This story is dedicated to Sayan Purkayastha, without whose constant reminders it would never have been written.
Thanks are also due to Benni Jones for suggesting the main theme of the story.
Earlier parts in this series:
All the short winter day, the tribe had laboured to make its way down to the pass. It was hard going, especially since the herd was restless and the cold was intense, but they had to do it or spend the night freezing on the exposed slopes, and nobody wanted to do that.
They would not have been in this situation, if only winter hadn’t come so early this year. The witchman should have known, but had not predicted it, despite all the usual ceremonies and sacrifices he’d made in the autumn. And when the winter had clamped down, like a fist squeezing the world in its grip, they’d still been on the high plateau, and only beginning to ready for their migration down to the plains.
Even now, they could not ask the witchman about it, or demand explanations. He was above criticism or questions, and being too insistent was not healthy. The witchman might not have powers which always worked, but he had his own group of armed followers ready to enforce his commands.
So even the Elder Council of the tribe couldn’t criticise the witchman, but they were as desperate as any of the rest, and they took out their desperation on everyone else. And as the slow trek down the mountain continued, the snow grew thicker, the cold more intense, and the anger all around threatened to boil over.
They could have abandoned the animals, of course, and made better time, but the herd was all the wealth of the tribe. If the herd was lost there would be no future for anyone. The tribe would have to find new herds, or find another way to survive. Both were equally impossible, in this day and age.
And if they didn’t get down to the plains before the pass was blocked, they’d lose the herd anyway, and that would be the end of them too.
Santi knew nothing of any of this, because nobody ever spoke of it, except maybe the Elders whispered of it to each other behind their hands when they were sure the witchman’s people weren’t listening. All she knew was that she was tired out, and very cold, colder than she’d ever been in her life, despite the skin cloak she wore and the fur-lined shoes lashed with leather thongs to her feet. And she was hungry, so hungry that she had almost forgotten what it was like to have eaten.
Everyone was in the same condition, so it wouldn’t have done any good to complain. She bent forward under the bag she’d been given to carry, which was really far too heavy, and slogged on, wiping the snow out of her face and trying not to think of anything.
By her side, Aachi trotted, sometimes nuzzling at her and watching her out of great liquid eyes. The calf was not only orphaned but undersized, and would normally have been slaughtered as too weak to be worth the effort. But Aachi had been born with bright, golden-white fur, such a rarity among the rich chocolate brown and midnight black of the herd that the Elders had decreed that the calf might be allowed to live, so that, if she survived, she might in future make babies with the same colour.
Now, though, her golden-white fur was partly obscured by the load tied to her back, and the rest of it was so matted with slush and mud that it was, like everything else, a dingy brown.
Occasionally, as she walked, Santi reached out and fondled Aachi’s ears and nose, or rubbed the top of her hard little head. The calf was her personal charge, given to her because the little orphaned animal needed a foster mother, and she was just about old enough to give her that care. But over the few months that they’d been together, the bond between them had grown to something that almost approached friendship on the girl’s part.
And on the calf’s part? Who can say? But Aachi stuck closer to Santi than any other calf, at least a fostered one, stuck by the side of its mother.
The gloom above darkened noticeably, and a wind whipped across the slope, knifing through everyone’s leather cloaks like paper. The herd rustled and grumbled, uneasy. Aachi whimpered.
“Hold on,” Santi told her, rubbing her neck. “We’ll stop soon. We’ve got to stop soon.”
Santi’s own foster mother, Aanjn, walked past leading a line of animals roped together and burdened down with bundles. “We won’t stop before we get down to the pass,” she said. “Even if it’s night before we reach it, and it will be, we’ll have to keep going.”
“We could stop for a little while, mother,” Santi replied, knowing it would do no good.
It did no good. “We can’t spare the time,” Aanjn said. “Even when we get to the pass, it’s only halfway down. Tomorrow we’ll have to start over again.”
“If we don’t get through the pass tonight, what happens?”
“It might be blocked by tomorrow.” Aanjn threw a look over her shoulder and shuddered. “Besides, remember what old Kirtee said last night. I don’t want to spend the night on the slope if...that’s...around.”
Santi snorted expressively. “Mother, Kirtee cooks up tales to make herself sound important. You really don’t believe that the thing she said really haunts the slopes on winter nights, do you?”
Aanjn glared at her. “Kirtee is the oldest in the tribe,” she reminded, as though it needed reminding. “She’s seen things nobody else now living has. Don’t mock her.”
“But she didn’t even say she saw it,” Santi argued. “She only said that when she was a child, she heard of it. It’s like one of the stories you used to tell me to make me go to sleep.”
Aanjn began to frown angrily, and then broke into a laugh. “You’re right, in a way,” she said. “There’s no way of knowing if anything she said is true. But we’re still going to keep going until we get to the pass, and nothing you or I think makes a difference to that.”
“Faster,” someone shouted from the head of the line. “You’re straggling. Come on, move faster.”
“Faster, it’s always faster,” Santi muttered to herself, grabbed hold of a fistful of Aachi’s fur, and leaned into the wind.
It was well into the night before they finally reached the pass.
By then, everyone was so cold that nobody even attempted to grumble, because that would mean opening one’s mouth and letting the freezing air in. Even the herd had fallen into silence, and just trudged through the snow, as leaden-footed as the humans pulling them on. By then, Santi had completely stopped noticing her surroundings. It was only the hunger she noticed, that and the cold.
The pass was still open, fortunately enough. The tribe made what camp they could, pulling the loads off the herd, feeding them hay and lighting a few small fires. The rocky slopes on either side reflected the glow of the flames back, so it looked much warmer than it actually was. Aanjn roasted a little grain for herself and Santi, and fell asleep without even finishing her share. By then Santi was already fast asleep.
The fires were still fitfully burning when Santi woke. She lay curled up on her side, the skin cloak pulled over her, obscurely thinking something was amiss. There was something missing that should have been there. She ran her hands over her belongings, but they seemed to be where they should be. She reached further, to make sure Aachi’s load was all present, too.
Then her questing hand hesitated. Aachi wasn’t there. The calf, who should have been lying snug by her side, was gone.
At first she wasn’t too worried. The calf would be somewhere close by. She couldn’t possibly be far off, not in this night and the cold wind. She would be with the string of animals Aanjn had been leading, which had long since finished chewing their hay and had settled down in a huddled heap.
“Aachi,” she called quietly, certain that the calf would come bouncing up as usual. “Aachi, come to me.”
There was no response, and no Aachi.
Then, with shock, Santi realised something: she didn’t remember unloading Aachi, didn’t remember feeding her.
She didn’t even remember leading her into the pass; by that time she’d been so frozen with cold her hands had been frozen numb and she’d been too exhausted to see, so if the calf had gone missing somewhere up the slope, perhaps fallen behind or wandered away to snatch a mouthful of grass, she might well have gone on without her.
The cold of the hillside seemed as nothing to the cold which filled her at that moment. Exhaustion forgotten, she jumped to her feet and looked anxiously around the encampment. Among the huddled forms in the flickering light, she could see no trace of the calf’s shining golden-white fleece.
She was as stricken at that moment with sheer terror as with concern for the calf. She’d been given the animal as her personal charge, and that by the Elder Council. If Aachi couldn’t be found, it was the Elder Council she’d have to answer to. And the Elders, filled as they were with concern for the tribe in the middle of the journey, could be expected to show her no mercy.
If she was merely to be removed from Aanjn’s care, and reduced to a common chattel of the tribe, she’d be lucky. The alternative was much worse.
The alternative would be expulsion from the tribe, abandonment. They’d do it too, without a second thought. She wasn’t valuable in any way, and small children merely slowed the journey down.
There was only one thing to do. She’d have to go out on her own, and find the calf for herself. If, that is, Aachi could be found.
For a moment she considered waking Aanjn, asking her help, but decided against it at once. Aanjn would either tell her to wait till morning, which would surely be too late – or she’d wake others to ask them to help, too, which would be even worse, because then the Elder Council would know at once that she’d lost the calf. And most likely nobody else would want to lose any of their precious few moments of rest to go looking for the calf anyway, so she’d suffer the consequences in any case.
No, she’d have to go and search alone.
She took another quick look around, but nobody was watching her. Nobody seemed even to be awake; the exhausted tribe didn’t even seem to have posted any guards against mountain bandits. She pulled a skin blanket around her as an additional cloak, stepped carefully over Aanjn’s sleeping form, and made her way out of the camp and up the hillside. For a moment she thought of taking a torch – a burning stick from one of the fires – but it could have attracted attention, so she didn’t.
Everything that happened afterwards – all of it – happened only because she hadn’t paused to take the torch. Afterwards, she could never decide if that had been a good or bad thing.
As soon as she left the shelter of the pass, the wind struck like a live animal, a gigantic fist filled with icy spears tearing at her body, making her hiss in sudden agony. She turned her back to it as far as she could, walking crabwise up the hill, looking around for the calf and calling out to her every few moments. But the slope lay empty, silent except for the wind and dark except for the uncertain light of the occasional stars.
It was when she’d almost decided to give up that she heard the soft, agonised bleat. The wind by then had penetrated right through her, cutting through skin and flesh to the bone, so that she didn’t even feel the cold any longer. She was the cold. In the end she knew that if she stayed on the slope any longer, she would simply freeze and die, and that would be no good to anyone.
But then there was the bleat.
“Aachi?” she called, scarcely daring to hope. “Aachi, where are you?”
Then it was that a spear of starlight broke through the clouds and touched something a little higher and to her right, something that was lighter-coloured than the dark rock around it. It moved, and the bleat came again.
Cold forgotten, Santi struggled up the slope as fast as she could, until she knelt by the calf. Going by where Aachi was, she must have wandered off the tribe’s route after Santi’s grip on her had failed in the cold, and fallen into a crevice in the rock. It wasn’t much of a crevice, but her left front leg had become stuck, twisted in a way that had prevented her from pulling it out without help. With the girl’s hands holding her leg and shoulder, though, the leg came out easily. Shakily, the calf climbed to her hooves.
“You gave me such a scare!” Santi said, hugging the young animal close. “Never do that again. Now let’s get back down before they wake up and –“
At that moment, she had a very strong feeling – almost a certainty – that she was being watched. Still hugging Aachi, she looked around quickly. But though she saw nothing, she had the thought that something had just vanished from the periphery of her vision, something that did not want to be seen.
In that moment old Kirtee’s words came back to her, of the thing that came out on the mountain in winter nights, the tale she’d laughed at earlier in the day. Suddenly, though it was still completely absurd, it didn’t seem such a joke any longer.
Holding so tightly to Aachi’s fur that the calf squirmed, Santi began dragging her down the mountain.
She didn’t need to worry about losing her way now, of course. The flickering glow of the tribe’s fires marked the pass, and the closer she got, the more she anticipated settling back into place beside Aanjn, holding on to Aachi, and carrying on in the morning as if nothing had happened.
And nothing had happened. Nothing, really, she told herself. She’d found Aachi, and everything was back to normal – or would be when they got back to camp.
She was so eager to get back to the camp that she was almost down to the pass before she realised that the fires were far too bright.
When she’d left – surely hours ago – the fires had been burning low, with nobody awake to stoke them. By now, all there should be left were embers. But they were burning brighter – much brighter – than ever, and there were more of them. There were so many more of them.
And there were the noises; the shouting of men’s voices, the terrified bleating of the herd – and the screaming. There was so much screaming.
Santi stood on the slope above the pass, appalled, unable to move, watching the mountain bandits at work. By the time she saw them, they’d already wiped out most of the men of the tribe, and were finishing off the last ones. She watched the witchman pulled forward, struggling to free himself. There was a flash of a large sword, and the old man’s head went rolling in a spray of blood. Other bandits were already leading off the herd, and a third group had rounded up the surviving women. Santi tried to look away, but couldn’t, as they got to work on the women. They didn’t spare anyone, not even old Kirtee. She couldn’t even look away when they dragged Aanjn into the middle of a circle and began to work on her. She leaned over and vomited on the hillside, vomited out the grain the older woman had given her earlier, but she couldn’t look away.
If she’d had the torch with her, if she’d brought a burning brand from the fire to light her way, they would have seen her then. They could not have failed to see her, frozen to the spot with shock up on the hill. But she was in darkness, and the leaping flames concealed her by blinding them to the slopes above.
And then, at last, it was over. Picking up what they hadn’t destroyed, the last bandits walked into the darkness downhill. Only the fires still burned in the pass, lighting the slaughtered bodies. Santi – finally finding her limbs working again – began walking stiffly down towards the remnants of the camp, the remnants of the tribe.
She never reached them.
Something came out of the night. It came from the side, silent as the snow, fast as the wind, and Santi saw it out of the corner of her eye, too late to attempt to run, even if she would have wanted to. Aachi struggled, trying to escape, but Santi’s grip on her fur was still as grim as ever, and she could only bleat in terror.
Santi felt no terror. She looked up at the thing towering above her, and she felt no fear. She felt nothing.
It was a thing of darkness and the wind, with fangs of ice and fur of congealed frost. Its eyes were cold as starlight, its claws dark as frozen slush. When it moved, it was as though the night came alive. When it spoke, it was as though the winter itself had found a voice.
“Who are you?” it asked, and its voice came from somewhere far, far away, somewhere so distant and so old that to it the sun and moon were close and new.
Santi was not conscious about having answered, but she must have said something, because the thing stared down at her, its razor-sharp jaws working. “When winter comes, I rise from the air and the stars, the ice and the ground,” it said. “And I put to flight all who see me, so that even those who might think of me in passing are filled with such terror they would prefer to believe I do not exist. But you are not like that. I can feel no fear in you. Why not?”
“I don’t care any longer if I die or live,” Santi said. “They have taken from me the tribe – they have destroyed all I have, all I’ve ever known. What is left for me to lose that I should be afraid?”
“You know the whole of the legend – that if anyone can look upon me and not be afraid, I give them what they truly desire?”
Santi had not known. “Kirtee hadn’t told us that,” she said.
“It is true, though.” The thing reared higher, solidifying as the cold grew more intense. “What is it you wish of me?” it asked at last. “Is it death?”
Santi did not know what she would say till her lips parted. “I want revenge,” she said.
The thing hissed, and frost glittered in the air before its face. “Revenge comes costly,” it replied. “Revenge will shred you as surely as it will destroy your enemies. Revenge comes with a steep price to pay.”
Santi shrugged. “I don’t care. Once I have my revenge, you can do to me as you wish. Kill me. I just don’t care.”
“Oh, girl, death is easy. The price to be paid is much, much more than death. And once you take the first step, there is no turning back. Are you still ready?”
Santi hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment. Past the thing towering over her, she could see the pass, and the broken, stripped corpses lying amidst the flames. She thought of Kirtee, who would never again tell stories to frighten the tribe. She thought of Aanjn, who would never hold her to her breast when she was ill, would never sing her to sleep again. She even thought of the witchman, whose magic had been powerless against a gang of mountain bandits.
“I’ll pay what it takes,” she said.
There was another hiss and glitter of frost. “Go then,” the thing said. “Go down and take your revenge.”
Santi stared. “But...how?”
“You’ll know,” the thing said. Its laugh was the noise of cracking icicles. It reached out with one of its claws and touched Santi’s head. Its touch sent a jolt down to her feet. “When the time comes, you’ll know.”
Aachi bleated with terror, and tugged so frantically that she almost got away. The thing turned its gaze to the animal. “What do you intend to do with your beast?”
Santi turned to glance at Aachi, but for whose falling into the crevice, she would have been among the dead in the pass. The calf was wild with fear. “I don’t know what to do about her,” she said miserably. “I can’t just let her go. She’d never manage without me.”
There was a long silence. “Very well,” the thing said at last. “She will share your fate, if that is what you want.”
“I don’t know what I want for her,” Santi confessed miserably.”But I can’t let her starve to death or freeze on the mountain.”
“It is your choice,” the thing said.
“Can you tell me one thing more?” Santi asked. “That thing that’s going to happen to me that’s worse than death. What...”
Something seemed to pass her, like a cold wind which swept her from her head down so sudden that she squeezed her eyes shut. Aachi suddenly stopped struggling. When she could look again, the thing had gone.
Wrapping her cloak around her, and holding on to Aachi’s fur, Santi trudged down towards the pass.
The first faint light of dawn was just beginning to appear in the sky.
It took her three days to catch up with the bandits.
The first day, she had spent in the pass, doing what she could to bury the bodies. It was little enough, because the bandits had taken all the tools except for a few broken weapons, and because the stone-hard slopes were too much for her strength. In the end she had dragged them one by one into a cleft in the rock, pushed them in, and rolled stones over them. It was all she could do.
By then, by one of those quirks of the weather, the cold had slackened a little, so the pass wasn’t yet blocked. That night the wind picked up again, icy gusts blowing through the pass, and she and the calf had huddled together for shelter behind a tumbled boulder. But though she couldn’t sleep at all, she didn’t feel as cold as she’d done when they had been plodding down from the plateau or when she had gone looking for Aachi. Nor did she feel any hunger or thirst, but after the kind of work she’d done all day that wasn’t surprising.
The second day, she’d gone down the hill, looking for signs of the bandits’ passing. And because they hadn’t had any reason to be particularly careful, they’d left plenty of traces; discarded loot, broken equipment like torn leather thongs, scattered wisps of hay, the herd’s dung. When night fell, she’d even managed to catch a glimpse of their fires, pinpoints of light in the distance.
That night, too, she hadn’t slept. Aachi, who had gathered up the hay they’d come across with her mobile lips, had curled up in a ball and fallen into an uneasy slumber, but Santi couldn’t sleep. She’d catch up to the bandits soon – and then what? The thing on the slopes had said she’d know what to do when the time came. But the time had almost come, and she had no idea where to begin. Apart from a small knife she’d picked up, the blade of which was snapped off a little short of the tip, she didn’t even have a weapon of any kind.
Uneasily, she sat on a jutting rock, ignoring the wind, and brooded. Several times, she was convinced something made of ice and air was watching her from the darkness, and turned to look, but she could never see anything. Once or twice she even called out, but the only reply was the whining of the wind.
In the morning she set off downhill in pursuit of the bandits. Now that she could see them, she had another problem – to keep out of their sight until she could get up close. This was easier said than done on the open slope, especially with Aachi’s golden-white fur glimmering in the wan sunlight. Finally she gave up and crouched down in a fold of the earth. They’d have to reach the bandit camp that night.
She only hoped she knew what she was doing, and was very aware that she did not.
That night the bandits made camp on a flat piece of ground, with the rocky slope falling away in a vertical cliff on one side, while on the other it rose so steeply that it was like a wall. By tomorrow night, they’d be down to the foothills, and the danger of being trapped by the snow was over. The bandit chief had relaxed enough to stop harrying his band to get a move on, and now swigged some of the sour wine they’d taken the other night, making a face. It was very bad wine, but it was all they had.
It hadn’t been a good year for the band. It had in fact been a year so bad that he’d become seriously worried about being able to retain his leadership position, and had decided to come down early in the hopes of being able to do some raiding among the villagers of the foothills before they, too, migrated to the plains for the winter. But on the way down, they had had a windfall – a nomad tribe, herders from the plateau, who had made camp in a pass and had been so foolish as not to even post sentries. The members of the band, so long starved of blood and booty, not to mention women, had glutted themselves. The bandit chief sighed, wishing they’d at least spared some of the younger women for later, but it had been too much to expect. Still, he would have enjoyed a little fun right now.
Well, at least they had got the herd. That should keep them in meat and skins for a while.
The bandit chief finished the last of the wine and yawned. The herd had slowed them down, but they might still be in time to catch some of the villagers, and though they had little enough, it would still keep everyone happy. His leadership would be secure.
Yes, life was suddenly looking much better, he thought, and was about to lie back and go to sleep when there was a sudden commotion. Frowning irritably, he sat up, and his eyes widened.
A girl was walking into the camp, leading a golden-white calf by the fur on its neck. And that wasn’t even the strangest bit, that a nomad herder girl should come walking into a bandit camp in the middle of the night.
What was stranger still was that the girl was smiling.
Santi walked down into the camp, letting her feet carry her, not thinking, just walking. Aachi trotted along by her side, no longer afraid, no longer trying to pull away. Santi fingered the broken knife which was all the weapon she had, and smiled. She smiled because the knife felt good in her hand, and because she knew that whatever happened now, things would never be the same again.
The first bandit to see her was a huge man with a scar that almost cleaved his face in two. He rose from his face by the nearest fire and lurched towards her, grinning. The grin ended quickly when she used the knife on him, and he fell to the ground, unable even to scream. He had a sword. She took it from him and walked on.
After that she remembered little. The bandits, confused at first, uncertain of what to do, realisation coming too late as she cut them down. Some tried to attack her, and died as they came. Others sat, too drunk or befuddled to move, and died where they were. And a few tried to run away, but she chased them down, and they, too, died as they ran.
And then, suddenly, there was just the one man and her, left facing each other.
The man was big. Not as big as the first one she’d killed, but big, broad around the shoulders and with arms as thick as both of hers put together. He was older than the others, too, with a beard streaked with silver and grey, and with a heavy silver chain hanging round his neck. She realised that he was probably the bandit chief. It didn’t matter what he was, though. Merely that he still lived.
He cocked his head to one side, studying her, and said something in a language she didn’t understand. Then he lifted a battleaxe in both his hands and came at her.
Santi’s body took over then. It began moving of its own accord, dancing over the rocky ground, twisting and turning, stabbing and rolling. But at each step the chief drove her back, further back, until she had only the cliff behind her, falling away into the darkness.
Axe held high in both hands, shouting out a laugh of triumph, the chief rushed at her.
And then something hurtled out of the night, rushing low over the ground, something that shone white and gold. And Santi vaulted on its back, light, light as a feather, and went leaping away past the edge of the descending axe, away along the edge of the cliff. And the bandit chief, thrown off balance, followed his axe over into the abyss.
His scream seemed to last forever as he fell.
A little later, Santi came back up to the camp, walking beside Aachi. She walked past the dead bandits, without a second look; past the piled loot, which had only recently belonged to people she’d known. She even passed her own bag, which she’d put down beside Aanjn’s fire the last time she’d seen it, without a glance. It no longer held any interest for her.
The herd was restless, very much so. When the animals saw her and Aachi approach, they seemed to go berserk, plunging, kicking and tossing. She’d never seen a herd behave like this, and paused a moment.
That moment was too late. A leather rope snapped, and then another, and suddenly the herd was free.
The herd leader, a tough old male called Ventak, was the first to break for it, rushing downhill in a cloud of dust and scattered pebbles. The rest of the herd followed, as fast as it could go, and suddenly Santi was alone.
Alone, except for Aachi, who had kept right by her side. The calf looked up at her with expectant eyes.
“I think we aren’t welcome among your kind any longer, Aachi,” she told the calf. “I wonder if we’re welcome among mine.”
Aachi snuffled and rubbed her head on the girl’s shoulder.
“You’re right,” Santi said. “There’s only one way to find out.” She paused. “And if we aren’t – what do we do then, eh?”
Aachi snuffled again, impatiently.
“You’re right again,” Santi said. “There’s only one way to find that out, too.”
More time has passed since then that she cares to remember. The centuries and millennia have ebbed and flowed, the hills risen and fallen to dust, and the great cities and nations grown out of the mud and crumbled down to mud again.
She passes, like the stars in the night, over land to land, and from sea to the borders of a further sea. She has seen more things than she can stand to see, borne more sorrow than it should fall to the lot of any mortal being to bear. And she has killed. She has killed so many times that she long since tried to erase the memories, but cannot.
And she has changed. At first she herself scarcely understood the change, barely noticed that she no longer needed to eat and drink, to rest or sleep. Early on, she noticed that she no longer needed the skin cloak and the leather shoes tied to her ankles with thongs, so she threw them away. Another day she realised that the sword she carried, one she had taken from the bandit camp, was superfluous. She killed perfectly easily now, even without a weapon. So she threw it away too.
Ah, how she has changed. She knows now that she is no longer human, no longer anything like human. She does not yet know the word that describes what she is. When she feels the horns that curve out of her brow, when she looks at the talons that grow from the tips of her glowing red-skinned fingers, when she lashes out with her arrow-tipped tail, she wonders what she is, though.
And she is afraid.
She is afraid of what has happened to her, and she is afraid of what is still to come.
Aachi has changed too. No longer is her fleece thick and golden-white, no longer are her legs long and graceful. She is huge, heavy-bodied, her legs and torso thick with muscle. What fur she has curls dark around her shoulders, below the heavy human head. She has not spoken to Santi – to the entity that used to be Santi – in a long, long time, even as a snort or snuffle. She will never speak again. But she is there.
Then, one night in winter, Santi stands again on a slope above a pass, a slope and pass which have still somehow survived the passage of the aeons. Standing there, naked and red-glowing, she calls.
And the thing comes to her, as she’d known it would.
“What is it you wish of me?” it asks. “I gave you what you wanted. I can do no more.”
“Only this,” says Santi. “Take back the gift you gave me. Let me be as I was. Set me free.”
The thing laughs, for only the second time. “I didn’t give you the gift, creature of the night,” it says. “It was always within you. The moment you chose revenge, you acknowledged it.”
“So what did you do?” she asks.
“I merely took away the barriers that stopped you from accessing the vengeance within you,” the thing says. “I cannot put the barriers back. They are gone forevermore.”
“Then what should I do?” Santi asks, plaintively.
But there is no reply.
The aeons move past, like a flapping bird’s wing.
She knows more now, has grown more. She knows what she is, she has found out more about the real nature of things than she has ever wished to know, and she has accepted by now that there is no going back. Not for her, and not for the beast that was once Aachi.
Sometimes she tries to apologise to the beast, to say sorry, it’s useless, of course, because she can’t undo what has already happened, the desert of years gone by. The beast does not react, but it doesn’t abandon her, either. Sometimes it looks at her and she can see hard bright intelligence in the hooded eyes.
And then one day she knows someone is coming. Someone who will share her life, their life, or what passes for a life. Someone as adrift as she, and who will need all the help and guidance she can give him – and the love that comes with it.
She seeks out the place of his coming. They will go there. They will wait.
After an infinity of night, she can see a glimmer of light on the horizon.
It may be dawn, it might not. But she will risk it.
Even for a demon, it’s worth waiting for the hope of a new day.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015