In the Forests of the Night
As I enter, I hear my mother sobbing.
Hearing your mother cry can be painful for any daughter. It is worse for me, because I’ve never seen my mother smile.
But I’m told she once did, before my father was killed.
He died because of a decades old family feud, cousins turning against one another and wiping out entire lineages. Generations of us have killed one another, until hating each other seems to have become reflex. My cousins – and his – killed him where he stood, without warning, without mercy.
I’m not saying that my father was a good man. He had his faults, and he liked riling up our enemy, provoking them, sometimes even killing them.
But he was, above all else, my father.
When I was young, I remember saying to my mother, ‘Don’t cry, I’ll avenge Father,’ but she had only gasped in horror and said that she couldn’t bear to lose me, as well.
I was born after my father died, after my pregnant mother was driven from our palace by a coup arranged by our Cousins. She was forced to go into hiding at her brother’s house for a time.
All of us in the family are naturally strong, but my uncle has always delighted in my natural affinity for weaponry. A natural talent in swordsmanship and archery himself, he had trained me until I turned fifteen, when our Cousins came looking for us again.
We didn’t want to endanger my uncle and his family, so we fled in the night, despite my uncle’s protestations, setting up house in some hole of a forest, far enough from the capital and the villages that no one would think to look for us here.
We built a tree house, my mother and I. It’s high enough that we avoid predators, both animal and otherwise. My mother is strong enough to help me with physical labour, even if she has lost the strength to face life itself.
I don’t tell her, but I haven’t lost my taste for revenge. I practise my archery in the woods every night, once my mother has safely fallen asleep. I am adept at swordplay, but my skills with a bow leave something to be desired.
It is on one such night that I first meet her.
She is walking through the woods alone, if I hadn’t seen the leaves moving at her passing, I think my arrow might have struck her.
She stops when she enters my little clearing. I had been hiding behind a tree, looking at her surreptitiously.
I swear I made no noise, but one moment I blink, and the next – she is standing before me, looking at me quizzically.
My sword is in my hand and raised, on reflex, and we both look at each other warily. She is faster than I expected.
This close, I can see that she’s a girl, only as old as me. She’s dark skinned where I am fair, though, and she’s dressed simply, with nothing to mark her station or her identity. Her arm is half raised, as if to attack.
I think: she’s one of us.
We say nothing, looking at each other for a moment more, before she nods, and with the same startling speed as before, she bounds off into the dark forest.
After that day, I see her more often, nearly every other day. Sometimes I wonder if she seeks me out, as I sometimes wait for her. It’s nice to see someone else from time to time, someone who isn’t trying to kill me, someone who doesn’t cry when they look at me because I remind them too much of someone dead and gone –
We don’t talk much. She has never asked what I’m doing all alone in the forest like this, and I have never wondered why she walks through the trees at night.
And perhaps that’s the beauty of this strange tie between us. I do not know what to call it – friendship? Kinship? I only know that it is rare, and special. I do not question it.
Sometimes she sits on a nearby rock as I practise my archery. She says nothing, only watching me as I occassionally pause to tighten the strings on my bow, the thunk of the arrows hitting the tree the only way to mark the time. Occassionally, she’ll cock her head, as if listening for something in the night, and then between one moment and the next, she’ll be gone. Sometimes, after she’s gone, I hear the roar of a tiger, and I wonder if she likes to hunt for sport, as so many of our kind do.
‘Raise your arm a little.’
It is the first words she has ever spoken to me, and her low voice startles me into dropping my arrow. When I pick it up and turn to her, she looks at me apologetically.
‘Raise your arm a little,’ she repeats, and now I can see her nervousness. ‘It will improve your grip.’
I nod, and return to my practise. Her advice is sound, and I turn back to her, offering a hesitant smile. This is new territory for both of us, and I am lost.
She takes a deep breath, and with her uncanny speed, she joins me. ‘May I try?’ she asks, not meeting my eyes. The hand she holds out is trembling.
Our fingers brush as I hand her my bow, and my heart feels lighter than it has in years.
Things are different, afterwards. She isn’t talktative, and neither am I – we don’t even know each other’s names, more nights are spent in companionable silence than not – but it is a new and heady feeling to have someone to share the silence with me.
And I begin to think: perhaps there’s more to life than avenging my father.
Of course, that’s when it all falls apart.
I’m on my way to practise, hurrying because I’m late, because I want to see her again, and I’m careless, walking noisily, so I miss it. Or perhaps I’m just making excuses, and he is faster than me, better than me.
All I know is that one moment I’m brushing aside some leaves, making a path, and the next, my neck is gripped by a powerful hand.
‘And where do you think you’re going, hmm?’
My blood freezes, because I recognise the accent, it’s one of the enemy, a member of the family that killed my father.
They finally found me.
He doesn’t give me a chance to speak, slamming me against a nearby tree. I feel dizzy, and I taste blood from a split lip. He throws me to the ground, crushing a foot into my neck. I can’t breath for the dirt, choking me as I try to gasp in air. My heart is thundering in my chest, and little, frightened noises escape my mouth. My sword is clutched uselessly in my hand, and I strain hard, swiping backward, hoping to hit his leg.
It works, and the pressure on my neck eases. I scramble upwards, remaining in a crouch as my eyes dart around for my attacker. Blood is flowing from a cut on his ankle, but it isn’t deep, and already he’s coming for me again.
I slash across his upraised arms, and it sends him reeling back, blood marking his chest. His eyes are worried, and for the first time, he seems to realise that I am not an easy target. There is a savage glee in me, and I can see why some in my family have lost themselves to bloodlust.
‘What are you doing?’
The voice is sharp, and it takes me a moment to recognise it for my friend.
She’s standing two feet away from us, eyes wide as she stares at the two of us in shock. I open my mouth to reply, to warn her to stay back – even though, logically, my mind knows her speed and her strength, I don’t want her in danger. My attacker answers her before I do, however.
‘It’s fortunate that I found you,’ he says. ‘I was looking for you when I found her.’ He throws me a glare. ‘She’s one of them, Durga.’
That name freezes the blood in my veins, because I know it, it’s the one my family whispers in fear, the name of my father’s killer.
‘She’s an asura,’ the deva continues, looking at me contemptuously. ‘One that we’ve been pursuing for years – she’s Mahishasura’s daughter.’
My friend – my enemy – is shaking her head, and I can feel my mouth moving as it soundlessly shapes out, ‘no, no, no,’ but our eyes meet, and we can see the truth in each other’s stricken gaze.
Even then I would have denied it, but as if summoned by the sound of her name being spoken aloud, her familiar joins her. He pads through the forest as silently as her, one moment she is alone, and then, quite suddenly, a tiger stands by her side, sleek and powerful.
And that is when I know I am going to die.
It’s funny. My mother thought my desire for vengeance would kill me, but in the end, it is love that takes my life.
‘Well, what are you waiting for, Durga?’ the deva snaps impatiently. ‘You have to kill her, you know you must. That’s what you’re for!’
Her eyes fill with tears, reflecting the moonlight, telling me things we’ve never spoken aloud. I know she has to do her duty, as I would have avenged my father if I had met her before I had known her.
As the tiger springs at me, she turns her face away, and I close my eyes.
A/N: Diti and Aditi are sisters, each wife to Kashyapa. The children of Diti become asuras, or demons, while the children of Aditi become devas or gods.
-In Indian mythology, Durga is a goddess who kills Mahishasura, a tiger is her vahanam, or form of transport. Her speed in this story comes from my interpretation of her many arms, which is that she moved fast enough that she could multitask fabulously. She was created, the story goes, from the ‘life force’ of the devas purely for the purpose of killing Mahishasura and/or other demons.
-Mahishasura is never much expanded on in the traditional story, I imagined his family history and gave him a daughter.
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[music| Soosan Khanoom: Barobax]
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