The huts in the village were empty. Cattle, chewing cud at leisure, lay relaxed in their byres. One would wonder if the cattle too knew that today was the Harvest festival and the humans were busy with rituals rather than labour.
At the ritualistic fire pit, the rhythm of the drumbeat and the performance of the dancers spread joy. The village masses spent the day revelling in food and drink. As dusk approached, two strangers – a man and a woman were introduced by their Chieftain. The strangers claimed to have come from a land far away and took centre stage at the celebrations.
The man led the show while his charming partner played the lute in tune with the ebb and flow of his sonorous voice. Narrating fables – fables filled with triumphant noble heroes and wicked demons, they transported the audience to new worlds, unknown frontiers, battles and victories. Their show continued well into the night and concluded to rapturous applause from the audience.
After the festivities, the crowd retired to their huts, leaving gifts and food behind. A day full of revelry left people tired and intoxicated. In no time, the fire pit was empty.
Under the clear night sky with twinkling stars and a soothing breeze for company, the man and his partner relished their meal provided by the villagers. The tired duo wanted to rest, but a band of juvenile ruffians surrounded them.
“We want a private show,” the meanest looking one amongst them demanded.
“My apologies, but that is not possible. We wish to retire,” the man answered politely.
“Do you want us to beat you up? Your girl will give us company,” an evil grin spread across the mean face, “alone.”
“We are here as your chieftain’s guests. He may not be pleased knowing that we were troubled.”
“He is probably too drunk to move a finger. If you deny us, there will be no trace of you by morning.”
The man peered at the faces in the group, who by now had encircled them, and sighed.
He glanced at his partner and began –
Many summers ago, in a faraway land, a village lay hidden in the dark woods. The village was ruled by a wretched bandit and the villagers earned their living by plundering the merchants who passed through the woods. They showed no mercy towards their victims; anyone who protested or could not be taken for a slave was killed.
During one such raid, the bandits intercepted a caravan. In one of the wagons was a merchant travelling with his beautiful wife and young son. The bandit’s chief murdered the merchant and was about to strike their son when the wife fell at his feet begging for her four-year-old son’s life.
Taking a fancy to the woman at his feet, the bandit offered, “Bear me a son, woman, and I shall let your son live till mine does!”
The woman, swallowing her pride and grief, agreed to it. What else could she do? Which windowed mother would leave a chance to save her child?
The bandits took her to the village and warned her, “Only two rules in here – follow the chief’s orders, and do not step into the forest on the west side.”
There were very few women at the village. Most of them had been born there, and the others were prizes taken by men, the spoils of their loot. Men taken as prisoners were either executed in cruel games, or forced into the west forest. The chief claimed that it was an oblation. The villagers believed that there was a great power that called for human sacrifice, residing in the forest to the west. None who ventured into that part ever returned.
The initial days in the village were dreadful. As the possession of the chief, the woman and her child were largely left alone. The gruesome ways of the village frightened the child. Wondering why his mother cried every day, he asked her one day if she would be happy again if he became the chief of the village. The mother’s heart melted at the innocence of the child. She smiled and told him, “I will be happy if you become a good man and leave this village safely.”
Over the next few months, she taught her son all she knew and told him stories from lore. All her stories emphasised one moral – goodness always wins. She also ensured that her son understood that his life depended on the unborn in her womb. As time elapsed, little did the child know that soon he would be alone in that accursed place.
His mother carried the unborn to term, passing away after a prolonged labour. The child, being too young, did not understand death, yet the dread the child felt when he heard the cry of the newborn, defined the path for the rest of the child’s life.
He matured into a young lad, tall and lean with bright eyes and a kind heart. The chief kept his word and ensured that the lad was not harmed. But that was it! The lad was ill-treated by all. He tended to the horses in the village and the slaves that were captured. The lad treated the slaves with dignity but he knew it was just a matter of time before they were executed in games. The lad often wondered if becoming a bandit would be much easier on the heart than harbouring hopes of a better life. It was futile to try to escape from the village which was surrounded by thick forests teeming with wild beasts.
The stepbrother, in contrast, grew into a vile man under the tutelage of the chief. He was built like a bull and carried an aura of domination over others, a perfect heir to his ageing father. The brothers rarely interacted, though the young lad always kept an eye on his younger stepbrother.
One fateful evening, the young lad noticed his stepbrother trying to ride a new horse. To his horror he saw his brother lose control of the horse. But before anyone could react, the horse galloped into the west forest. The lad stood shell shocked. If anything were to happen to his stepbrother, he would be held responsible and considered disposable. The lad’s body moved swiftly. Grabbing a lantern, he raced into the forest. Afraid of the legend, none from the village followed them.
The lad sprinted after the horse. But he was no horse and could not tail it for long. He lost sight of the horse and found himself in an unknown part of the forest. Wiping the sweat of his forehead, he observed the surroundings. Dark clouds were gathering and the sun went behind the curtain of clouds. He spotted a marsh some distance away. It was full of reeds and sedges. On the side of the marsh was a small hill. The ground was damp. He observed hoof marks and followed them.
The track led him to the carcass of the horse. It was torn open and chunks of flesh were missing. Looking around he found numerous paw prints of wolves. It puzzled him. The kill was fresh but he failed to spot any wolves. ‘Did the wolves kill and drag him away?’ he wondered.
The lad could not return to the village without finding his brother. So, he proceeded further into the forest, towards the swamp.
The trees around the swamp were greener and in a distinct pattern as if someone had arranged them that way. For a moment, he stood there contemplating – he could abandon his search and try to cross this forest; bandits never ventured to the west, he could escape them. He could finally embrace civilization and visit the great cities his mother had described.
Alas! Thus lost in his musings, he let his guard down. The wolf pack was waiting for the opportunity. The pack had many mouths to feed and an easy kill was hard to come by. Taking advantage of thick foliage they crept up on him and surrounded him. The lad had not noticed them approach until an errant wolf stepped on a broken branch alerting the lad.
The lad looked in the direction of sound. He spotted movement in thick undergrowth of the forest. His heart beat quickened. He peered through the surroundings, the forest was eerily silent. Then there was low growl, which grew louder and louder. He finally spotted the pack, alpha was out of cover, trained it’s eyes at him and was ready to leap.
Terror stuck the lad’s heart as his eyes met the intense eyes of the wolf. Realising that he was surrounded, the lad decided to put up a fight before a certain death.
Unknown to him, a strange presence had been observing his movements from the moment he had set foot in the forest. Nothing moved in this part without her knowledge and approval; she did not want him to die there.
A deafening thunder roared across the sky. The wolves, which were aggressive till that moment, whimpered and tucked in their tails and scurried for the cover of the trees. Something had scared them. Was it the thunder? He looked towards the sky that had turned dark, darker than he had ever seen it.
Soon it started pouring as if the sky was about to fall. Nature danced to the tunes of a higher force there. Trees at the other end of the marsh looked like giants heaving to and fro as if they were warning him not to proceed. Something the lad had always written off as a legend had set her eyes on his lean body. None had survived once she laid her eyes on them.
The lad lit the lantern with great difficulty and held it close to his body. As he struggled to move against the swirling wind, he felt a whiff on his neck but there was no one around. Was his mind playing tricks or was something sniffing him? Fear as he had never known, seized him. Afraid for his life, all he could think of was escape. He wanted to cross the swamp, then the mountain and out of the forest to freedom.
Crossing mushy swamp land while walking against the heavy wind drained him and his strength was fading. It was then that he heard a wail.
His heartbeat quickened, “My brother, is that you?” he called out, again and again, but in vain. Though his mind warned him, his kindness won and he followed the wail to its source. A heavy mist combined with the pitch-black restricted his line of sight.
She liked to test her prey before striking, and the lad walked right into her territory.
The lad’s mind became numb, someone was taking over. ‘Exhaustion,’ he dismissed it and proceeded further. He arrived at a hill. There, he noticed someone on the ground. He approached cautiously. A maiden lay unconscious. Her torn white gown left nothing to the imagination. Her skin shone in the flicker from the lantern. He froze upon seeing her.
Strange voices invaded his mind. Desire stirred in his loins. The voices in his head egged him on, ‘No one is around… She is so pretty… Do not hesitate….’
His body started to move on its own. Dark urges from the depths of his soiled heart flooded his mind. ‘You wanted to be the chief… isn’t this what the chief would do?’
With each passing moment, the lad’s morals fell into a bottomless pit. She was waiting for him to commit to his dark desires, to the point of no return. But it was then that memories of his mother rushed back into his mind. His mother had endured abuse and atrocities, smiled for his sake even when she had lost her self-respect and desire to live. In those memories, he found moral strength to resist and control his thoughts. Yet, he did not realise that he was being toyed with and tested.
Shrugging off the strange temptations, he bent to cover the maiden with his shirt. ‘Poor girl must have lost her way,’ he reasoned. As the shirt landed on her body, she vanished into thin air. The lad rocked back, dropping the lantern to ground. It was then that realization struck – what if the legends were true?
The lad’s legs became limp and he collapsed on his knees. It was pitch dark. But it no longer was raining. The thunder too had abated. He heard footsteps, someone was walking in circles around him. He felt a chill kiss his neck. Was someone breathing down it?. Tremors ran through his body. Fear spread across his nerves like a wildfire. He had to run. Closing his eyes, he mustered the strength to get up.
Back on his feet, the lad discovered that it was brighter now, the mist had cleared. The place where he stood was littered with the blood and entrails of unknown people. His panic-stricken mind urged him to run. Yet, the lad could not move a muscle. A lady with blood-red eyes stood in his way. Her menacing presence overwhelmed him, his lean frame continued to quiver like a leaf. She glared at him, with her fearsome eyes sending shivers down his spine.
The lady was holding a severed head in her hand. She flung it at the lad’s feet. It was the stepbrother’s head. The lad’s heart nearly jumped out. He looked at the head in horror, muttering ‘he must have succumbed.’ The lad felt no pity for his stepbrother, for his brother had slaughtered many innocents. He accepted his fate. He was going to die, ‘mother was wrong, goodness does not always win.’
He expected the lady to strike him at any moment now, yet nothing happened.
There was something different about the lad, she could not bring herself to harm him. Never had a man resisted the temptations before. The lad had won her benevolence and favour.
She broke her silence and spoke, ‘A great flame falling from the sky will annihilate these lands, soon. None living here will survive. I shall let you leave, but you have to permit me to travel with you as your partner. I shall harm no innocent and shall only feed on….’
“Only feed on?” The ruffians had not noticed the mist that surrounded them and drew closer to the man, with the intent to strike him.
“Only feed on the scum among the men!” a deep voice bellowed from the dark and a pair of red eyes shone over the man’s shoulder.
The ruffians screamed in fear as the sky lit up and deafening thunder roared across masking the screams.