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 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 my 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 my 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.
From the halls of a tyrant enamoured of a dancing girl with a deadly secret, to a village where the unquiet dead are exorcised with food, to moonlit forests where goddesses meet with demons, this collection of twenty two short stories serves up tales from Indian mythology—with a twist.
[music| Soosan Khanoom: Barobax]
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