The woman waded up the hill holding her daughter close to her chest, defying the water gushing downhill. The rest of her people were left far behind, but she didn't care. When had her daughter stopped shivering? The cold of her body had to be from the rain. She left it to the heavens to weep and lash out in white fury.
She collapsed next to a large boulder at the top of the hill. The little girl fell, splashing mud, and did not move even as rain showered on her body. She turned to the gods, her despair and grief finally breaking through her mask.
A bright blue-white branch reached down from the heavens. The sky screamed.
She awoke with the sun. She stood atop the hill overlooking a green valley. A gleaming river snuck in and out of clumps of trees and rock formations. For a moment she remembered nothing and the world was beautiful. Then she remembered and wept. She knelt down crying even as familiar little hands wrapped around her neck.
There she was— her daughter, beaming up at her mother as if the last few days of sickness and fever were just a nightmare. She studied her daughter’s face— the long black hair, the blue and brown eyes, the grin that hung between dimples. She swept her daughter off her feet, showering her with kisses.
Her people gathered around singing praises to the gods. They prepared a feast with whatever the land offered. They had been sure both mother and daughter were dead when the lightning struck the boulder, but to their surprise, they found both of them healthy. But something curious had happened to the boulder. The lightning had carved out a shape in it.
“It’s a miracle,” said the mother. “The heavens saved my little girl and revealed this bountiful valley. There we will settle.”
The woman bowed deeply to the face on the boulder. It reminded her of her great grandmother who had told her stories of the Great Mother, goddess of travelers, of childbirth, and of the needy.
A tree behind the boulder arched over it like an umbrella. Its gold flowers hung in short beads. The woman plucked a few of those flowers. She removed her necklace of bone and precious stones. She cut a small lock of her daughter's hair. These she offered to the goddess of the hill.
The merchant sat down on a wooden bench near a shrine. He wiped the sweat off his brow and leaned back, stretching. Water from some spring flowed into a small pond by the bench. A leaf fell gently on its surface, sending soft ripples. He found a clay cup next to the pond and scooped up some water. Sipping it under the cool shade of a large gold-flowered tree, he watched the small town in the valley below.
The merchant turned around to see a monk in saffron robes, puffing a small pipe.
“Oh yes,” said the merchant. “All the way from Sanjo.”
“Sanjo?” asked the monk. He sat down next to the merchant. “That must have taken you through Iruda.”
“Yes,” said the merchant, fanning himself with a coconut leaf fan. “Terrible what happened to the lord there. You give everything to your son and he just runs off. Terrible.”
The monk said nothing. He took another puff of smoke.
“So where am I?” asked the merchant. “I’ve never traveled this far before. Whose shrine is that?”
“The goddess Amunda,” said the monk. “She watches over travelers, and thieves, and merchants.” He winked.
“Hey now,” said the merchant. “I take offense to that. I’m more than just a traveler. Are you the priest, here?”
“Yes,” said the priest. “For someone who’s traveled far, you haven't sold a lot.”
“Oof,” said the merchant. “Blunt, aren’t you? I’ve had no luck, yet.”
“Why don’t you make an offering to the goddess?”
“You think it’ll work?” The merchant raised an eyebrow.
“What sort of salesman would I be if I said otherwise?” asked the priest, chuckling.
“I’ve never heard of the goddess Amunda,” said the merchant.
“A long time ago, in a time of famine, many people made the journey east,” said the priest after yet another puff of smoke. “They traveled in search of a land where they could live in peace. Taking pity on the people who suffered, the goddess Amunda broke with her father, and rode down in her lightning horse— Mak. She guided people to the valley and promised to protect them for as long as they pass down her help to those who seek it. People who travel by this road traditionally make an offering of flowers and fruits. Sometimes money.”
“Not a lot of money, I guess,” said the merchant. The shrine itself was a small wooden structure around a boulder. There was a tall idol, overlooking the valley, its hands pressed together, eyes serenely open. It was the large tree with its wide canopy sprinkled with golden flowers that really sold it.
“That’s a great idol,” said the merchant, getting up to take a closer look. “The attention to detail is excellent.”
“Thank you,” said the priest.
“You made this?”
The priest nodded. He appeared to take some pride in it, but there was also a sense of sadness about him. His eyes seemed to see past the horizon.
“How did you become a priest here?” asked the merchant, intrigued. He had an ear for stories.
The priest slowly leaned back.
“When I was young, my eyes were a different colour each,” said the priest. “My mother suffered quite a lot because of it. They said a demon had possessed me due to her lack of piety. After my mother… died, my father— well, my father cared more about his land and his horses. So I spent my youth running around the countryside, getting into trouble. I found I had a knack for crafting.”
For a moment, a mischievous smile flashed across the priest’s face. Then it was replaced by a wistful smile. He took another puff.
“I ran away from home at the age of seventeen,” said the priest. “I wandered here and there until my legs couldn’t carry me any further. That was here.”
The priest took a cup of water from the pond.
“At first I made my living selling figurines of the goddess to travelers and the townspeople. It kept me fed and clothed. Increasingly, I found myself spending more and more time here at the shrine. There was a sense of purpose in making those figurines, and in cleaning the shrine, and sweeping the leaves. I stopped selling them. I simply gave them away. Then something strange happened. The people began bringing up food. They began consulting me about their dreams and nightmares. My figurines helped them get better from sickness and hardships. I’d found the purpose I had lacked all my life.”
The priest walked towards the idol.
“I knew I had to make this idol for the goddess. To— to visualize her powers. That’s not right. I’m not sure what the right word is.”
The priest reached for the statue but stopped. It seemed he was stopped. A gentle breeze that had been blowing steadily suddenly began gathering speed. Dark clouds spilled over the eastern hills. The merchant jumped as the bells rang in an eerie rhythm. He hadn’t noticed there were small bells tied to the branches above the shrine.
“But now that I’ve completed the idol,” said the priest, his saffron robe billowing in the wind. “I don’t have a purpose anymore.”
The howling winds and ringing bells reached a crescendo. The merchant saw the lighter shade of the priest’s left eye.
“I don’t want to wander again.”
The wind stopped abruptly.
The merchant made an offering of flowers and left, leaving the priest standing beside the idol. Before long, the merchant couldn’t distinguish between the two. He returned from the valley a richer man and made an offering of wine and gold.
The priest was nowhere to be found.
The river burst into an angry demon that devoured the town and its people. The ruins of the town succumbed to the ravages of time. In time, nature came for the shrine too.
“Quick! In here,” said Asho, leading the way. The flickering light of his torch barely showed the way through the vines. Something slithered out of the edge of the darkness at every stop.
“Put out that torch,” said Noru, wiggling through the overgrown branches. His backpack caught on every stray twig.
They sat down on a small patch of ground surrounded by thick bushes. Asho put out his torch. They held their breath waiting for the slightest sound. Soon they heard hooves. Through the thicket, they caught a glimpse of a few torches bobbing up and down. The horses neighed too close for comfort. Asho muttered a prayer.
“Shut up,” hissed Noru. They sat cramped together with thorns poking their backs and sides until, finally, the men on horseback retreated.
“I told you that job was risky,” said Asho.
“Oh, shut up,” said Noru, a manic grin spreading across his face. “We got the jewels, didn’t we?”
“We’ll— uh— we’ll bury it here somewhere,” said Noru. “We’ll lay low. We’ll go our separate ways and we’ll come back when the— when it’s safe.”
Asho, nodded his head. Noru removed his backpack and placed it between them.
“Hold on,” said Asho, his hand on the backpack. “What’s stopping you from coming here first?”
“You don’t trust me?” asked Noru, innocently.
“Not with this,” said Asho.
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“Let’s split the loot,” said Asho after some thought. “I’ll bury my share. You bury yours. That way we can come back for it whenever.”
“That’s the best idea you’ve ever had,” said Noru. He lit the torch once again and opened the backpack. There were three chests of gold and silver, and a sword encrusted with precious jewels.
“How do we split this?” asked Asho. “How about you take two chests and I take the other chest and the sword?”
“Then I get the large chest,” said Noru. Before Asho could protest, he quickly added, “The sword alone is worth as much as that chest.”
Asho took the smaller chest and sword. The sword had piqued his fancy the moment he laid eyes on it. They took their shares and walked off in opposite directions. Asho buried his chest and sword in a deep hole near what looked like a small broken-down wooden house around a boulder. The location was easy to remember. Even the ground was strewn with golden flowers.
Suddenly he heard twigs cracking behind him. He turned around just in time to see a man duck out of view. Noru had followed him. He knew that good for nothing thief could not be trusted. He put out his torch. He didn’t have the strength to dig another hole. He had to take care of Noru. He knew better than to risk a straight fight.
Asho climbed up the tree with the golden flowers and waited, his knife at the ready. A small light appeared near the road. It wasn’t from where he expected, but Noru must’ve gone back around to throw him off. The light was now under his branch.
Asho jumped, knocking the torch out of Noru’s hand. His knife found Noru’s throat. Warm blood spilled on the torch, extinguishing the flames. Noru died gurgling his own blood in the pitch dark.
Asho lit the torch and studied his accomplice’s face frozen in fear and confusion. Those blue and brown eyes were creepy in the dark. Everyone said those eyes were unlucky. And now, Asho realized with bitterness, the other half of the loot was lost forever. Asho got back on the path but tripped on something heavy. For a dreadful moment, he thought Noru had crawled behind him.
Asho whipped his torch around and saw a severed head. Shocked, he leaped back. His torch flew out of his hand as his feet slipped off the edge. The torch landed on the path, illuminating the broken pieces of a stone statue— legs that still stood, and a severed life-like head on the ground.
“Ah, it was the statue that fell over.”
People as far as Iruda saw the hill burn. It burned for weeks before the rains came. Grass grew over the pieces of the idol. The wooden structure was almost completely gone. The tree behind the boulder alone stood untouched.
As time passed and the domains grew stronger, the balance of power began to shift and the land entered a new age of war.
“You should get away,” said Aruna, slowly letting herself down. She leaned back against a boulder, clutching the side of her stomach. “Go east to my uncle. Take this ring. He will give you refuge.”
“My lady,” said Siman, kneeling down beside her. “You’re delirious. You need to rest.”
Siman removed Aruna’s armor. When she pulled off the broken helmet, black hair fell in sticky reddish clumps.
“You’re bleeding, my lady. Just hold on.”
“I’m not delirious.”
“If you expected me to leave you behind,” said Siman, applying the last of her herbs. “You’re delirious.”
Aruna chuckled, but immediately regretted it.
“Just rest, my lady.”
“We’ve lost,” said Aruna, leaning back. “The castle, the domain, the people.”
“Not your fault,” said Siman. “If your brother had taken heed of your word.”
“It’s my fault he didn’t,” said Aruna. “Should’ve been more persuasive.”
“Should’ve hit him over the head and taken command,” snarked Siman. “If I may say so.”
“You’re the only one who may,” said Aruna, smiling as darkness crept from the edges of her vision and covered her sight.
In her dreams, she was a little girl on the verge of death. Her mother cried over her. She wondered if that’s what it felt like to have a mother. Her own had died in battle. Her dreams shifted from rain-soaked night to a bright battlefield filled with blood and screams. They shifted again and she was a runaway. A young lord wandering the land. She fought waves of soldiers, again and again, knowing that her brother had led the army to an obvious ambush. He was older. She couldn’t simply take charge. Then she was a thief with eyes like hers, burying treasure enough to buy an army.
Aruna awoke with the confidence of one chosen by the gods.
“A vision?” asked Siman, trying to understand what her mistress was rambling about.
“Yes,” said Aruna, hacking through the thicket. She winced with each step, and each swing of her sword brought a new sting to the wound on her side. “It should be somewhere around… here. Here! Dig here.”
Even as she dragged two large chests of gold and precious stones, Siman appeared not to believe what she was doing.
“How?” was all Siman could ask.
“The goddess,” said Aruna, looking around. “There was a shrine here. This was the abode of a goddess who came down from the heavens. She showed me this vision. With this, I’ll take back what is mine, and then I’ll take the rest.”
Siman looked up at her, eyes shining with her faith in her mistress.
“The goddess,” said Siman. “What is her domain?”
An era of peace was imposed across the land and the land prospered. A large temple complex arose around the old shrine. A marvel of engineering rose across the hill. Wooden structures jutted out of the hillside, held together by human ingenuity and divine inspiration. Priests and priestesses discovered new rituals in dreams, in twice-told stories, and in half-preserved manuscripts. As the temple prospered so did the kingdom of Amundavarsha.
In time, as in times before, the people began to cry for freedom from that smothering peace. The land broke again into many pieces and vast armies ravaged those pieces. Hungry, violent mobs held together by thin strands of identity cut, burned and looted through the lands.
No one stopped to marvel at the great feats of engineering, the ingenuity that had gone into constructing a temple complex into the side of a hill. The fires burned oblivious to history and heritage. The priests and priestesses hid what they could. They threw their precious idol covered in gold and jewels down a dark well. They buried the well. They buried their pain under their faith as they were tortured by liberators.
The lightning cracked boulder and the tree with golden flowers watched over all this as they had watched over the land since before the time of men and women. At last, when the land had nothing more to give, and the dry winds of famine blew across the land, peace returned— a dead peace.
In such a time of peace, there came upon the hill, a young woman who had blue and brown eyes. She sat under the tree and looked out across the vast valley below. As she traced the river from one end to the other, she found herself overwhelmed by a profound sense of time. She sensed an ocean of time so deep that her own life of twenty years— all her memories, her apprenticeship under the old physician, the famine that took her family, the deaths, the loves— were, but a drop. Grief reached out through the ages and held in her throat like a lump she could neither swallow nor spit.
All she could do was weep.
As she wept a woman came frantically up the hill. She held her child close as if she thought her grip was the only thing holding her daughter’s soul to her body. The mother collapsed at the young woman’s feet and looked up at her.
The young woman with blue and brown eyes knelt beside the girl. She took her pulse, felt her temperature, and smiled.
Here was something she could do. Here was someone she could help.