Chaos is the natural order of the world. But not always, for out of the entropy, heroes arise.
They rise to strike down the desolation of the land.
They rise to purge evil from the hearts of men.
They rise to let peace reign free and untamed.
The world as of now is balanced on a teetering disequilibrium, for its guardians do not always succeed.
But when they do, the end is a shining beginning, lit by humanity's collective hopes and dreams. The cosmic bodies settle into their rightful places in the universe. And the heroes stand up once more, strength running through their limbs.
I, am one of them.
And when I rise, I rise with the sun.
The warmth of the sun wraps around her back, like an eternal companion come to assure her of victory. She balances on her feet, putting her weight on them, grounding herself, but the feeling of imperceptible wings does not fade.
The dust forms swirls and clouds the air, as the two disciples, treading nimbly on the ground, circle each other, a wary dance that could turn dangerous at any turn. Kurinji stared into the unblinking eyes of her opponent, her brain hyper aware of the the tiniest of movements from him. Her friend he may be. But in this moment, he was her challenger, an unyielding mountain in her journey to be the best.
A change in his expression, and her grip on her bamboo staff tightened as she countered his hit and swiftly delivered a blow of her own. Kuri was in her element. She was moving ever so quickly, ever so lightly, like a bird gliding over the ocean, its wings barely grazing the the water. She was all seeing; no amount of stealth would escape her notice. Every single movement had a defined purpose; none were wasted. A swipe met with a dodge, then a counter. Again and again, she let her mind work on the puzzle, the next move, and the one after that, and the one after that, the moves and forms melding together into one combative dance to the untrained eye.
A weak spot appeared in her opponent's defence, and with one clean swing, his staff was knocked away. Kuri pointed her own at him, forcing him into a surrender, and their eyes locked for one long, tense moment that seemed aeons long.
And then it broke, their stances relaxing. Kuri broke out into a triumphant laugh, her friend joining in, even in defeat.
"I may not have bested you this time, but just you wait, Kuri!" Sahale huffed out his words. "That is what you have been saying for years now, friend." Kuri playfully smirked at him, as they both turned towards the wizened old man, his eyes in thoughtful observation yet giving nothing away as he stood at the edge of the chalk circle. They bowed in quiet respect, their initial playfulness kept at bay.
"You two are coming along very well," their guru acknowledged them with a dignified nod. "You will help me with the younger ones, in preparation for the demonstration at the Harvest Festival."
Kuri grinned in anticipation. The Harvest festival was just a few days away. The travelling entertainers, the rickety rides, the carnivals filled with as many carts carrying delicious food as it did screaming children. Truly her favourite time of the year.
The training continued, a new enthusiasm abound as they prepared for the demonstration of their skills. Others warmed up, going through the thirty six different forms that the art required them to learn, while others engaged in friendly skirmishes, bonds established with their fellows while their staves clashed. The sun continued to rise, the shadow of the temple growing longer.
The temple bell rang, signifying the closure of the large teak wood doors, as the sun had reached the peak of the ascent. And with that, the training was called to an end.
Kuri stepped out of the temple courtyard, waiting for Sahale to hurry up. Her eyes caught a cluster of posters that had newly sprung up on the single standing wall near the temple that always held the recent announcements.
"We welcome Princess Avelina Wren of Caliyira, Archduchess of the House Naess, to Amaravathy," Kuri read out loud as she focused on one particular poster, a regal beauty with serious eyes prominently featured on it. "She who possesses a silver tongue, a beauty who rivals the moon."
"What did you say?" Sahale called out, as he walked up to behind her, capping his small ceramic pot of water.
"A princess of Caliyira is visiting Amaravathy, and it seems that they are giving her the best of our welcomes." Kuri replied, still gazing at the poster.
"Well, that is Irawati hospitality for you, I suppose. I just wonder,why would some Caliyiran noble come all the way to here, anyway?"
"Some stately matters, probably. What do these royals even do all day? Seems like the only thing they know how to do is send their taxmen on time to collect for their granaries and their treasuries. As if the land belongs to them. The land belongs to no one but the Earth Mother," Kuri said in one annoyed breath, trailing off into a grumble.
"That's true as the Word of God itself. But the only way they would ever understand our lives is if they actually came here, out of their stuffy little palaces, " replied Sahale. "But that will never happen. Come on, I want to get home. It's a special day today. My mum's making rice pudding today for dessert and my brothers and sisters… you know how those little tykes love that. "
Kuri laughed, momentarily snapped out of her worries. In truth, that little rant had been something she wanted to get out. Even after working in the fields, the landlord who owned their land still took most of their harvest, proudly proclaiming about sending them to the royal granaries. And with all the little siblings she had, she was worried to the bones about how she was going to take care of them. She had lived for a short two decades and three years, and yet she felt like she had the world on her shoulders.
But as she walked with Sahale, listening to his jokes and observations with only half her attention, the rest of her filling with the familiar anxiety, she wondered; she wondered; would life always continue like this? It was a pleasant little place, Naduvanapuram; a quiet village in a group of villages relatively isolated from the nearest main cities, Amaravathy being the closest. Surrounded by the Vepanur forest on one side, and uninhabitable mountains on the other. But the arrival of a princess from lands that were oceans away stirred within her thoughts that she had buried away, deep into her consciousness. Thoughts that she only remembered when she was asleep.
The world was big and she was small. Her village was small. The only excitement she derived were from the stories her Pa told her when they were out in the fields together in the evenings, when there was no work to be done and only the setting sun to watch. She had never told a single soul about her wish to set out on a great quest, like the heroes in the stories of old, but sometimes, she would notice the passion in her father's eyes when he spoke of the legends, and wonder if he too, had once felt the same way.
She reached home, and so did Sahale, as their homes were just across each other. Lost in thought and not completely hearing the last of Sahale's goodbyes, Kuri mechanically waved her arm at his back before stepping into the veranda of her home.
"Kuri? Is that you?" Her mother came out the entrance, jolting her from her thoughts.. "How was training?'
"You ask that every training day Ma, but my answer never changes. I remain yet to be beaten. When I wield my stave, I simply can't be defeated." Kuri grinned as she ducked before her Ma could cuff her on the head lightly.
"Best you remain humble, my child." She said, looking at Kuri closely. "We can never predict the fate that has been written on our heads, you know."
Kuri laughed it off. She was used to her mum's… expressions. "What do I do if I fight someone I can't win?" She asked jokingly.
"You must always do what is right in the end. Always. No matter what happens."
Kuri washed the grime off herself, and stepped out to give the cows their afternoon feeding. Her two sisters and three brothers, all younger than her, were playing with the other kids from the village, joyous screams reaching her even from afar. She shook her head as a self indulgent smile settled on her face. Although the mundanity of life persisted, it did not serve to take away some of the joys of life, like watching the young ones have their fun.
The afternoon and subsequent evening proceeded without much fanfare, as she hauled the hay for the cows, and carried a bundle of heavy, unsplit, firewood salvaged from the Vepanur forest into the shed. Her mother called her for dinner, before yelling for her younger siblings, who were less eager to comply.
She finished her food, smiling at the bickering of her siblings over who got the last fried rice cracker. It was familiar, the cacophony of conversation that was dinner, she thought, as she went to sit outside after the meal was done. It was familiar, and normal. She was happy.
But… She could not help it.
Perhaps she should find a way to visit that city.
Not because of the visiting princess, she quickly reassured herself. The spring harvest festival, after all, was perhaps a week away, and the city would be full of bright decorations, not to mention the festive marketplace that lived just for the five days of the festival, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared after the festival ended.
"Kuri?" Her father's voice jolted her out of her thoughts rather abruptly. She turned to look at him, aware that she probably looked glassy eyed. Her mind felt particularly untethered today, although she did not why.
"You should go sleep if you want to wake tomorrow, before the sun does."
"Just a little longer, Pa. I'll go inside in a while." Kuri said.
"Okay, just a few more minutes then. You don't want to-
Kuri could not catch the rest of his words, as the characteristically deep sound of a blown conch shell sounded in the air before it was eerily cut off halfway, its mournful call reverberating in the vacuum of its own absence.
Alarmed, Kuri's eyes widened as she looked at her father. "What was that for? Is there some wild animal around again? Maybe that black tiger?"
"I don't know, but we should go inside." He said, as he quickly helped her to her feet. "Now."
Kuri stepped in, as she watched some of her neighbours step outside, some holding assorted farming implements.
"Kuri!" Sahale called out to her, standing outside his home. "What was that?"
Her mother, awoken by the commotion, told Kuri to bolt the door as she stepped out. Kuri did so as she asked, leaning forward at the windows to look outside. She felt a tug at her pants and looked down at her little brother, his expression a mix of sleepiness and confusion. "I don't know what's happening, but they sounded the alarm. Probably just an animal. Go back to sleep, little guy." She assured him, just as her ears were assuaged by the sounds of screaming in the distance. She shuddered slightly, and her brother, joined by the rest of her siblings, clung to her.
Hearing the yelling, the assorted villagers, including her parents, ran towards its direction, armed with various makeshift weapons.
The yelling became louder, and uncomfortably closer, and thunder suddenly cracked above head, startling her. Lightning followed, its flash illuminating the sky, and for a moment, Kuri swore that she could almost see the courts of heaven. She gasped, as a dead tree across the house caught fire, its dead leaves curling up in the heat. As though it was a message from a raging god. A lone figure suddenly appeared, and Kuri's breath caught in her throat, but she exhaled again as the figure became closer, and she realised that it was her mother. Kuri quickly unbolted the door, and her mother rushed in, her face streaked with blood. Kuri gasped at the sight of it, and her little brothers and sisters started crying at the sight. She swallowed down her fear and horror, and hugged them close, trying to comfort them.
She followed her mother to the corner of the room where their family chest stood, which she started rummaging through like a woman captured by madness, until she held up a thin, elongated object wrapped in soft material. Kuri had never seen that before.
"Here!" Her mother thrust the object at her as she started to rush towards the door. Kuri slipped off the cloth. A weighted, highly polished, wooden staff rested in her hands.
"Wait. What... " Kuri trailed off halfway as she saw two heavily armed people, furs swinging from their hips walk towards the houses. Her mother sprinted to bolt the doors, leaning against them.
"There's bandits, Kuri. No time to explain. Take this and run to Amaravathy. We can't win this on our own. Get help."
"But I can fight!"
"There is no time! Listen to me, Kuri. You have to leave right now and get us help!"
Her heart sinking, she asked, "Who do I ask-
Her mother interrupted her as she replied. "The king of Amaravathy. Our taxes to the landlord goes to him and so he's responsible for our protection. Seek an audience with him," She looked back, the bandits approaching closer. "I'll hold them off. You have to run, Kuri. We depend on you now."
And without another word, she threw open the doors, rushing out. One of her neighbours had come back, and attempted to club one of the men with his frying pan, and the other, assaulted by her mother. Hot tears gathering at her eyes, Kuri screamed and joined the fray.
She had followed the rules all her life. Followed what the elders told her to do, to be.
But this time, she would disobey.
She swung wildly with the staff at the bandit who had grabbed her mother's thin wrist, catching him on the forehead. A barbaric move, but it did the job. The bandit let go of her mother, swinging away her wrist in a similarly barbaric fashion. Rage filled Kuri's head, and she swung wildly, her eyes tearing up, but from the woodsmoke or the rage she could not tell. The bandit caught her on the forearm in a poorly aimed hit, and yet the pain blossomed.
"Idiot!" A voice echoed in her head, though it did not sound like her usual mind voice. The bandit followed up his attack with a second fist straight to her throat, and it was too fast for Kuri to block. Her throat would be crushed to-
Her right arm, the arm that had suffered, moved with inhuman speed to block the hit, the staff taking the impact. Following through with the momentum instinctually, Kuri conked the bandit on the head, a solid thump resounding from his skull before his form crumpled.
Kuri grinned as if insanity had gripped her as she turned around, seeking her mother. Only to see her unconscious neighbour on the ground in the arms of her mother, evidently having broken her fall.
And the other bandit rushing at her at full speed.
Before she could move, before she could even think, the disembodied voice in her head grandly bellowed, "Stand!". The command echoed in her very being as she thudded the staff on the ground, a proud proclaim that she would stand her ground.
The bandit, his matted hair flying as he leapt at her. Her mother's shrill scream. Her own unyielding defiance. These were the things Kuri was aware of before it happened.
Before the heavy fall of the bandit, his hands desperately clawing at the ground for purchase as phantom vines from the forest shot out one after another, dragging him and his unconscious companion into the darkness of the trees.
Unable to speak, Kuri stared at the dark recesses of the forest where the bandits had been dragged into. Her legs gave out, but she held onto the comforting weight of the staff and stood.
"No one hears of this." Her mother spoke up quietly, her eyes shining with some unplaced emotion.
"What?" said Kuri.
"We're not telling anyone that this happened. Or that you were the reason that it happened."
"Me? I did this?" Kuri stared, slack jawed at her mother.
"Oh, my dear daughter…" Her mother teared up, but quickly wiped them away. "You're not ready yet. Perhaps you'll never be. But the time has come to tell you everything."
Kuri stared at her, her mind racing.
"Oh thank god!" came a yell in the distance. Kuri and her mother turned to look at the source. Sahale came running at her, his own bamboo staff in his hand. Kuri's face broke out into a smile as she stepped into his arms and allowed herself to be embraced. Her eyes met her mother's as she looked over at her.
The truth would have to wait, it seemed.