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A coward on a quest

It was the sort of morning poets love to babble about: blue skies, blooming flowers, warbling birds…

I stoked the oven until the coals were red hot and sank into the kitchen chair to yawn over a book. The knock came two minutes and nine seconds later. It was a tentative sound. An ordinary ear wouldn’t have caught it.

Only humans knock. And humans never knocked on my door.

A young man stood on the doorstep. Everything about him dropped, his head, his shoulders, even his clothes. They were travel-worn, but under the grime I spied expensive linen.

Then the reek hit me, the rank odor of fear. I braced and focused, but could sense no danger, imminent or distant.

“Yes?”

His eyes were dilated and his breathing was ragged. He tried to square his shoulders and succeeded in leaning at a different angle.

“Good day, my good woman. Is your noble mistress, the most honorable Fairy Medhavin within?” The words were haughty, but the tone was obsequious; the voice shook like an aspen in a storm.

“I am she,” I said. He continued to stare. I repeated, “I am Medhavin, the one you seek,” and feared he would faint on my doorstep.

He clung to the doorpost and inundated me with apologies. I tried to stem the flow, failed and gave up. The barrage continued until he stopped mid-sentence and bowed. “Most esteemed Mistress Medhavin, I am honored to meet you.”

“Why do you seek me?”

He looked up. “You don’t remember me?” He sounded pained, as if I was guilty of an act of unpardonable inconsideration.

“Have we met before?” I was certain we hadn’t. I wouldn’t have forgotten such a bundle of fear, even if I tried.

His eyes bulged. “But…but…you cursed me.”

Ah, a princeling!

What was a princeling doing here, on foot, all alone? Perhaps his horse ran away, after one too many apologies.

“I’ve lost count of the babies I cursed. It’s my favorite pastime.” I looked him over. “Generally they grow up, and stop looking the way they did in their cradles.”

“Of course…of course,” he mumbled. “And I…I was a baby. And I’m not a baby now. So…”

Another silence fell. From the kitchen came the whiff of burning bread. If I didn’t get rid of this bleater fast, I’d be breakfasting on cinders-and-butter.

“What did I curse you with?” I inquired.

He looked around wildly, as if trying to find words in the trees.

“Fear.”

“Fear of what?”

His voice sank into a whisper. “Everything. I am scared of everything.”

That didn’t sound right. Curses were my way of balancing fate’s lopsided scales a bit. Somebody had to impose a handicap or two on those royal brats, born to every advantage and brought up to think the world owed them whatever they fancied. But I had my own rules; avoiding excess was one of them.

When I spoke next, my words stunned me.

“Would you like some breakfast?”

The young man looked as startled as I was. Then he rallied. “I’m scared of eating too. But you can’t live without eating and drinking, can you? So I tell myself it’s going to be all right.”

The bread was only slightly burnt. I set the table. He tried to help, dropped almost everything he picked up and apologized endlessly.

“What is your name?” I asked, after seeking patience in blackest koffee.

“Cecil.”

It didn’t help. I rarely bothered with names.

“And your father?”

The boy’s brown eyes gleamed with a true-believer’s fervor. “You’d remember him, ma’am. He is King Luki. He’s so brave. He has been waging wars since he was sixteen and he has won all of them. He’s the greatest king, ever. He’s my hero. My only dream is to be worthy of him. That’s what I live for.”

The boy was right about one thing. Luki was indeed unforgettable. A mean-minded man, avaricious and egoistic, a sadistic bully at the head of an army. He wasn’t that different from others who occupied thrones, only more so. If he had any redeeming qualities, they were a state secret.

Suddenly the memory kicked in.

Luki had advanced the naming ceremony of his first born because he believed I was busy thousands of leagues away. His face went from self-satisfied ruddy to thunderous black when he saw me. His lips formed ‘You’, but there was no sound.

I bowed. “Your Majesty, the naming ceremony of your first born, how could I stay away?”

He caught the emphasis; not all mass-murderers are stupid.

I treated him to a brilliant smile and sauntered to the gold and yellow cradle.

Babies are generally anodyne creatures, each looking much like the other. This one was different; the eyes were calculating and the body radiated violence. I unleashed my farseeing-powers and explored the possible futures. There was only one.

In that moment I had felt a terror I had never known before; or since.

I tried to reconcile that seventeen-year-old memory with the gangly form sitting opposite me buttering a piece of bread as if he was waging a battle of life and death, and failed.

Perhaps fear of everything was the right cure.

“How did you come,” I asked. “Luki’s kingdom is far away. I didn’t see a horse.”

“I walked. I’m scared of horses. I’m scared of walking too, but I’m scared of horses more. They always throw me.”

“So why did you come? If it’s to ask me to remove the curse…”

He shook his head. “No, no, ma’am. I wouldn’t dream of such an imposition. I know you can’t do it.”

“Then why are you here?”

He drew a deep breath. “My father set me a quest. He says I must be worthy of the crown. You see, ma’am, he engaged in his first quest when he was fourteen. And he killed man-eating ogres.”

I clamped my teeth on my lower lip to prevent a gasp.

Pretended to be lost, was befriended by Ogress Yodhi, ate her food, sheltered under her roof and butchered her and her family in their sleep; including the three-month-old twins.

I looked at the boy’s shinning eyes, and gulped down my words. Let him keep his illusions.

“So what does Luki want you to do?” I asked in a mild voice.

“Have you heard of Himadesh, ma’am”?

I nodded. A desert of ice.

“At the end of it, there is a castle. A long time ago, an evil mage cursed the new born princess. On her sixteenth birthday she and everyone else in the castle fell asleep. My father wants me to go in there and rescue her from the curse. He has studied ancient scrolls which explain how the princess and everyone else in the castle can be saved from this living death. A prince must go into the castle and wake the princess up with a kiss.” He paused and continued, “This is my chance to prove that I’m as brave as my younger brother. I must do it. If I die, well, I cannot think of a better death, ma’am.”

Ah, the idiocy of the willfully blind!

“Why come to me? If you are looking for magic swords or some other paraphernalia you’d better look elsewhere.”

“No ma’am. I had a sword. I didn’t bring it because, well, you see, I cut myself.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to begin the quest, ma’am. That’s why I came to you…”

How like Luki to use the quest to get rid of the unsatisfactory elder son, so that the akin-to-papa younger son could inherit.

The prospect of putting a spoke in that monster’s wheel was compelling. I could just imagine Luki’s face when the son he sent to a certain death returns triumphant.

Besides I had a debt of my own to pay. Yodhi was my friend. My egg hatched in her mother’s garden. We grew up together.

“I’ll help you,” I said, “In fact I’ll do more than that. I’ll come with you.”

He stared, his eyes close to popping out of the sockets, his mouth wide open. Then he sank to his knees and kissed my hand.

“Thank you,” was all he said.

#

We started early next morning.

On the way out, I picked the two stoutest umbrellas off the hall stand and gave one to Cecil. “They make good walking sticks. And rains come without warning.”

He stared. “I thought we’d fly, ma’am.”

“I could have done it, had you been a kitten or a puppy. Something I could tuck under my arm.”

He apologized again and again, for slowing me down. But he turned out to be the better walker. It was I who slowed him down. And he didn’t say a word about it.

On the fourth day, the road led to a clearing in a forest of looming trees, skulking bushes and creeping vines. In the middle of the clearing was a young woman tied to an iron pole. She looked at us, but her eyes were unfocused.

Cecil groaned. I could sense empathy. I had noticed it earlier; he would share his meals with birds and squirrels, free trapped animals and put fallen baby birds back in their nests.

I hurried to the girl. The chain binding her was as thick as a thumb, but no match for my unsheathed nails.

Behind me Cecil continued to moan. The girl recovered faster than he did.

“I’m Lady Agina,” she said, in a voice nightingales would envy. Her linen mantle was as exquisite as her silk dress. Both fitted her hourglass figure.

“Tell us what happened to you,” I ordered.

“The Great White Knight, Sir Gallantor, wants to marry me. I am an orphan and my parents left me much wealth. I refused his offer. He abducted me and left me here. He said the prospect of a night alone in this forest would make me change my mind.”

“He’ll be back soon then. We must leave.”

“I’ve an idea ma’am.” Cecil sounded scared and wistful.

I raised an eyebrow. .

“We dress you in this lady’s cloak, ma’am. You can stand by the pole, as if you are tied up. The knight will think that this lady has been turned into…er…someone old. He’ll think there’s some evil magic at work. He won’t stop for a second look.”

The plan wasn’t perfect. But I decided to give it a try.

Cecil and Agina busied themselves doing my bidding. Or rather Agina did my bidding while Cecil stumbled over things and apologized.

Sir Gallantor arrived with the setting sun. He made a picturesque sight against the gold and red of the evening sky, a sleek man in gleaming white on a white charger. He ran a hand through his golden hair. His periwinkle blue eyes glittered. Beneath the posing, I sensed brutality and greed. Fortunately he was too intent on his appearance to pay attention to mine.

I waited until he was a few feet away and spoke, wreathing my face in a smile of singular malevolence.

“Mine own heart!”

I could see myself in his eyes, a shorthaired hag, beanpole tall and beanpole thin, with obsidian eyes and a granite chin.

Oh, his expression! He tumbled from the horse like a sack of meal and crouched on the ground.

“Why’d you tarry, mine bullkin?” I smacked my lips and rolled my eyes. “Why’d you look so, at Agina? I’ll marry you, mine beeg lummox.”

He cradled himself in his arms, moaning.

I slinked towards him, my hands held out, nails unsheathed. “Let me kiss you, my honey-cake.”

That did it. He gave an ear-splitting scream and fled. My far-sight espied two wolves. He wouldn’t go far.

“Will he come back?” Agina asked, after she and Cecil stopped laughing.

“No,” I replied. The scream came on cue. The distance didn’t dilute the terror or the agony.

Agina’s eyes glinted with satisfaction. Cecil began to shiver. The gleam of pity I caught in his eyes soured my triumph.

The next morning I told Agina to take the horse. She didn’t need much persuasion. I felt she would have done so anyway. We parted without regrets. She headed home on horseback. We resumed our quest on foot.

#

The stories lie. Quests are hell.

By the time we had been on the road for a fortnight I was weary of trudging through endless forests, eating indifferent food, and Cecil’s unending apologies.

On the midmorning of another tiresome day we reached a place where the forest was bisected by a straggling village. Cecil went to procure a few necessities.

It was a relief to have some time on my own. I closed my eyes, enjoying the quiet.

The sound startled me into full wakefulness. It was as if a herd of wild bulls were thrashing through the undergrowth. I sighed and opened my eyes.

Cecil’s face was bathed in blood. He collapsed at my feet and lay as still as dead.

Fortunately the wound on his forehead was a clean cut. Even more fortunately he remained unconscious until I finished attending to it.

“What happened?” I asked. He shuddered and moaned. His eyes were vacant holes.

I clasped his limp hand and held his eyes with mine. “Tell me what happened, Cecil. You went to the village. You were going to buy some food. Did you manage to do it?”

Cecil was nothing if not obedient. “I bought the food,” he responded. His voice had a faraway quality as if he was reliving those events. “They told me there was a weaver in the village so I went there. I wanted to buy you a shawl, ma’am.” He smiled. “I thought it might help when the nights get cold.”

I stared at the green and black shawl in consternation. When I spoke my voice was gruff.

“Thank you Cecil. It’s a fine shawl. Tell me what happened next.”

“I was talking to her, Kinnya, the weaver.” His pale cheeks flushed for a moment. Then his eyes dilated with horror. “That was when they came, the dasa-catchers. That’s what they call themselves. They descend on villages and take all the young women away, to sell to kings and nobles and rich men as slaves and concubines.” A racking sob escaped him and he clutched at my hand. “How can such horror happen, ma’am? I know that not all countries can be as peaceful and well-governed as my father’s. But something as terrible as this?”

I reflected, again, on the curious gaps in Cecil’s knowledge.

“I tried to stop them. One man slashed at me with his saber. I fell. When I came to, they were gone. Oh, I wish my father were here. He would have taught those brutes a lesson.”

His father probably bought some of those women.

Cecil turned to me. “We must do something ma’am. We must rescue them.”

“Well, that should be quite easy,” I said blandly. “They must be many, and armed; and leagues away by now.”

Sarcasm was lost on Cecil.

“There are five of them and they are armed. They are on horseback. Horses cannot go fast in this terrain, ma’am.”

He was right. We were in a craggy area, with hills and ravines succeeding each other. The vegetation was thick and the soil slippery after the recent rains.

“You just need to locate where they are, ma’am.”

I sighed and used my far-sight. They were pitching camp in a shallow ravine, about a league away.

We got there before sundown. There were five men. They had lit a fire and were roasting a murdered animal, a white pig by the looks of it.

The sight of the women hit me like a spiked-cudgel. There were three of them, inside an iron net. They huddled together. I could smell their terror.

I was glad I had not objected to Cecil’s proposal.

“Ma’am,” his stuttering whisper broke into my thoughts. “I have a plan.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“Can you cut the net and get them out? I’ll provoke them into chasing me. That’ll give you enough time, ma’am.”

He would stumble and fall within the first five seconds. It would be slaughter.

“We can try it,” I whispered, my mind busy on options. “But we must wait until they are full of food and drink. I’m going to leave you now, Cecil. Don’t move until I come back.”

He nodded. I went into the forest, letting my far-sight roam in search of some reinforcements. I found what I sought and did what I had to do.

It was pitch black when I got back. Cecil was sitting where I left him.

The feast was ending. I hoped the men, having had their fill, would fall into a replete-stupor. But they hadn’t had their fill. One man drained a bottle to the dregs, threw it aside and staggered to his feet. I fathomed his intent. The horror of it stunned me into immobility.

“The plump one.” His voice was slurred but the meaning was clear. “Those nobs like ‘em scrawny. That one’ll not fetch much.”

He strode to the net. His companions were getting on to their feet, leering and laughing. Cecil and the netted-women understood the men’s intent at the same time. Their screams filled the air and jerked me back to life.

I pushed Cecil forward. He stumbled, steadied himself and ran. The man was searching his tunic pocket, probably for the key of the net. One girl was having hysterics, her wild laughter filling the air. The other two were trying to tear the iron net with their bare hands. In the melee, no one heard or saw Cecil, until he pulled a burning brand out of the fire and hit the nearest man with it.

It was a lucky hit. The man hollered in pain. Cecil pranced about, waving the brand like a banner.

For a moment the men stood frozen in shock. Then they roared and lunged at him. He swerved and ran into the forest, with the men at his heels.

I used a thought-wave to summon aid. Then I hurried to the net and began to cut it with an unsheathed nail.

The screams came when I was half way through. I continued with my work, until the opening was large enough for the girls to come out.

The hysterical girl had stopped laughing and was sobbing. It took her friends a little while to calm her down. They were almost done when Cecil ran in.

“A monster,” he blubbered, his face awash with sweat and tears. “I’ve never seen the like of him. He had two head. He caught them. I could hear the bones breaking…” His body heaved with sobs.

“A good thing too,” I said, primly. “Don’t waste any pity on them.”

“It’s a fitting end,” Kinnya snapped. She was the plump one. I was impressed by her guts. She realized what the men were about to do to her. But instead of fainting, she kept her wits about her. The moment she was free she set about helping me.

Her words somehow calmed Cecil. He gave her a tremulous smile and sat down by her.

“I think it was a yale,” he said after a while. “Did you summon him ma’am?”

“You don’t summon a yale, Cecil. You ask him nicely.”

#

The next morning we accompanied Kinnya and her friends to the edge of their village. We watched until they entered the village, Cecil’s eyes bright with unshed tears. Then we resumed our quest.

But I was done with walking. It was time to cadge a flight.

Mikkey was what Dragon Makarakshaya wanted his friends to call him. I sent a thought-wave requesting his presence.

Mikkey believed white went best with his silver scales and pearlescent wings. Today he wore a white brocade bonnet, a white silk stole and pearls, bracelets, rings and a choker as thick as a tree trunk. A white velvet reticule hung from a scaly wrist.

Cecil looked frightened, but not more than usual. He bowed deeply when I made the introductions. “I’m honored to meet you, Sir Dragon,” he said and sounded as if he meant it.

“Pleased to meet you, young man,” Mikkey boomed. Cecil went rose-red with gratification.

Mikkey turned to me, his eyes twinkling. “Medhi, what are you up to?”

“We are on a quest.” I replied blandly. “Cecil will explain.”

Cecil did, at length.

“Have you heard of this place?” I asked; I had noticed the wariness which crept into Mikkey’s face as Cecil told his tale.

“I have.” Mikkey’s eyes met mine. “Not quite the same story though. There was a royal family. They loved hunting,” He paused and added, “People. On horseback with bows, and arrows; poisoned ones.”

Perfect in-laws for Luki.

“You knew the Mage Mayakkar, didn’t you, Medhi?”

“Of course. Didn’t he pass-away to the Great Oblivion, last year?”

“He did. He was born in that kingdom. The people sent a message to him pleading for his aid. He visited the castle and asked the king and the queen to curtail their activities. The king and the queen agreed to make the hunt an annual event, if he gifted them and their baby daughter with eternal life.”

“A mistake,” I murmured.

“Indeed. Mayakkar agreed. He wished eternal sleep on the entire brood. No death; just endless sleep. The wish was to come into effect on the baby’s sixteenth birthday. Mayakkar told me he wanted to give her a chance. In case she turned out to be different from her parents. She didn’t. So he allowed the curse to go through.”

“Are you telling me my father lied?” Anger was one emotion I had not seen Cecil display. Now he looked livid.

Mikkey didn’t answer. His eyes were filled with pity.

Cecil staggered to his feet and turned to me. The anger had vanished, leaving his face parchment pale. But when he spoke his voice was steady.

“My father is the soul of honor ma’am. He would never lie. Never. I mean no disrespect to Dragon Makarakshaya. Perhaps he had been misled by this evil mage. I’m not going to abandon my quest. This is my chance to prove myself to my father, to show him I’m worthy of being his son. I’m not going to throw it away.”

I bit my lip. His abhorrent father was his idol. He’d rather kill himself than admit that his idol had feet of poisonous slime.

“Stop being theatrical, Cecil.” I snapped. “I summoned Dragon Makarakshaya because he can fly us to this place you want to go to. Once we are there, you can go in and discover the truth.”

Mikkey opened his mouth to object, met a dagger-stare from me, and shrugged his massive shoulders in resignation.

#

The castle was a thing of beauty, from the sky.

Like all enspelled entities, it was untouched by time and elements. It gleamed in the morning sun, a vision in snow-white and rose-pink.

Makarakshaya landed on an immaculate lawn.

The garden had flowers, trees, ponds, everything except life. There was not even an insect or an ant. The silence was complete.

“What a beautiful place, ma’am,” Cecil cried, his face splitting with joy. I’ve never seen him look so happy.

“Why don’t you go in?” I said. Some truths you had to face alone, irrespective of the consequences.

He kissed my gnarled hand and Mickey’s scaly one, ran to the nearest door and vanished inside.

“What will happen if he kisses the princess?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask Mayakkar that. Perhaps he too will fall asleep,” Mikkey drawled.

“He has courage,” I said, after a while.

Mikkey lifted an eyebrow. “I thought he’s scared of everything?”

“He is. That’s how he has courage. Where there is no fear, there is no need for courage.”

More time passed. I tried far-sight but it couldn’t breach the enspelled walls.

Suddenly Cecil was upon us. He collapsed on the grass and wept as if his heart was breaking. Perhaps it was.

“She was there,” he said at last. “So beautiful. So beautiful. But it doesn’t work.”

“You mean you kissed her and she didn’t wake up?” I asked.

“No I didn’t. I was about to. Then I remembered Dragon Makarakshaya’s story. So I decided to look around. And I found this room.” His voice sank into a whisper. “A lovely room, with golden walls and marble floors, looking into a garden full of lowers. There were heads mounted on the walls, human heads. Including children; three of them; one didn’t look older than five.” A sob shook his body. “I realized Dragon Makarakshaya was right. And that my father lied to me.” His eyes clung to mine. “All my life I thought the world of my father. I trusted him and believed him. I wanted to be like him. I don’t know what to do now.”

His eyes belonged to the dead. I made a decision.

“Cecil, I haven’t been honest with you. I have the power to remove the curse. You will lose your fear of the world. You can then go home and claim your rightful throne.”

I expected him to be elated. He wasn’t.

“You’re not being entirely honest even now, Medhi,” Mikkey drawled. “You know the rules. First show him images of all possible futures.”

“It’s a suggestion, not a rule,” I snapped. The boy needed a reason to live and not another reason to die.

“I want to see, ma’am.” Cecil’s voice was low, but it contained a hint of determination. “I spent my life hiding from things I didn’t want to see. Better to know, than not to.”

I closed my eyes and spread my hands, allowing my foresight to form the images. I knew what they would be. A King Cecil who would be a worse Luki, a much worse Luki.

That was the only future I foresaw when I peeped into Cecil’s cradle all those years ago.

I couldn’t see Cecil’s face. But the sound of his breathing filled my ears.

“I think I’ve seen enough, ma’am.”

I opened my eyes. Cecil was pale but composed. I’ve never seen him composed before.

“Let the curse be, ma’am.” He took my hand and held it. “I think I’m the better for it. I’d rather be scared of the world, than have the world be scared of me.”

“What will you do now?” I asked. “I presume you don’t plan to go back home.”

Cecil shook his head, his lips pursed into a thin line.

“I want to make a suggestion,” I said. “Why don’t you go to Kinnya? I had the impression you liked her quite a bit.”

“It’s no use ma’am. When I told her who I was, she said she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. She said my father also employed dasa-catchers. They took her sister. I didn’t believe her.”

And now you do, I thought. No wonder humans clung to illusions. They are more bearable than the reality.

“You are not responsible for your father’s deeds, Cecil. You are only responsible for your own. I suggest you go back and tell Kinnya everything that happened. You said there was no purpose in your life. You saved Kinnya. You saved the others. You risked your life to do it. Even if she refuses you, there is much in the world you can do. The quest your father set you on was a false one. Your real quest begins now.”

“But I’ll always be scared.”

Mikkey grunted. “Young man, you’ve learned to live with fear. You have a good head on your shoulders. And a kind heart. Those are what make a quest, not swords and horses.”

The silence lasted a long while. Finally Cecil nodded.

#

Makarakshaya landed in a broad valley, about a league away from Kinnya’s village.

Cecil tumbled off the dragon’s back, picked himself up and bowed. “I thank you, most honored Dragon Makarakshaya, for everything you did.”

“Call me Mikkey.” The dragon took a visiting card from his reticule and gave it to Cecil. “Here are my directions. Drop by when you are out and about righting wrongs. My doors are always open to my friends.”

Cecil flushed crimson and thanked Mikkey at length. Then he turned to me.

“Shall we go, ma’am?”

I smiled. “You shall go, Cecil. It’s your quest. Take my word for it. You don’t need me anymore.”

He knelt and kissed my hands. I felt his tears.

“I don’t know what to say,” he whispered, when he was on his feet at last.

“See you around?” I leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Go well.”

He walked away, stumbling over stones and roots, but never falling.

“Do you think the girl will take him?” Mickey asked.

“I’ve no idea. I think so. Either way he’ll manage. He might not do great deeds, but he will do some good. And he’ll never ever do any harm, not even to the tiniest, most defenseless creature. There won’t be any epic poems written about him. But this sorry world will be a little better because he lived in it.”

Mikkey nodded. “And you, Medhi?”

“First an errand, and then home.” I grinned nastily. “Cecil has found his lost-self, and I’d never forgive myself if I don’t inform his father of the glad tidings. Luki is planning a little invasion. I must catch him before he departs.”

I waved at Mikkey and vanished. 

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