Flashing sparks from two clashing flintstones landed on a small mixture of powdered camel dung and dried Babul leaves to spot a steady ember in a ditch dug three feet below the ground level to hide it, for a single flash leave alone a steady fire could be spotted a mile away in such a bland and barren terrain especially in the darkest of twilights.
As the flicker turned into a flame, the man in an all-white attire of a loose-fitting long tunic, a sleeveless cloak and a distinctive headcloth kept in place by heavy woollen coils gently blew into the rising blaze adding pieces of a broken branch in it to create a little bit of light in the heart of a pitch-black and ghostly desert night.
Lighting a fire in the desert could mean life or death. On one hand, a fire meant warmth and the possibility of cooking a decent meal and on the other, it could attract robbers, bandits, and even the supernatural wandering spirits. Acrab Jabbah, however, knew what he was doing. His ditch concealed the fire pretty well.
His camel Alawaid sitting close to the ditch also created a considerably large shadow covering nearly a hundred eighty degree of any onlooking visual periphery and Acrab’s bags and gear provided the remaining cloaking coverage forming a perfect shell of impregnable darkness with a glowing fire in the middle.
The Great Indian Desert or the Thar was home to him. The man came from a lineage of highly skilled desert trackers originally from the Sinai Peninsula. Many generations ago his forefather Adib Jabbah had landed in the court of king Rawal Jaisal, the Yaduvanshi Bhati Rajput ruler who had built the fort of Jaisalmer in Anno Domini 1156.
Since then, the Jabbah’s had settled in the region and over the years their tracking services were used by the Rajputs, Moghuls and now the British who ruled this geographical domain.
The year was 1823, Lord Francis Rawdon-Hastings was the Governor-General of the British Empire in the subcontinent. Just five years back the Rajput chiefs of Rajasthan, central India, and Kathiawar finally accepted the British suzerainty. Thus, the year 1818 AD marked the watershed when the Empire of Great Britain seized total control of the Indian subcontinent.
Now the fort of Jaisalmer also known as the golden fort, a marvel of yellow sandstone, the second oldest in Rajasthan that stood at the intersection of important trade routes and the ancient silk road, irrespective of innumerable attacks and change of ownership over the centuries still was home to around a thousand households who had nowhere else to go and had seen many generations of bloodshed.
Acrab Jabbah had his ancestral home in one corner of the fort, however, the tracker spent most of his days deep in the sandy wilderness of the Thar. He would traverse the endless golden dunes on his trusted camel Alawaid, his only friend in this desolate landscape. He exactly knew where the hidden wells and the few solitary oases were. He exactly knew where and how to find food and how to survive.
The desert was unusually dark that night. There was a chilly eeriness in the air. An unearthly silence seemed to have engulfed the usual nightly noises. Only a shrill and ghostly whistling wind occasionally moved about in the atmosphere. Taking a sip of hot tea, Acrab shifted his gaze from the flickering flame and squinted his eye shut for a moment before scanning the darkness all around. For that night it was not bandits or any other earthly thing that he was afraid of, but the supernatural presence of terrorising desert wraiths.
The desert people were not afraid of men. They were warring tribes who had seen much death and bloodshed. Ghosts, ghouls, djinns, and wraiths were the only things that made them afraid. Lores of the netherworld were woven into the very fabric of the life and being of desert dwellers in this region. There were stories of innumerable unearthly incidences and supernatural occurrences that had claimed to have taken many lives since the very beginning of time in this inhospitable domain.
Now in the year 1823, the thousand families in and around the fort of Jaisalmer in the middle of the Thar desert faced an unearthly terror that was tearing up their world like nothing previously seen. It was not men, robbers, or bandits, but something unearthly which they were simply too terrorised to face.
The people said this was not the work of a single entity. It was not a solitary djinn, neither was it a singular ghost or a lonesome ghoul. They said the entities were organised, there were more than one unearthly being. The people came to call these spectral creatures – ‘Desert Wraiths,’ who had taken away fifteen children, one every night from the fort of Jaisalmer.
All the children were taken away in their sleep. In the morning other members of the house from where a child was taken, were found fast asleep beyond their usual hour of rising. They would wake up drowsy and heavy-headed not remembering much of the previous night, only to discover their child missing.
After the first few children went missing, the people got too frightened and started retreating into their houses early in the evening before the sunset and lock themselves in, praying for the wraiths to spare their house and waiting for the night of terror to finish. This did not help, and every morning one child was found missing while the family was discovered fast asleep. This went on for fifteen days and then it stopped bringing back a bit of normalcy and relief but hardly lessening the grief and pain.
Acrab was not in the fort area during the days when the children were taken. As soon as he had returned and heard about the ghostly happenings, he restocked his supplies and headed out into the desert on Alwaid’s back in search of the wraiths and possibly find the children or at least bring some closure in the minds of the suffering parents.
Everyone thought Acrab to be insane to go after the desert wraiths. Encountering them would mean sudden death. Acrab, however, had to do it, the man had a good heart and above all could never overlook an impossible tracking challenge, after all, tracking was his genetic trait. Only this time it was different, for tracking the supernatural was something he had never previously attempted.
For days Acrab travelled in every direction from the fort for miles into the deep interiors of the desert but could not spot a single sign of the missing children. Then finally one day when he had nearly given up all hope and was not very far from the fort towards the west, the tracker spotted a possible trail on which he had found two pieces of children’s clothing, a wooden toy, and few broken bangles.
Drawing an imaginary line between the spots where he found these things and then moving further towards the direction it pointed, just within two hours of tracking Acrab came to a place from where far at a distance he could see an opening on a sandy mound, like an entrance to a hidden cave. There was something so unearthly about the place, there were ruins all around and it reeked of supernatural presence.
He wondered how he had overlooked such a place, how come no one knew about it, how none of his forefathers ever spoke of it. They were trackers and were supposed to know about such places. Then he thought, well it was possible – the shifting sands of the desert had the ability to bury the present and unearth ancient places.
It was nearly night and Acrab decided not to make his move then, for the unearthly was always more powerful under the cloak of darkness. The tracker dug himself at a safe distance to light a hidden fire in a ditch to keep himself warm, eat and drink a little, sharpen his trusted rapier and make ready his flintlock musket.
For tomorrow early at the break of dawn, he would make his move and perhaps find the children in the cave and rescue them from the wraiths. He was not even certain whether they were there in the first place, and if they were there were they alive or dead. He wondered, was it even possible for him to fight the supernatural. He had to avoid a confrontation under any circumstances.
At the break of dawn as the first faint veil of light dimly lit up the sandy surface Acrab made his move. Close to the entrance of the cave, he saw human skeletons. With his rapier drawn out of the scabbard and his musket slung across his shoulder overcoming all his fear and mustering great courage the tracker stealthily entered the cave not knowing really what to expect.
After walking what seemed like a neverending path with fear and terror in the air, Acrab finally came to a spot from where he could see a glowing wood fire in the middle and all around the fire were the missing children.
Acrab was relieved that they were alive but was terrified thinking of encountering those that had brought them there. He clenched his rapier about to enter the circle, not startle the children in the best possible way and to help them escape the clutches of the evil that was perhaps lurking somewhere deeper in that very cave.
Just at that moment when Acrab was about to make his presence felt the eldest of the children spoke up saying, “friends, it seems that we have finally triumphed. It’s been a month, and no one has been able to find us to date.” Hearing these words Acrab froze in his place.
Gaining back his composure Acrab withdrew to further listen to the children’s conversation. He was stunned to learn that two kids had found this place a year back when it was revealed for the first time by a sandstorm. Over the months they had gradually shown it to the rest of their friends. After all, it was only at a distance of few hours from the fort.
Then they finally came up with an adventurous plan to leave their parents and start a life of their own in the wilderness. For months they slowly stocked the cave with their clothes, personal belongings, foods, and other things.
Then when the time came each child would drug his family the evening before the escape. One of them had stolen a special herb from his father who was a medicine man for this to happen. They knew their parents fear of wraiths would give them comfortable coverage. They had an elaborate plan to survive in the desert, get and hunt food over time. A hidden well inside the cave would provide water and they would start their own clan in this way.
Acrab came out of the cave, sheaved his rapier, and relaxed his muscles and walked back to where he had kept Alwaid. Covering up the fire pit with sand and mounting himself and his gear on his trusted camel the tracker rode away thinking what should he tell the parents.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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