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TIKRI AND TOSHKA

BY WILLIAM TINK


“All are welcome at the temple.”


The door attendant smiled at the people in the queue ahead. They wore old sheepskins, ragged cloth tied about their heads. Like us.


His voice was loud, but silky smooth. Behind him stood the statue of his falcon-headed god.


Not our God, but he must not know that.


I held Toshka close to me, my right thigh pressed against her left. It was morning; the desert chill had gone.


She was smaller, darker than me—cropped black hair. I loved her like no other.


Men of the temple lined the queue, smiling, but keeping order. I grinned at one as we passed. Respectful, despite the ridiculous feathered head-dress he wore. He bowed his head, casting his eyes over us. They rested on Toshka.


Large, feathered wings flew overhead. Distracted, the man glanced first at the falcon, then to the door attendant. He saluted his superior.


I looked ahead, glad that his attention was no longer on us.



***



“All are welcome at the temple,” the attendant repeated when we reached him.


“Thank you,” I replied nervously.


He raised an eyebrow.


“You are family?” he enquired.


“Sisters.”


A lie. A necessary one. I hated suborning ourselves before the falcon god, but we needed to know that food would be on the table.


“From far away?”


My stomach tightened. The attendant had already taken more interest in us than any of the other queuers. I swallowed my fear.


“Wali Basant,” I replied. That was true, and I hoped it wouldn’t prejudice our case.


“All are welcome at the temple,” the attendant concluded quickly. He hurried us through.



***


Toshka was silent. She couldn’t speak the falcon god’s tough, phlegmatic language, and held my hand close as we passed through the carved sandstone arch into the temple’s entrance hall. The walls rose several heights of man above our heads, shading us from the sunlight. I admired the wall paintings—to our left, vibrant scenes of a giant falcon, in flight, pursuing gold-leafed gazelle and stocky bison shaded in a dark chestnut hue. Toshka kept her gaze at her feet.


“Chin up!” I exclaimed in our own language.


She mumbled something about fear. I left her to her thoughts and guided her through bright painted scenes, through which the falcon transitioned to a god in human form.


Another queue formed ahead. We could see a snippet of the temple complex through the second sandstone arch. Huge pillars—far taller and thicker than the walls that presently sheltered us. Sheets of sun rays illuminated smooth limestone walkways that teamed with people.


More people than I was expecting. More chance of anonymity.


“Please,” someone wheezed, “Scraps of food? Praying for your generosity.”


I glanced to our left and saw a wizened face behind a curtain of long black hair, the ends turning grey. A boney hand stretched out to a nervous or distracted audience. The queue ignored her. I resolved to do the same.


Toshka stopped walking, rooting me. She reached into a small bag at her waste.


“Tosh,” I scolded her, “What are you doing?”


She pulled out a dried fish, meat still clinging to its backbone.


“We may need that for the temple,” I insisted.


Wordless, she pulled away. She handed the fish to the woman, who smiled up at her, betraying a number of missing teeth. I watched, aghast, as her boney fingers grasped at Toshka’s wrists.


“More, more!” she croaked, in the falcon god’s language.


I left the queue to try to bat her away.


Toshka was calm. She fixed the woman with her emerald eyes, shook her head once from side to side.


“It is all I have,” she said in our native tongue.


The woman looked at her blankly, but then a man of the temple arrived, bearing a stave. She let Toshka go.


“Do not hurt her,” Toshka shouted at the man, but he did not understand her. He razed the stave. Toshka reached her little arms and grabbed the weapon to restrain him. I grabbed her by the shoulders.


“Toshka, what are you doing?”


My face felt red now. Toshka’s shoulders were tense, her neck showing beads of sweat.


Three more men poured through the second doorway into the complex, brushing past the queue.


“Tosh!” I hissed again, but it was too late. They grabbed her around the middle, pulling her under the first man, and away from me.


I screamed. A mistake—but nothing compared to what Toshka had done. Should I follow her?


To my shame, fear rooted me to the spot. The men carrying Toshka hustled through the queue and out of sight. I turned to the cudgel bearer, who stayed behind.


“Where are you taking her?” I demanded.


He shrugged.


“She abused the hospitality of the temple,” he observed airily, “Unless you wish to be seen to be doing the same, that is not your business.”


He left me then, and a hole in my heart formed as it sank in that Toshka had also gone. Been taken. And I had been too weak to stop them.


I turned to chastise the old woman who had caused this mess, but she, too, had gone.



***



A minute passed. I elbowed my way to the front of the queue. Angry muttering followed.


Foreigner.


One of the words I dreaded.


I ignored it; Toshka was more important.


But my entreaties proved useless.


“All are welcome in the temple,” the second attendant said, “Though you are advised to follow the rules, and to wait your turn.” Their smiles were all the same. What looked like kindness then was haughty and officious now.


He gestured back to my spot in the queue, past the rows of disapproving faces.


I protested weakly, but my resolve fell away when another man returned, bearing a cudgel in his hand. I waited my turn.



***



I handed the man a linen pouch—four wrinkled dates, browny-mauve, glistened like crude cut jewels.


“It is not much,” I admitted. Distractedly, I looked for any sign of Toshka, or any cudgel wielding officials. The attendant studied the bag curiously in the absence of my attention.


“It is not,” he agreed, “But then you are very poor.”


He looked me up and down, confirming his statement with eyebrows raised in high brown arches. And a tut.


“In you go,” he instructed, “For that is what we are for. All are welcome at the temple.”


I wasted no time. I was glad to be rid of him. Where was Toshka?



***



It was a large space, airy and open. We were sheltered from the sun by ceiling canopies of long, tightly bound reeds suspended above vast cylindrical columns. There were places where there were no reeds—people lay on benches or on the stone ground to soak up the rays of the sun.


Ahead, past all of the columns, an enormous statue of the falcon god, the biggest yet, looked down at the scene.


I trembled as I met his jet black eyes. Even from this distance, I felt like he could see into my soul.


All are welcome at the temple, except you—false, fickle foreigner.


I walked into a man—stumbled, surprised and embarrassed.


“I’m sorry!” I exclaimed, and he apologised almost in unison. He stopped and registered what must have been my obvious distress. Tears that I hadn’t realised I had started to cry.


“You are new here?” he assumed, and I nodded. He smiled sympathetically, and I confided that I had lost my friend.


“Then I will help you find her,” he said.



***



He led me across through the shaded parts of the temple, left, scanning about him methodically as he did so. He asked for Toshka’s description, and I gave it. Emerald eyes, dark skin, close cut black hair.


A single earing of a pouncing cat etched in topaz.


“We will find her,” he assured me.


We pushed through the crowds, past the painted colonnades and the gaggles of densely packed, slow moving people. A bright, unpainted wooden door was set into a wall in the far corner of the complex. There were fewer people here, more space to breath.


“Come this way. I have a friend who might help.”


Stupidly, I followed him through the door.


He shut it behind me. There was a faint and unpleasant aroma here. Metallic. A hint of rot.


Another door lay closed before us—heavier wood. He pushed it open.


“Where are you taking me?”


The smell was stronger now. Of rotting meat. Of death.


I turned, but he caught by the wrist and dragged me through. The door slammed behind us. I screamed, and wrestled, and cried, as we plunged into semi darkness. It was a thick door. The room had thick walls, a heavy set ceiling that blocked all sunlight. The only glimmer was a red-orange haze coming from the next room ahead. The smell of cooking.


Someone emerged from that room—burning torch in hand. An old man, with long straggling grey hair down the right side of his face. His left eye missing, as if pecked out.


“Aye!” he growled, “Another one!”


“Easy pickings.” The younger man, who had brought me in, released me, letting fall in a bundle of hysteria and despair on the warm stone floor.


Another one? Toshka has been to this place? Maybe it isn’t a lie.


“What—happens here?” I sobbed up at the older man.


He grinned—like the begging woman, he had several missing teeth.


“Where do you think the food comes from?”


My throat dried up. Was he joking?


He shook his head, incredulous. I wailed.


Through fear for myself. But also…


“Toshka.”


My yelp echoed between the stone walls.


The fire—furnace, it must have been—suddenly dimmed in the next room. The older man glanced back through the door. He pointed to his colleague behind me, and then to me.


“Excuse me—” he snarled, his malicious smile suddenly gone. He stepped inside the room that glowed, muttering to himself.


I rose from the floor.


“Don’t move.”


The younger man’s threat fell flat, for we were both distracted suddenly by a change in the light. The fire next door was suddenly much brighter, even than it had been when I arrived. I heard a crackle of fire.


I felt sick.


Footsteps clattered on the hot stone. Amplified—I was so close to the ground.


I stared down at the grainy stone floor. I did not see this as my fate. And where was Toshka? She couldn’t be…


The soles of rushing shoes scraped to a halt less than a yard from my bowed head. I dared not face my doom.


“You?” the trickster who had brought me here exclaimed.


Not the old man.


I looked up. My face flushed hot with fury.


“You?”


The woman from the queue. The beggar. She who had preyed on Toshka’s generosity. Who had caused me to be led here.


I rose to my feet. The trickster did not try to stop me.


“You masterminded this whole thing?”


She looked past me. As she did so, I looked closer at her. Her face was strangely uneven. One half was smooth, skin young and supple. The other, the left half that we had seen before, wrinkled and weathered. A woman of experience.


“Your friend did me a good turn,” she answered, fixing her eyes on the man behind me. “She convinced me you were worth saving.”


“I’m not sold,” she added.


The man behind me fumbled with something at his belt. I jolted as he grabbed my wrist with his free hand.


She grabbed my other. I ducked out of the way, instinctively, as some unspoken power rippled through the air between us. Then the air was sucked back in. I watched, speechless, as the man stood, poised and paralysed, a crude stone knife in his left hand. Quickly, his skin began to flake away. His eyeballs—wide and terrified, dried and turned to salt, falling as if from a broken timer.


It took less than a minute for his dismembered bones to clatter to the floor.


I turned and stared at her. I had averted my gaze until now. For a few seconds, her whole face looked wizened and her hair a steely grey. Quickly, black returned to her scalp and spread down her hair. The right side of her face mellowed, to that of a woman not much older than me.


“Where is Toshka?” I asked, in shock.


She looked put out.


“A thank you would have sufficed.”


I apologised, giving her the thanks she asked for. Then again, more sincerely, for she had saved my life.


“Toshka?” I asked again.


“Patience,” she replied. She tutted, running her left index finger over a long curved nail on her right hand.


“Your friend is safe,” she continued. “What remains is for you to be the same.”


She stepped closer, into my space. I could feel her breath, cool, if not cold, on the nape of my neck.


“So long as you can be trusted to keep what transpired here to yourself.”


I agreed without hesitation.


“Take my hand.”


“Who are you?” I asked.


“Your guardian angel,” she replied with a smile, pausing to kick the dust off her shoes.


“Or, at least, to your little Toshka. There is work ahead for you yet.”


She clicked her fingers, glaring into the furnace room with irises bright. The fire went out.


“Let’s get out of this evil place.”


 

William Tink was born in Felixstowe in Suffolk, where he developed his love of writing, nurtured by the talented educators who guided him through primary and secondary education. He is now a secondary school teacher, based in Surrey, pursuing his writing alongside teaching History to 13 to 18 year olds. William lives with his partner and his cat.


© Tikri and Toshka, 2023, William Tink

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