued… more due to the emotional roller coasters than the actual cold.
A little later, dressed in a clean set of clothes, she sat on Shadow’s bed, sipping on hot chocolate milk Shadow had prepared. He was dressed in loose track pants and… goodness he was shirtless, and only a towel covered his broad shoulders. He sat crosslegs facing her, and in the lumination provided by the humble lantern, his rugged features were accentuated, and she wanted nothing more than to go into his arms.
“Why Princess…? Why did you go out there… it would have been dangerous.” Shadow spoke softly as he sipped his milk.
“I was… worried about you… took long…”
“I was caught in the rain so had to wait a bit, Princess. But what you did was reckless… what if…”
“…nothing happened, right?” She interrupted him abruptly and her tone must have stunned him for he looked up at her suddenly.
“Princess…” She could see him struggle to maintain his composure. “…I knew the landscape well and with the noise you were making I could hear you and reached you right in time. What if you had… fallen and lost consciousness in the water…? Where would I… I … searched?” He rubbed his face and she felt for him.
“I… I am sorry Shadow but I… remembered…. That night of the murders…. In the fort. You saved me then too, right?” she finished her cup and placed it down, the tremors in her limbs beginning to return with a vengeance and she hugged herself.
She could see he was shocked. He looked away and finished his drink. Taking both their cups he went downstairs and returned with a thick blanket.
“There was this one blanket in the pantry. Use it… you should feel better.” He said and covered her trembling body with it.
She held the edges close trying to drive away the chill…
“Shadow? It was you that night as well…” This time she didn’t ask.
He didn’t say a word but just sat next to her his hand spread on his folded knees and his head bent.
Frustration crept up her spine at his dearth of answers and secrecy.
“Shadow, stop hiding things from me now. I am at the vortex of all this. It all began because of me witnessing the murders… But I followed my mother from what I can remember. What were you doing there?”
Lightening struck yet again and this time it was the mother of thunders that roared so hard Padma felt the vibrations pass through her shivering body. She reflexly moved closer to Shadow trying to gain some of his warmth and… more.
“You could at least tell me your given name, Shadow…” She could barely hear herself and felt him stiffen.
She realised what she just did and prepared to move away when his hand covered her shoulder and pulled her closer to him. She placed her cheek against his hard chest and felt it cold. She moved back and took off the blanket.
“Here…” she held it out to him. “… Let’s both use it.” His gesture touched her. He always sacrificed for her.
Shadow hesitated for a moment but took the blanket, and as she got closer to him, he covered them both. She felt his hand on her arm as he rubbed it, his warmth seeping into her soul. But her heart and stomach did the somersaults. After moments of silence, she looked up at him raising her chin, and he looked down into her eyes. She further turned towards him and placed her palm on his bare chest just above the heart. She felt his heart beat wildly and heard him suck in a harsh breath despite the nature’s cacophony playing its tunes outside.
He bent down and kissed her. She opened up to him and tasted the chocolate lingering on his tongue as their mouths fused. She raised her hand and pulled him closer towards her, but there was no resistance as if they were waiting for each other…
His tongue plundered her soft mouth exploring every nook and corner, sucking her lower lips, gently nipping at it while his hand pulled her closer. Her t-shirt was no barrier, and she could feel the heat where his chest met hers, blanket long forgotten. They kept kissing and she found herself sprawled on the mattress on her back with Shadow over her supporting himself on his elbow. His hand moved down towards her chest, and as he touched her globe, she bucked up above the mattress and gasped.
He released her and moved away as he stared into her eyes. She kept panting as the waves of arousal flowed through her charged body. She wanted him with every pore of her body… she wanted Shadow.
She raised her hands and held his cheeks, the feel of his stubble now her favorite texture.
He covered her hand with his. “Princess… I won’t be able to control myself tonight… We should… stop here…”
“What if… I don’t want you… to control?” she spoke, shocked at her brazen self
“Princess…” he whispered.
“Life is short Shadow… and full of uncertainty….” She blinked back tears. “… I have been in love with you for a long time… I don’t know what the future holds but for now… Shadow, I want you… I need you… please…”
Before she could complete, he slammed against her mouth. This time he wasn’t soft and pliable but as if he was the voraciously hungry and the predator in him was unleashed. Again, he wildly suched at her lips and this time he was sprawled on her, his legs on either side while she hugged his bareback, pulling him even closer.
He moved apart to remove the cloth barriers separating them and covered her mouth yet again…
His hand moved between their bodies as he fondled her soft mounds and pinched her peaks. She sprang upwards against him as the flashbulbs flew behind her lids, mimicking the onslaught of lightning. She had never felt such fireworks before.
Shadow explored her body with his hands even as she shuddered and peaked twice before he moved towards her thighs and spread them.
He looked at her and in the fading glow of the lantern she saw an expression on his face she couldn’t fathom. Buts he knew he wanted her with an equal fervor.
“Princess… it may pain…” he spoke hesitantly.
She nodded and licked her swollen lips. Before she knew he plunged inside her secret cavern, stunning her to silence, and she gasped at the intrusion. She couldn’t see him well in the dark but realized he was massive and filled her to her core.
He got back to plundering her mouth as he slid in and out of her wetness and she circled his torso with her legs. the crescendo had just begun…
The notes moved upward, tune after tune in her fogged brain as he continued with his task, and finally, he hit a spot that sent her spiraling down the precipice.
He grunted and screamed her name for the first time and she felt something warm inside her body. Once again, she was raised up and thrown downhill as he collapsed next to her, pulling her close….
Shadow got a wet cloth and cleaned her as their breathing returned to normal. He helped her dress; given the physical and emotional turmoil for the day, she had no strength remaining. He joined her on the bed, taking her into his arms dragging the lone blanket over them, and before she knew sleep took over.
This time there were no nightmares.