Science Fiction & Fantasy




The Giving One (Part 1)

The great sage Jamarg was absorbed in his meditation when the calm of his hermitage was disturbed by the thunder of a thousand hooves. Frowning at being disturbed from his meditation, he rose and went to see why mounted men had come to this remote place. His wife Rukunyi was hurrying back from the river, bearing a heavy earthen pot filled with fresh water. Her face glowed with excitement.

“It must be my father,” she said to Jamarg as she approached the stoop of their thatched hut where he stood. “Or at the very least my mother come to visit me! Only a king or queen would travel with so many mounted men.”

She set the pot of water down on the stoop, spilling some. Jamarg noticed that the pot was barely half full and a trail of splotches marked her route across the clearing. He did not comment on it. He already knew that to his wife, a visit from her family far outweighed the daily drudgery of her domestic chores. Not for the first time, he wondered if he had indeed done the right thing by marrying a Stonak woman and bringing her away from her palatial city life to spend her life as a hermit’s spouse.

Yet there was great love between them, he knew, and he sensed it even now as she clutched his hand and tentatively squeezed it, conveying her happiness as the sound of hoofbeats grew closer. It was true that as a daughter of the Stonak dynasty, she could not help displaying strong emotions or desiring the hustle and bustle of her former life, but it was his arm she squeezed in excitement and to him that she turned her smiling face to share her joy. He smiled and patted her hand.

Jamarg looked around for his sons. Rukunyi noticed this and said, “Volsh and Veshnyi are collecting herbs and fruit for our meal. Saril and Rumant have gone to fetch firewood. Parsh is gone to his guru to study.”

Jamarg nodded. Their eldest son’s birth name was Nashenya, a simple and beautiful name on its own, and one often favoured by Rukunyi’s lineage. But ever since Parasu, the divine axe—parsh, in ashcrit—had been bequeathed to him by his guru Vish, his son carried it everywhere he went, even to the river when he bathed, so much so that everyone had taken to calling him Nashenya of the Axe. Or, colloquially, Parsh. Not a very appropriate name to call a man of the priest caste.

When Rukunyi used that name, Jamarg nearly spoke up to correct her, but in the end decided to say nothing. People who came to be known by their most distinguishing characteristic were people to whom fame came naturally. There was little point in objecting to something that was natural. Besides, there was no doubt that Parsh took after his Stonak mother far more than his priest caste father. It was the reason why he had been gifted the axe by his guru, none other than Vish the Destroyer himself.

The thundering swelled to a deafening pitch then broke into a ragged explosion of beats as the clearing filled with mounted armed riders. The frontrunners drew up their mounts at the sight of the hermitage and the seer and his wife standing before it, but their faces remained hawkish and their weapons stayed sheathed. The dust raised by their arrival clouded the air for several moments, even as the thundering of hooves dwindled and finally died away. Even before the dust could settle, a trio of tall hard-faced Stonak dismounted and strode towards the hut, swords in hand.

“Who lives here?” one asked, raising his sword insolently to point at Jamarg. One of his companions turned his head, hawked, and spat a gob of phlegm. Jamarg resisted the urge to ask the man if he would spit thus in his own house but held his tongue. Judging by the loutish appearance of these men, it was possible they thought nothing of spitting or even worse in their own house. Or palace, more likely. For the three of them were clad in richly filigreed armour with finely made garb beneath it. Even their swords had icons on their hilts. And through the settling dust Jamarg could see the coloured banner on the pole of their flagbearer.

Stonak. Brothers. Princes. And if I am not mistaken, that is the sigil of the Stonak line. Jamarg knew at once that if he did not carefully heed everything he said or did from this moment on, his wife and he would be slaughtered without a second’s hesitation. And if these men were to learn that his wife was of the Stonak line, even their sons would not be spared. A hermit priest had no cause to have enemies, being dedicated to ashcrit study and peaceful meditation. But these Stonak were no less than mortal enemies to Jamarg.

“My wife and I live here,” he replied.

The sword remained in the air, its pointed tip aimed at Jamarg’s throat. Jamarg glimpsed the sword-bearer’s brothers looking at Rukunyi with more than casual interest, and he forced himself to suppress the surge of anger that rose in his gullet.

Finally, the sword dipped and the Stonak turned away rudely, showing Jamarg his back. “Only an old priest caste’s hovel,” he said to someone beyond Jamarg’s line of sight.

The person spoken to came walking slowly into view, an attendant brushing the dust from his rich garb and armour with a peacock-feather duster. Another attendant followed close behind in perfect step with his master, holding up an umbrella with the distinctive coloured fabric and embroidered sigil of a royal seal that left no doubt about this stranger’s title and position. The man himself was exceedingly tall, powerfully built, and moved with the lithe grace of a predator. He was perhaps a decade and a half older than the three loutish Stonak before him and clearly their forebearer. They all shared his hawkish features and cream-wheat complexion, and most of all, they all moved and spoke with a similar arrogant sense of entitlement.

Jamarg realized with a shock that he knew exactly who this personage was—there was no disputing it: Arjen himself, King of the Stonak. At my hermitage! Great and merciful Brum, why do you bring me this test of my resolve and endanger the lives of my loved ones?

King Arjen Stonak, son of Krita Stonak, glanced at the thatched hut, passing his gaze condescendingly over both Jamarg and Rukunyi, seeming to find nothing of the slightest interest in anything he saw.

He pointed his chin toward Jamarg. One of his sons immediately spoke on his behalf. “Priest, we seek rebels fighting for Saegen. Have any come past?”

Jamarg bowed his head. “My Lord, we have seen not a single other person in this remote Aranya jungle for months.”

King Arjen Stonak glanced at him, seemed to find no reason to contradict his claim, and gestured with his eyebrows at his son.

“We are in pursuit of a band of warriors loyal to Saegen, son of Bosh Krushan. Have you heard or seen any such forces moving through this part of the forest in the past three days?”

Jamarg shook his head. “Nay, my Lord. It is as we said. The forest is quiet and undisturbed. These warriors you speak of have not passed this way.”

One of the other princes spoke up—the one who had pointed his sword at Jamarg. “Bear in mind that allies of the Krushan dynasty are enemies of the Stonak. This is King Arjen Stonak of Stonak City, our father. He is the man who defeated the Urrkh army of Krakaot. He also sacked Vaniyesh when it was under the reign of King Sharyaw and later King Shund, both of whom attempted to oppose him and were killed. And he fought and killed King Divod of the Vyanes, and defeated his son Prak who still seeks to regain the Vyanes kingdom. So too did he depose King Bosh of the Karnik Krushan and claimed Aranya as well. Since you are priests and no doubt unaware of the lineages of royals, I shall enlighten you. All these kings my father opposed were of the Krushan dynasty. He as well as all of us are of the Stonak dynasty. Our allies in battle are the Talajangha and we are supported by the Panksh, the five armies of the Jirrak, Yaven, Kambluz, Pahlev, and Parad. We are indomitable and cannot be confronted in battle. We will rule the entire world soon. It is futile to oppose us.”

Yet Bosh, son of Saegen, does oppose you. And soon he will conquer your great Stonak City and take back control of Aranya, seat of the Southern Stonak line. In fact, Bosh must be very near victory for the heirs of King Arjen Stonak and the king himself to be chasing him through the forest with such desperation. You may posture and preen as much as you please, but the circumstances belie your words.

Jamarg dared not say any of this aloud. For not only would it give these ruthless Stonak an excuse to cut him and Rukunyi down on the spot, it might lead to them learning that Rukunyi herself was a princess of the Stonak line, married to a priest caste who also happened to be of Krushan blood, their sworn enemy. The double insult—to have been partially of their enemy’s bloodline, and then to have further sullied her Stonak heritage by marrying a priest caste sworn to non-violence—would be beyond their ability to tolerate.

As if sensing his thoughts, Rukunyi turned her head in Jamarg’s direction. He shook his head very slightly, just enough to indicate to her that she should remain silent. She did.

One of the other princes, the one who had spat so brazenly, asked in a peevish tone: “Priests, have you any food? King Arjen Stonak requires nourishment.”

Jamarg bowed his head again. “We are poor priests. We have no possessions or wealth. Our repast is simple herbs and roots from the forest. It is not fit for a king, or even any Stonak.”

The princes looked at their father.

He shook his head with a derisive expression on his face.

The prince who had spoken before said, “Then go back to your chanting and meditating, priests,” in a tone that made both chanting and meditating sound like vulgar activities. He glanced at his brother princes as he said this, and both sniggered briefly in response before suppressing their amusement in the presence of their father.

The king shook his head with infinite weariness, started to turn away, then paused, looking up at nothing in particular, as if considering. Jamarg tried not to look at his arms, the famous arms of Arjen Stonak. Finally, almost as an afterthought, the king turned back. He spoke in a baritone voice that was deceptively mellifluent and pleasing to the ear. “Search the place anyway.”

The princes emitted eager grunts and rushed forward. They shoved past Jamarg and Rukunyi, followed by a score of other Stonak. Jamarg took hold of his wife by the shoulder and moved her aside, out of the way of the armed and armoured men tramping across their threshold, and stood to the side with his arm around her. The sounds of the Stonak soldiers and their princes rummaging through their meagre possessions came from inside the hut. Two of the princes had gone around the hut and were exploring the rest of the hermitage’s premises.

He whispered to Rukunyi: “When they find nothing, they will leave.”

Rukunyi nodded her head to show she understood. Jamarg realized she was shivering with fear. He was glad it was fear and not anger. As a Stonak herself, a warrior-princess of the Stonak line no less, Rukunyi could easily have lost her head and began berating the Stonak. The result would have been certain disaster. But mercifully, she had grasped the peril of their situation and was holding her pride in check.

Jamarg prayed they would finish the search and leave as quickly as they had come.

• • • •

“Look, father!”

One of the boorish sons of King Arjen Stonak came around the hut dragging a cow by a string attached to its nose-ring. She was a lovely animal, white and brown in colour, with the firm flesh and level back of a young bovine, not yet humped with old age or marked with the scars and bruises of the yoke, her large eyes doe-like and striking. When she caught sight of Jamarg, she mooed pitifully in protest at the manner in which she was being treated, her eyes wide and rolling. The other two princes prodded her in the flanks with their sheathed swords when she tried to resist. One even put his boot to her rump and shoved. She lurched forward squealing.

Jamarg clutched Rukunyi’s shoulder tight, silently warning her not to move or make a sound of protest. Even speaking might betray her, for though she was a dutiful priest caste wife and mother in every respect, she had been raised a warrior-princess and speaking deferentially to other Stonak, particularly under hostile circumstances, might well bring out the warrior in her as well. After all, these were the arch-enemies of her own lineage, the killers of her distant cousins and kin. The best thing she could do was stay silent.

“A cow,” King Arjen Stonak said dispassionately, glancing at the terrified animal. “I am too old to fill my belly with milk, and I am no priest caste to desire ghee. What would you have me do with this beast?”

“Eat it!” said one of his sons, grinning. “We can slaughter it and roast it here on a spit, and we can all feast and regain our strength before continuing the chase.”

“Yes, father!” said the third son eagerly. “It would take too long to go back home to Stonak City and we need meat to regain our strength. This is a good plan.”

Jamarg felt his stomach sicken, nauseated with fear and rising anger. Kill a priest caste’s cow just to make a meal? Slaughter and roast it on consecrated hermitage soil? What wanton beasts were these Stonak? Yet he dared say none of these thoughts aloud, for the consequences would be certain death. Instead, he stared at the back of the king’s head, waiting to see his response. He knew that anything these young princes and the soldiers said or did was only by leave of their liege. It was this man who was the dangerous one. The one to watch.

King Arjen Stonak seemed to be pondering his sons’ suggestion. “Why not,” he said at last. “It is a young cow, her flesh will be tender and nourishing. There seems to be no other source of nourishment in this wretched Aranya jungle. Very well. Slaughter the cow and roast it. Salt it well.”

With that, the king began to walk away.

Jamarg could remain silent no more. He released his wife’s shoulder and moved her behind him before stepping forward. “My lord,” he cried in the most pathetic voice he could manage. “I beg your leave to speak.”

One of the princes raised his sword as if to strike Jamarg down for his insolence.

“No,” said the king, his back still turned. How had he seen his son’s action? Arjen Stonak was renowned for his arms in battle, perhaps he had eyes to match. “Speak, priest caste,” he said, still facing toward the clearing, where his soldiers stood in tired rows, awaiting their next command. “But heed what you say and remember to whom you address your words.”

“Great one,” Jamarg said, keeping his head bowed low and his pressed hands joined. “If it is food you seek, this cow will provide it. There is no need to kill her.”

The king’s back seemed to laugh at Jamarg. “Did you not hear me say that I am grown too old to sup on milk? Neither do I care for butter and cheese. The cow’s flesh, on the other hand, makes a fit meal for fighting warriors. I have already decreed that the cow be slain. You, on the other hand, shall be executed for questioning my command. Let it not be said that a judgement pronounced by Arjen Stonak, emperor of the world, can be overturned by a priest caste. Kill him.”

At once the swords slipped free of their sheaths and the arms of the princes rose eagerly as they advanced on Jamarg. Rukunyi’s scream rang out from behind, shrill and piercing. Jamarg saw the way the prince nearest to him turned his grinning face to leer at her eagerly and knew that once they had slain him, they would have no reason to leave her alive—or untouched. He had a fraction of an instant in which to act and only one recourse. He took it.

Kamshen!” he cried.

His voice, trained by a lifetime of rote recitation and chanting of mantras, rang out across the clearing like a temple bell, electrifying the very motes of the air itself:

|Nashno devyash ajyaan yaishya|
||Suryairt zha nashno nash||
|Mavag ajeeshne aropnyor|
|Namas Vish Peren Krushanye||

The oncoming swords halted at the utterance of his first word, the uncouth Stonak princes bearing the weapons of slaughter frozen, startled to stillness by the authority and power in his voice. If there was one thing Stonak feared, even briefly, it was the power of the priest caste to summon and manipulate the forces of auma to work his will. Even without looking at them directly, Jamarg saw the fear on their moustached faces.

His own eyes were directed at the cow, as were the mantras he was reciting. It was but a prayer to Mother Cow, recited by all priests to honour and please the four-footed givers of the essential items that sustained a priest caste’s life. But by simply prefacing it with the title “Kamshen,” he had rendered it a special invocation, infused with all the power he had accumulated over his lifetime of meditation and penance. Shen was the cow’s given name, so named by her rightful owner. Kam meant wish. Kamshen therefore meant Shen who fulfilled one’s wishes.

Even as the last echoes of his recitation died away, the cow mooed long and loud. Her cry filled the clearing. Jamarg saw the Stonak princes react, backing away from the beast, even though it was but a harmless bovine and they were strong warriors armed with drawn swords. At the periphery of his vision, Jamarg sensed the other soldiers also react, made nervous by his chanting of the mantras. This was the First Age: the world was still young, words still had their full potency, and the utterances of a man of auma could move mountains and redirect rivers if he so desired. It was the reason why many Stonak, particularly those openly hostile to priests as these Stonak were, struck before they spoke, deeming it safer to kill a priest caste on sight rather than wait and chance being struck down by his mantras. There was even a term for such potent magic: astra. A mantra of such potency, it could be wielded as a weapon. Which was literally what the term meant: weapon.

Yet what Jamarg had just recited was no astra. Far from it. These brutes, however, knew no such thing. Already they were backing away from him, the cow, and the hut as if all were ablaze and the fire threatened to consume them as well.

Only King Arjen Stonak stood his ground, although he had turned to face Jamarg once again and was watching him a menacing expression.

Shen lowed again, raising her head and turning it from side to side, eyes looking downwards, the whites showing. She was still afraid of the men with swords; she sensed their bestial intentions. But the mantra compelled her to obey. The lowing she had just issued was her reply to Jamarg, informing him that she was now ready to fulfill his wish.

Jamarg turned to look at the Stonak king. “It is food you desire, is it not?” he asked. “Food suitable for the nourishment of men at war? You shall have it.”

He spoke the next part of the Invocation, the sminish—secret—part that was not known even to his fellow priests. It was a complex mantra, dense and difficult to understand, let alone recite. He had never spoken it before, only heard it once when the owner of Shen had recited it in his presence. But he was a priest caste. This was what he did.

He recited it perfectly.

The cow lowered her head and snorted. It was an unlikely sound from a young female, the kind of snort that might be expected from a young bull instead. Straining, forceful, aggressive. She stamped her feet, kicking her hind legs. The princes backed further away, increasing the distance between the cow and their precious selves. The other soldiers watched with rising alarm. Only King Arjen Stonak observed both Jamarg and the cow with dispassion.

Shen issued a deafeningly loud bellow that Jamarg felt in the bones of his chest and reverberate within his lungs.

He saw the Stonak close their eyes for an instant, no more than a blink and a wince. And when they opened their eyes again, there was a great feast spread out across the clearing.

They exclaimed, backing away in greater alarm, as if they were witnessing the appearance of armed men or a horde of elephants rather than just food. A few moments passed, during which they looked at each other, then at the repast that lay before them, unsure what they were witnessing or what to do next.

A great length of cloth, some ten yards long and five yards wide, enough to take up one whole side of the clearing, had appeared. Upon this cloth were arrayed a rich variety of victuals of every possible description, along with nectar, juice, and wine of every kind, all arranged in fine pots, jugs, bowls, and ornate containers. It was a feast fit for a king—or for several dozen kings in fact.

And it was real, as anyone’s olfactory senses would tell them. The soldiers and princes realized it too, for even if their eyes were deceiving them, their noses could not mistake the aromas of such rich food and drink. They looked around at their leader for guidance.

The king was looking at Jamarg, eyes cold and face devoid of any discernible emotional expression. “What manner of priest caste trickery is this?” he asked in a voice that was almost a growl of warning. His hands hung by his sides, flaccid and unmoving. Jamarg kept a watch on them, from all that he had heard of the Stonak King those arms were the real threat.

“It is no trickery, my lord.” Jamarg kept his head bowed and his hands clasped. “You desired a meal. I provided it.”

“But how? From where did this feast appear?” King Arjen Stonak’s queries were sharp and pointed, as was his tone. If his face and eyes did not betray emotion, his voice more than made up for the lack. That mellifluous baritone voice conveyed an infinite range of subtle nuances. There was awe present, a little fear as well, and much suspicion, doubt, and distrust. “And what part did the cow play in this magic feat?”

“It was not magic, raje, merely the miraculous product of Mother Cow.”

The Stonak King’s voice added a touch of speculation to the mix of audible emotions, even as his face remained resolutely inscrutable. “Cows cannot produce entire feasts on demand. Out of thin air. What manner of being is this in the shape of a young cow?”

Jamarg swallowed. He had hoped that the appearance of the meal would distract the ravenous Stonak from all other thoughts. And he could see that the warriors as well as the sons of the King were already staring with gaping mouths, already fallen under the spell of the delicious aromas that filled the clearing.

“Answer me, priest caste!” King Arjen Stonak’s voice cracked as sharply as a whip.

Jamarg dipped his head. “The cow is no ordinary cow. Her name is Shen.”

“Shen,” repeated the Stonak King, as if tasting the word, rolling it on his palette to savour its meaning. “The Giving One. An appropriate name for a cow. Yet I recall you calling out a somewhat different version of that name earlier, before you began chanting your priest caste gibberish. What was it?”

Jamarg felt a bead of sweat burst forth on his forehead. He did not like the alteration in the voice of the Stonak King. Arjen Stonak sounded less afraid and anxious now that the initial shock of the sudden feat had worn off, more . . . calculating, more shrewd. “Kam-Shen,” Jamarg replied, deciding it was wisest to say as little as possible.

Kam-Shen!” King Arjen Stonak said aloud.

At once the cow reacted, mooing. The two princes nearest to her—though still a good ten yards away—both reacted as well, stumbling into one another in a bid to retreat farther from the animal. Their armour and swords clashed noisily as they extracted themselves from one another’s arms, each cursing the other softly so as not to be heard by their father.

“A most unusual name for a cow,” King Arjen Stonak said, ignoring his sons. “Kam meaning desire. Shen meaning The Giving One. Therefore Kam-Shen must mean the One Who Gives You Your Desire.”

His face remained as inscrutable as always, even as his voice ranged through a variety of emotions. Pleasure at his decoding the ashcrit names, relaxation as he began to see that this was not a threat to be feared, and most disturbing to Jamarg’s ears, wily calculation as he began to understand the full measure of what he had discovered.

“A Cow That Fulfils One’s Desires,” he said, playing with the ashcrit words as a musician might play with a lute. “Fascinating!”

He pointed a finger at his sons. “Eat. Everyone. Eat and drink to your heart’s content.”

There was the barest moment of hesitation. Then every last man in the clearing fell upon the arrayed food and drink like a pack of hungry wolves upon a solitary doe in deepest winter. The rude sounds of lips smacking, the gulping of liquid, food being chewed, and otherwise consumed by two hundred and fifty uncouth hungry Stonak were the only sounds to be heard for the next several moments.

Jamarg waited for King Arjen Stonak to join his men in their feast. But the Stonak king stood where he was, watching, listening, waiting.

After a while, he called out to his sons. He had to call more than once to distract them from their frenzied eating and drinking. They appeared to be in a contest to choose who among them could eat and drink the most in the shortest time possible. Jamarg wondered if perhaps they thought that because the feast had appeared so suddenly, it might disappear just as quickly. The thought was an amusing one, and he might have smiled, had the circumstances not been so dire.

When the father finally had his sons’ attention, he asked them roughly, “Is it good?”

They turned ecstatic faces to him, smeared with food and wine. They babbled answers but the visual evidence was sufficient to answer the Stonak king’s query.

He turned back upon Jamarg that same cold inscrutable gaze. “What else can she provide?”

Jamarg kept his head low and his hands joined. “Does my lordship crave more food? Speak your appetite’s desire and I shall ask Mother Cow to provide.”

King Arjen Stonak’s voice suggested a sneer. “I possess wealth enough to feed the world thrice over every day. What if my appetite desires things other than food? Can Kam-Shen provide it?”

Jamarg swallowed again. This was the very thing he had feared might come to pass. “I have never had occasion to test her, my lord. In fact, this was the first time I made any demand of her.”

The King of the Stonak snorted. “Typical priest caste austerity. But you do possess the mantras that will invoke her giving nature, do you not?”

“Yes, raje.”

“Then ask her for something other than food.”

Jamarg spread his hands in apparent bewilderment. “What shall I ask for, sire?”

“Ask for gold. Precious gems. Women. Anything. I merely wish to see what she is capable of producing through her magical power.”

Jamarg felt his hands trembling despite himself. “My lord,” he said.

Rukunyi came up behind Jamarg and put her arms around his shoulders, comforting him by adding her strength to his own. He glanced sharply at her, indicating with his eyes that she was to continue to remain silent. She blinked and held her eyes shut an instant longer than necessary, to communicate her understanding. He was glad for her presence, for her touch. He prayed that their sons would not return until this nightmare was ended. The sooner he answered King Arjen Stonak’s queries and the Stonak King was satisfied, the sooner he would leave the hermitage with his men.

You delude yourself. Now that he knows the power of Kamshen he will not simply leave here. You heard the greed in his voice just now. He lusts after her for what she is, a being of power. Earlier, he was about to spare our lives because there was no reason to waste even the energy needed to kill us. Now he has a powerful motive to do so.

“Do it,” the Stonak commanded. “Demand extraordinary wealth. A king’s ransom.”

Jamarg knew this was the beginning of the end. Once the Stonak saw what Kamshen was capable of, he would never be able to simply leave here. Yet he had no choice but to comply with the Stonak’s request—even using the wrong mantra was not possible. As a priest caste, he could no sooner misspeak the words than he could forget his own identity. Truth above all. This was the First Age, also known as the Age of Truth. A priest caste must speak every mantra immaculately, and speak nothing but the absolute truth.

Trying to ignore the growing dread within his heart, he recited the mantra that would compel Kamshen to fulfill the desire of King Arjen Stonak.

• • • •

Karlon paused and partook of the refreshment offered him by the acolytes. The air was electric with anticipation as the rishis of Nimsh-sharanya waited to hear the rest of his narrative. After a short respite, he continued.

“What followed next was as tragic as it was inevitable. Kamshen produced all that Rishi Jamarg commanded. At the sight of the great piles of gold and gems and other precious objects, King Arjen Stonak was filled with lust for more. He kept demanding that Jamarg compel Kamshen to produce more and more, each time naming some new item that he desired until a small hillock of treasure lay in the center of the clearing. Then, as Jamarg had feared all along, the Stonak realized that if he possessed Kamshen herself, he would be the richest, most powerful man in the world. When this realization came to him, he took the calf by force and left with his sons and soldiers and returned to his capital, Stonak City. Before leaving, he compelled Jamarg to instruct him, and him alone, in the mantras of command, and once the priest had finished teaching him the powerful mantras, he struck him aside and rode away with the magic calf.”

Karlon looked around. The night had grown quiet and still. The insect songs of twilight had given way to the calm of the night. In the deep jungle, predators roved and fauna continued their nightly game of survival, but here in the sanctified shelter of Nimsh-sharanya, the peaceful priests and acolytes listened with rapt attention to every syllable of Karlon’s narrative. They had all heard some part or version of the legend of the Bhrigu before, but never before recited in such poetic detail.

“The only reason the Stonak King did not kill Jamarg was because he thought he might have need of his knowledge later. Not all Stonak need be ignorant or illiterate. Indeed, many are among the wisest and most knowledgeable in their own right, often vying with the wisest priests in the quest for ashcrit enlightenment. But these Stonak were ignorant to a fault and hostile to all forms of learning, and like all ignorant beings, these Stonak lived in perpetual self-doubt. King Arjen Stonak thought that there might yet be something that needed to be known in order to keep the calf of plenty producing the endless supply of treasures he envisioned, and so, until he could be sure of that plentiful supply, he decided to leave the priest caste and his wife unharmed.

“Later that same day, the sons of Jamarg and Rukunyi returned home and learned of the events of the day. They were outraged and furious at the abuse meted to their parents by the Stonak king. But being priests, they could do nothing about it. Except for the fifth son, Parsh.

“Now, Parsh was no ordinary priest caste boy. In fact, he shared more than some of the best qualities of a warrior. His great-grandmother Yish was a Krushan who married Sage Kakrinz of the Aranyesh clan. Yish was concerned that due to her Krushan parentage, her children might display warrior tendencies as well. So she appealed to her husband to use his divine knowledge to ensure that her offspring would turn out to be knowledge-seeking priests who worshipped the word, not the sword. At the same time, Yish’s mother, the wife of King Gadhi, lacked a son and heir who would inherit Gadhi’s throne and continue his lineage. She in turn desired a child who would be disposed towards war and weaponry, or in other words, Stonak-like tendencies.

“With this in mind, Sage Kakrinz performed a ritual and divided the fruit sanctified by the ritual into two parts. One part he gave to his wife Yish to consume, the other part to her mother. But mother and daughter accidentally exchanged their portions and each consumed the other one’s share. Only after they finished did they realize their error. Yish appealed to her husband to do something. As the wife of a priest caste, she could hardly raise a Krushan son! Nor would having a priestly son solve the problem her mother faced.

“Sage Kakrinz could not entirely alter the potency of his mantras. But he took steps to ensure that the effect of the fruit would be delayed by one generation. Thus, Yish gave birth to a son with perfect priestly tendencies, who became an emblem of the priest caste, Jamarg, while her mother had a son who was the perfect heir for Gadhi. Thus both mother and daughter’s dilemmas were resolved.

“But as predicted by Kakrinz, the effect of the fruit was delayed, not cancelled. Thus it was that Jamarg’s son, Nashenya, was born with Krushan tendencies. In acknowledgement of this fact, Jamarg and his wife Rukunyi named him Nashenya, a favoured name among Krushans at the time. However, they hoped that at worst he would be a warrior priest, one who was conversant in the arts of war but chose to follow the path of knowledge and peace. As for Yish’s mother, she gave birth to a son whom she named Vishnev, and who grew up as a Krushan with a keener interest in learning than his father might have wished.

“Young Nashenya grew up honouring his parents’ wishes to the letter. He was a dedicated acolyte and a devout seeker of ashcrit wisdom. Thanks to his parents’ enlightened upbringing, he did not suppress or deny his Stonak side but kept it in check by training under one of the most austere and disciplined gurus possible, the mighty Lord Vish himself, Destroyer of Worlds. Vish’s training demanded impossible penance and discipline which no ordinary Stonak—indeed, no ordinary mortal—could dream of achieving. Simply by gaining Vish’s acceptance as a guru, Jamadagneya Nashenya proved himself to be a formidable brahma-Stonak, that rare enlightened being who possesses the best qualities of both priest caste and Stonak varnas. It was in acknowledgement of this very austerity and pacificist approach that Lord Vish gave Parasu, his divine axe, to Nashenya, thus earning him the epithet Parsh by which he was thereafter known.”

Karlon looked around at his audience. Despite the utter blackness of the forest background and the flickering light of the oil lamps and torches around the hermitage, he was certain that once again their numbers had swelled. He did not know how this could be possible. In any case, once launched upon his mammoth recitation, he could not permit himself to be interrupted or distracted by such minor considerations. If the myth was true, if the dead of Beha’al indeed resided in Aranya jungle, if those dead souls now gathered around to hear his recitation of the great epic, then so be it. What better motive to study history than to learn the causes of one’s destruction?

“There is an episode involving Nashenya that will better enable you to understand his dual nature. When he was but a boy, an incident happened involving his mother. Nashenya and his brothers were away in the forest, collecting the fruits and herbs, chopping wood and performing other daily chores. Sage Jamarg was preparing to perform his ritual ablutions so he could begin his day’s meditation. As usual, Rukunyi went down to the river with her pot to fetch water for her husband. As she walked the path that led down the Coldheart Mountains to the Jeel River, she heard unusual sounds and laughter. Through the close-growing trees and foliage, she glimpsed someone splashing about in the water below, making a great deal of noise. It was King Chariotter, lord of the courtesans, the artistic and musical entertainers of the devas, dallying with his lovers. Innocent as she was of such activities, totally isolated and secluded in her life as a hermit’s wife, Rukunyi had no experience of such a sight. At first, she did not even know what was transpiring on the banks of the river below. The closer she came to the riverbank, the more she saw and heard, and the more these titillating sights and sounds aroused and inflamed her curiosity. Finally, she stopped and watched from a discrete spot behind a tree.

“King Chariotter was a magnificent specimen of masculine perfection, endowed with great physical beauty and artistic talent. He sang and recited lyric poetry, danced and cavorted with his courtesans in a display of amorous art performance such as only courtesans and nymphs can demonstrate. Any mortal observer would be powerfully aroused by such a scene. To Rukunyi, innocent and pure of life and thought, it was an erotic assault that engulfed her completely. She felt as if her entire being was aflame, and was overcome by her passions. Watching the otherworldly lovers engaged in the oldest pastime of all, she could not help but fantasize about participating in those arcane acts herself.

“The sound of the pot striking the ground as it fell from her hand brought her back to her senses with a jolt. The courtesans hardly heard or noticed, absorbed as they were in their pursuit of ecstasy. But she was powerfully embarrassed by the extent to which she had lapsed and the thoughts that had consumed her and she ran all the way back to the hermitage, hardly noticing or caring that she was catching her garments and ripping them on branches and roots, or that her hair knot had fallen open to loose her tresses in wanton abandon. She arrived back at the hermitage of her husband in a state such as he had never seen her before, disheveled, glistening with perspiration brought on as much from her fantasizing by the river as from her reckless run uphill, her hair loose and tangled, her clothes torn and dirty—and no pot of water in her hand.

“Jamarg was startled beyond words. As a man of great wisdom and insight, he instantly knew what emotion assailed his wife. After all, she was his wife and consort, and he of all people recognized the signs of arousal upon her face. Her disheveled state and frantic guilty manner were a great shock. To make matters worse, she blurted out an explanation of what had transpired in a feeble attempt to gain his sympathy. But the more she said, the deeper she sank into self-incrimination. Her description of the physical beauty of King Chariotter and the acts she had witnessed him performing with the female courtesans were sufficient to enrage her husband’s emotions. Sage Jamarg was not a man given to a loss of temper easily and he loved his wife dearly enough to overlook almost any transgression. But this was a shameful lapse and somehow her mental adultery seemed to him no less than the actual act, so deeply had she given herself over to the emotional and psychic details of the self-seduction. What he did next was as much the reaction of a jealous husband as that of an outraged priest caste penitent.

“One of their sons had returned home during this time. Jamarg ordered him to take up a weapon and kill his mother at once, as her crime, in Jamarg’s view, was beyond tolerance or forgiveness. He would not debate the right or wrong of such a terrible penalty, and insisted that the execution be carried out without question or argument.

“Reluctantly and with great distress, the first son refused. Shame-faced, he asked his father’s forgiveness for he was unable to follow his instruction.

“Thereupon, Jamarg asked his first son to go fetch his brothers.

“When all five of his scions were before him, he ordered each of them in turn to follow his bidding and execute his condemnation of their mother.

“One by one, each of them refused him in turn. Shame-faced and recalcitrant, they were terrified of their father’s wrath but unable to do as he bid.

“Except for Parsh. He was the last to return home as he was performing his usual chore, chopping wood for the ritual fire. He saw his mother’s weeping distress, heard his father’s enraged commands, sensed his brothers’ shameful impotence, and listened to the terrible pronouncement.

“Without a single word or hesitation, Parsh raised up his axe and with one smooth blow, beheaded his mother.

“His father stared, his anger silenced at last. Parsh’s brothers broke out into grievous weeping. Parsh knelt before his father, bowing his head. Jamarg stared down at his son and was filled with admiration for him.

“Impressed by Parsh’s obedience, he told his youngest son that he could have any boon he desired. For though a priest caste hermit lived in utter poverty and in a state of near destitution, these were the result of his vows. In point of fact, he possessed the power to grant almost any desire or wish through the use of the mantras he knew. He now offered to grant his obedient son any wish he demanded.

“Parsh thanked his father and touched his feet in devotion, then said that all he desired was for Jamarg to restore his mother to life. Indeed, it was because he knew that Jamarg possessed knowledge of the mantra that restored life to the dead that he had willingly executed his own mother. Now that her punishment had been meted out, it was only fair that Jamarg should give Parsh and his brothers their mother back again.

“Jamarg was left speechless by his son’s intelligence and his obedience. His anger dissipated by now, he agreed that being executed was punishment enough for his wife. Uttering the potent mantra of resurrection, he restored Rukunyi back to life, and when she was whole and breathing again, embraced her and accepted her unconditionally once again.”

Karlon stopped and looked around. “So you see what a resolute boy Parsh was? He respected and loved his parents so much that he could behead his own mother at his father’s bidding, but he only did so because he was certain he could resurrect her again. He could do such a thing because unlike his priest caste brothers, he was born with the heart of a warrior. The Krushan part of his being enabled him to commit that terrifying act of matricide as well as to think beyond that terrible act to its aftermath, whereupon he knew his father would agree to resurrect her. Only a Krushan could conceive of and then act upon such an unspeakably violent plan, all within the space of the few seconds it took for his father to order him to execute his mother.

“That same quality, the ability to see the need for violence and act upon it without hesitation was what led to the events that followed the theft of the calf Kamshen. Had Parsh been an ordinary priest caste boy like his brothers, he could never have done what he did next. Then again, perhaps the generations of suffering inflicted upon countless pacifist priests, and the Bhrigu line in particular, had naturally evolved a descendant of that line in whom all the collective righteous rage of those who were wronged and killed had converged. It was as if all the sufferings of his ancestors at the hands of the Stonak had been brewed into the cataclysm that walked the earth by the name of Parsh.”

[End Part 1]

Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the author of more than eighty books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana series. Their works have all been bestsellers in India and have sold around the world. Ashok made their picture book debut with the multiple award-winning I am Brown. Upcoming in May is The Blind King’s Wrath, the final book of the Burnt Empire trilogy. And in June comes their debut thriller, A Kiss After Dying. Born and raised in Mumbai, India, they now live in Southern California.