Born of water, into water, the boy knew no other world.
It would not always be thus. Someday, he had been told, he would leave here for another place. His mother had told him this, in a quiet time, her body swollen and expanded to its widest, spanning banks miles apart, trailing enormous skirts of silt. He loved her at these quiet times, when her icy mountain rage had mellowed to a somnolent trawl, flowing majestically down to the ocean. She cradled him gently in a pocket of warm current, his belly filled, his heart content. He was little more than an infant then, still unable to forage for himself or wander freely on his own. As they drifted together, she said in her softest voice, “Vrath.”
He looked up at her with round, expectant eyes. She had formed a face from the current, her gentle face. An errant trout drifted into the space behind her large rippling eyes, realized into whose presence it had foolishly wandered, and flicked its tail in panic, flashing away. Vrath gurgled with amusement. His mother’s water-sculpted visage dimpled its cheeks at him and playfully intertwined warm and cold tendrils between his toes and fingertips, tickling him deliciously.
When his delighted laughter subsided, she continued. “My son, soon you shall have to go away from me.”
His little mind puzzled over the word, the idea. Away? he repeated soundlessly, and then wagged his finger in a familiar gesture. Less a specific question than the act of questioning, that tiny finger wagging translated into an entire range of universal, eternal, childish queries. What is that thing? Does this have a name? Who am I? How did this happen? Or his perennial favorite: Why?
“You will have to go to live with your great-great-grandfather for a while.”
Again, the little finger wagged, and he emitted a gurgling babble, trying to imitate the sound she projected into his mind. “Great-great?”
“Coldheart Mountain. Our ancestor. From whose loins our lineage flows.”
She paused, her watery forehead creasing as she pondered some minor disruption in another part of her sinuous length. Enclosed in her embrace as he was right now, conjoined with her own vast being, he could almost see the source of the disruption.
A gathering of two-legs about a hundred miles downshore were sacrificing a bull on a stone slab at water’s edge, chanting ritual verses to his mother. He knew how much she disliked blood sacrifices, and his face pinched in empathy. He felt her shudder as the bull’s neck was hacked clean through with a bladed weapon sharper than the fangs of a longtooth, and red fluid gushed over the stone, melding with her own arterial flow. Her watery face began to freeze into that icy visage that terrified him, then subsided with an effort, as she reminded herself of his presence, and of how her last outburst had set him to howling uncontrollably in anguish.
He felt everything: the white frothing of her anger, her swirling awareness of his closeness and sensitivity, then the gradual calming of her emotions. Yet even through the opacity of her self-control, he still could feel her pain at the senseless waste, her despair at the two-legs who foolishly thought that by taking the life of another living being they could somehow enrich their own. He even briefly sensed her decision to wreak retribution—she would send a flood surging up the banks to wash out the dwellings of those who had planned the sacrifice—then her resolve shut him off, like a wall of cold ice floe cutting off a hot spring fluke.
He tried to reach up to her face and comfort her, but of course, his stubby fingers touched only water. When he put the finger to his mouth—an action as natural and inevitable to him as breathing itself—it tasted salty. That intrigued him. But then she regained control of herself and smiled reassuringly, if sadly. “You are the iron in my blood, my son. But you belong to another world. To their world. Someday, you will have to go live among them. Before you do that, you must prepare yourself. And I know no one better than your forebear to undertake the task. Listen well to everything he tells you, Vrath. Learn well. The lessons he teaches you will echo down the halls of history.”
Again, he made that little gesture: Why?
She shook her head, the watery tendrils that stood in for her hair waving like reeds. “There is no answer to all your whys, little one. You shall understand when the time comes. Your mind is bright, brighter than all the fishes in my realm put together. You will do well under the great forebear’s tutelage. And after you are done, you will come back to me. And we shall bask in warm tides again awhile, you and I, and you will tell me of the things you have learned, the places you have been, the sights you have seen.”
“Such wonders as even your salmon-quick mind cannot imagine. Because that is what learning is, child. An unending quest down an endless river, gorging yourself upon wisdom and lore, until finally, someday, if you are good—nay, if you are very, very good, and very, very clever,” tickling him again and again, drawing a chorus of pleased chortles, “he may let you go down to that greatest treasure house of all learning, the repository of all the wisdom of all the ages, the place where even I must bow my head and deposit every last possession every day, in homage to the mother of us all, the mother of all knowing.”
And she whispered the word into his ear, her watery lips tickling him into a paroxysm of giggling ecstasy: “Karasigasama.”
The ocean of stories.
Young and carefree as Vrath was, the idea of parting seemed incomprehensible. His life thus far, brief as it had been, had been idyllic. He was a prince of the river, and spent his days in childish abandon, traversing the course of his mother’s realm, doing as his heart desired.
Everyone hailed him, even the sleepy-eyed longtooths and snapping-mouthed stonebacks who were each lords of their own stretch of the flowing world. All revered him, and many came to love him quickly and intensely; wherever he went, at all times, hundreds of watchful eyes kept vigil over him, and in the unlikely event of a crisis, a veritable army of quicksilver fins and flashing teeth would come to his aid in an instant.
But what could harm the son of the river in his mother’s own realm? He had no enemies here, and his mother made sure that his only potential rivals, the landlocked two-legs, were always kept far out of reach. He glimpsed them rarely, for his mother’s girth was prodigious, her depths not easily fathomed, and on those rare occasions that their paths crossed, he regarded them with disinterested eyes, forgetting them before they were out of sight. The river was his oyster and he its most perfect pearl.
At times, such as the moment when he had sensed his mother’s anger at the sacrificial slaughtering of the bull, he thought of the land-denizens as crude, violent, brutal beasts without the elegance or intelligence of his fellow water dwellers. He hated it when they polluted his mother’s expanse with their offal, their refuse, or even their charred corpses, which they floated downriver at certain spots his mother called Stonefire Hills. She seemed undisturbed by this daily pollution, even contented, and he came to regard it as some part of the natural way of things; in time, he even began to glimpse that they actually worshipped her, and that their consigning of their remains and materials to her flowing course were their way of honoring her. Still, he regarded them with a puzzlement tinged with disapproval.
When the time came, he was playing with a group of young darkfins. He was old enough to clamber onto their backs and clutch their fins, urging them to race through the bracing, high waters of his mother’s upper course. He loved clasping their slippery backs, feeling their powerful muscles seethe and cord beneath him, clutching those rubbery fins as tightly as his chubby little arms and hands and legs could manage. Even when one of the younger ones dove too fast, causing Vrath to lose his grip and fall off, he was undaunted, laughing and chortling with ecstatic glee.
He feared nothing; neither the boulders dotting the white water rapids where hapless land animals often dashed out their brains, nor the yawning abysses where his mother split herself into dozens of falls plunging thousands of fish-lengths to crash deafeningly in a miasma of vapor and sound. He went over the falls shouting his joy, knowing that no harm could come to him in his mother’s realm. Sensing also something of his true nature. The force that surged in his veins, calling out to and answered by his mother’s endless coursing yet filled also with some greater power, a power he did not yet know the name of, but which burned fiercely within his blood.
They had come through the rapids, down the falls, and were milling about in the enormous marshlands where his mother tarried briefly before continuing her progress down the alluvial plains. The darkfins were darting craftily around him, teasing, touching him gently with their snouts. This was longtooth territory, and normally they would never come here. But they were with him, and he went where he pleased. He sensed the presence of many longtooth, dozing lazily on the surface of the marsh, on the banks, sunning themselves to awaken their sluggish blood.
They bristled at first at the presumptiveness of the darkfins invading their sanctum, then sensed Vrath’s presence and yawned benignly, nodding a cursory greeting. A nilgiri stag, head bowed with a full crown of antlers, shoulders high enough to reach the lowermost branches of the highest sala trees, splashed through a shallow pool, almost stomping on an ancient longtooth. The ancient one ignored the challenge: The stag was in heat, and she knew better than to engage a nilgiri in that state.
Then, the marsh, the surrounding woods, the river, the very cataracts themselves, pounding down with the frenzy of giant hammers, seemed to grow still.
The darkfin nearest to Vrath paused, his snout twisted to one side, tail turned the other way. The boy saw his fin ripple, as if sensing the approach of a great predator. But there was no predator here. At least none that dared attack a companion of the prince of the river. Nor could he sense any land dweller anywhere for miles around.
He reached out to touch the darkfin, a young male named Youngslick on whose mother Vrath suckled often, and with whom he shared a bond akin to bloodwater.
Youngslick’s flank shivered. He raised his snout and issued a bleat in his high-pitched keening language. To Vrath, just learning of the many moods and nuances of emotion, it tasted of fear and of something darker. An emotion beyond expression. It was reflected in the sudden thrashing of Youngslick’s tail. Vrath’s eyes widened as he floated in the pocket of warmth that always enveloped him, and he stared in confusion at Youngslick’s bleating bout of panic. Finally, a louder call echoed through the marshy byways, issued by Motherfin, the leader of the pack. Youngslick grew completely still. Turning to glance at Vrath, his dark eyes flashed apologetically.
Until he squeaked, in his cryptic darkfin way, and then flashed forward with astonishing speed that Vrath, despite his own prodigious skill, could never hope to match. His tail flickered darkly through the sluggish marshy byways, heading toward the main body of the rivercourse, calling and answering the rest of his herd as he went.
For the first time in his short uneventful life, Vrath was completely alone.
Without warning, the warm pocket that had enveloped him in his watery travels dissipated. Vrath was left, abruptly, in the cold marshy water. He thrashed disbelievingly. Since his birthing, he had never known discomfort or deprivation; the cold water seared his skin at first, like the runoff from a hot spring, then, his skin tingling, pulse racing, he began to feel the bone-deep chill permeating. It seemed to pass through his skin and flesh without resistance, seeping directly into his marrow.
Ma! he called frantically. She had never failed to answer him, even when embroiled in a crisis herself. For she was the river, and nothing could happen in her realm without her knowing. Yet as several moments passed and the freezing water continued to swirl sluggishly around him, and nothing happened, no response came to his call, he repeated his plea, louder, more fervently. Ma, something’s happening! Come here, Maa! But she did not come, did not respond. He couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand what was happening, or more importantly to him, why it was happening.
He thrashed, losing heat even faster, dissipating his energy, and when, too late, much too late, he finally stopped flailing, the cold enveloped him in a tighter embrace than he had ever felt before. An invisible fist grasped his heart; icy shards pierced his brain, and he slowly lost feeling in the tips of his fingers and toes. Finally, he stopped struggling, and tried to outlast it, but nature took its toll: Heat fled his little body, and cold became his new wet nurse. By the time he lost sensation in his feet and hands, it was too late to act.
Not that he could have done much; he had often seen the bodies of frozen creatures floating downstream like dead logs, never once dreaming he could end up thus himself. He had been warned often by his mother not to go too far North, but he was not that far North at all—this was longtooth territory, after all, and they craved the warmth. Somehow, instead of the omnipresent pocket of warm water that had cuddled him ever since he could remember, a pocket of icy cold Northern water now clutched him mercilessly in its grip. He had always been so well protected, the very idea of danger was beyond his comprehension. Now he learned both the shocking pain of a mother’s betrayal and the indifference of nature to its denizens.
He floated for what seemed to be an eon, his body curling up instinctively into a fetal fist. Finally, when all resistance was gone from him, the water around him began to swirl in strange currents, pushing him upriver. It was not the gentle, cushiony way his mother always moved him; these gestures were brisk, matter of fact, designed simply to shift him from this place to that.
He slipped in and out of consciousness, and in his moments of relative lucidity, saw that he was being moved upriver steadily, until he saw he was approaching the basin where the cataracts broke their fall. The very bubbles of air in the water danced with the reverberation of that mighty mass of icy water shattering on granite.
Here, a remarkable thing occurred—the first of many remarkable things that were in store for him on this extraordinary adventure, though, of course, he had no way of knowing that just then.
The waterfall paused.
One moment its deep dull pounding filled the swirling underwater world he inhabited, a sound as relentless and eternal as water and air itself, the next moment, it had fallen silent. There was no interval between the first and the second; it was as if a giant hammer had frozen in mid-air, poised above the anvil.
He blinked, trying to awaken his brain. It was difficult; yet he sensed, despite the frigidity enveloping his body, the force that had abducted him desired that he stay awake and alert. That he be aware of what was occurring and where he was going. He felt the cold ease its hold upon his skull. It still felt as if crystals of ice were lodged in his head, but he could think, and see, and know, although his emotional responses seemed suspended, frozen. Perhaps that was not caused by the cold, however; perhaps that was his own survival instinct, pushing away fear and outrage and self-pity to a deep pocket where it could not interfere with the vital functions of watching and waiting. Naïve and ingenuous as he was, he had not lost hope; he was only conserving energy. He did not think these things through in any methodical fashion, simply glimpsed the sense of this course of action through an instinct more ancient than logic, more wise than philosophy.
The force that had brought him upriver now began to heave him up the frozen waterfall. He saw the body of water part, moving aside with a peculiar slowness that suggested neither liquid nor solid movement. He felt nothing except the intense cold and the sensation of being moved, but he thought he heard a faint groaning of protest from the unnaturally frozen body of water as he was pushed upwards through it. At the top there at first was a sensation of pressure, then he was bouncing along the surface of the river again, and the water was gushing below him, past him, rushing headlong towards the waterfall.
The transition was instantaneous. One moment the water was still, the next instant it was hurtling as it had hurtled for eons. His progress upstream continued thus, the force that governed him pausing waterfalls to enable it to push him up with the least resistance, then releasing the falls as he gained the top. More than once on this long journey, sleep found him and flicked him into unconsciousness with the careless ease of the very young and very innocent. From time to time, he would open his eyes and gaze out from his protective bubble and see only the river flowing downstream past him, and would sink back into the clutches of sleep again.
He was aware of the fauna of the river all around, but every tadpole, newt, fish, darkfin, stoneback, and longtooth steered clear of his path, avoiding him. He had seen them behave thus only once before, when his mother, fat and engorged with a monsoon flood, had borne him upriver to a safe pool to wait out the stormy weather. On that occasion they had ignored him because they were too busy saving their own lives. This time it was different: It was as if they feared him.
Later, while he dozed, it came to him. It wasn’t he they were scared of; it was the force taking him upriver. A force that could halt waterfalls in mid-flow, and override even the goddess river herself. A force that could abduct the river’s only son and not meet any resistance.
Before long, a time came when it seemed that the cold was too great to bear. At first, he thought he would surely freeze now, as even his spittle began to crackle icily. But just as temperature of the surrounding water dropped, his bubble warmed ever so slightly, just enough to offset the drop. He still remained much colder than he had been accustomed to, but he never froze.
So the force was benign, he knew. It abducted him, controlled him, transported him, but would not permit him to come to harm. What was it? Why was it doing this to him?
He tried once to flail out in anger, punching and kicking uselessly. He could not even penetrate the protective bubble. Instead, for one heart-stopping instant, his tiny sphere was permitted to absorb the temperature of the glacial waters he was passing through: The sudden shock of the cold stilled his rebellion instantly. He curled in upon himself at once, trying to cover his little near-bald head with his tiny fists, gasping in indignation. After that, he lay quiet and still and let himself be taken upriver. He slept more now.
Finally, he came out of one of his fitful dozes and found the landscape changed. Everything was white and glassy. He had been near these parts before, but rarely, and only in his mother’s presence. Now, despite his misery and fear, he found himself fascinated by the pristine beauty of the world, at rocks turned into chunks of raw ice, water frozen in place in strange formations, exotic shapes. And all of it reflecting the high, cold sun.
He uncurled himself slightly, eyes widening in understanding. He knew where he was. He had heard it spoken of so often before by his mother, and whispered of reverentially by his friends of the river. He was in that place he had heard his mother call . . . Grandfather Coldheart?
Grandfather Coldheart it is.
He gasped. The voice emanated from around him, within him, from the white glacial rocks flanking the river, from the heights of the towering peaks that he glimpsed rising high above, from the very bedrock itself. It vibrated, thrummed, and echoed in the bone-cage of his chest, its baritone tremors overriding even the tinny thudding of his infant heartbeat, absorbing and drowning out his young pulse. It was infinite in its power—majestic, supreme. It was the voice of the mountain range itself, the world entire.
His little hand shot out in that gesture that exasperated his mother: ???
It was his universal question: Why? How? Who? Where? When? Pick any, or all.
A deep rumbling chuckle. The watery world he inhabited was given more to gentler, liquid sounds. Never having heard such a sound as he heard now, he recoiled, not knowing what it might portend. The rumbling reverberated through his being.
You shall have them.
It is the reason you were brought here.
Let us be properly introduced.
It is time.
For your education.
Vrath felt a surge of power. The chill water curled around him like a liquid fist, bearing him up. He felt himself being rushed forward, the icy current deflected to either side as by the prow of a man-vessel, the force cutting through the sluggish frost-heavy flow to bear him upward, onward. The pressure of the water was nigh unbearable, the cold bitter, a maw filled with jagged sawteeth and talons. He glimpsed icicles and ominous white blocks of waterrock, more dangerous than any living creature in his mother’s realm, sensed their battering impact and savage thrusts at his protective caul; never had he experienced such a direct assault upon his person.
Even worse, he sensed that these attackers did not fear his mother’s power, that they could not fear her, for they were inanimate, devoid of intelligence, filled only with the casual malevolence of all natural objects. He recalled a young darkfin he had loved and played with, speared by one such shard of waterrock, mewling and thrashing in a cloud of his own red fluid, finally surrendering to the river’s relentless carriage, borne away by Jeel’s susurrating wash, his eyes fixed and lifeless.
He knew then that he too could suffer such a fate, his hide, so tender and soft and unprotected without his mother’s power, could be pierced and torn and ripped, his own red fluids could bleed into her streaming flow, his own life end as suddenly and unexpectedly and senselessly as that darkfin youngling.
He wept for her then, only now understanding that she was truly gone, lost. He wept and scrunched himself tighter, shutting his senses to the overwhelming savagery of the assault, and burrowed within himself for succor. He fell in and out of consciousness, and knew not how much time elapsed.
Time became a river and the river roared into and through his consciousness until he and the stream were one and he was time itself.
Sha’ant dismounted from the small one-horse chariot he used for hunting and strode towards the river. The Jeel usually roared around this curve in full autumnal force at this time of year. Even at its lowest ebb during one drought-ridden summer, the river still flowed steadily, filling its concourse from shore to shore. Never before had he seen a sight such as this nor heard tell of it.
The river’s flow had dwindled to a trickle. A gurgling brook dammed by logs of wood flowed with more force than this measly sluggish worm that gurgled along. He could see fish flopping in their death throes, dolphins beached, and turtles lying on their backs, rotating their stubby green legs in dismay. These signs suggested that the damming had only just happened moments ago: Those fish were all still alive.
How was this possible? How could such a mighty river, as wide across as a lake, be slowed? Even if a few hundred logs were dropped into its concourse upstream, they would only flow downriver—indeed, this was how fresh timber meant for building was transported downriver from the foothills of Coldheart Mountain to the cities and towns along the Jeel’s enormous length. What then? An avalanche in the Coldheart Mountains?
He could think of nothing that could explain this sudden staying of the most powerful river in this part of the world.
The fish thrashed more desperately, clearly on the brink of death. He looked around in helpless dismay, wishing there was something he could do to help. It was one thing to hunt down creatures for sport and food; it was wholly another to see countless innocent lives being squandered needlessly. A new thought struck him like a physical blow: The lives that would be squandered downriver would not be fish alone but human as well, for countless people depended on the river for their daily needs. His entire kingdom depended on her grace to survive.
God, help us, he prayed silently.
Almost at once, a great roar filled his ears, louder than anything he had heard before. He looked up from his joined palms to see an astonishing sight: the river unleashed, roaring downstream! So great was its force that it was exceeding its banks. If he did not quickly move aside, he would surely be swept away.
He ran then, up the bank, reaching the safety of the ridge on which he had left his chariot and horse, just in time to escape the lashing whips of the raging waters. Even so, he was partially drenched by the flood and as he sat on the bank beside his grazing horse, staring at the river roaring by in full spate once more, he shook his head in frustration, wondering what force could first cause the river to cease and then restart its flow thus, within moments?
In any case, the fauna of the river would survive now, he saw. The waters had reached them just in time to save their gasping lives.
His horse nuzzled his dripping hair and neck curiously, as if asking, what were you doing, great king, were you swimming in the river?
He smiled at the memory of the way he had scampered up the ridge. That flash flood had come by so suddenly, he had been genuinely afraid he would be washed away. So afraid, he had forgotten that he shared a deep bond with the river, especially at this place.
“You would never let your own waters harm me, would you, my love?” he asked quietly, not really expecting an answer.
As if in response to his query, the river’s flow slowed, reduced by degrees, then returned to the sluggish muddy crawl he had seen earlier. In moments, the water had receded fully, the riverbed as exposed as it had been before the flash flood. It happened so abruptly, he blinked and rubbed his eyes to confirm that what he was seeing was real and not some illusion.
He rose to his feet and started down the ridge—the flood had dampened the soil, turning it muddy, and he slipped and slid the last yard or so, but then regained his balance. Even before he reached the edge of the bank, he could hear the sounds of thousands of fish of all sizes, thrashing and flopping about on the wet muddy floor of the river. Dolphins cried out pitifully. There were creatures he knew no names for and did not recognize, creatures that spent their entire lives at the bottom of the river without being seen by human eyes, monstrosities with clicking claws and eyes extended on stalks, but he felt sorry for them as well, for they were clearly suffering and would die as well as their brethren if the river remained dry.
But this time, he did not panic or pray. He merely waited to see what would happen. And when the roaring resumed again a moment or two later, he was prepared for it and already starting back up the ridge. Even so, he only just made it before another flash flood came roaring past like all the elephants of the world stampeding in heat together. He frowned, placing his hands on his hips and stared down at the raging vigorous concourse that he knew so well. Something was amiss here. This was no natural phenomenon. It could not be!
He mounted his chariot again, turned the head of his horse, and rode upriver. Whatever the source of the damming and undamming, it had to be upriver. He stayed close enough to the river so he could hear its roaring passage, listening for any change in that familiar sound. Sure enough, before long, it came.
The roar died down, leaving a deafening silence that was unnatural to anyone who had spent his childhood and youth playing by the banks of the great mother river, bringer of life and bounty. It made him wonder: What manner of being could be doing this? Who could possess power enough to stop the mighty Jeel herself at one of the fiercest parts of her journey, and then resume her flow, at will? Surely it must be a god, or . . . He had no alternative to offer.
He rode his chariot silently, listening. Once again, the roaring resumed within moments, again causing him to marvel. Clearly the being doing this remarkable thing knew exactly how long the stranded fauna could survive and was restarting the channel in time to ensure their survival. It was almost as if the being desired only to exercise his or her powers, and meant no creature any actual lasting harm. It also occurred to him that this could be the work of Jeel herself, for reasons known only to her, but somehow he did not think it so.
Tracking the source of the disruption, he had his answer soon enough. Dismounting from the chariot to avoid warning whoever it might be, he traveled the last several yards on foot. He had his bow in hand, and he slipped an arrow expertly onto the string, ready to loose the instant he spied danger. For he had just thought of an alternative to this being the work of a god: It could be the work of an urrkh. He did not know why either a god or a demon might wish to play thus with the flow of the mightiest river, but it was best to be forearmed.
His first glimpse of the god/urrkh/being was the back of its head and upper shoulders. From this angle, that was all he could see. The rest was concealed by the riverbank’s curve. To see the perpetrator more clearly, he would have to step out of the treeline into the open—with all the risk that entailed.
At first glance, all he could tell was that it appeared to be a very tall, powerfully built man. Seemingly mortal. Although, after his experience with Jeel, he had learned the hard way that looks could be deceiving. Gods could assume mortal form and shape when they desired and shrugged off their mortal garb at will.
But not for nothing was he King of the Krushan, Ruler of the Burnt Empire, lord of the largest civilized city in the known world. His prowess with archery was such that he felt confident he could strike a killing blow to the stranger even with only that little portion of his body visible, even from this great distance. He came to a decision quickly. He would give the stranger a single chance, for that was what honorable warriors did, but if the man so much as looked at him crookedly, he would let loose.
The river had ebbed almost to a standstill again, its roar quieted to a trickling gasp. The bank was now quiet enough for him to be heard even from this distance.
Staying behind the trunk of the tree, Sha’ant shouted out: “You! Drop your weapons and show your hands!”
The large head and powerful shoulders remained in view, neither ducking down in response, nor shying away. That in itself was reassuring. It suggested a man who was not afraid, nor engaged in any activity for which he felt guilty.
Even so, the stranger had not yet raised his hands.
“I said raise your hands!” Sha’ant shouted.
The stranger remained exactly as he was. Then, Sha’ant’s sharp sight detected the hint of movement on the man’s right shoulder. A mere twitch, such as a warrior’s shoulder muscle might produce when hefting or raising a weapon. It was all the warning he needed: He had killed men in similar circumstances for doing less.
He loosed his arrow, his fingers already reaching for the quiver on his back to pull out a second before the first had reached its target. He was hidden behind the tree trunk, the bow almost touching the trunk itself but not quite—contact would spoil the fineness of his aim, especially when making such a delicate shot. He knew his arrow would strike precisely where intended, unless the other man moved very quickly: at the sloping cord of muscle that joined the right side of the man’s neck to the ball of his right shoulder. The tip should penetrate the muscle, and the arrow remain stuck there. It was a shot he used to warn his enemies and show them how easily he could do anything he pleased with his weapons.
The stranger’s shoulder flexed a second time. He remained with his back to Sha’ant, not having moved other than those two flexes of his shoulder muscle. There was no way he could see Sha’ant from that angle and distance. Even if he had turned and gazed directly at Sha’ant, the man would barely be able to glimpse part of one eye and the line of shoulder and head, as well as the bow and arrow, almost completely hidden in the shade of the tree. Most likely, due to the contrast between the brightness of the sunlight and the shadows of the trees, he would not even see that much, let alone be able to judge the precise trajectory of the arrow.
Yet, somehow, the second time he flexed his shoulder, it was just enough that the arrow passed over it. Sha’ant thought he could almost hear the faint rasping of the arrowhead as it burred over the man’s skin, but surely that was only his imagination. Regardless, the arrow missed its mark.
No matter. He already had his second arrow nocked and this time he was aiming for the meaty part of the man’s neck. This shot would paralyze the stranger from the chest down, which was unfortunate—but necessary. Even those two shrugs were sufficiently threatening for Sha’ant to not risk any further movement.
He loosed the second arrow, already reaching back for the third, when an odd thing occurred . . .
The second arrow simply fell at his feet.
Sha’ant’s own feet.
It plopped down, landing in a heap of dried leaves, and the crinkling sound of its impact upon the leaves alerted him to its fall.
He blinked rapidly, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
How could an arrow loosed by his bow fall right here at his own feet?
Unless . . .
He looked down at his bow, turning it sideways.
The string had been severed. It now hung in two parts, dangling uselessly from either end of the bow.
Still, he could not understand how this could happen.
It was a perfectly good cord, wound by himself only an hour earlier. He always used fresh cord at every opportunity, knowing the importance of the string in the art of archery.
The string had been cut.
By a sharply honed metal point.
He searched the surrounding area for any sign . . .
And saw the arrow sticking from the trunk of the tree behind him.
It was like no other arrow he had ever seen, the shaft of the missile gleaming as if made of metal, although that was absurd—no arrow could be made wholly of metal, for no bow-string was strong enough to bear that much weight, nor could human strength power a metal projectile over such a long range.
Yet it looked very much like metal, although like none he had ever seen. It glistened and glittered and reflected a rainbow of hues, much like . . . mercury.
But of course that was ridiculous; an arrow could not be made of mercury. Mercury was liquid. That was why it was also called quicksilver: because it flowed like liquid silver.
He tried to make sense of where it had come from. It took him only a turn of the head to calculate the angle of its trajectory and estimate that it had originated from . . .
Sha’ant started, taking several steps back, his feet crackling dried leaves underfoot. He swung around, drawing the short dagger from his belt and crouching, ready to defend himself.
The stranger raised his palms in a gesture of surrender and appeasement. “I mean no harm. I only cut your bow string because it seemed the simplest way to avoid further conflict.”
“Who are you?” Sha’ant said, circling around, eyes darting from side to side, alert in case the stranger had hidden allies in arms. “What were you doing by the riverbank?”
The stranger shrugged. Those powerful mounds of muscle flexed and Sha’ant was left in no doubt: this was the same man who had been standing by the riverbank only a moment ago. Impossible! He couldn’t have covered such a distance so quickly.
“Practicing,” said the stranger.
Sha’ant stared at him. “Practicing?”
The stranger nodded, then smiled in a manner that made Sha’ant realize with a sense of shock that the stranger was no man at all; he was but a mere boy, only just come into manhood—his great height and immense size belying his age. But that smile, shy and uncertain, was a boy’s smile.
Sha’ant watched warily from the bank of the river as the boy pointed. “There,” he said. “Do you see it?”
Sha’ant looked down. All he could see was the raging current of the Jeel during the post-monsoon autumn season, with the usual flotsam and wet life that occupied it. “What is it?”
“It’s a . . .” the boy paused. He thought for a moment then shook his head. “I do not know how to say it in your language.”
“So you are a foreigner then?” Sha’ant asked with interest. “Which part of the world are you from? Are you from this continent of the Burnt Empire or . . .?”
“Of course!” The boy looked as if he had been asked if he was from another, distant planet. “This is my home.”
Sha’ant wasn’t sure what he meant. The boy had indicated the river, by which he probably meant here—this kingdom, this place. That seemed credible: The boy had the look of a Krushan about him; he had the same aquiline features, prominent nose, swept back ears and angular jaw. The same intense deep-set eyes beneath bushy brows, dark eyes and dark skin, crow-black hair. Even the same finely shaped limbs and the posture of a man with enough muscle on his body to use weapons well, yet not so much that it hindered his movement in combat. Except for one notable exception. He was extremely tall. Taller than most Krushan, tall even among warriors, standing a good head above Sha’ant’s own height, even though the boy seemed no more than fourteen or fifteen summers old. Sha’ant was not accustomed to looking up at other men and found the effect disconcerting.
Yet despite his considerable height and size, despite the lad’s strength and evident skill, the boy was almost . . . bashful, shy—given to speaking with almost childish innocence and delight. Initially, it made Sha’ant suspicious, especially after the arrow that had come at him unseen and the speed with which the boy himself had moved from the bank to the treeline. But as he came to understand that this was the boy’s natural manner, Sha’ant’s suspicion turned to amusement.
What an odd fellow, Sha’ant thought. Built like a giant warrior, so proficient with a bow and arrow as to rival Purandara himself, and yet he spoke, gesticulated, and contorted his face in expressions that befitted an immature boy rather than the warrior of high breeding he clearly seemed to be.
“So what exactly did you do?” Sha’ant asked again. They had walked to the riverbank together when the boy had explained that he had merely been practicing, though Sha’ant still had no idea what exactly that entailed.
The boy looked at the river again, pointing. “You see . . .” He stopped. “No, of course, you cannot see. No one can.” He looked around, as if searching for something, then turned back to Sha’ant. “Do you know of—” He broke off abruptly, interrupting himself. “No,” he said as if to himself, “Grandfather Coldheart said I was not to speak of that to anyone.”
“Did you say Grandfather Coldheart?” Sha’ant asked, curious. “Is your grandfather from this region? What is his name? And your father’s name?” He moved toward the boy, speaking gently. “Where is your home, boy? Where do you come from?”
The boy looked at Sha’ant again, as if seeing him suddenly for the first time. He shook his head and pointed again, as he had before. “I do not know exactly, but this is my home. This is where I come from. That is all I can tell you . . . in your language. If you wish to know more, you must ask my mother. She said I am forbidden to speak to people.” He looked around. “I am not supposed to even be here. I was only practicing.”
Sha’ant could make neither head nor tail of this extraordinary young man, so he decided, instead, to focus on something simple. “What were you practicing? Can you show me?”
The boy looked at him. “Of course! I can show you! So much simpler than explaining and learning new languages. Although Mother says I must learn new things every day, for some day I am to be king, and kings must know a great deal about the worlds they govern.”
Sha’ant said nothing to this, merely watched as the boy stepped up to the edge of the ridge. He was a handsome young man, and there was something interesting about the way he moved—he had that peculiar gait that very tall and muscular men tend to favor, and as Sha’ant observed the boy’s graceful way of moving, it reminded him of someone else, though he could not immediately say whom.
The boy stood on the edge of the ridge, looking down at the river, silhouetted by the evening sky. It was not more than an hour or so to sunset, and the coloring sky and distant mountain ridges behind him gave him the appearance of a prince in a royal portrait, the kind of portrayal that adorned the walls of the Hall of Ancestors in Sha’ant’s own palace in Hastinaga. He watched the boy arch his back and shoulders, then, in the exact stance of a bowman aiming downward at a sharp angle, but Sha’ant frowned, for the boy held neither a bow nor an arrow—
When suddenly a bow and arrow appeared in the boy’s hands.
It was as if they had come into being at that precise instant. Out of thin air. They were like no bow and arrow he had ever seen before, Sha’ant thought, but then corrected himself: While the bow was like no bow he had seen before, the arrow he had seen a twin of earlier; it strongly resembled the one that had cleaved his bow-string and imbedded itself in the tree trunk behind him when he first encountered the boy.
The arrow now in the boy’s hand was exactly like that one, a quicksilver missile that caught the light of the evening sun and flashed in multi-colored hues. Indeed, as Sha’ant watched, the arrow’s reflection created a small rainbow, just for an instant, curving around the boy’s hand in mid-air.
Sha’ant saw now that the bow was like the arrow: quicksilver. Firm as metal. Reflective of light. Beautifully resplendent.
Sha’ant never saw when exactly the boy loosed. Or the flight of the arrow as it left the bow. All he saw was the twanging cord of the bow vibrating in the air—
Then the bow vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.
Its work done, it returned to the ether from whence it had come.
The sound of the river roaring magnificently, as if in response, abruptly subsided.
Sha’ant ran to the edge of the ridge and looked over.
He saw the quicksilver arrow fixed in the ground of the riverbed, standing straight. From the arrow emerged a wall of silvery light that extended from bank to bank, translucent and shimmering with rainbow hues, reflecting the sky and trees and landscape. Impossibly, this shimmering wall of light barred the passage of the river as effectively as a dam built of solid rock. A mountain could hardly dam the river more effectively.
All this from a single arrow.
Downriver, the Jeel’s flow had turned into a muddy trickle, the same as Sha’ant had witnessed earlier. Fish flopped on the riverbed, dolphins cried out in outrage, turtles moved their limbs helplessly, and weeds and undergrowth hung limp and immobile on the muddy naked riverbed.
Sha’ant turned and looked at the boy in disbelief.
The boy beamed at him, pleased at what he had done. It was the grin of a boy who had shot his first bird from the sky, or ridden his horse over a chasm for the first time. Shy, proud, yet guileless and utterly innocent.
Then, as he saw Sha’ant’s expression, the boyish grin faded.
And turned to one of trepidation.
“You needn’t worry about the wet ones. I would never harm them. They are my siblings. I only tease them this way sometimes. In sport.”
Sha’ant stepped closer to the boy, examining him as if for the first time. He caught hold of him by the shoulders—though he had to stretch out his own arms to reach those two wide muscled trunks—and said, “I know who you are. You are the eighth son! Her eighth son!”
The boy looked at him with total incomprehension. Then suddenly, he glanced over Sha’ant’s shoulder and reacted to the sight of something else.
“Mother!” he cried out, with the childish alarm of a boy caught doing a mischievous prank he has been forbidden to play many times before. “I was only showing the nice mortal how—”
The word was a crashing no less than thunder.
Sha’ant spun around to see the river break through the barrier, splitting the arrow’s shaft into countless slivers, each as beautifully reflective and metallic as the arrow itself—like the explosion of crystal—and the water roared along its concourse again, stronger now than ever. The waters boiled and seethed, throwing up a spout that hung in mid-air several yards high.
From the angry spout, a figure was sculpted.
It was the figure of his former wife, his Queen, the only woman he had ever loved.
“Jeel,” he said softly. “Then this is . . .”
“My son,” said the angry goddess of the river, moving across the surface of her waters with a great churning energy. She addressed the boy: “Have I not forbidden you from playing these games? Indeed, have you not been forbidden from stepping onto land unsupervised?”
The giant of a boy hung his head. “Yes, Mother,” he said miserably, “but I was only—”
“Not a sound from you!” she said, and there were teeth in her watery mouth, Sha’ant saw, long white teeth as sharp as any predator’s. “I wish to have words with the dry one . . . with this man.”
The boy stood by silently.
Jeel turned to face Sha’ant.
He joined his hands before her. “Great goddess,” he said, “it is such a pleasure to see you again.”
“And you, my husband,” she said gently. She assumed the form he had known, but only partially, just the face and a suggestion of the upper body, her lower half still retaining her river aspect. It was enough to make his heart ache for all that they had shared, for the companion he had lost. “I see you still remain single, still wifeless.”
“None but you,” he said simply. “You know this well. If you wish me to be loved and to love again, then come back to me. Come back.”
She smiled and laughed a throaty watery chuckle. “Would that I could, my mortal beloved. But my time on your plane is past. I can never again walk among you.”
He sighed, feeling the pain of their parting as freshly as if it had been only yesterday. “Then I will remain wifeless forever.”
“No, do not say that,” she whispered. “For to remain wifeless is to remain childless. And that is not ordained.”
He was about to ask her what she meant. For he remembered her saying something similar fifteen years ago, when they first parted. But before he could speak, she gestured to the boy standing beside him.
“You were right. This is he. The eighth child. The one I did not drown, but took away with me when I left you.”
He nodded slowly. “It took me some time to realize, for somehow . . .” He passed a hand across his face. “Somehow I had forgotten! Forgive me for that lapse.”
She shook her head in commiseration. “The mind forgets what it cannot bear to remember. If only the heart could forget so easily.”
“Exactly. My mind had forgotten about the last child, but my heart recognized him somehow . . .” He gestured towards the boy, still standing contritely, watching and listening to them with a curious look on his innocent, handsome face. “He has something of your aspect about him . . . and clearly something of your godly powers.”
She smiled proudly. “He has great abilities and profound knowledge. He will do you proud. He will be the greatest son you could ever desire. It is he who will ensure the survival of your kingdom through its darkest days . . . until . . .”
Sha’ant frowned. “Until?”
She shook her head, water droplets flying hither and tither. “I cannot say more; I have said too much already. Only know this: He is your son and will be a great warrior among mortals. His name is Vrath.”
“Vrath,” Sha’ant repeated approvingly, “God’s vow. A fine name.”
“I know it is an unusual and grim name among you mortals. But such is his nature and his destiny.”
And with that she was already moving back into the water, dissolving, descending . . .
“No,” he cried. “Wait! There is so much I wish to say to you! To ask you! Please stay, just a short while longer.”
She joined her palms together in supplication as Sha’ant himself had at his first sight of her. “Henceforth, you may say and ask all of Vrath. He shall answer and advise you perfectly in all matters. He has been groomed for this purpose. Love him as well as he shall learn to love you, and use his powers wisely, for he is greatly gifted and no mere mortal.”
And then she was one with the water, and the waves enveloped her, and she merged with them once again and was gone as if she had never been.
Sha’ant sat for a long moment, crouched by the riverside, staring down at the place where Jeel had emerged from and then returned to.
If there is one pain that can equal the pain of grief and parting with our most dearly loved ones, it is the pain of seeing such dearly loved ones again, years later, long after one has finally forgotten, and to be reminded once again, if only for a fleeting moment, of all that was, all that could have been—should have been—but can now never be again. Who among us can know the pain that Sha’ant felt at that moment, to have seen his beloved wife again, if only for a few moments, and to know that she was always within reach, yet somehow always also out of reach.
And so the Jeel flowed, and the greatest love Sha’ant had ever known—might ever know—was gone forever.
Like a poet’s lyric spoken into a storm.
Like a reed-flute’s song drowned by a hurricane.
Like a love story written on water.
Finally, as the sun was setting, he felt strong arms with a gentle touch upon his shoulders.
“Father,” said a gentle voice behind him. “I understand now. This is the day I was told to prepare for. I am ready. Let us go home now.”
And Sha’ant permitted his son to help him to his feet and together they walked back towards the city of his Krushan ancestors.
The stories in the Legends of the Burnt Empire series take place in the same world as Ashok K. Banker's Upon a Burning Throne, the first book in a ground-breaking, epic fantasy series inspired by the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata.
John Joseph Adams Books
Hardcover / Ebook