“Run you dogs! She is a girl for crying out loud! How far could she have gone!?” Basil bellowed. The night is dark but he is darker and when he strides on ahead, his muscles ripple, his hefty frame sliding surprisingly easily between the trees as he leads the search party. “Find her or you all pay the price of her escape!”
Laila hustles on forward, nursing a small bundle of cloth closer to her heart as she hunches down against the hollowing wind. There are thorns in her feet, her cheeks bleed from slipping in the mud but she pushes on. The voices are getting closer. Suddenly, a small fist emanates from the bundle of cloth and Gulbadan cries in her tiny voice. “Hush, Beti, hush. Maa is right here for now. You are safe my little angel. Maa will make sure of it..Hush”, she croons softly. She stops for a little while and swings the baby a bit to get her to calm down. Six months ago, she wouldn’t have dreamed she would be anywhere without Abdullah, that she would even live on while Abdullah moved to the next world. She had never thought in her wildest dreams that it would come to this; that she would have to do this to save Gul’s life but the maternal instinct takes over her and she springs back on her feet and pushes on. Her body aches but only when she stops to think about it. Then she sees it. A flicker of light in the distance. She feels the hope resurge again and she picks up speed.
“Maa will get you to safety, Gul.” She kisses the top of her daughter’s head.
Suddenly she hears him. She could have identified his voice over a din. The same raspy tone, the same chewed out words. Basil was closer then she thought. He had the instinct of a blood hound and he would have smelled her out, she knew. She depended on that but his speed stopped her in her track. She realizes she would never make it to the hut. She makes a quick decision. She hugs Gul one last time and then places her under the mulberry tree. “Gul, you have to live. For maa and baba’s sake. So that maa can die with peace. Maa will watch over you always, like baba does now, like your Jaad does from heaven. You are a fighter so fight! Live, my child so Maa can die happy!” her tears wash down the slush on her face and Gul coos nonchalantly. Laila covers her with leaves and then she takes one steadying breath and makes her way with definite sure steps to Basil. She smiles with a ghostly calmness. She knows she has won her war.
Basil lends the punch squarely in her ribs and all the air goes out of Laila’s lungs with a whoosh. He smiles with satisfaction. He had wanted to do this since the day he set eyes on her. Laila doubles over and screams in pain, the intensity of the blow cracking her rib and sending her spiraling down on her feet. Basil yanks her thick black hair and drags her all the way back to the tent he had perched in a clearing after he sensed Laila’s presence around. He wanted to do this part in the comfort of his camp. He smiles which makes him even uglier and then pulls Laila harder. She has fainted from the pain but he will revive her for the next part. Yes, he is going to enjoy this. It was like hashish to him, he was drunk on power and what satisfaction inflicting pain brought him, nothing in the universe could. It quadrupled when he had a rare beauty on his hands, a body so full of curves and as soft as a petal. Yes, this was long overdue and he will savor every moment of it. He smiles and his soldiers shudder. The wind howls in Laila’s pain.
“You will be the death of me, my love” Abdullah says again as he strokes her face and this time Laila pays no attention to the words; she is mesmerized by his magnificence which seems to have doubled. “Laila..” someone slaps her into wakefulness and she cringes, not from the pain but at the abruptness of Abdullah’s disappearance. Basil, in all his viciousness, is staring at her and a shudder creeps down her spine. Every time she breathes, it is as if a knife slices through her body. Sensing that she has registered the broken rib, Basil lifts her tunic and presses down hard on the point of impact. A scream rakes her body as she arches her back and Basil laughs in pleasure. He pulls her up to his face and his breath blows back her hair.
“Your face I can’t carve because you are Sheikh’s property but he wouldn’t mind a few concealed blows, now, would he?” Laila squirms but he is too powerful to even give an inch. He lets go of her hair and grabs both her wrists in one hand. “I am a little different from the Sheikh. You see, like him, I admire beauty but only when I think of things I can do to make it into something repulsive.” He snickers as Laila lets out a sob. “Yes, please cry. I want to relish every moment of your ache. The night is still young and I have you to myself for long enough.” He smoothen the lone strand of her hair that lies over her right eye, like a butcher stroking his lamb one last time before he goes in for the kill. He sees fear in the big black eyes of her and his spirit sores. “It’s about time..” he mutters. He lets her slip to the floor and she looks up meekly waiting her fate. Laila knows this look. It’s the look of lust and fervor and she readies herself for a sexual assault but what follows surprises her. Basil kicks her again and then lashes her with his whip. She is too shocked at first to understand but when he continues without stopping, she caves in and lets out a shriek. For what seems an eternity, Basil works her body with his fists, using her as a human punching bag until she can’t bear the pain anymore. She thinks of Baba, Abdullah and lastly of Gul. It won’t be long now, she thinks. She is going to be in Abdullah’s embrace soon and Baba is going to be there to kiss her again and Gul is going to be safe. She has won and the mere thought draws a smile on her pretty face. Basil stops for a split second and then with a new surge of energy, perhaps from the anguish that her smile sparked, he picks her up and throws her down. Laila is too disoriented to feel that. She is in her happy place. Yes, victory is a brand new feeling.
She hears voices but she can’t make them out. They talk in hushed tones. She tries to concentrate, tries to rise out of murky green depths of oblivion but it’s too much and she slips out again.
This time, she dreams of the day Abdullah took her to the secret hide out. He had been coming here for a long time now and this was cull-de-sac of his dreams. He had sketched with a piece of coal on the walls of the cove. Laila can make out silhouettes of a lady in different posses and she squints for a better view. “It’s you. All of them. It’s you after I first saw you at the well”, Abdullah caresses her hand and she inhales sharply. He loved her before she even knew of him. She was lucky indeed; marrying for Baba’s sake but falling head long in love with this fair skinned man she hadn’t known of before. She reaches out and touches the figurine as she basks in the glory of his love. He was hers. If there ever could be a paradise on earth, it was here in their secret cove above the river on the rocky cliff. She couldn’t love any man more then she loved her husband, maybe even more then Baba. They may not be rich but she was the princess of Abdullah’s heart and this was every woman’s kingdom of dreams. Laila was in heaven.
She is told that she slept for three days. She doesn’t remember anything after Basil’s tent. She is calm and finally at peace. Gulbadan would have been found and no one could have resisted her innocence and turned the baby to the Sheilkh. She enclosed a letter of plea as an added measure along with the gold ring Abdullah gave her. She trusts that God loves Gul more than she loves her and that she would be safe. Although she is awake, moving still hurts and the first time she tried to get up she passed out. But today she is being dressed up for an audience with the Sheikh. There is a flurry of events about her and the maids are hard at work, making her pretty, as if she needed anything more done. Laila feels disconnected from her body. She feels as if she has stepped out of her skin and is viewing the whole affair from a distance. Little does she know that she has been safely drugged by the Sheik’s doctors not only to relieve pain but also to keep her composed. It is a big day for her. Why? Only their master knows.
Basil clutches her arm as he walks her to the Sheikh’s entertainment room. The effect of the drug seems to have worn off and Laila feels more in touch with her feelings. She can feel her heart thud violently against her chest and she walks faster to keep pace with Basil’s long strides. She hates him, she knows, even more then she hates the Sheikh for torrents of destruction he has brought to her life.
“You will be the death of me” she remembers Abdullah’s words from the day Gulbadan was born. Abdullah was borne of a Persian father, he was fairer then she was. She was tanned and supple yet a true Arabian beauty, with black curly hair that reached below her tinny waist. That was why Baba named her Laila, from ‘Lail’, which means night in Arabic. When Gul was born, her soft body reminded Laila of the flowers Baba had planted in the garden for her when she was a child, which made her cry every time they died in the harsh summers of the deserts. While they were alive, they were her prized possession. She got the same jolt of affection she had for her flowers when she held Gulbadan for the first time and so she named her thus. Gul had her father’s skin tone but her mother’s hair and eyes. Abdullah was absolutely ecstatic at the sight of his daughter. He promised to love her equally as much as he would have loved his son. Abdullah was like Baba in so many ways and never once he let Laila feel that Baba was no more. She counted her blessing as she drifted to sleep in the security of her husband’s arms. Her world was perfect in the tiny mud patched hut of theirs.
The sound of music makes her resurface from the sea of thoughts. There is smoke and there are dancers swaying to the beat of the tambourine but an unnatural silence descends as the Sheikh’s eye settle on her. They rove her full figure for she looks exquisite in the white, silk attire and the Sheikh draws a breath when he finishes scanning her. Her eyes are alive, darting to the sides in constant apprehension and this makes her all the more appealing to him. She is back to the old self he had seen for the first time in that remote village, way far from his palace and she wore an expression of pretty indignation that drove the Sheikh to extreme measures he would later regret. He shakes away the thought and summons a servant with a flick of his fingers, all the while keeping his eyes on Laila. Laila never batted an eye until she hears a gurgle from a corner and she freezes. “Oh God please don’t let it be that..Take me instead, strike me down right now, serve me to the hounds of hell but just please anything but this..” she begs until her fears are confirmed. The servant hands the Sheikh her Gulbadan, wrapped in a small blanket and she sinks to the floor. Somebody inhales sharply and Laila knows in their hearts, they all are praying.
“You take me for a fool, my sweet.” The Sheikh pats Gul slowly who is oblivious to the tension around her. “You couldn’t have gotten away with this deliberate disrespect of my authority. A lesson is in order.” He trails away.
“My liege,” Laila stammers as she takes a step in his direction “I am forever at your service if you just let my daughter go.” tears seep down her face and give her loveliness no woman in the room could boast of. The corner of Sheikh’s lip twitches in a half smile. The epitome of elegance finally at his feet in utter submission, he was truly the King. “Don’t give her to me, just let her live” she nears him. “But you see, I can’t do that.” He stresses every word. Now there is confusion in those attractive eyes and when they land squarely on his face, the Sheik feels his body come alive with desire. She is meant to be a princess, his princess and he will make her his but he has to crush competition first. He beckons her forward and she obliges. He picks up the baby and places her in Laila’s arms. Laila hugs Gulbadan to herself and fails to notice Basil advancing. “Let this be a lesson to the entire village. You all belong to me. Defy me, the ramifications would be absolutely dreadful!” the Sheikh drones on in a clear voice but Laila is too involved with Gul, too weak with relief to pay any attention to anything going on in the room. She is too disconcerted to react when Basil jerks out Gulbadan from her arms and drives his dagger straight through her heart. Gul lets out a whisper of choke and Laila gasps then screams and then launches herself onto Gulbadan’s small dead body which Basil has discarded like a rag doll. There is blood everywhere but the silence is only pierced by Laila’s cries of agony as she tries in vain to stop the bleeding and breathe life into the tiny sleeping form of her valued flower. Then, without a warning, she throws herself onto the Sheikh, raining punches at him, screeching like a demon has possessed her. The sheikh easily grabs her wrists in his hands as Basil signals everyone to leave the room. Laila continues to struggle against his hold, crying like a small child as the Sheikh watches on in stillness but then tired of the wait, he delivers two slaps in rapid succession that snap her head sideways and she grows quiet, sobbing but no more wailing.
“You are the reason they are dead” the Sheikh gathers her form in his arms and says calmly. He cups her face, raising it up to his. “First Abdullah, now Gul. Don’t you understand I want sole possession of your very being?” he continued calmly as if nothing has happened, as if those small hands were reddened by paint, not blood, as if he were courting her in a garden with water coursing under her feet and not her own daughter’s blood but Laila has gone very still. Her eyes have glassed over. Nothing matters. “Abdullah knew I was in love with you but still resisted my offer of becoming a minster in exchange for you. I was generous but I ran out of patience when I saw the way you looked at him, like he was the sun and you worshipped him. So I had to have him killed but I didn’t know this small child could be such a nuisance. And your blatant impertinence had to be punished otherwise the fear that ranks the heart of my posterity would have ebbed away. I can’t let that happen. Laila?” he shakes her softly but she hangs listlessly in his arms. “Laila? My darling, I will love you more than any man could..” says the Sheikh softy as he bends his head to kiss her forehead but she slips to the floor. Her eyes are wide open but she isn’t here. The Sheikh feels terror for the first time in his life at the thought that she has died of a broken heart but the rise and fall of her chest confirm otherwise. He collects her in his arms, casually stepping over Gulbadan’s dead body and carries her to the bed in the corner and lays her on the soft sheets, with such delicate care as if she were a glass statue. She is alive, she won’t die. She will resurface out of this coma and when she does, he will marry her. There was no other way about it and their fates had been sealed together. Smiling in satisfaction, he walks out of the room. The lesson has been delivered.
Over two months passed but there was no change in Laila’s condition. She had hollowed out. The fullness of her figure was long gone, her lips withered away like the flowers in her garden. She hadn’t spoken in over two months. The Sheikh was adamant about making her his wife so despite the fact that Laila was almost reduced to a mere statue, she courted his attention all the same. He would sit with her for hours and stare into the space like she did, occasionally running his fingers through the thick black hair or holding one end conversation. Laila neither responded nor shirked at his touch but the Sheikh never went too far. Even in sheer silence, there was something magnetic that attracted him to her.
But Laila was reborn soon and the veiled tigress followed shortly. One day, Laila was simply lounging in the garden when she saw one of the servants man handle a little girl. Something clicked into place and Laila all but flew over to him and smacked her fist into this man’s chin. To this day she doesn’t understand what brought on that response. Maybe it was the fact that the little girl reminded her of Gulbadan or that the man looked little like Basil but Laila was not the same anymore. To say she changed is not justice enough. She morphed into a new personality over the passage of time which was born anew that evening in the garden.
Shortly after, the Sheikh gifted her to one of his ministers for Sheikh was a man of little patience and Laila wasn’t getting any younger. He was contented in the fact that Laila would be no one else’s if not his. The minister was a different story. He accepted her as his wife and brought her into a separate palace but he never gave her the stature of any of the other wives. He had four already. So Laila stoked the fire in her and became something different in few years.
So Laila lays in wait, like a fox, eyes always on her prized prey, the Sheikh, while she practices on thugs every night, who stand between her and the sheikh. People call this vigilante the Veiled Tigress for no one has seen her face and she fights the fight of a common man. She comes out of nowhere when there is no one else left to help you, quicker then thought, faster than the light and quiet as death…The Sheikh has heard of her on the grapevine but she is beyond his reach. He isn't scared; he has fought scarier battles but still every time before his eyes close, he turns his head ever so slightly..he senses a shadow. A still, never moving shadow…waiting and watching him..