The Missing Chapter:
The tale that Lizzie Blaylock recounts to her audiences during the early séances in The Bridge of Dead Things is loosely based on the true story of Padmini of Chittaurgarh and the Sultan Ala-ud-din. Although originally included in the novel as part of the séance that Mrs Thorne attends, it was later cut because it interfered with the drama and pace of Lizzie’s own story. Here, though, is that narrative in full.
TO FIRE I RETURNED
LONG, LONG AGO, some say as long as a thousand years before my birth, four mighty clans of warriors rode out of the north on horseback, leaving behind them their ancestral lands, the flat, grassy plains of central Asia. Collectively they were known as Rajputs—"sons of princes"—for, even though they were constantly at war with each other, each clan could trace its ancestry back to one of the four princely children to be conceived by the sun and moon at the very instant of creation. The first clan was descended from the wind, the second from the earth, the third from water. But the fourth—my clan—we came from fire. And that is why I say, "I came from fire—and to fire I returned".
Soon the north of India had split into a dozen warring kingdoms, each of them governed by the descendants of these four original clans. Mine was the kingdom of Chittaurgarh, a city fortress high atop a rocky plateau in the southern-most reaches of the Rajput territories.
Chittaurgarh was a colossal fortress. It needed to be. Fifty thousand people lived and worked within its walls. It stood guard over some of the richest farmland in all of India. One only had to gaze down from its battlements to appreciate how great a prize it was. Fields of yellow wheat and low growing henna-plant, copper-coloured lentils and blood-red poppies abounded as far as the eye could see, along with oceans of billowing sesame, its enormous husky pods fairly brimming with seed. But most precious of all were the tracts of woody pepper vines, whose highly-prized fruits would dry as hard and hot and black as the tears of Shiva. This was the land my people had fought for. This was the land they had won.
Then something happened to make the Rajput kingdoms put aside their trivial differences. Out of the west came an enemy against whom we all stood united. An enemy who pillaged our cities and burned our temples, who brought with them new beliefs and imposed them with an iron hand—whose coming, it had been foretold, would bring about the onset of Kali Yuga. Kali Yuga—the age of darkness—the last and least righteous of the four ages that go to make up the great wheel of time.
The first to come was Muhammad of Ghori, a hundred years before I was born. He was defeated at the town of Ajmer by the Chauhan clan in a glorious battle, but he refused to accept his defeat. Muhammad returned with a much stronger army and fought his way east towards the city of Delhi, which he managed to take by force. But then the fates turned against him. Within hours of capturing the city, Muhammad met his death at the hand of one of his untrustworthy generals: a man named Qutb-ud-in. Before the night was out, all of Qutb-ud-in's rivals were dead too, and Qutb-ud-in had crowned himself the new Sultan of Delhi.
Over the years, this Sultan and his descendants made various assaults on towns and kingdoms from the toehold he had gained, and much of central, eastern and western India came under their control. But never Rajput lands. Any victories in our territories were always fleeting. At least, that was the case until the notorious Ala-ud-in Khalji came to power.
Ala-ud-in was the fiercest and most dangerous of all these Sultans. He hated the Rajputs with a vengeance. And the year I turned fifteen, he marched his army south to besiege my city. I was the young wife of the Maharana of Chittaurgarh, the great Mewar ruler, Rawal Rattan Singh. He and I were cousins who had been promised to each other at birth in order to protect and seal our respective bloodlines, but actually I loved Rawal dearly, even though we didn't always see eye-to-eye.
The day Ala-ud-in marched his army up to our gates is a case in point. It was my sister's twelfth birthday, yet my husband stubbornly refused to join in the celebrations. He considered attending a children's party beneath his dignity.
We'd all been having a wonderful time. There'd been presents and games in the afternoon, then, as the evening drew in, everybody rushed up to the rooftop to set up for a night of feasting and entertainment. My sisters and I ran around lighting hundreds of oil lamps while great platters of food were sent up from the kitchens. Fire-eaters and jugglers took up their positions as the guests began to arrive, and the court musicians struck up a raga in honour of the setting sun.
Suddenly the music died away. I thought perhaps Rawal had relented and come to join the party—and so he had, for when I looked up I saw him standing by the parapet— but that was not why the music had stopped. Nobody was paying him the slightest attention—they were too busy staring into the sunset. I shaded my eyes and scanned the horizon. Then I saw it: a massive cloud of dust, out to the west.
Such a sight could mean only one thing—an army on horseback. And judging by the size of the dust-cloud, an enormous army, at that!
For one whole minute, nobody moved. We were just too shocked. Then a cry went up, "Shut the gates! Shut the gates!"
All night long we watched as a forest of flaming torches drew ever closer, eventually fanning out to form a river of fire around the base of our plateau. By dawn we could see the smoke rising from a thousand camp-fires. If each fire represented, say, twenty soldiers—quite a modest number, really—then we were facing an army of twenty thousand men. If they represented more, I dreaded to think what the future might hold.
As we watched, a solitary figure detached itself from the main encampment and made its way along the steep approach up to the fortress's gates. Just below me, from within the rampart walls, a group of swallows dislodged themselves from their makeshift nests and took flight. A sharp pounding of wings, then everything went still. The world about us fell silent. Down below, the figure stood poised before the entrance.
Instinctively I reached for my husband's hand, but Rawal brushed me aside. Even that faint sigh of flesh against flesh sounded deafening to my ears. The lone figure looked up, watchful, alert, listening. "Rawal Rattan Singh, Maharana of Chittaurgarh!" came the man's cry. "I am Ala-ud-in Khalji, Sultan of Delhi!"
Rawal drew a deep breath and leaned forward over the parapet. "And what does a Sultan of Delhi want with me?" he bellowed back.
A moment's pause before the answer: "I have heard it said by men who are far older and wiser than I am that your wife's beauty is considered to be beyond compare. I have come to see for myself if this is true. Just one glimpse, and I shall take my army and go."
I stepped back too quickly from the rampart's edge and found myself stumbling. My sisters caught me by my arms and held me steady.
"My wife's undoubted beauty is none of your affair," shouted Rawal. "And I do not think that it takes an army the size of yours to help you judge her merits. Know this, Ala-ud-in of Delhi: you will never set eyes on my wife for as long as you live; of that you can be certain. This fortress has withstood invasion for over five hundred years; I have every confidence that it can hold out against the likes of you."
Another silence, and then came the Sultan's reply: "I have no intention of attacking your city, Rattan Singh. Why should I, when I can simply sit here and wait? You'll change your mind. When your people are dying of hunger all about you, you will change your mind."
"But what are we to do?" I asked Rawal when at last we were alone together.
"Hush, child; there's no need to worry. Chittaurgarh is an impregnable fortress—the mountain springs give us an endless supply of water and we have enough food stored away to last us months. Let Ala-ud-in camp out there if he wants to. He's going to have a very long wait."
And so time passed. Every night we would light fires along the battlements, and musicians would play and the women would dance in plain sight of the enemy. Rawal wanted the Sultan to see how little affected we were by his army's presence. But as the days turned to weeks, and the weeks became months, our food supplies did indeed begin to dwindle.
"Your strategy hasn't worked, Rawal. The Sultan is still out there, growing fat off our crops while our people go hungry."
"What do you expect me to do, Padmini? Go and gather the crops in myself?"
"I expect you to take charge of the situation!‟ I snapped back.
"Please don't let's argue," he said. "If we argue, then the Sultan has already won."
"It would be easier not to argue if I had some food in my stomach!"
"I know," replied Rawal, "I know."
Now we threw scraps over the walls—anything we could spare in an effort to make the enemy think that we still had plenty to eat, though nothing could have been further from the truth. We watched with empty bellies as wild dogs fought over the last of our scraps. And still the Sultan did not budge.
What were we to do? Our people were weak and plagued with illness. It was only a matter of time before we all starved to death.
"Why can't we just let him see me?" I begged of Rawal. "If he sees me, perhaps he'll keep his promise and leave us alone."
"Do you really believe that?"
"No. No, I don't. But it's worth a try, isn't it? I mean, what harm could it do?"
"I swore that this man would never set eyes on you!"
"I know you did. But this is not the time for foolish pride."
"Enough!" Rawal growled angrily. "You have my answer."
It was my twelve-year-old sister, Lakshmi, who came up with the plan. If Rawal was too stubborn to let the Sultan see me, then why not let the man look upon her instead? He wasn't know the difference. With a little make-up and some judicious padding, she was sure she could pass for a girl of fifteen.
"It will be dangerous," I warned her. "We have no way of knowing what this Ala-ud-in Khalji may be like."
"Oh, sister, don't fret so! When he sees that I'm not especially beautiful, he's bound to lose interest in me at once."
"All the same, I would be a lot happier if I were on hand to protect you."
"But you can be!" Lakshmi cried, clapping her hands with delight. "We could dress you up as my maid-servant! You could sit quietly in a corner with your face hidden behind a veil!"
It was an ingenious solution and even Rawal could see the beauty of it, for it skirted his main objection—that the Sultan should not see me—and allowed his sense of honour to remain intact. He rankled, however, at the idea that I would still be present at the interview. Technically, it meant that the Sultan could see me, despite the disguise, and Rawal was having none of that. All three of us argued deep into the night until at last a compromise was reached.
Leading off our private suite of rooms was a central courtyard, a tranquil space with an ornamental lotus pool at its heart. In the middle of this pool there was a tented pavilion that appeared to be floating on the water's surface. In reality, the tent was erected on an tiny island, the same shape and dimensions as the tent itself.
It was decided that Lakshmi should appear in the doorway of this pavilion, as the pool would provide a natural barrier between her and the Sultan, and that I could remain in attendance, provided that I dressed as a handmaiden and kept myself hidden out of sight. As regards Lakshmi's safety, I would be able to follow the Sultan's every move in a mirror (for there was a large, oval mirror sewn into the back inside wall of the tent), and, like Rawal, I too would be armed with a knife in case anything went wrong.
It was a truly splendid plan—or so we all believed at the time.
I had assumed that the Sultan would be accompanied by a retinue—a team of bodyguards, at the very least—but in the event, he came alone. He arrived as the sun reached its highest point in the sky, with the light glancing off the wet lily pads in blinding swathes.
"You look perfect," I whispered to Lakshmi as the sound of Rawal greeting him reached us across the water, though in reality she looked more like a child to me than ever. I watched as she gnawed at her finger. Nothing I'd achieved with kohl and henna had managed to disguise her real age. Would it be so noticeable at a distance in the sunlight's glare? I prayed not.
I sat myself down in the confines of the tent with my back pressed against the canvas by the entrance. Somewhere nearby, I could hear a dragonfly hovering. I peered into the mirror on the wall and managed to find its darting reflection. And then I saw him, Ala-ud-in, also reflected in the glass.
He was younger than I'd expected—younger than Rawal, certainly—quite possibly still in his teens, in fact. Oh, but his eyes…
Ala-ud-in's eyes were the colour of emeralds. Living, burning emeralds. They seemed so alive and yet so tired! Tired of battle, tired of bloodshed, tired of games. They might have been eyes that had once looked upon the face of God and had survived.
"Padmini!" Rawal's voice broke my chain of thought and I gave an involuntary gasp. At that same moment, I felt Ala-ud-in‟s gaze focus upon me in the mirror. I hadn't realised until then that if I could see his reflection, he could see mine, too.
Yes, husband?‟ Lakshmi called back, stepping into the doorway on cue.
"There is someone here who has travelled a long way to meet you."
Lakshmi bowed her head coyly. From my vantage-point, I noticed that she was beginning to enjoy herself.
"Padmini, this is Ala-ud-in Khalji, the Sultan of Delhi."
"This is indeed an honour," Lakshmi replied modestly, raising her eyes for an instant.
"The honour is all mine," said the Sultan in a voice as refreshing as milk.
"So, Sultan, is my wife as beautiful as you were led to believe?"
In the mirror, I saw Ala-ud-in gauging my sister's figure. Then he spoke: "Do you know, until this moment, I'd had half a mind to steal your wife from you and take her as my own. While it's true that she is undoubtedly beautiful, she is far—far—too young for me." I could detect a new note amidst the flattery, a note of distinct distaste.
"You set my mind at rest,‟ Rawal replied glibly, his words tumbling out too soon and sounding rehearsed.
"Good," said the Sultan. "Then you can have no objection if I ask your wife's maid-servant to step forward…the young woman I spied in the mirror?"
Now it was Rawal's turn to gasp. I heard another sharp intake of air, too, as Lakshmi raised her head.
"After all," continued the Sultan, seemingly oblivious to their concern, "it's not as if you can lay claim to the affections of your wife's lowly handmaiden…"
The glint of Rawal's knife-blade flashed in the glass. An arm shot up, caught my husband's wrist and held his weapon at bay. I pulled Lakshmi to me and we huddled behind the tent flap, watching wide-eyed in the mirror as the men grappled and fought.
Suddenly Rawal stumbled and I cried out. Once again I caught sight of Ala-ud-in's eyes, staring straight from the glass into mine. I saw Rawal's face, too—a mask of utter rage and despair. Ala-ud-in spun him around and, with one quick twist, wrenched my husband's arm behind his back and brought his very own dagger to his throat.
"No! Please! Do not harm him!" I cried, leaping to the doorway of the tent.
"Padmini! Stay back!‟ wailed Rawal.
Pressing the knife-tip against my husband's throat, Ala-ud-in stared placidly at me across the water. "Tell me," he said, "who is this man to you?"
"He is my husband."
"Then you are Padmini of Chittaurgarh? The real Padmini? Why, you're even more beautiful than they say. And do you love this man?"
"Yes! With all my heart, yes!"
Some curious emotion which I could not fathom flitted across the Sultan's face. Those eyes, those perfect eyes, wavered for an instant.
"Then for you, Princess, I will set him free. I will leave Chittaurgarh and return to Delhi."
Had I heard him right? Was the Sultan offering to leave?
"In return," Ala-ud-in continued, gazing across the mirror-bright water, "all I ask is that you come willingly with me to be my bride."
"No!" screamed Rawal. "I would rather pluck out my own eyes than see you rob me of my wife! I would rather die at your hands this very minute than suffer such dishonour!"
"You have till tomorrow's sunrise to make your decision," Ala-ud-in called out as he dragged my husband away. "Till then, Rawal Rattan Singh remains my guest. Choose wisely, Padmini of Chittaurgarh. Your husband's life depends upon it."
The next day, I rose before dawn. I dressed in mourning-robes of pure white linen and made my way down to the city‟s gates. There I was met by a most unusual sight: five hundred gaily decorated palanquins—silk-covered litters, sporting colours and pennants that flapped uncontrollably in the breeze. Each of these litters was carried by six brawny men, with another four disguised as handmaidens inside every tented cabin. Long, flowing saris concealed deadly, unsheathed swords; delicate, shimmering veils hid murderous looks. I quickly took my place at the head of the procession and off we set: down through the gates of the city into the camp of our foe.
"I see you have brought an entourage." Ala-ud-in's voice floated across the dry, withered field on the wind. I could see my captive husband at the young man's side, his head yanked back and a knife at his throat. "Do I take it you have reached a sensible decision, Padmini of Chittaurgarh?"
"I am a Rajput princess, Ala-ud-in," I answered him. "I am a daughter of the sun and moon. I choose death before dishonour, always. You will never have me."
For one small instant, Rawal appeared to have jerked his head free. I saw his eyes meet mine full of burning pride. Then he sunk to his knees, the Sultan's blade having worked its dreadful miracle.
Immediately my company of warriors sprang forth from their carriages. Every lowly litter-bearer drew a sword and launched into attack.
The fighting was quick and bloody. Nothing went our way. Despite our prodigious numbers, we were out-ranked and out-classed from the very start. Realising our fate, I raised a conch shell to my lips and blew a rallying call. Those who were still alive regrouped around me and I gave the order to retreat. Swords clashed in the dust as this small group inched its way back towards the gates. Only when the bolts had rammed home did I see that Rawal was still with us—and, amazingly, still alive. Someone had carried his dying body through the heat of battle. He was fatally wounded, however, his lifeblood draining away as we watched.
"Take the women," he gurgled. "Get them to the cave, the one you used to play in as a child. They'll be safe there; you can barricade yourselves in…"
"What happened?" asked Lakshmi, staring in horror at his throat. The wives and sweethearts of the soldiers who lay dead outside broke into a low, animal wails as they began to grasp the reality of the situation.
"Your Highness!" came a cry from the battlements. "They're attacking the city!"
Blows rang out, each one more furious than the last. Mere feet away, the sturdy iron gates started to shudder and squeal. This was no time to mourn.
"Quick!" I cried, drawing the women to me. "We need to get away from here. Do you remember the cave? The one near the reservoir? Go there! Now!"
We raced through the streets every-which-way—a thousand of us—heading up the hill towards higher ground. As we approached the cliff face where water gushed from a spigot, I sent up a brief prayer to the goddess Parvati. "Help us," I cried, though my voice was drowned out by the screams and shouts behind me. There, beside the deep tank that supplied the city with water, stood an entrance in the rock.
"Quick! Inside! All of you!" The mouth of the cave was small and narrow, but it soon opened out into an enormous chamber. Light filtered down from the ceiling through a network of holes—some little, some substantially larger—where the ground above had given way through centuries of erosion. In some places you could see exposed tree roots hanging in mid-air; in others, whole trees had fallen through, brought down by their own treacherous weight.
"Gather rocks, gather wood," I cried, "anything you can find. We need to block up the entrance."
All of us set to work with one objective. Every boulder that had ever fallen from above, every log, every stick, every pebble soon formed an impenetrable barrier between us and the enemy. As I gazed proudly at what we'd achieved, I saw something bright and shiny streak past my right cheek. A flame no bigger than my fist. Then came another. And another.
Before I could even make sense of what I was seeing, fire had taken hold of the bone-dry tinder we had used to barricade ourselves in and was now beginning to spread.
"Padmini of Chittaurgarh!"
I spun around, searching for the source of the voice.
"Up here!" High above me, framed in one of the potholes, Ala-ud-in gazed down with a flaming arrow readied in his bow.
"Save yourself, Padmini of Chittaurgarh!" I stared in disbelief as he began to lower a silken ladder for me. Its delicate skeins glistened as it twirled in the dusty, smoky shafts of light.
"Climb up!" he shouted.
Behind me, a frenzy of women was trying to deal with the blaze. They threw handfuls of soil to smother the flames, but to no avail. Thick, noxious fumes snaked their way around the walls, then shot high into the air, caught in the massive up-draught created by the potholes. We had created the most perfect bonfire in the world, in the world's most perfect chimney, and nothing—nothing—was going to extinguish it. To make matters worse, the stones, which were now red hot, were beginning to explode in the heat, flinging their burning fragments at us with terrifying abandon. It was a useless, impossible situation and yet a thousand pairs of eyes were staring at me expectantly, begging me to find an answer.
"Padmini, climb up!"
Did I know what I was about to suggest? Did I know what I was going to ask these women to do? God help me, maybe I did. I glanced at the ladder. What other choice did we have? To return to the world and be taken by our enemies? To live out our lives with men who were not our husbands, who had murdered our husbands, who would look on us as spoils of war? To be enslaved by them for ever?
"You know what we must do," I said quietly, gazing into that sea of bewildered faces.
"Jauhar," whispered Lakshmi in a faltering voice. "Death before dishonour."
"Yes," said another, spurred on by Lakshmi's boldness, "jauhar. They may have taken our city, they may have killed our men, but they will never take us. Since the gods see fit to give us fire, let us not waste it."
"Yes, yes!" came the echoed response as each of the women discovered a final shred of courage deep within their hearts.
"Then let it be my honour to lead you," I said proudly. And with that, I pulled my veil tight about my face, and, chanting verses from the holy Vedas, I led the way slowly towards the flames. "Om bhur bhuvah swahah…"
"Padmini, no!" shouted the Sultan.
The raging heat burned like a furnace, blistering my skin and forcing me back against my will. I closed my eyes to the pain and edged myself forward. "Om bhur bhuvah swahah…"
"Om bhur bhuvah swahah…"
Death before dishonour. There was no other way. What is there left to tell? The Sultan Ala-ud-in was furious. When He-whose-eyes-had-looked-on-God saw that his prize had been wrenched from him, he laid waste to the city, destroying our temples and razing my palace to the ground. He marched his army away, never to return. In private, he always spoke of Chittaurgarh as a defeat. Later he refused to talk about it at all, even in the company of his closest friends.
The story of my courage, and the courage of those thousand women who perished alongside me that day, lived on in the hearts and minds of Rajputs down through the ages. It made us more determined than ever not to give up the fight.
So you ask where I come from?—and I say this: I came from fire, and to fire I returned.